When I began my career as a young development officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the first trip the agency sent me on, after four months of learning the ropes in Washington, D.C., was to Sanaa, Yemen. This was back in 2004.
Yemen was a sleepy backwater ruled cunningly by longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. It wasn’t a particularly impressive place, but it functioned passably. It had all the usual ills of a second-rate regime in the region: extensive corruption, widespread nepotism, a sclerotic bureaucracy that only occasionally could be bothered to deliver services. We were there to try to improve things – a bit. We were focused on tackling corruption, theorizing that if the state didn’t crack down on bribery and graft, and improve its ability to govern – at least enough to maintain its legitimacy – then over time a combination of demographics (surging youth population), climate change (increasing drought) and ethnic cleavages could tear the country apart.
Little did we know just what a tragedy Yemen would become. As I look back on Yemen now, I see a history of blunders and missed opportunities. Yemen is a humanitarian catastrophe – according to the United Nations the “worst in the world.” Twenty-four million people, or 80 percent of the population, require immediate assistance and protection. Famine threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens; millions are food insecure and suffer from acute malnutrition. That figure includes 2 million children younger than 5 who are not receiving proper food and nutrition.
Could the international community have done something differently? Are there steps the U.S. government can take to prevent other countries, similarly fragile, from descending into a corresponding level of chaos and disaster?
There are no silver bullets when it comes to preventing violent conflict, but there are tangible steps that can make a difference. One such approach is represented by S.727 – the Global Fragility Act. The Global Fragility Act does a number of important things. It provides critical funds to assist fragile countries – the Yemens of tomorrow – to help prevent and reduce future conflict. It supports breaking cycles of violence by strengthening the effectiveness and coordination of U.S. programs in this sector. Given that violent conflict drives over 80 percent of global humanitarian need, these programs are critical. Rather than wait until a crisis breaks before spending billions of dollars to fix it, this legislation emphasizes directly engaging in countries that are at risk for instability.
It also goes without saying that these efforts are vital for U.S. national security. Consider where the U.S. military has expended billions in resources in the past decade: fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, countering ISIS in Iraq and Syria, conducting strikes against al-Shabab in Somalia. There is a strong connection between fragile contexts, extremist instability and threats to U.S. national security. We can try to contain our adversaries through bombs and missiles, or we can adopt a smarter strategy: preventing conflicts from emerging in the first place in unstable, poorly governed regions.
S.727 is an important bill. It lays the groundwork for a strategic approach that will proactively enable the U.S. government to head off problems before they transform into full-blown crises. Counterpart legislation (H.R. 2116) passed the House on May 20. I’m pleased to see that on Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – where I served as a committee counsel for close to five years – advanced the act to the Senate floor in a bipartisan 18 to 4 vote. Jim Risch’s support was particularly crucial – he put the bill on the agenda and then voted with the majority to move it to the full Senate.
But the work is not done.
I hope Risch will use his political capital to get this legislation over the finish line and signed into law. The Global Fragility Act will not only help people in need, protect innocent civilians and contribute to lasting peace, but it is also good for our national security.