Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Manoeuvring in “conflict and fragile” states

For some time now I have been working with professionals in the development community who have chosen to throw themselves at the most challenging opportunities of all in their field: these are the heroes who try so very hard to make a difference in what are called ‘Conflict and Fragile States’. I offer no prizes for guessing which countries qualify for such a label, and you won’t be surprised that neighbours of ours like Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan are among them. Others include Chad, DRC, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo and Zimbabwe in Africa; and beyond this continent Afghanistan, Nepal, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Palestine and others – nearly forty countries in all.

At the best of times being in the development world is like pushing a big rock up a steep hill, so just imagine heaving the biggest and roughest boulders up the steepest and roughest of mountains. Indeed one of the challenges they face is that many sober people – not excluding some of their development colleagues – believe the task is so hard there’s no point even having a go.

“Why bother trying?” others wonder. “Why throw good money after bad?’ they are asked, by some whose job is to allocate the permanently scarce resources available. Providing emergency humanitarian assistance is universally, uncontroversially supported. But trying to revive failed institutions (or to build them from scratch) and to promote good governance, the rule of law and human rights is just too ambitious, goes this not uncommon school of thought.

Is it? That’s what these people strain to achieve. However slowly, however imperfectly, among however many risks, uncertainties and setbacks. And that’s not all. How do you plan in such environments? How do you even build enough understanding of how society and politics work in these places? How do you deal with security problems, and with getting good people to work there, or even visit?

Then once projects get under way, there’s need to monitor whatever progress is possible and report back to the head-offices back home. So how do you carry out surveys, collect data? To what extent are you able to use the country’s own systems (which you know you should if at all possible) rather than setting up your own? Well let me tell you, these people have come up with ways. “Tools” they call them, and “instruments”; and over time policies and guidelines have been prepared, with lists of do’s and don’ts.

The catalogue of challenges continues. At the national level, donor governments are getting smart about what they call “comprehensive and integrated” approaches that bring together multiple functions, sectors and ministries. In fragile states the ministries typically comprise those of foreign affairs, international development and defence, and often line ministries such as the ones dealing with health and education also enter the fray. Increasingly the World Bank, the UN and the bilateral development partners are planning and working much more closely together, both within and between institutions and countries. And all players appreciate the benefits of close collaboration with regional institutions like the AU, the African Development Bank and the likes of the EAC, COMESA, ECOWAS and SADAC. Multi-donor trust funds are also becoming common, and these also allow for sharing of staff.

Let’s not forget the tensions that arise between the need for governments to show quick and solid results from spending taxpayers’ money. The political imperatives associated with donor country electoral cycles (more so in straightened domestic economic circumstances such as we are currently experiencing) make it even harder to be patient and flexible when trying to promote long-term sustainable development – never mind in fragile states. “Nothing works,” comes the political cry. “Why throw good money after bad?” “Make an impact or get out!” Yet the timescales within which one can hope to see stabilisation and development in fragile states extends to decades – literally.

So these good people are caught in the middle, between dysfunctional client nations and unrealistically demanding countries that fund them and expect instant miracles.

Having said this, it is reassuring to note that the experience over the years of engagement in fragile and conflict states has become sufficiently documented and discussed that those who decide where and how to offer development aid (alongside humanitarian and military/security assistance) are now much better placed to adopt policies that are more constructive and more realistic.

They increasingly appreciate the need for taking risks, knowing that some of the resources applied will fail to achieve their intended objectives. They understand that development professionals in fragile environments must be allowed greater flexibility, both in implementation and in the very adjustment of direction. The unpredictability they face cannot be handled by applying the normal processes for planning, procurement, monitoring and evaluation and so forth; and those on the ground must be allowed a much freer hand to make the judgments about when and where and how to move; when to hold back; and when to withdraw.

They must be able to act quickly and yet be patient to stay for an extended period – without the kind of stop-go initiatives we often witness among donors. Responsiveness to local cultures and concerns is also vital, and this means putting staff in missions – both local and international – who understand the political economy and often have to engage with people whose style and actions they don’t approve of. In other words, key to success is engaging emotionally intelligent entrepreneurial types rather than civil servants more used to following laid down procedures.

I have been mingling with so many highly educated, talented, hard-working and deep-thinking people, filled with goodwill and good intent, trying their very best to do good (while doing no harm) in the most difficult environments on the ground, while dealing with their head-office bureaucrats and politicians back home. I take my hat off to these unsung heroes. And so should we all.