Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Implementing the Global Fragility Act

| July 2020

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Executive Summary

The Global Fragility Act (GFA), passed in December 2019, commits the U.S. Government to focus on conflict prevention in its foreign aid strategy. The following policy analysis provides background and context, a country and region selection approach, analysis of Ethiopia and Guatemala as potential priority countries, and recommendations for country and region selection, principles for delivery, principles for monitoring and evaluation, multi-level coordination, and overall strategy formation.


Fragility is generally defined around four key elements: capacity, legitimacy, authority, and social cohesion. Fragility escalates into conflict when exacerbated by security, economic, and justice triggers. The types of violence that manifest from these triggers include conventional armed violence, non- conventional armed violence, and chronic violence. Prevention involves reducing fragility, strengthening institutions, and increasing cohesion to disrupt potential conflict pathways, while stabilization focuses on managing conflict and preventing the resurgence of violence.

By December 2020, Department of State (DOS), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Department of Defense (DOD) must select at least five fragile countries or regions, including two prevention cases, as priority GFA contexts. An analysis of the indices listed in the GFA suggests these alone are insufficient to identify priority countries. This is particularly true on the prevention side, as most countries with high fragility ratings are in active conflict. Nonetheless, we used these indices along with the literature review and early interview findings to select two case studies: Ethiopia as a prevention case and Guatemala as a stabilization case.

Ethiopia is in the process of democratic transition and a lynchpin for regional stability in the Horn of Africa. Core conflict drivers include political exclusion, inequitable economic development, ethnic, territorial, and resource disputes, and regional refugee and migration issues. The GFA could play a key role in building institutions for election management and rule of law, facilitating elite mediation, and strengthening civil society. It is critical to link GFA implementation with development and humanitarian efforts.

Guatemala is characterized by homicides, gang violence, and gender-based violence resulting from generations of civil war and the normalization of violence. These challenges have driven significant migration from Guatemala to the U.S., and yet the U.S. Government cut aid funding to the region in June 2019. Key conflict drivers include inequitable development and limited opportunities for youth, governance and rule of law challenges, and low levels of community trust. The GFA could address these drivers by strengthening judicial and law enforcement systems, engaging youth through vocational, educational, and extra-curricular programs, and creating public spaces and community- based programming. Again, this should be linked with development interventions.


We outline recommendations for Mercy Corps to use in its advocacy efforts with the U.S. Government regarding country and region selection, principles for delivery, principles for monitoring and evaluation, and multi-level coordination. In addition, for overall strategy formation we recommend building on existing government security, prevention, and stabilization efforts, publishing a formal request for comment from civil society, and utilizing the President’s biennial report to Congress to iterate and course correct.

Within country and region selection, we suggest a four-stage process: (1) “Index analysis” of the five indices listed in the GFA; (2) “Critical Criteria” including U.S. national security interests, priority countries’ will and capacity, and likelihood of success; (3) “Other Considerations” including prevention and stabilization considerations, involvement of other actors like China, and regional spillover effects; and (4) “Solicit Applications” from national governments remaining after steps 1-3 with support from embassy staff and local civil society organizations.

While specific interventions depend on context, we developed five principles of delivery that apply in all cases: (1) link GFA implementation with development and diplomacy; (2) balance top down and bottom up interventions; (3) think regionally in terms of spillover effects, but act locally; (4) select context-specific partners, which may include non-state actors; and (5) balance adaptive management to learn and course correct, with sustained commitment to allow the interventions sufficient time for impact.

Similarly, while monitoring and evaluation also varies by context, the following four principles would enhance implementation: (1) treating the GFA as a learning process, including generating theories of change and admitting failure; (2) balancing qualitative and quantitative data through most-significant change stories, outcome harvesting, and developmental evaluations; (3) developing data systems for evidence-based policy; and (4) ensuring multi-level monitoring and evaluation at the intervention, country, and regional levels.

Finally, coordination in D.C. should involve appointing a National Security Council deputy to lead interagency coordination, each agency nominating a focal point, and having DOS, USAID, and DOD engage other relevant federal agencies. Within priority countries, country strategies should be developed and implemented through embassies and their country teams. Between D.C. and priority countries, the U.S. Government could establish country task forces to communicate results and interact with U.S. Congress. In addition, the Multi-Donor Global Fragility Fund should facilitate international coordination, including with the World Bank’s fragile state commitment and the UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Gregor, Erin, Sakina Haider, Grace Pringle and Erin Sielaff. “Implementing the Global Fragility Act.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 2020.

The Authors

Erin Gregor

Sakina Haider

Erin Sielaff