Briefing with State Dept. Director of Foreign Assistance James L. Richardson, Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Dr. Denise Natali, and USAID Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization DAA Robert Jenkins

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On the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability

For Immediate Release

Friday, December 18, 2020

December 18, 2020
Via Teleconference

MR BROWN: Thank you, Moderator, and good afternoon, everyone. Today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the release of the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability. This strategy sets forth a framework for U.S. Government efforts to prevent conflict, stabilize conflict-affected areas, and address global fragility in line with the Global Fragility Act of 2019. Also released today was a video event in which Deputy Secretary of State Biegun, members of Congress, and key U.S. Government officials and civil society stakeholders delivered remarks celebrating the release of the strategy.

Joining me for today’s on-the-record briefing are Department of State Director of Foreign Assistance James Richardson, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations Dr. Denise Natali, and USAID’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Conflict Prevention and Stabilization Robert Jenkins. They will each offer brief introductory remarks and then answer your questions. As a reminder, the content of this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call. If you’d like to go ahead and get in the queue for a question, dial 1 and then 0. And with that, I’ll hand it over to Director Richardson. Please, go ahead.

MR RICHARDSON: Great. Thanks, Cale. Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks so much for joining us. As Cale said, I’m Jim Richardson, the director of foreign assistance here at the Department of State. Today’s event is a great success and a really important milestone in the U.S. Government’s work in difficult and complex environments. Thanks to bipartisan leadership from Congress, the Global Fragility Act called on the State Department to lead a unified U.S. strategy that is intentional, cross-cutting, measurable, and harnesses the full spectrum of U.S. diplomacy, foreign assistance, and our implementing partners. We are really proud to be launching the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability as called for in the Global Fragility Act.

This strategy will transform how the United States works to break the costly cycle of fragility and conflict that undermines U.S. national interest. The reality is that the United States has spent $30 billion over the past five years in just 15 of the most fragile nations in the world. And this new strategy will give us better tools and better approaches to be able to see more progress in the – that the countries want and that the American people expect. Through this strategy, the United States will focus on political drivers of fragility and better support locally driven solutions. I’ll let colleagues Denise and Rob speak more to the contents of the strategy itself. But the reality is, as a 10-year strategy – the strategy will last 10 years – the legislation envisioned that it would cut across multiple administrations. Through our ongoing consultations, we have worked hard to solicit insight and perspectives from folks across the political spectrum. And we have to – and we continue to have bipartisan support from all of our congressional stakeholders.

The Department looks forward to continuing to support these efforts over the lifetime of the strategy. The strategy is ambitious and implementing it won’t be easy. But we need the change and we need to – and we – and new emphasis will – it will bring to prevention, stabilization, partnerships, and management. I have seen this in my previous role at USAID and in my current role as director of foreign assistance. As the Secretary said in the statement today, America’s prosperity and security depends on peaceful, self-reliant U.S. economic and security partners. By breaking the costly cycle of conflict and instability, the U.S. advances our own security.

With that, let me turn it over to the next speaker.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NATALI: Thank you. This is a Dr. Natali, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Conflict Stabilization Operations. I’d like to thank our leadership – Secretary Pompeo, Assistant Secretary Biegun – at the State Department, the champions of the GFA on Capitol Hill, our civil society partners in the interagency. We are thrilled to unveil the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability. Our team has been working feverishly for a year in collaboration with the Bureau of Foreign Assistance, our partners at State as well as USAID and DOD and Treasury to get this right. And this is an important milestone on our commitment to tackle state fragility, and the point I’d like to make in the content is this strategy assures that the United States will pursue a different approach to conflict prevention and stabilization from previous efforts.

And what I’d like to emphasize is this is just – this is not old wine in a new bottle. What’s different? Rather than externally driven nation building as we’ve done in the past, the strategy emphasizes support for locally driven solutions that align with our national security interests. Rather than fragmented and broad-based efforts which we did in the past, the United States is going to target the political factors that drive fragility. And rather than diffuse and open-ended efforts, we will engage selectively based on defined metrics, host-country political will – very important, respect for democracy and human rights, and cost sharing.

But to do so, we tied this new approach, our strategy, to four goals: prevention, stabilization, partnerships, and management. Each of these goals includes rigorous monitoring and evaluation, data-driven analysis, diplomacy, information sharing so that we can understand the local dynamics, so we can better target interventions, and so that we can hold actors accountable.

These efforts are going to require the United States to pursue reforms, that we use taxpayer dollars judiciously and achieve measurable results. We have made this strategy intentionally ambitious, and it’s going to require sustained support from the Department leadership in the years ahead as well as our interagency partners. But I am confident that if we follow this strategy, we will mitigate global conflict and better advance our interest in fragile environments. Thank you.

