Fragile states need strategic, systemic, selective, and sustained response



Fragile states may seem like a distant and abstract concern, but they are not, according to William J. Burns, Michèle A. Flournoy, and Nancy E. Lindborg. They are at the center of much of today’s regional disorder and global upheaval, they write in a new report on U.S. Leadership and the Challenge of State Fragility.

Their recommendations to policy-makers include the following:

  • Avoid the trap of maximalist goals on unrealistic timelines. Building pluralistic, vibrant democracies can be a generational effort. We must align expectations around outcomes and time frames to ensure a realistic measure of success and ability to sustain efforts over time.
  • Provide active support for initiatives and partnerships (e.g., Community of Democracies, Open Government Partnership, Inter-American Democratic Charter, Sustainable Development Goal 16 and other normative, values-based efforts) that offer clear evidence and incentives for legitimate and capable governance.
  • Elections: Long considered a milestone in democratic reform, elections can also have a polarizing and destabilizing impact in fragile environments, particularly when rushed, conducted in the absence of appropriate political inclusivity, or when lacking foundational elements to ensure a secure, safe, and transparent election. State and USAID should jointly conduct a systemic review of the role and impact of elections conducted in states across the fragility spectrum, as well as the effectiveness of international assistance in setting conditions for safe and secure political transitions. These assessments should be used to inform the portfolio of U.S. and partner assistance, as well as to establish political benchmarks for fragile states.
  • Civil Society Support: The United States needs sharper and more innovative tools and strategies to help create and preserve open space for civil society across a broad range of issues, including democracy and good governance, public health, education for girls, and equitable service provision. Support for civil society must include effective leverage with leaders as well as new tactics for supporting and working with organizations under threat.

“State fragility is a generational challenge that will remain a central feature of the international landscape for the foreseeable future,” the authors conclude:

Our response, however, can and indeed must evolve. We believe that prioritizing engagements that are strategic, systemic, selective, and sustained can help U.S. policymakers make wiser decisions about how to direct U.S. leadership at a moment of ever-mounting demands and ever-growing constraints on resources and public appetite for international engagement. We also recognize that a conceptual policy framework is not enough. Focusing policy changes and institutional reforms across three mutually reinforcing compacts can help bring this framework to life. We remain confident that a focused effort to get our own house in order, build more effective international partnerships, and strengthen key tools in the U.S. toolkit will position the next administration for greater success.


*A board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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