Remarks by USAID Deputy Administrator Donald K. Steinberg at the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute

Tuesday, May 17, 2011
The U.S. Agency for International Development and Conflict: Hard Lessons from the Field

[Remarks As Prepared]

Thank you. I wanted to start by thanking the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute. I was going to call them the odd couple, but indeed I'm proud to be here associated with each of them. I wanted to use my introductory comments here to provide a framework on issues related to the international community's role in preventing and ending armed conflict. And to then develop some of the themes in our discussion period thereafter. I start from the standpoint and the premise that the United States has a deep stake in encouraging stability and development in the developing world. President Obama in September of last year produced a presidential policy directive that for the first time in American history, stressed the importance of conflict resolution and development in our national priorities. This was building obviously on previous president's activities, but it was the first time a presidential directive was actually issued. And it made perhaps a strongest case that America has interest in international development and conflict resolution.

We have a security interest because states that are prosperous and free from conflict generally do not traffic in drugs and persons and weapons, they don't spew out large numbers of refugees across borders and across oceans, they don't serve as breeding grounds for pandemic diseases, they don't have pirates off their shore, and perhaps most importantly, they don't require American forces on the ground. But the President said as well that encouraging stability and conflict resolution in these countries is in our national economic interest as well. Because as we look ahead over the next 20 years, some 85% of the growth in economies around the world will come in developing countries. And that means exports for American companies and that means jobs.

But the President took it one step further and said that encouraging stability and conflict resolution is in our values structure as well. We as Americans prefer to live in a world that's peaceful, democratic, prosperous, and respectful of human rights and human dignity. Following up on that document there was the world-famous QDDR, and the single mistake I made in terms of getting confirmed too quickly was that I had the pleasure of being involved in the last two months of producing that document. It is in fact a remarkable statement of America's interest in diplomacy and development, and one of the key things it does is recognize that conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and post conflict reconstruction form the bedrock of diplomacy and development and are a reflection of our civilian power in our national interest. When we turn to this area of conflict resolution and conflict prevention, it is now generally accepted that this is a role that USAID should be playing. We have for a long time talked about what are the parameters for USAID's engagement, and I think the inability to figure it out exactly has led to a proliferation of terms that we use to refer to this challenge. We talk about it as the relief to recovery, the development continuum, we talk about it as stabilization operations, we talk about it as the missing middle, nation building, countering violent extremism and insurgency, complex humanitarian emergencies, peace building, and when the military sometimes refers to it, they say that civilians, USAID and State Department, are force multipliers for their efforts, which is a phrase that we don't always appreciate all that much.

But as we look at this field, I think it's important to remember that the traditional dividing line that we've all seen between hard national security issues and issues of human security, which are generally considered to be soft, are hopelessly and permanently blurred. Today there are no hard issues, there are no soft issues. Crisis and conflict no longer remain in their separate boxes any more than they respect national borders. You simply cannot achieve or even adequately address the fundamental goals of promoting governance, sustainable development, and international stability and cooperation in the presence of conflict and violence. At present USAID now has 25% of our staff in the two dozen countries that are most vulnerable to armed conflict. And from a resource standpoint, 70 - 80 % of our budget has been dedicated to humanitarian response, transition, and development in these settings. We now have a plethora of acronyms, whether it's OTI or OFDA or DART, or the Civilian Response Corps, CRC. At State we are now getting our own set of institutions, a coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization and soon there will be an undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights as well as a bureau for conflict stabilization operations.

Today USAID people in the field have to be a combination of diplomat, humanitarian relief coordinator, security expert, military liaison officer, public affairs officer, risk manager, and even psychologist. We're asking our staff to implement security sector reform, to mobilize and to reintegrate armed combatants, to support transitional justice mechanisms, to administer elections, to empower and protect women and disabled persons, to conduct humanitarian demining, to return refugees and IDPs to their home, to build roads and infrastructure in the presence of armed combatants and so on.

As we look at where we engage, in the prevention side I think it's important that we identify the drivers of armed conflict and indeed the effort to predict where conflicts will emerge has become a cottage industry now. At USAID we've identified some seven criteria that will basically tell us to some extent where conflict will emerge. The first is where there is a lack of political participation, responsive government, and rule of law. Societies need safety valves to permit peaceful redress of grievances.

Second is areas where there has been rapid urbanization and population pressure coupled with weak economies. One of the quickest routes to conflict is when alienated youth don't see opportunities within their societies and are susceptible to fanatics and zealots.

Third is the absence of institutions or civil society that can draw populations together despite religious, ethnic, class, or political differences.

Fourth is a phrase we hear in another context, location location location. The role of neighbors in either mediating or fueling disputes is fundamental. Countries in bad neighborhoods risk spill over from armed combatants, refugees, and arms flows. Those in good neighborhoods receive a powerful dampening effect on political violence.

Fifth is the militarization of society or put another way, the normalization of violence. This includes whether there is a strong role for the military and the security forces in political life as well as the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

Sixth is whether the society is closed, especially to international influences. Closed political systems, economies, and media environments are dangerous. I like to say the conflict is like a mushroom, it grows best in darkness.

And finally, the question is whether there has been upheaval in that country during the past 15 years. Contrary to the warnings you get on an investment prospectus, the past record is indeed an indicator of future performance.

