Civilians bear the brunt of the violence between the Congolese army and one or more of the 30 armed groups in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. How do development organizations deal with crises in countries where conflict is a constant threat? Photo by: Frederic Bonamy / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

You’re working on a development project in a given country, and suddenly conflict breaks out in the form of a coup, ethnic strife or a natural disaster. How should you react, and how should you prepare to deal with crises in countries where conflict is a constant threat?

Some development organizations withdraw their staff and suspend their programs at the slightest hint their operations may be in danger, while other aid groups prefer to wait and see how the situation plays out. In political crises, it’s up to the donor if the money for the project comes from official development assistance, said Todd Moss, chief operating officer and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

“The U.S. government must legally withdraw all assistance to a government after a coup, but they are allowed to make humanitarian exceptions,” he told Devex. “The same general principle should apply to NGOs and other development organizations. Juntas won't care about the effects on ordinary people, so I don't think aid organizations should expect a withdrawal would have any influence.”

However, Moss pointed out, in such cases aid groups “must make a judgement call [about] whether their continued work should continue, or if it might somehow bolster” those who usurped democracy by seizing power.

A coup, though, is just one type of crisis development organizations may encounter in conflict-affected countries. And while there is no one-size-fits-all approach and every case is different, Devex learned a few tips on how to deal with these situations from organizations working on the ground in conflict-affected states in South America, Africa and Asia.

Stay flexible, act fast

Conflict constantly threatens hard-fought development gains in countries like Mali, considered one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most stable democracies until 2012, when a Tuareg rebellion in the north and a subsequent coup plunged the nation into a deep crisis.

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives launched in early 2013 an ambitious program to help the nation get back on its feet. In just two and a half years and with OTI’s support, Mali was able to hold fair and free elections twice and sign a peace agreement between the government and the rebels last June. This was no easy feat and just one step toward national reconciliation, according to Joel Hirst, head of USAID/OTI in Bamako, who explained that the most difficult challenge was figuring out how to prevent “spoilers” from derailing the process.

“Every conflict has people who will not benefit from peace and stability,” he told Devex. “[Success is] about how to outmaneuver and outweigh the spoilers […] and also how to hit the right tone to demonstrate that there is a desire for war to be over, despite people keen on keeping the war going.”

During the transition period, Hirst noted that OTI has learned two valuable lessons in Mali. First, stay flexible and avoid long processes that involve locking in large amounts of funds into specific deliverables so you can adapt to changing circumstances and possible crises. Second, act fast, especially when it comes to approving requests for proposals and releasing funds so disruptions are truly temporary and projects are soon up and running again.

OTI’s model is “doing the right thing at the right time, and being able to morph with the situation.” In crisis programming, Hirst said this means sitting down with all stakeholders, coming to an understanding of what needs to be done, and trying certain things to see if they work out. If they don’t, “it’s ok because we haven’t invested too much time or too much money, so we can try something else.”

Conflict in Context: A monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Mercy Corps, OSCE and USAID.

Don't pull out immediately

Myanmar started emerging from over half a century of military rule in 2010, and although five years later the country is slowly moving toward its first general election since 1990, ethnic minority regions and Rakhine State in particular are still plagued by conflict.

The Asia Foundation decided to not go into Rakhine early on because the organization thought the risk was too high for the little development impact they could achieve, said Patrick Barron, regional director for conflict and development based in Bangkok.

On the other hand, the organization did work on research on governance and education-related issues, where “we thought that helping to shape discourse and debate on these things would be more helpful to the peace process in the longer run than doing local peacebuilding work on the ground,” he told Devex.

“You’re not going to have much impact with a six-month program,” Barron explained. “Working in these areas requires good local networks and trust — that comes with long-term engagement [and] is an argument against pulling out all the time due to security conditions.”

The Asia Foundation’s experience in Myanmar also demonstrates, according to Barron, that often greater impact can be achieved by working indirectly on conflict and peace issues than doing direct peacebuilding. That means working on providing information and opportunities for exchange, on key issues that will shape the likelihood of an end to conflict.

“It’s more effective to support building up local institutions, helping forge deals that allow for bigger political and economic gain,” he said, calling for more “bigger picture thinking” to understand what drives conflicts, instead of trying to fix them one at a time at the local level.

Build trust

Conflict doesn’t always erupt in a spectacular way like war, but often lingers in communities mired in long-term violence such as those in rural Colombia, where the Chemonics-led Consolidation and Enhanced Livelihood Initiative is implementing USAID grant projects in 16 municipalities to support the national government’s efforts to wrest control of territories away from FARC and other armed groups.

Conflict in these towns has been a part of everyday life for over half a century, and its roots — poverty, land, drugs — are different in each municipality, where families and neighbors live in suspicion of each other, and may feel more loyal to illegal forces than a government that traditionally has had little presence there.

“We are working in areas that have lived under oppression for over 50 years, so the element of trust is simply not there,” CELI Chief of Party Marcos Moreno told Devex.

To build trust, CELI’s project design applies a completely decentralized approach to implementation, with semi-autonomous regional offices and communities empowered to decide whether they want to build a bridge, a school, or a water tank based on their needs. That freedom not only allows communities to “own” the projects, but also lets staff and local partners react to adversities and conflict the way they see fit, without seeking approval from headquarters. Trust is gained when the community sees tangible results from a project that members of the community have implemented themselves.

Another reason to build trust with communities, Moreno added, is so they will be the first to alert you, for instance, that FARC is burning tracks along a stretch of road one of your convoys is planning to travel through. This is crucial for doing development work under the constant threat of extortion, kidnapping or even death.

Tragedy can almost always be avoided without having to suspend work if you listen to warnings from community leaders, and keep in mind that 99 percent of the time you are not the actual target of violence.

“We’ve learned to be very careful, security is top priority, but when you work under these conditions, there is no such thing as monitoring when conflict erupts because we’re dealing with those issues on a daily basis,” Moreno said. “Sometimes we need to re-evaluate how we implement, but it rarely stops projects.”

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.

About the author

  • Carlos Santamaria

    Carlos Santamaria is a multimedia journalist and editor based in Manila. A former Devex associate editor, he has over a decade of experience working for international media outlets such as Reuters, Associated Press, Xinhua and EFE in Spain, China, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States, and has covered major crisis situations on the ground in Myanmar and Japan. Carlos is currently an editorial and communications consultant with the Asian Development Bank.