MR BROWN: Great. And if we can move on to our next briefer.

MR JENKINS: Well, thank you very much. Good afternoon, everyone. Happy Friday. My name is Rob Jenkins. I’m the deputy assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization. And we at USAID are extremely excited about the new U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability. At its core, the strategy is about approaching fragility and conflict prevention differently by prioritizing peacebuilding and prevention in line with our national security strategies. The strategy is about not only changing the way we approach these problems, but more importantly changing the ways the U.S. Government addresses these problems.

But a strategy, no matter how well it’s written – and as Denise said, we have a very talented team that’s been working for a year on this – no matter how well it’s written, it will be worthless if we don’t implement it correctly. We need to change how we prioritized, how we resourced, and how we approached these problems collectively as an entire government. We rarely successfully implement whole-of-government solutions without a concerted, deliberate effort. This strategy is about doing it the right way.

At USAID, our transformation was about reassessing how we use our development and other foreign assistance programmings to promote peace and address fragility. This reinforces the opportunity to take new approaches and put them into action preventing violent conflict, continuing to do groundbreaking political transition and stabilization work, all of which is being underpinned by enhanced civilian-military cooperation.

Foreign assistance alone will not make a difference in these places. The challenge is to fully integrate foreign assistance efforts with the diplomatic and security components. That is our challenge, and we’re excited to take it up. We are committed to continuing to work as an interagency but also with our colleagues in Congress, the peacebuilding community, partner nations, and with local civil society organizations in the countries where we will roll the strategy out and implement it.

This is about changing the world and USAID is honored to take up that challenge. So congratulations to my colleagues and our teams on the launch of this strategy, and we’re happy to take questions. Thank you.

MR BROWN: Great. We’ll go ahead and start with questions. For our first, let’s go to the line of Matt Lee.

QUESTION: I don’t want to sound like a devil’s advocate here, but I guess I will be. I’ve been around for a long time; I’ve heard all these grand strategies, or administrations putting out grand strategies before that never really end up going anywhere because the next administration comes in and says, well, we want to take a different approach. Now, I realize you say that this was done bipartisan – in a bipartisan fashion with Congress, but you say – and it’s intended to cross multiple administrations.

But – well, along those lines, has there – have you had any contact with the incoming administration, the transition team, about this strategy? Do you expect that the list of countries that we will make this – the list of the priority countries will survive into the new administration should you choose to identify them before January 20th? And then very lastly, very briefly, could someone just please use the word Biden – use the words “Biden administration?” Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NATALI: I can take some of that, and then let Jim and Rob or – answer some of the others. Besides the fact I – you have every right to be cynical because we’ve all been around for a long time, working on these issues. But this is the very first time that the United States has had a strategy, an enduring – a 10-year strategy to address conflict prevention and stabilization, or to stabilize fragile states. We have not done so before, at least not in the 30 years that I’ve been working on this issue.

Aside from the fact it’s not just bipartisan, but the people that have worked on this at the State Department, at USAID, at DOD, at Treasury, across – this was not a political issue from any of the people working on it. It was – it’s an issue that crossed political boundaries and looked at why we failed in the past and how we make sure that we don’t fail again, because we’re all committed to this.

Now, none of us here expect this to not confront challenges. We have to take risks; we may fail at some of the issues. But we have enough indicators in place and enough issues in place to address some of these challenges.

In regard to the list of countries, we’ve used a very rigorous methodology quantitatively and qualitatively to choose these countries, but there’s also enough flexibility to change these countries should something happen over time, based on, again, the indicators that we use. So that could be, but we have to make – there could be some change, but we have to use a very clear way of deciding countries and not – we didn’t just put countries in here because people felt like putting countries in. They were based on quantitative and qualitative analysis. Thank you.

MR RICHARDSON: Yeah, this is Jim Richardson. I guess I would say that the challenge facing all the donor community in terms of working in fragile states is really well known. You talk to any of the major donors, they all both believe that we need to invest more in these places and yet they all are struggling with how to see results.

So I think – I’m really excited. Look, the United States Government is leading in a really important way on this argument. And as we’ve done socialization with other donors, with experts, with think tanks, with the development community, we’ve generally gotten really positive feedback from folks that say yep, that makes good sense. So I really do think that the strategy will outlive this administration and into the next and allow for the – us to really be able to hone in on the true challenges and be able to drive real results.

MR BROWN: Okay, thanks. Let’s go to our second question, and if you would open the line of Teresa Welsh with Devex.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks so much, Jim, Rob, Dr. Natali for doing this. A couple of questions – want to follow up on the country selection. Do you think that those selections will be made public before the end of the current administration? Do you have any sense of a timeline on when they may be coming?

