Sinead Magill | Palladium - Apr 24 2020
What it Takes to Stabilise Countries in Conflict

Shopowner in Altun Kupri, Iraq.
Photo Credit: Levi Clancy

Adaptability is key to all development work, but none more so than in states destabilised by conflict (such as war and unrest). Palladium Managing Partner Sinead Magill describes the dynamics in these unique situations, drawing on Palladium’s experience in the design, implementation, and monitoring of stabilisation programs.

“The nature of conflict has changed” according to the United Nations. What was once thought of as “peacekeeping” has grown increasingly complex, requiring a combination of humanitarian, security, and development support for states to navigate and recover. Over the past two decades, governments and international donors have increased the assistance they provide to states affected by conflict.

Where the situation is fragile, some require technical support, such as Sudan, Pakistan, and Palestine. Others call for large-scale civilian operations, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Complex tasks include building (or rebuilding) sustainable institutions of governance, human rights monitoring, security sector reform, reintegrating former combatants, improving economic stability, and more.

But the same is true in all cases: very little is predictable and very little is solid.

Stabilisation is like working on shifting sands; conflict dynamics are continuously changing. The areas in which you can operate are shrinking and expanding. Counterparts fall in and out of power with more frequency than any other context. Whilst this occurs in most development programs, the pace of change and the issues at stake make stabilisation unique.

Conventional approaches assume that too much can be understood during the planning phase, and overestimate the ability to determine cause-and-effect on the ground. “No battle was ever won according to plan, but no battle was ever won without one,” said the oft-quoted Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The key is adapting to new information, with real-time assessments that inform and reshape programs on an ongoing basis. Rather than setting plans in stone according to rigidly defined outcomes, approaches are evolutionary. Plans are guided by the desired end-state and outcomes are defined within acceptable boundaries.

There are five key principles to adopting this approach.


Interventions that ignore local socio-political or conflict dynamics have little chance of succeeding, and ill-informed interventions can exacerbate conflicts. Sound analysis that gets to the heart of the drivers of conflict is pivotal to stabilisation success. This means stakeholder mapping to understand motivations and incentives, and to identify potential champions and spoilers of your goals, together with political, conflict, and social network analysis to measure and assess change.


Stabilisation interventions can actually be the source of conflict if they favour one group of people over another, rather than bringing communities together. Approaches need to be inclusive; they should build on extensive stakeholder engagement to create a collective sense of ownership and consensus on recommended changes, and find ways for community groups from across the spectrum of the conflict to work together on issues for which there is collective support.


Building partnerships with government (local and national), non-state actors, civil society, women’s groups, the marginalised, and the media is at the heart of work in fragile and conflict affected states. This ensures program sustainability, maximises reach and impact, and prevents capture by specific interest groups. Sustainability depends on meaningful stakeholder partnerships during the implementation phase, as well as wider management of multiple stakeholders at the local, national, and international levels. In many instances, interventions are only sustainable if a combination of national and international actors maintain partnerships for long periods. Stakeholder engagement must be a core part of design and implementation.


The scarcity of data and challenges of monitoring impact in stabilisation contexts have often been used as excuses for lax approaches to measuring results. But the costs of stabilisation interventions and the risks involved are too high not to take impact measurement seriously. Rigorous logic design, dynamic real-time monitoring, and formative evaluation frameworks must be embedded in program design and through the program life cycle.

Done well, this approach can help implementers determine “what works”, react rapidly to new evidence, and communicate results convincingly.


Underlying all of this is the team selected select to implement the program. The mindset and approaches used in stabilisation require team members who are comfortable with uncertainty, and in some cases chaos! Success demands team members who are not easily put off by obstacles but are spurred on by the challenge of finding new ways of doing things; team members with both the technical and the emotional intelligence to understand their counterparts, their incentives, and their drivers.

There are fewer conflicts across the globe today than in the past, but they are increasingly complex and rooted more deeply. Stabilisation work is responsive, adaptive, and results-focused, but it’s also about prevention and resilience. Implementers need to focus on identifying the triggers for conflict, anticipating instability, and promoting investment in upstream prevention to build strong, legitimate and resilient, institutions.

Palladium delivers stabilisation services worldwide for the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Stabilisation Unit, and has served as the preferred supplier of emergency response and logistics for the Australian Government since 1987. Palladium is also an implementing partner of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Office of Transition Initiatives, stabilising countries undergoing transition or emerging from crisis.

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