‘If we get it wrong, we put our staff at risk.’ The challenges of working in fragile contexts
Amanda Buttinger Global Programme Co-ordinator, Fragility and Conflict
29th Aug 2012
Amanda Buttinger, Programme Coordinator for Within and Without the State, explores some of the challenges in engaging with fragile and conflict-affected contexts.
What are the biggest challenges in engaging with fragile and conflict-affected contexts? When we launched the Within and Without the State programme almost a year and a half ago, we certainly gave a lot of attention to risks and risk management. We thought hard about specific events or conditions that might have a negative impact on our work, and made our assumptions explicit in order to make informed decisions that balanced risk with likely outcomes.
We paid particular attention to risks that are significantly higher in fragile and conflict-affected situations than in more stable environments. We considered escalating violence and insecurity in South Sudan, where local-level conflicts over land, water, and livestock have proliferated over the past year, and where border clashes with Sudan threaten political stability in the newly independent state. We analysed the increase in crackdowns on civil society and silencing of critical voices in Gaza, where the prevailing environment is not permissive of work or dialogue on the human
rights obligations of the governing body Hamas, or the functions of democracy. And we planned for regime transition and political uncertainty in Afghanistan, where the national reconciliation process and peace negotiations continue to make the future uncertain.
The importance of rigorous and continual risk analysis
To a large extent, it is the nature of state and society that represents the key distinction between programming in a fragile setting and a more stable one. As we set out in our Programme Policy Guidelines on Programming in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries the consequences of us doing anything less than an excellent job in these environments are extremely serious. Failure to identify, analyse, plan and mitigate external risks and wider contextual issues can threaten
the security of our staff and partners, and the lives of the communities and individuals we work with and for. That's why in our programming we must make it a priority to carry out high-quality power analysis in places such as South Sudan, and identify 'entry points' for civil society in repressive or restrictive contexts like Gaza, and conduct comprehensive scenario planning in Afghanistan.. We must avoid worsening the conflict dynamics in these contexts through continual and careful analysis, and put suitable risk reduction strategies in place.
Handling staff turnover and unrealistic deadlines
Perhaps it was obvious that continuous risk analysis, rigorous political economy analysis, flexibility and adaptability, and agility to respond to emergent change opportunities in fragile and conflict contexts would be important and challenging. What has been much more surprising is the extent to which basic expectations about our usual ways of managing programmes, and operating as an organisation, have been challenged by the experience of implementing Within and Without the State. This suggests that a good hard look inward to our own management systems and processes is required.
For example, the 'building blocks' of project management - such as staff, budget or deadlines - are so much harder to get right in fragile and conflict-affected contexts than in more stable environments. And yet failure to get them right can massively affect our ability to have a positive impact. Early investment in design and start-up of projects is integral to effective programming in fragile contexts - and yet we often put in place unrealistic timeframes (largely due to pressure from our donors to deliver results quickly), thereby increasing the risk of failure. Similarly,
when it comes to staffing, we need to make sure that our country offices have adequate support with HR issues, including recruitment and retention, and guidance and resources to focus on internal staff development (especially for national staff).
One of our underlying assumptions at the outset of the Within and Without the State programme was that we would be able to recruit and retain suitably qualified staff to manage the projects at country level. However, staff turnover has been the biggest blocker to progress in almost all project locations. There have often been gaps in staffing, with other team members - already working over capacity - struggling to take on additional tasks to keep the work progressing and support partner relationships. This has hindered the quality and strength of our programming. We still need to do
much more to support our country offices to attract and retain the best staff, improve the management of staff turnover, and help teams and individuals take advantage of all opportunities to learn and develop new skills in these hard-to-work contexts. And we should advocate with donors to foster an improved understanding of what it takes to deliver complex interventions in fragile and conflict contexts - not least more flexibility, with an element of trial and error, and recognition of budget, time and data constraints.
Are we doing this as well as we can?
For me, the critical question we need to ask of all our programming, and of the organisation in general, is: "are we doing this as well as we can?" In some of the most challenging places on earth, where the risks of getting something wrong are heightened, the burden of responsibility weighs particularly heavily. But I am confident that that the Within and Without the State programme can make a valuable contribution to this. Developing our programme policy, sharing learning, experimenting with new approaches, and facilitating staff to exchange experiences and develop practice,
will surely help us and our partners do the best we can - even in the most fragile contexts.