Organizations operating in conflict settings not only need to ensure the community feels the impact of their work but also keep staff safe in the process. And awareness is key to achieving both, Eric Reading, executive vice president at Chemonics, shares in this #ConflictInContext interview.

Working in a conflict environment involves all the challenges of global development with additional layers of complexity. These complexities arise from shifting priorities, a nascent or broken legal environment, and even threats of violence against staff and beneficiaries. Despite such challenges, the development community has found ways to support the transition out of conflict.

One key element of success is establishing trust among stakeholders, whether they are beneficiaries, governance structures, donors or implementers. Not only does trust lay the foundation for a tighter network of collaboration and mutual understanding, it also provides needed stability in a conflict zone, which can lead to more lasting change for local populations. What are some of the best ways to establish trust in these uncertain environments?

1. Communicate clearly and openly.

Without regular communication, it is impossible for stakeholders to recognize one another’s constraints and priorities. Based on their experience in crisis environments, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives has coined the phrase “One Team Approach” for this kind of open dialogue. This approach requires communicating about small problems long before they become big issues — not necessarily instinctive behavior. Communication is the best first step toward building trust, but only if it is clear, open and frequent.

2. Build relationships incrementally.

Development programs often rely on deeply rooted relationships that simply don’t exist in conflict zones. For example, an international implementer may have worked with a local partner for years, or a donor may intimately know the strengths and weaknesses of a government agency. However, in a transition environment partners are almost always rapidly changing. Perhaps a new government is in place, or a surge of funding has overwhelmed the capacity of existing partners. Stakeholders can build a lot of trust quickly by borrowing the principles of rapid iteration from innovation theory: If groups can complete several small, short-term activities well, they begin building a body of trust to collaborate on increasingly significant activities. This approach requires managing many small activities simultaneously and having the courage to fail quickly at some while succeeding at others. But the benefits are worth the risk.

Remote management is key to keeping aid workers safe in conflict areas  

Remote management of development projects has its naysayers, but Chemonics' Christina Schultz argues that remotely managed projects are sometimes the only way to keep staff safe.

3. Minimize stress on teams.

People in crisis environments are often under extreme fatigue or repeatedly exposed to violence and do not respond well to stress. Small disagreements erupt into arguments, and trust is undermined. With that in mind, keep enough staff on hand so that everyone gets adequate rest — especially local national staff who are exposed to stresses both at work and at home. Also, provide teams with access to counseling resources through a wellness program, such as those developed by Konterra, and reduce the barriers to and stigma of using these resources. Finally, recognize when staff have been in a conflict environment too long and it is time to rotate to a less stressful post.

4. Don’t let security undermine trust.

Security concerns in crisis environments are real, and it is critical to keep aid workers safe. Unfortunately, metal detectors, guards and other traditional tools drive real, physical wedges between aid workers and the communities they serve. It is a problem that Séverine Autesserre of Columbia University explores in her book, “Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention.” Autesserre recommends minimizing physical and social barriers between aid workers and communities and maximizing how local employees are involved. One strategy is remote management, where implementers employ entirely local staff to provide real-time information in-country, while carrying out rigorous monitoring and oversight from a neighboring country. With strong systems to facilitate this collaboration, a visible foreign presence is eliminated while preserving trust with local populations.  

5. Be efficient and effective.

Nothing is more frustrating than bureaucracy in the face of a crisis. Humanitarians are often scrambling to serve those affected, yet donors expect accountability and sound monitoring and evaluation systems. Many times as a crisis unfolds, organizations must roll out services before they can build the necessary management systems. On the other hand, an overly intrusive process only slows things down, frustrating everyone involved. Periodic management reviews of systems and processes by someone outside the program can keep these services agile, efficient and effective. Being fast and accountable with resources will go a long way in building trust between donors, implementing partners and local communities.

When working in a country experiencing conflict, political and social variables beyond anyone’s control can complicate development work. But when trust exists among stakeholders, it translates into more strategic and mutually beneficial decisions — which can provide the stability needed to make a lasting difference for local communities.

Conflict in Context is a monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Mercy Corps, OSCE and USAID. We’ll decode the challenges and highlight the opportunities countries face while in crisis and what the development community is doing to respond. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #ConflictinContext.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Eric Reading

    Eric Reading started working for Chemonics in 1994. He currently serves as executive vice president. Previously, he was senior vice president of two different divisions overseeing activities with Afghanistan, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen and Jordan. He also worked in Kosovo and Egypt as chief of party and technical adviser for institutional strengthening programs.