New USIP Report Gives Us Something to Talk About: The Essential Ingredients for US National Security Grounded in Conflict Prevention

12/2020 | Neil Levine

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This blog was originally published on Medium on December 18, 2020. 


 CDA Reflects on Addressing Fragility in a Global Pandemic: Elements of a Successful U.S. Strategy

This report from the U.S. Institute of Peace offers a timely and comprehensive set of recommendations focused on bringing policy coherence to the U.S. approach to conflict and peacebuilding. Those recommendations are framed by and respond to the Global Fragility Act of 2019, a bipartisan effort of the U.S. Congress that offers policy direction to the 3Ds — diplomacy, defense and development — elements of national power that are essential to respond to violence and instability around the world.

For the first time, the U.S. Congress has set a policy framework that calls for long-term planning, inter-agency coordination, and results reporting of U.S. support for peacebuilding and conflict prevention efforts.

That brings us to the question of “How?” The USIP report seeks to provide some answers and essential ingredients for realizing the vision of U.S. national security grounded in conflict prevention.

Corinne Graff, the report’s editor, brings her lens as a senior advisor to USIP and to the Task Force on Violent Extremism in Fragile States. With prior service at the National Security Council, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Department of State (including at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations), Graff is well-suited to get the best from 17 experts with deep knowledge of the field. Together, their 15 essays “…examine the key lessons the peacebuilding field has learned about how to support vulnerable countries in preventing conflict and violence, and offers practical policy solutions for how to overcome the obstacles that have plagued past U.S. efforts.”

Importantly, the Global Fragility Act itself recognizes the importance of engaging local actors as part of any comprehensive approach to peacebuilding and calls for U.S. policy that will “address the long-term underlying causes of fragility and violence through participatory, locally led programs, empowering marginalized groups such as youth and women, inclusive dialogues and conflict resolutions processes…” and “…describe approaches that ensure national leadership where appropriate and participatory engagement by civil society and local partners in the design, implementation, and monitoring of programs.”

For CDA Collaborative Learning, dedicated to learning with people and communities wherever they experience conflict, three essays from the USIP report merit particular exploration. Each represents a resonant theme for CDA’s experience and invites a deeper dive into one of the report’s central questions:

“Why is local ownership of conflict prevention initiatives and inclusion so important, and how can the U.S. government maximize country ownership?”

Start with local actors and examine power

This question and the collaborative learning it has generated has been a through-line for CDA since its early work leading to the principles and frameworks of Do No Harm and Reflecting on Peace Practice.

For this reason, Amy Potter Czajkowski’s essay, Ensuring Local Ownership “from the Inside Out,” resonates so deeply. It clearly identifies the experience, voice, and agency of local actors as central to any comprehensive peacebuilding strategy. She spotlights the work of Fambol Tok (Sierra Leone) that starts with local actors and works from the inside out and elevates looking at the quality of the relationships between and within local, national, and international actors. The systems approach is one CDA appreciates and practices and power dynamics in partnerships an emerging area of learning for CDA, inspired by work with practitioners at all levels.

“…that answers are in the places they are needed. Contextually appropriate ideas, solutions, and resources anchor sustainable peace and development and are often present even when not immediately visible.” — Amy Potter Czajkowski, Ensuring Local Ownership “from the Inside Out”

Follow the evidence on women’s leadership

Kathleen Kuehnast and Amanda Long explore how the Women, Peace and Security Agenda has addressed the challenge of promoting greater inclusion in peace processes in their essay, “Leveraging the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. Using case studies and data to support the proposition that when women are at the table, peace processes are likely to be more durable. In considering which countries deserve focus under the Global Fragility Act, their proposal to preference countries that have a WPS National Action Plan is worthy of a speedy endorsement by U.S. policy makers.

Invest in learning and relationships

Finally, the contributions of Susanna Campbell on “Innovation, Learning and Accountability” and Pamela Firchow on “Using Everyday Peace Indicators to Increase Local Ownership” tee up the vexing issue inherent in maximizing the opportunity presented by the GFA:

How to reconcile the need for U.S. and other international actors to be organized and accountable to their constituencies and still make their actions relevant and responsive to local actors and local realities?

Campbell calls for “bottom-up accountability” that starts with “…relationships, feedback mechanisms, and trust with the national and local stakeholders most affected by the program.” Firchow offers concrete recommendations on how international actors might do more to access, understand and program more lightly and respectfully with local actors, bringing needed attention to the quality of relationships rather than the volume of aid.

For CDA and other development and peacebuilding organizations, these essays resonate with us because we are seized with reconciling what our experience tells us about the need to champion locally-owned processes with the often top-down, overly prescriptive and increasingly disconnected solution sets that emanate from abroad.The growing discourse on shifting power and decolonizing humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding is instructive. As part of the effort — and inspired by this USIP report — we need to dig deeper to make these recommendations come to life.

Three areas deserve more focused unpacking:

(1) Language: We need to new way of speaking about development that leaves behind a vocabulary that so often “others” us from each other — North from South, donor and aid recipient, global and local. More full embrace of terms that prioritize agency and mutuality, such as “joint problem-solving,” “accompaniment,” “collaborative learning,” and “walking the path together.” While unlikely to appear in any results framework, this language would better reflect the approach we need and values we espouse. How to talk about it in government reports will help normalize anew vocabulary.

(2) Accountability: Clearly, language reflects power dynamics and none more directly than in how we think about accountability. The GFA’s call for results reporting leads directly to the questions of “whose results” and “for what purpose?” Results reporting to ensure appropriate oversight of taxpayer dollars is highly unlikely to reflect the needs of local actors who may be more concerned about high-levels of violence, access to government services or economic and political participation. Right now, the arrows of accountability point up and away from where conflict and peacebuilding happens. We need the to reverse directions.

(3) Power: So let’s talk about power. CDA’s early learning taught us that actors that bring resources into conflict environments risk becoming part of the local conflict dynamic. Appreciating and naming the many ways in which power affects the quality and nature of our relationships is a good place to start. Thinking deeply about how the work of international actors can best support the voice, agency, experience, and aspirations of actors — and at times lessening our ability to control and exercise power — is what is now called for.

USIP’s recent contribution sets the table for this welcome conversation.


Neil A. Levine is the Chair of the Board of Directors at CDA Collaborative Learning. He retired from federal service in 2017 after 30 years in the Executive Branch and on Capitol Hill. While at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Neil led the Center of Excellence for Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (2014–17) and the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation (2008–13). He has taught as an adjunct professor at the National Defense University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and American University.


Photo: Addressing Fragility in a Global Pandemic ELEMENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL US STRATEGY. Editor Corinne Graff. USIP. NO. 170 | December 2020, Cover Page.

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