Elisabeth Dallas is Vice President of DT Global’s Stabilization & Transition Practice, providing strategic leadership on the design and implementation of programs that successfully mitigate conflict, support state-of-the art peacebuilding, and facilitate political stability. Prior, Ms. Dallas directed Chemonics International's Peace, Stability and Transition Practice, served as a Senior Conflict & Peacebuilding Advisor in the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at USAID, and worked with the Public International Law & Policy Group. Here, we sat down with Ms. Dallas to discuss the future of conflict prevention and stabilization and some of the biggest challenges the field will confront moving forward.

The US Global Fragility Act, signed into law at the end of 2019, promotes a comprehensive and multisectoral approach to tackling conflict prevention and stabilization in conflict-affected areas and preventing extremism and violent conflict. Where do you see the sector going given this new legislation?

The Global Fragility Act (GFA) is a significant triumph for the field of conflict prevention and stabilization; it underscores the importance of addressing the root causes of conflict as a means for advancing political and social interests globally. But more importantly, it recognizes prevention as the most cost-effective, sustainable way to build community resilience to conflict and achieve long-term stability.

Violent conflict in many of the countries we operate in is having a devastating effect on populations. The data shows that it takes at least a generation for a country to begin to recover from the significant economic, governance, and social deficits caused by conflict. The World Bank has calculated that violent conflict has displaced more than 70 million people. Further, it remains the primary driver of terrorism. This stark reality shows us we need to rethink our approach toward designing cost-effective programs with the explicit goal of getting ahead of the curve — more specifically, we need to invest in programs that build capacity and promote social cohesion efforts before conflict occurs.

DT Global and other implementing partners are in the unique position of identifying windows of opportunity to interrupt cycles of violence and recognize early warning signs of potential conflict. Our programs afford us firsthand, hyper-localized knowledge of the number of conflict-affected and fragile environments in which we operate. Our deep on the ground experience has taught us how to recognize early warning signs and design programs that target potential flashpoints for conflict.

The GFA provides an opportunity to act on a concept that has eluded development practitioners for far too long — convincing donors that funding conflict prevention is worth the investment.

I am hopeful that the expertise and knowledge of DT Global and other implementing partners can be brought to bear and play an important role in helping realize the intent of the GFA. In my opinion, decision makers would be remiss not to tap into this wealth of insight and expertise.

The novel coronavirus has and will continue to impact countries in which we work. What do you see as some of the main challenges and considerations for stabilization and peacebuilding efforts given the pandemic?

Many of the countries in which we work are highly fragile and exhibit deep and legitimate grievances between different populations, specifically rising economic inequality, political exclusion, and social marginalization. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic is being used to fan the flames of identity-based grievances, exacerbating conflict and elevating risks for groups who are already marginalized.

COVID-19 is creating an environment where those in power can manipulate populations and pit groups against one another through propagating disinformation and rumors based on factors such as ethnicity, religion, gender, and caste. We consistently see the political elite maintaining control over social and other forms of media to adapt the messaging to suit their political agenda. The lack of information and, in some cases, intentional dissemination of misinformation regarding COVID-19 is resulting in stigmatization of vulnerable groups; in particular, those displaced or living in areas where altering personal behaviors to protect themselves is near impossible. This tactic foments a culture of fear which is being leveraged to incite violence. While some civil society and advocacy communities are responding with calls for greater cooperation, others channel their fear into instigating attacks. As we saw during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, those who seek to provide services and respond to the concerns of marginalized groups are being targeted, resulting in significant human rights abuses.

It is during a time like this that our ability to rapidly shift programming becomes paramount. For example, DT Global has quickly pivoted its programs in Sudan to help respond to COVID-19. We supported the Blue Nile Women’s Network to use local languages to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Blue Nile State by conducting online training through Facebook for 350 members of their outreach team. The training covered COVID-19 case management, information on virus transmission, prevention methods, and the benefits of wearing masks. Our program also sought to address the stigma that may come with being infected with the virus by conducting a training with the Damazine Trauma Center on how to provide psychosocial support to the families and individuals affected by COVID-19.

Through our work with the Civilian-Led Transitional Government in Sudan, we have supported the development of a Corona Action Project, using art and media to build awareness of COVID-19, as well as information campaigns with the Sudanese Broadcasting Corporation. DT Global also purchased four ambulances on behalf of the Ministry of Health to assist in service provision and response.

Through our work in Jordan with the Independent Elections Commission, we shifted all of our trainings to increase engagement of young, first-time voters and new candidates on the election process so they could be facilitated online. This included building out a production studio and recruiting and training top-notch media producers in election topics. More than 5,000 Jordanians have since attended these trainings to prepare for Jordan's Parliamentary election scheduled for November 2020.

These efforts, along with many others we are undertaking through our programs, provide us the ability to address the challenges posed by COVID-19 and work with our partners in civil society and government to help mitigate the spread of this deadly disease.

Growing inequality, displacement, and climate change, among many factors, are impacting fragility and conflict around the globe. What is one of the biggest challenges that keeps you up at night, and what do we need to be doing to tackle it?

For me, it is the increase in humanitarian crises due to conflict. A study by the World Bank recently noted that violent conflict is responsible for triggering the majority of humanitarian crisis and displacement we see in the world today. The common denominator for the vast majority of current humanitarian responses is that the state where the crisis is taking place is highly fragile and/or is an active player in a conflict, and often the host government is unable or unwilling to provide life-saving resources and protection for its population. In many cases, these states are in or recovering from a protracted civil war, are dealing with terrorist insurgencies, or have multiple internal armed actors that are more powerful and heavily resourced than the existing government. This further perpetuates instability and prolongs the crisis.

As a result, each humanitarian response comes with its own unique operational, political, security, and economic challenges. Understanding not only the operating context, but also the root causes of the crisis, is critical to make sure that the assistance provided does not inadvertently worsen the dynamics that fueled the conflict in the first place. The international community needs to broaden its definition of humanitarian response to include conflict analysis and prevention. If the goal of humanitarian intervention is to strengthen local systems, build state capacity, and encourage ownership by local governing institutions, humanitarian actors need to understand the key drivers of conflict and how that is connected to the humanitarian disaster. Further, understanding what is driving conflict and the role of key actors is vital to ensure that humanitarian actors are not inadvertently creating divisions between groups who are the recipients of assistance.

In many of the complex crises we are witnessing today, the transition from delivering humanitarian assistance to development rarely follows a linear path. Humanitarian interventions exist alongside internationally supported efforts to promote stability, rebuild state institutions, and accelerate recovery. Greater integration between development and humanitarian actors can create opportunities to simultaneously provide both urgent assistance that saves lives and assistance that sets the stage for longer term social and economic development. Most importantly, greater coordination provides an opportunity to more deliberately engage in conflict prevention to break the cycles of violence that are often the cause of humanitarian crises in the first place.

We need to shift our orientation from always being in response mode to being more strategic with our resources and getting out ahead of crises — many of which we clearly see coming. Recognizing that we will continue to be tested not just to respond to the overwhelming number of crises erupting across the globe, we need to focus our attention, investments, and ultimately our actions on prioritizing prevention.