Dec 5, 2019

Three Takeaways from GDI’s 2019 Annual Conference: Tackling Delivery Challenges in Fragile and Conflict-affected Situations

Jacob Bathanti , Consultant

We know that implementing projects, programs, and policies is often particularly difficult in fragile and conflict-affected environments. From fluid or fractured politics that can stymie productive engagement, to ongoing violence that can impede data gathering and block access to project sites, to low counterpart capacity, the characteristics of fragile or conflict-affected states, or those undergoing some form of post-conflict or political transition, can make development work especially challenging.

But how can we better understand these challenges? And what can practitioners do about them?

On November 5-6, GDI was delighted to co-host “Challenge Accepted: Delivering Services in Fragile, Conflict-Affected and Transitional Environments” with Tunisia’s Ministry of Development and International Cooperation. A diverse group of participants gathered in Tunis, Tunisia, to discuss the delivery challenges associated with service delivery in fragile, conflict-affected, and transitional environments. Participants discussed a wide array of themes – from how to cope with security challenges and lack of access, to overcoming distrust in fragile situations, to the importance of nuanced understandings of local context. They also shared tools and approaches to diagnose and respond to challenges in these difficult environments.  And in a series of practical delivery labs, participants rolled up their sleeves to work together, providing actionable suggestions to help address real implementation challenges that their peers were facing in fragile and conflict-affected environments. 

Drawing on GDI’s broad network of partners and beyond, the diversity of perspectives represented at the conference helped make the event a success. Presenters included government representatives, staff from multilateral and bilateral development organizations, NGOs, implementing agencies, students, and more.  Fragility-related challenges can emerge in a variety of settings, and so can the good ideas that practitioners come up with to cope with these challenges; therefore, the event aimed to connect and showcase varied voices from across the world. Indeed, GDI’s first case study competition aimed to showcase these diverse voices, with the five winning cases bringing to light fascinating insights on work in contexts as diverse as Myanmar, Colombia, Pakistan, and Haiti, in sectors ranging from emergency reconstruction to education to health care. 

This conference represents part of GDI’s ongoing engagement with themes of fragility and conflict, focusing on the delivery challenges that occur when working in these difficult environments. As such, we ourselves have learned a lot from our colleagues at the conference.

Here are three lessons that stuck with us.  

From Learning with Patience to Adapting Under Pressure

When facing the kind of difficulties that are prevalent in many fragile environments, space and time to adapt can be crucial. There may be new actors to meet and understand – unfamiliar contexts to adapt to – and learning to do – all of which takes time. But what do we do when we are also under pressure to deliver results fast?  This can pose its own kind of challenge, and may require unorthodox thinking – from novel arrangements within organizations themselves, to unconventional partnerships with local actors.     

Knowing how little we know is a good thing to know

One thing that was highlighted by a number of panelists was the importance of understanding and acknowledging our own ignorance. Whether we are seeking to improve water systems or implement financial management reforms, the view from the headquarters of an international organization is likely to be obscured by distance. Even from a national capital, it is often impossible to immediately grasp the hyper-local power dynamics and micro-politics at play in, for example, the remote minority areas of Myanmar, or of Afghanistan’s peripheries, or of rural counties of Liberia. And these problems are only compounded when lack of infrastructure, or of ongoing violence, blocks access to some areas, and prevents the collection of even basic demographic data. This means that implementers can be stepping into something they have no idea how to tackle.

This dilemma highlights the importance of respect for local context, of working iteratively, and politically. Technology can help in these situations to remotely gather information. But the first step is acknowledging what we don’t know.

Learning from each other across contexts

As Michael Woolcock noted during his panel remarks, in certain ways, fragile situations echo the famous opening lines of Anna Karenina: every untroubled scene is happily alike, while every unhappy country, province, city, village is unhappily unique. Yet we can still learn from one another’ experiences, and it is critical to do so.  

I'm based in Bogotá, Colombia, and so I was fascinated to hear from a Nepali colleague that her organization has been examining lessons from Colombia’s experience for their applicability to peacebuilding in Nepal. That she ended up speaking on a panel with a participant from Colombia seemed entirely serendipitous, and that the two panelists continued discussing relevant insights from their own cases with audience members based in Iraq and Jordan even more so. But these are the kind of connections that can enable challenge-centered learning even across disparate contexts.   

In another case, some distinguished panelists discussed the importance of specific mechanisms to coordinate donors in conflict and post-conflict situations. This was a problem that they encountered across contexts as dissimilar as Somalia, Afghanistan, and Liberia, and which had, if not identical solutions, similar approaches to combat the common challenge of miscommunication and fractured coordination.

And that’s without even mentioning the delivery lab sessions that were held on the sidelines to enable practitioners facing difficult challenges to get input, ideas, and actionable suggestions from a diverse set of peers.

This reminds us that while we face difficult challenges implementing in fragile and conflict-affected situations, insight and inspiration on how to tackle these challenges can spring from varied and surprising sources.   

Looking ahead

Moving forward, GDI will continue to support practitioners as they engage with delivery challenges in fragile, conflict-affected, and transitional contexts. It is vital that the development community overcome the often particularly thorny challenges in these areas, where the needs are acute and delivery is difficult. We want to hear from you – if you are working in a fragile environment, or in a conflict situation, what’s the biggest challenge you face? And what are the approaches that might help overcome it?