Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Doing Development in Conflict Zones

An article titled “Doing development in conflict zones” Bb Jeremy Allouche appeared in the Guardian at the end of September, and while its thesis stems from the current conflict in Syria, I thought it summed up perfectly the double bind in which JMD and other small local NGOs in Aceh find themselves.  Supplanted by international NGOs with large donor bases and funding streams, local NGOs can no longer afford to pay the high salaries to which competent staff become accustomed, and their ability to administer projects, provide accurate financial reporting, and compete for large grants is weakened.  At the same time, their local knowledge and expertise is largely ignored by their international colleagues who, as the “face” of development in Aceh, fail miserably to grasp the cultural, social and political context in which they are working.

 The highlighted areas are my emphasis.

Donors and aid agencies working in Syria, Somalia or Afghanistan must be more prepared to take risks and help local partners lead interventions

 Debates over development and security have long been very polarised. However, as shown in the recent debates over Syria, the question is not whether diplomacy, development and security should be linked but rather how and for whose benefits.

The example of Syria also shows again how policy processes are becoming more uncertain as the influence of traditional donors wanes. Recent experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia highlight the important role of regional players such as Ethiopia, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. Newly important donors such as China, India and Brazil also exert considerable influence, which sometimes runs counter to the interests and principles of OECD donors, diverse as they are. The western community has failed to realise the limited influence, capacity and knowledge it can have through development-security integration. This is the time to rethink security and development approaches beyond stabilisation. Enabling the safety and security in people's everyday lives is what development is fundamentally about.

Local community and civil society groups are therefore critical to the success of efforts to restore security in conflict-affected countries. Their understanding of local people's needs, the causes of conflict and local political and power dynamics means they are more able to exert influence and bring about long-term change.

The challenge for international donors and aid agencies is how to work more closely with these groups and help them to lead interventions. It requires an approach which is more flexible and less risk-averse, and potentially difficult to achieve against the backdrop of the current 'results' and 'value for money' agendas.

Learning from the ground: negotiating and building trust

In fragile and conflict areas, the fragmentation of power and authority makes it difficult for outsiders to operate. These hybrid political systems, which include a constellation of non-state actors, are a key challenge for development workers.

In a new report published by the Institute of Development Studies, we argue that development and security actors from OECD countries need to find ways to respond effectively to local security dynamics even though their influence in these settings may be limited. Our work with partners in Kenya and Sierra Leone suggests that adopting such an approach, underpinned by the concepts of entrustment and brokerage, is essential and can reap benefits.

Entrustment involves transferring to local actors the powers to make decisions, define and assess problems, and the resources to act on this. Brokerage involves actions to build a shared understanding among actors whose interests may vary significantly and whose capacities to act in support of these interests may be unequal. Facilitating negotiations, trust-building and supporting conditions for dialogue to continue are all roles that local development partners can fulfil, provided the right external support.

A new deal

A new deal is required to reshape development – security integration in light of these developments – one that recognises both the limits of understanding, influence and capacity to act in insecure environments and the importance of local providers of security and basic services. Renewing commitments to local partnerships and redirecting resources to strengthen these is risky but essential to build and sustain innovative responses to complex challenges that transcend simple categorisation as development problems, political crises or security challenges. Aid agencies have not gone overboard in linking development and security. They have in fact tinkered at the edges. What is needed is a reinvention of development in fragile and conflict-affected areas.

To operate effectively, aid agencies need to (1) commit more staff to the field in recognition of the localised nature of the issues, (2) recruit staff with complementary skills in security, diplomacy, brokering and negotiation, (3) be prepared to take more calculated risks, finding ways of pooling risk with other actors to minimise political fallout at home but not so that accountability is weakened, and (4) resist rotation of staff. The lack of intimate local knowledge of is a major impediment to reinventing development in ways that promote the security of the poor.

Inadvertently, donors have contributed to the problem by moving to establish in-house professional cadres, with technical advisers rotating every few years. What is often required alongside technical expertise is a more rounded knowledge and understanding of the polities, societies and histories of particular places.

Time for a radical reinvention

The current pressure to spend increased volumes of aid in fragile settings but with less staff, begs the question about whether it will be possible to deliver this level of change? However, without a radical reinvention of development in conflict-affected countries the lives of some of the world's poorest people will continue to be blighted by poverty, insecurity and violence.


Jeremy Allouche is a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and co-author of 'A New Deal? Development and Security in a Changing World'


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