And then I also noticed DOD is not on this call, and I was wondering if you can speak to their engagement on this. And obviously that’s been a source of underlying issues, as were just chatted about, in success of these strategies in the past is really having that interagency cooperation, and wondering if you can just speak to the fact that they are not present. Thanks.

MR RICHARDSON: So this is Jim. I’ll start with the easy question about DOD. DOD was part of this process from the very beginning. They’ve been integral partners. Stephanie Hammond, who is a acting assistant – deputy assistant secretary at Defense, spoke at the launch that I think is now up on the website. So DOD is a huge both player and supporter, and they – precursor to all this, they’ve been a driving force in the stabilization review, so their importance is certainly very real and their commitment to this I think is pretty clear given all the rollouts. So – but I’ll leave the question, prioritization question to Denise or Rob.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NATALI: Thanks, yeah, and again, I want to – Teresa, thanks for being here – echo what Jim said: DOD has been fantastic. They have been fantastic partners, and so this is just – probably couldn’t make it today.

The country part – so we’re being carefully – the selection of priority countries and regions is being carefully considered. It’s still underway. We are aiming to get this out within the next several weeks, but there’s still some final clearances. But I do want to emphasize, again, that there are placeholders and there will be opportunities for others to look at it and to see if those changes – if they will stay. But we’re confident that that should come out in the next few weeks. We’re finalizing.

MR JENKINS: And Teresa, this is Rob. I’ll just add that one of the emphases behind the Global Fragility Act and now in this strategy is to make sure that all elements of our government – but particularly State, USAID, Treasury, and DOD – are working together. And as Jim and Denise have said, DOD is an absolute, committed, full partner in everything that is in this strategy, and I see no reason that’s not going to be the same moving forward. And I understand it was just a scheduling issue today.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NATALI: One more thing, Teresa, about the list. We – not only the prioritization list, Teresa; we had over 200 consultations or meetings or responses with civil society along the way. This has been really a very organized effort, if you will. So their input, others’ input has been integral to this whole process, the strategy development along the way. Over. Thank you.

MR BROWN: Super. We can go to the line of Kristina Anderson next.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) and thank you for taking my question. Corruption is often one of the big things that tends to undermine all the best efforts in this area in particular and seems to be particularly a problem in fragile states. Could you talk a little bit about whether there will be any change in how this might be approached and how the whole-of-government approach using Treasury as well as engaging with civil societies – and I guess those are in the local – in the regions and the countries themselves – how that might help in this challenge? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NATALI: Thank you. This approach – I won’t speak to what Treasury will do, but I will say how we’re going – we understand that you’re right, you’re absolutely right that corruption is an embedded part of many fragile environments alongside institutional weakness, structural constraints, and the whole bit.

This is why, within this strategy, we have pulled in things like is there political will, that we have to be flexible and to moderate course or to change course if we find that our actions and our investments are not realizing results or we’re not having the impact that we have – we have prepared, then we can change course. So it’s up to our local partners as well.

This is – again, we say it’s supposed to be locally driven. So if we – if things aren’t moving or things aren’t developing or we’re not realizing goals that – and corruption being part of it, then that can change the way that the country’s strategy will move forward for the program.

I’ll leave that to my colleagues to answer as well.

MR JENKINS: Thank you, Denise. And Kristina, I often do a bad job of paraphrasing Tolstoy when saying – and a lot of happy countries all seem happy in the same way and the fragile countries that are having problems and conflict all are unique and have their own problems. But it’s the – corruption is something that you find in almost every one of these countries, as you pointed out.

So in USAID, a large part of our job is the anti-corruption business, trying to implement programs and injecting resources into these troubling environments. I’ve been in this line of business for 22 years now only in fragile – what we now call fragile states and states at risk and fragility. We have learned a lot over the years about how to be vigilant, how to put systems in place, and how to mitigate – because you can never eliminate, unfortunately – mitigate corruption and its causes.

And that’s just one of the things that this strategy does is it goes back, we – the process for the strategy built after the act, which also built upon what was the Stabilization Assistance Review, is looking back two decades, saying, “What have we learned? What have we learned and how can we do this better?” And one of the things that we have learned is small, localized solutions are a lot better at keeping corruption away than very large programs at a grand scale that are not being managed carefully enough. That’s just one of the many things that we have – that we know, and this strategy has us implementing along best practice. We’re excited about it.

MR BROWN: Great. For our next question, let’s go to the line of Alex Aliyev.

QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon. Thank you so much. This is Alex Raufoglu from Azerbaijan’s Turan News Agency. I thank all the briefers for making themselves available. I’m told that the strategy has been expected in October. Any particular reason why it took this long? And given where I am coming from, in the light of current events in the South Caucasus, what do you hope people in the countries such as Azerbaijan and Armenia take away from your new strategy? Thank you so much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NATALI: Thank you. Thank you so much for being here with us today. In terms of the timing, yes, we had planned to have this out a month and a half ago, but we worked closely with the interagency with all due speed within the constraints of COVID-19 crisis, we consulted with our partners, and we wanted to make sure that we completed the necessary consultations as well as – so that we could have a comprehensive strategy.

So the last months involved just more engagements and getting through some of the final hurdles, but it was – when we spoke with our supporters on Capitol Hill and we did mention this, it was emphasized to us to make sure you get it right, this is going to be enduring. So we are very pleased at where we are at with this and that we got it out today. Thank you.

MR BROWN: Great. For what looks to be our last question, if we could open the line of Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks. I wanted to follow up on Matt’s question to see whether the Biden transition team has been briefed on this strategy and if it seems like they’re on board with it. And then separately, has there been any discussion with allies on the strategy and the forthcoming list of (inaudible) priority? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NATALI: Hi, good morning. Yes, we – as Director Richardson, as Jim indicated, we have all been having State Department meetings with the transition team, but I specifically did with our PDAS the other day and we did discuss with them the Global Fragility Strategy. They congratulated us on it. They seemed to be very interested and asked us what we would need in terms of additional support to make sure that this moves forward. So – but we didn’t share with them the specific strategy because it didn’t come out yet. But there was certainly support and every indication of – in my view, of moving this forward.

In terms of our other partners, yes. At CSO we have eight likeminded partners internationally, our counterparts in stabilization, and over the past several months I have been talking about – and socializing the Global Fragility Strategy. Most recently when I was in Paris a couple of months ago, I spoke to our French counterpart, and we’ve asked the – we had asked their stabilization unit to review parts of the strategy, and we’ve done that – did we do that with others?

STAFF: (Inaudible.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NATALI: With some of our other stabilization forum partners and donor organizations.

So, yes, because this is very, very important that we are not duplicating efforts, we want to be in sync with our partner governments. When I was in Nigeria about two months ago or a month and a half ago, we also met with our international partners there and again spoke about our efforts on global fragility. So, yes, and we will continue to do so.

MR BROWN: Okay, we’ve got a couple minutes left. We had one more person jump in the queue. So last question, let’s return to Teresa Welsh with Devex.

QUESTION: Hey, guys, thanks. Just one last question. Could you speak a little bit more about the role of the NSC in overseeing the senior-level GFA steering committee? In the strategy it mentions that they’ll be meeting to conduct oversight of the GFA and GFS implementation process, but State will be chairing the working-level secretariat. Could you just talk a little bit about sort of how engaged you expect NSC to be on the daily, will it really be State driving most of this, and how involved do you want the White House to be? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NATALI: Thanks, Teresa. I would imagine – the NSC, as you know, their role is convening and bringing people together obviously (inaudible) of policy and legislation. So as you indicated, the working level with the secretariat at the State Department will also include all of our interagency partners. So it’s very important that when you look at the strategy – and you’ll see a delineation of responsibilities – the lead – again, State Department leading strategy, the lead for implementation at USAID, and we have DOD with a key role as well.

So I see this – all of us are actually working together and we really have done that. But going through the NSC to make sure, as we have throughout this whole process, any major change or any policy issue or any decision has to be done through a PCC level at some point. So the secretariat is supposed to be a coordinating group doing the day-to-day work, and then get it to the NSC.

And so to answer your question, they have to be very involved. I mean, not on the day-to-day, but certainly we need – we will need an engaged NSC and a very engaged international organization’s – a directorate who this – which this policy will fall under to be ready to support.

MR RICHARDSON: Yeah. This is Jim. I guess I would just say it slightly differently, that this is a whole-of-government effort. We need the entire United States Government to be moving in the same direction, and that includes the White House and DOD and Treasury and USAID and State. And this strategy lays out a really clear roadmap of how to do it, but it’s so important for us to continue to be linked up, synced up, and moving in the same direction. That’s the only way we’re going to make this work.

MR BROWN: All right, thank you. That’s our last question. Unless our briefers have any closing remarks, we will end the call.

MR JENKINS: Thank you, everyone, for your time. Have a wonderful holiday.

MR RICHARDSON: Thanks, Cale.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NATALI: Thank you. Have a good holiday.

MR BROWN: That is the end of the call. The embargo on the contents is lifted. Thanks for joining, and thank you to our briefers. Have a great day and good weekend.