Landmark symposium marks hope of new era for coordinated stabilization
By Jillian Slutzker
Efforts to stabilize conflict-affected countries are inherently political, agreed officials from across the U.S. government along with academics, development implementers and representatives of the private sector at the Stabilization Symposium in Washington, D.C.
With billions in foreign aid and military spending, global security and diplomatic outcomes in the balance, these key players agreed to work together to more effectively manage global conflict and prevent its recurrence, under the leadership of the U.S. Department of State.
The high-level symposium follows the June 19 release of the Stabilization Assistance Review, the new U.S. framework for diplomatic, development and defense operations in conflict, post-conflict and fragile states.
The call for a new, smarter approach to stabilization is timely. Today, more than 68 million people globally have been forcibly displaced by conflict and persecution, according the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The latest Global Peace Index finds that conflict cost the world $14.76 trillion in 2017, or 12.4 percent of global GDP.
“We live in an increasingly complex and dangerous world,” said opening speaker Leland Kruvant, President and CEO of Creative Associates International, which co-sponsored the Symposium. “Few themes have shaped the global discourse recently as much as armed conflict, fragility and increasing competition for resources in all parts of the world.”
As the head of an organization with more than 40 years of success supporting conflict-affected countries to transition to peace, Kruvant endorsed the Stabilization Assistance Review’s call for a more strategic, targeted and integrated approach, which is outlined in the document.
“Stabilization cannot be an afterthought. It must be incorporated into the goals and strategy of each agency and its implementing partners,” he said.
Prompting strategic discourse
The Stabilization Assistance Review is the outcome of months of collaborative research among the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, including eight case studies of U.S. engagement in conflict-affected areas.
It lays out a shared definition of stabilization to guide U.S. interventions in conflict, focusing on its political nature. The Review aims to better direct resources through time-bound and strategic initiatives that help locally legitimate leaders govern inclusively, build peace and prevent a return to violence.
The Symposium encouraged the Review’s contributors and nongovernmental partners to think critically about the opportunities and challenges of implementation: How do you measure success? Can civilians and military actors successfully work together? Where can the private sector contribute? And in conflict zones as complex, dynamic and diverse as Syria, the Philippines, Iraq and the Lake Chad Basin, can this approach adapt as these conflicts morph?
In introducing and reflecting on the Review, Raphael Carland of the State Department said that knowing the missteps of past interventions and understanding the best practices laid out in the Review are necessary but not sufficient.
“The work is hard and complex and requires strategic discourse and continued learning,” said Carland, who is Managing Director of Policy in the State Department’s Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources.
“This will drive some thinking about how we spend increasingly fewer dollars on a really important issue,” he added.
Stabilization is most effective when agencies across the government, alongside nongovernmental implementing partners, work together toward a common goal in a given conflict zone, said experts at the symposium—referring to a process the Review calls “burden-sharing.”
But the call for increased coordination presents new hurdles, as highlighted by keynote speaker Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Deputy Commander of U.S. Central Command, which covers 27 countries from Afghanistan to Yemen.
“Because all these different organizations come together, they actually have different approaches about how to address the problem and therein lies part of the challenge,” he said.
Brown said, however, that since stabilization involves aspects of security, governance, and service delivery, among other areas, its success in fact depends on the input of these diverse actors inside and outside the government.
“That’s why I think it’s so important that we actually think about the alliances and partnerships we have not only outside the United States government, but also internal to the United States government,” he said.
For example, panelists highlighted opportunities for civilians to work alongside the military in conflict zones to help establish governance structures critical for security as well as potential avenues for private sector investments to complement government efforts.
“It is amazing what you can get done if it doesn’t matter who gets credit,” said retired Brig. Gen. Kim Field, Director of Countering Violent Extremism at Creative, noting that the Stabilization Assistance Review supports this mentality. She added that feedback loops from the military to other agencies can help to shape better policy and that civilian voices should be heard by defense actors.
In fragile areas, development implementers and their local partners often have more mobility and on-the-ground knowledge of communities, needs and obstacles, information that can shape smarter government-funded interventions and help them to adapt as needed.
“[Development partners] have a responsibility of making sure we are doing the best program that we can,” said panelist Earl Gast, Executive Vice President of Programs at Creative, which operates in nearly 30 countries. “But we also have a responsibility to adjust and inform the embassy to make sure they understand the local dynamics because they aren’t there, they can’t be there.”
He added that the private sector can help to jumpstart local economies in and emerging from conflict by supporting local actors, who know their contexts, to make private investments in local business and jobs.
In Gast’s 20-plus years in development, including as USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Africa and Mission Director in Afghanistan, he says has found local investments to be more effective and less distorting to local economies than what he calls “shiny” plans for large-scale international investments that are often delayed, elevate expectation and can be misdirected.
Important work ahead
While the two-day symposium promoted key stakeholders to consider some of the most pressing high-level questions and opportunities to emerge from the Review, symposium participants agreed that much of the hard work lies ahead.
And while stabilization during active conflict is critical, experts from across civil society and government alike underscored that it must not overshadow work to prevent violent conflict from igniting in the first place, which can save countless lives and billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and military intervention.
As agencies and partners consider budgets, operating procedures and on-the-ground interventions, they will likely encounter new challenges in coordinating their efforts and clarifying their roles and responsibilities.
“All of us consider this the first step in the journey,” said Cameron Chisholm, Vice President of Creative Learning, which will issue a symposium report and facilitate ongoing collaboration among the stabilization community.
“As we move forward we will be divvying up responsibility, coordinating with the Stabilization Assistance Review team to ensure that as a community we push this forward.”