Targeting Foreign Assistance to Prevent Violent Conflict

The United States and other international donors devote significant amounts of foreign assistance to fragile states, now more than $65 billion a year combined.  But how much of that assistance is focused on preventing violent conflict and instability? That was the question that the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources (F) and our State Department and USAID partners set out to answer when we launched the Strategic Prevention Project last year.

The need for prevention of violent conflict and instability is clear. The number of countries experiencing armed conflict and organized violence has increased at a remarkable rate in recent years. Those conflicts are exacting a tremendous human and financial toll on the international community. More than 70 million people worldwide are displaced, the highest total on record. UN appeals for humanitarian assistance continue to grow. Yet, a recent study suggests the international community could save $16 for every $1 invested in prevention over the long run.

In line with the U.S. National Security Strategy, the Administration has called for more targeted efforts to strengthen fragile states so they can become more robust economic and security partners for the United States. Preventing violent conflict is critical in this regard. Violent conflict undermines U.S. alliances and partnerships, creates dependency on external assistance, and creates space for our competitors and adversaries to increase their malign influence and subvert institutions.

The U.S. government is not alone in recognizing the need for more strategic and sustainable approaches to strengthen fragile states and prevent violent conflict. Multiple high-level commissions and reports have reinforced this imperative over recent years: the UN-World Bank’s Pathways for Peace report; the Commission on State Fragility, Growth, and Development; and most recently, the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States.

Our Strategic Prevention Project aimed to identify how the United States and partners can better target foreign assistance to priority fragile states to reduce the risk and severity of violent conflict. The project synthesized the best thinking on conflict prevention and assessed its relevance to foreign assistance, using extensive qualitative and quantitative research methods. This build upon the work that State, USAID, and the Department of Defense have done on the Stabilization Assistance Review.

This week, we released the Strategic Prevention Project’s final report. The report affirms that assistance can contribute to preventing violent conflict, but simply increasing levels of assistance to fragile states alone does not automatically result in less violence. It is critical that assistance is designed and delivered in a way that is sensitive to group divisions and conflict risks. Furthermore, assistance needs to be closely coordinated with diplomatic engagement given the inherently political nature of these challenges.

Kenya provides a good example of the strategic use of assistance to help prevent violent conflict. The United States and other donors increased assistance to Kenya following its violent 2007 election period to strengthen government checks and balances, support civil society reformers, and bolster conflict mitigation mechanisms. This assistance, coupled with coordinated diplomacy, helped to quell tensions in divided communities and facilitate a peaceful election period in 2013.

The Strategic Prevention Project found other positive examples of assistance supporting efforts to implement peace agreements and promote political and social cohesion in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Indonesia, and Nepal. However, looking across international assistance to fragile states over the past decade, the project concluded that these examples are few and far between. Most assistance has been driven by other priorities and not focused on preventing violent conflict.

The final report identifies important steps that the United States can take to ensure that assistance to fragile states is more sensitive and tailored toward preventing violent conflict. This includes standardizing analysis of conflict-risks, applying cross-sectoral standards for assistance design, and measuring related data. Even if a health program is primarily focused on achieving health-related objectives, it can still contribute to prevention if it is sensitive to conflict risks and communal divisions. This holds especially true for our assistance to foreign militaries; new models can help us leverage our world-class military to work alongside partner nations in preventing violent conflict.

The Strategic Prevention Project has also highlighted opportunities for the United States to work more effectively and burden-share with other international partners who are grappling with these same challenges. The UN Secretary General is working to advance a “Sustaining Peace” reform agenda. The World Bank’s forthcoming Strategy for Fragility, Conflict, and Violence will likely inform tens of billions of dollars in global development assistance. The European Union and United Kingdom are also rethinking their assistance strategies for addressing conflict and fragility.

The Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance will work with State Department and USAID partners in the months ahead to advance the critical reforms and opportunities identified by the Strategic Prevention Project. By effectuating a more strategic approach to prevention in fragile states, we can protect U.S. interests and achieve better outcomes for the American taxpayer over the long run. This is central to the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance’s vision: “promoting more strategic, coordinated, and effective U.S. foreign assistance on behalf of the American people.”

About the Author: Peter Quaranto is the Senior Advisor for Peace and Security in the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance and led the Strategic Prevention Project.

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