Helping our partners to stay safe?

Yoma Winder Fragile contexts

Yoma Winder reflects on our recent report with International Alert on working with partners in conflict contexts. The report was launched at a panel event at LSE on October 31. 

When Oxfam asked for partners’ feedback via the Keystone Accountability’s Partner Survey we were told many things very firmly. Of particular concern for Oxfam was that we had a lower than average score for protecting our partners from threats. We were horrified. And we wanted to know more – under what circumstances? What sort of threats? With what consequences?

Our new report, Partnerships in Conflict, has come out of a piece of research commissioned by Oxfam and International Alert. The research examined the way civil society organisations (CSOs) have been affected by conflict in Myanmar, DRC and Afghanistan, including the influence of international organisations operating there. The Partnerships in Conflict report highlights many of the nuances around risks faced by CSOs, and the potential for funders and INGOs to provide support to mitigate these risks.

Funders and INGOs are often criticised for ‘transferring risks’ to CSOs which is, I think, really unhelpful. ‘Transferring the risk’ implies that the risk was ‘ours’ in the first place.  I have a few problems with this, chief amongst them the concept of the risk (or indeed the project/programme) being ‘ours’ in the first place.  Working out what the risks are, and whose they are, are the first important steps in the responsible management of risk. 

‘Transferring the risk’ implies that the risk was ‘ours’ in the first place. 

Increased violence brings increased potential risks

This might sound obvious. But it is clearly something that CSOs tell us we are not paying enough attention to. The research shows that we, and sometimes they (CSOs), do not systematically put enough effort into understanding the complex environments in which increased violence is prevalent. In addition, in conflict situations existing structures of law and order tend to break down, leaving individuals and civil society with little or no protection at a time of heightened risk.

Aid is a conflict commodity

Provision of basic services is a great pathway to legitimacy and power; international assistance becomes a conflict commodity. When CSOs provide services in the place of governing bodies they can become targets for violence. There are two reasons for this:

  1. They have resources. Everyone wants resources, and some people have the means (weapons) to relieve CSOs of those resources.
  2. They are providing services. This means conferring on themselves some legitimacy at the cost of the legitimacy of others.

Governing authorities in these situations could be anybody – ‘legitimate’ or otherwise, armed or otherwise. Challenging, even implicitly by doing the providing, the fact that authorities are not in a position to deliver potentially makes a CSO even more of a target. So, having resources, using those resources to ‘curry favour’ (even if you’re not!) and pointing out authority ‘weaknesses’ are all really dangerous things to do.

Being co-opted by donors

Increased violent conflict often temps CSOs to change their focus and approach, and sometimes this is the right thing to do. But risk can be caused to CSOs that are led by funders to change their approach in ways that distance or alienate them from the communities they have traditionally served. Doing what the funder wants instead of what your community needs leads to a decrease in CSO legitimacy and therefore an increase in the risks they can be vulnerable to.

Not investing in the right sort of capacity building

Disclaimer – thanks to fabulous panel and audience discussions at the panel launch for Partnerships in Conflict I am using the term ‘capacity building’ with some trepidation.  It is increasingly clear that ‘capacity exchange’ or ‘investing in sustainability’ is the concept we want to be heading towards, and that words matter. Thanks to the panel and various audience members.

Partnerships in Conflict highlights the fact that much of the capacity building support INGOs provide increases CSO capacity to do things which INGOs and our donors feel are a high priority, such as financial management and report writing. However, what is expressly and manifestly necessary for them in violent and risky contexts is training and support on how to work safely in their polarised environments – this is something that funders and INGOs can and should provide.

Greater investment in the analysis of violent conflicts will lead to a better understanding of the risks.
Greater investment in the analysis of violent conflicts will lead to a better understanding of the risks. It should be the responsibility of INGOs and funders to support CSOs to manage those risks. Specific needs should be discussed and agreed with CSOs themselves but might include: security training, appropriate data protection (to protect data and those who hold it), discussion and agreement on acceptable degrees of risk, and support for decision-making on this, as well as clarity on the degree of support funders will provide to family members of partner staff working in areas of violent conflict.

Chronic underfunding

Working effectively with local partners in conflict settings is expensive. The World Bank estimates project overheads are three times higher in fragile and conflict-affected situations than elsewhere. The Partners in Conflict report highlights many instances where CSOs felt strongly that there is a reluctance to fund adequate safety equipment – reliable vehicles, functional radios/phones etc. Transferring risk should not be about ‘shoestring’ budgets, it should be about providing resources so that the best and safest job can be done.

In summary

If a CSO is more likely to do a good job in a violent context than an INGO, as long as the CSO is comfortable taking on the responsibility for the work then that is what should happen. And vice versa. What is wrong is to transfer risk without adequate analysis of the risk, and without adequate agreement and resources about what it will take to mitigate identified risks.

Funders and INGOs ought to be carrying out adequate joint analysis. They should provide the capacity reinforcement and support to mitigate jointly identified risks adequately, and help provide the knowledge and equipment that can keep partners’ staff and resources safe.


Yoma Winder