Stephen Lennon, Director of Palladium’s Conflict, Stabilisation & Transition team, shares his advice earned over 25 years working in nearly every country experiencing a political crisis.
From active war zones and counterinsurgency contexts, to intractable urban violence and countries experiencing rising tensions or making reform progress toward positive peace, one thing remains constant in stabilisation environments: change.
Unlike traditional development work (where an often-complicated situational mosaic can be pieced together that tells a familiar, linear story), stabilisation environments are more like viewing your surroundings through a kaleidoscope. Situations are ever-changing, in pace and progress, and the evolution depends on each preceding event. It’s hard to find direction when direction is needed most, and actions inevitably help turn the swirl of events.
According to the U.S. interagency Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR), which captured lessons learned from previous stabilisation contexts, “the concept of stabilisation remains ill-defined and poorly institution¬alized across government and multilateral structures.”
My colleague, Sinéad Magill, cogently extended the SAR’s lessons on stabilisation in an article earlier this year, which also denoted the sentiment of an ill-defined concept of stabilisation. Here, I attempt to add to her analysis by reflecting on what can be done to further stabilisation efforts on the ground.
How does one learn quickly in such rapidly evolving settings? How does one know what to do, and how to get it done? The key is, as Magill states, to adapt. Here are five practices to apply adaptive approaches to stabilisation situations.
1. Have Strategic Patience
Stabilisation interventions often occur in high-profile circumstances where the stakes are high and local communities, policy makers – and funders – want positive results quickly. Such timeframes are unrealistic. Working in conflict settings that may have been brewing for decades or longer are excruciatingly complex, and solutions do not advance as fast as anybody wants.
Most importantly, the communities themselves want a return to normalcy quickly, and donor nations’ appropriation and/or election cycles can impede the durable resolution of conflict. It is best to learn from everything you do to educate policy makers not to anticipate fast success. This is not to say, “do nothing”, but rather do as much as possible while understanding that results take time.
2. Be Catalytic
On the other hand, where possible we should deliver quick solutions using sound development practices, but always with a focus on how any particular activity can produce follow-on local shifts toward more durable stabilisation and positive peace. Small, short-term plans and activities aimed to change local attitudes and perceptions toward increasing stabilisation often work best, especially when implementers listen to local communities, and consistently adapt to feedback.
In Kosovo, just after the war in 1999, the stabilisation program I worked on invested small amounts of funding into capacity building activities for nascent civil society ideas born from the grassroots. Subsequently, some went on to create, and then demand participation by national politicians, in the first televised political debates in Kosovo’s history. The catalytic result of invigorating nascent civil society evolved into something quite significant for Kosovo’s stabilisation.
3. Go Local
Utilising local context for decision-making is the glue that holds together a stabilisation effort, not only for programming, but for developing additional local partners and providing credible information up to policy makers. A rigorous recruitment of local staff is essential, not just at the beginning of programming, but throughout an entire engagement. A conflict-sensitive lens must always be applied to avoid the perception of favoring one group over another, but by maintaining inclusivity, this can be mitigated.
The key is using locally gained knowledge to drive program decision-making. Decisions should be informed from the bottom up, not the top down, and stabilisation activities co-created with local communities work best. This also includes working with local government entities. Some form of pre-existing local government or power structures can usually become viable partners. Finding them and learning about and from them is markedly preferable to attempting to cut and paste any semblance of a national-level government presence into a local place.
4. Tailor your Approach
Each local context is different. What has worked in one area may not work in the next. In coordination with local leaders in the western mountains of Pakistan, I found that in one destabilised market town, the provision of a generator to restore water pumps created an opening for further interventions, whereas in the next area, a week-long cricket tournament allowed for side discussion between clan elders to help calm down a volatile situation.
Stabilisation programs must have a built-in comfort level when it comes to accepting change, and the unexpected should always be expected. Indeed, this is a bedrock condition for being able to stabilise an area. Overarching plans made in advance from Brisbane, London or Washington cannot duplicate the granularity of on-the-ground knowledge, which provides the ability to pivot with agility when necessary.
5. Create a Sense of Urgency in Management
Responding to unexpected windows of opportunity found in the field requires that internal systems are designed to rapidly make decisions. This means staffing, financial, procurement, legal, and other essential management systems should be based, whenever possible, in the field with programmatic teams. Systems that cannot be field based require response and approval mechanisms to be ready. Most decisions requiring a headquarters’ decision should take hours, and none exceed a couple of days as events on the ground will not wait.
Each of these practices demonstrate adaptive techniques intended to evolve through use to become ever-more fitting for individual stabilisation conditions. Each stabilisation milieu is unique, but these practices can stretch into any situation. Although the majority of stabilisation activities may look like longer-term development programs, it is these and other adaptive, practical approaches that set them apart.