So if these are the factors that we need to monitor and the potential triggers of conflict, does that mean that the presence of these considerations can doom a society? Well we can't do much about many of these factors indeed, nor can we stop natural disasters that often translate into conflict. Still every drought doesn't have to become a famine, and every weak or poor state is not condemned to instability and abuse. So as we go back and look at USAID's role over the past 40 years in addressing these challenges, what we have found is that there are essentially six simultaneous challenges that need to be addressed.

These are restoring security, building a political framework, kick starting the economy, ensuring justice and accountability, promoting civil society, and getting the regional context right. And I'll go through each of these real quickly.

On security front, international peacekeepers can often provide a buffer, but credible local security forces have to take over to provide a sense of stability, normalcy, and rule of law to everyday life. USAID prioritizes its support for security sector reform, which is essential to creating forces that are well trained, disciplined, and adequately paid so that they do not exploit and abuse the very populations they are supposed to be protecting. There has to be an effective program to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate ex-combatants, including militias, and perhaps equally important, child soldiers must be allowed to put down their ak-47s and pick up schoolbooks.

The second challenge is to restore legitimate political frameworks. People must have confidence that their government at the national and local levels is fair and just, they must see armed movements transformed into political parties, they need to see effective legislatures and judiciaries which counters the power of the executive which often grows in power during a conflict period. The quick fix of creating national unity including all competing forces is rarely a viable long term solution. Similarly, the premature holding of elections can create a winner take all power dispensation that in itself is a prelude to new conflict from disempowered minorities.

A culture of accountability and transparency has to emerge in government, along with an effective system to protect human rights. This often involves decentralization and local empowerment, but this has to be balanced with the need for a strong central authority in fragile states.

Third is the question of economic renewal. We usually define this strictly in physical terms as rebuilding roads, schools, clinics, power grids and houses, but in fact long term development in most of these conflict situations involves reviving agriculture, creating conditions to allow foreign direct and local investment ensuring a quality of income distribution and creating jobs. As I mentioned before, in the wake of youth unemployment rates of upwards of 90% in some of these countries, there is little surprise that in addition to their brutal forced conscription of child soldiers, renegade leaders have been able to lure disaffected youths with the siren song of quick if venal empowerment and meaning for their lives.

The fourth challenge is to come to grips with past atrocities and abuses. Clearly nations and individuals who have suffered from grievous treatment must balance immediate accountability and long term national reconciliation. But too often transitional justice is addressed through amnesties, tantamount to men with guns forgiving other men with guns for crimes committed against women and children. There is no one size fits all approach to transitional justice whether its action in local courts, whether its the international criminal court, whether it's a truth and reconciliation commission like in South Africa, community court system in Rwanda, or an ad hoc international tribunal in cases where local courts are inadequate. Ensuring accountability is essential to rebuilding the concept of rule of law and eliminating the culture of impunity.

The fifth challenge, which is often ignored, is recreating civil society. Groups of academics, lawyers, teachers, unions, and women are the glue that hold society together and serves as safety valves to permit the peaceful redress of grievances. In most conflict situation, such groups are polarized during the conflict, often due to conscious efforts of divide and rule strategies by national or factional leaders. Disadvantaged minorities, including IDPs and refugees, must be drawn into the mix. In particular, women have to be drawn into peace processes, not just because they are the primary victims of conflict, but because they are the key to peaceful consolidation in post conflict periods. Bringing women to the table improves the quality of agreements reached and involving women in post conflict governance reduces the likelihood of returning to war. We all know the single best investment to revitalize agriculture, to restore health systems, and to improve other social indicators is girls' education. It's been said you educate a boy, you educate an individual, you educate a girl and you educate a community.

The final challenge is getting the regional context right. Neighbors are best positioned to provide a powerful dampening effect on potential violence. Comprehensive peace building must recognize differing yet often synergistic roles to be played and interests to be pursued by neighboring countries, each with their special relationships and contacts with key actors. In this context, it is often useful to have a formal structure or ad hoc friends groups or some form of conflict resolution committee, to bring together regional and sub-regional organizations and countries.

A few points on these six areas that are of interest. It is important, I believe, that we not only look at these as individual activities but we need to look at them closely at sequencing and their application in each country's unique conditions. In almost all cases, there will be a hierarchy of requirements, in many situations the need for restoration of security not only military stabilization but addressing the needs of human security is the first among equals without which little else can take place. Further, we need to acknowledge that there are a lot of internal contradictions at play here. For example, if society recreates security through strengthening military or relying on regional warlords, this can pose a serious threat to the reestablishment of a credible government structure.

Similarly, if you empower and provide legitimacy to the national government, this can easily empower leaders whose interests are more related to their personal advantage including rent seeking opportunities and consolidation of personal power than to more altruistic goals.

I wanted to go back to the beginning of my presentation. I said then that the dividing line between hard and soft issues has blurred or vanished. While I think this is generally true in reality, unfortunately mindsets in the corridors of power have yet to internalize this notion. Non-military tasks related to conflict resolution and prevention still suffer from second class citizenship among foreign actors. Indeed they are often referred to as the soft side of foreign policy. In fact I think we all know that there is nothing soft holding warlords and other human rights violators accountable for abuses, or insisting that women have a seat at the table in peace negotiations and post-conflict governments, there is nothing soft about insuring that roads and villages and farmlands are free of landmines, that governments are empowered to deliver health and education services to their populations, or that neighboring countries and world powers alike cease their meddling and play a positive role in building regional peace and security. These are in fact the hardest issues we face in the challenge of building stable societies out of fragile states, and I salute CAP and AEI for drawing us here together to discuss this issue.

Center for American Progress, Washington, DC

Last updated: May 02, 2016

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