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Remote partnership: aid delivery in insecure environments

The increasingly complex nature of armed conflict has demanded international aid agencies rethink how they provide humanitarian assistance to affected communities. Aid worker casualties have tripled since 2002, reaching over 100 deaths a year. The worst year on record was 2013 with 474 aid workers injured or killed by major attacks. In 2014, there were fewer incidents overall, 190 incidents involving 328 victims, but this reflects a reduced or reconfigured operational presence for international agencies in some settings including, South Sudan and Syria, rather than more secure settings. (AWSD, 2015)

For more than a decade, remote partnership has become one of the principle strategies of international agencies who feel no longer able to operate effectively within the conflict context, transferring risk and responsibility to local staff and local NGO partners. Chapter 5 explores the history and current practice of remote management, with a focus on the role and experience of local partner NGOs. It reviews the key issues of locally negotiated access, humanitarian principles, the ethics of risk transfer and the challenges in remote coordination and monitoring.

Approaches to remote management vary from agency to agency, but generally there has been increasing acceptance that remote management in some contexts is no longer a last resort and is instead a new norm, or at least a standard option among possible modes of operation.

As humanitarian agencies have become increasingly engaged in conflict contexts, they have consequently faced a range of threats, including collateral violence, direct hostility from armed groups, and violence from criminal actions. NGOs have needed to adapt their operations to keep staff safe, employing a range of tactics including:

  • Cross-border or ‘long-arm’ programming
  • Low visibility within the conflict environment
  • Increasing the reliance on national staff, local agencies and private contractors
  • Partnership arrangements with local authorities

Many international agencies are wary of remote management. The challenges and considerations are of course similar in nature to those posed in more secure settings, and compounded by a lack of direct international oversight and unpredictable terrain.

The lack of international NGO presence in country can be a disincentive to donors who need specific accountability for funding and programming. In fact, studies have shown that managing projects remotely means reducing control and oversight, increasing the risk of aid diversion and reducing project quality. This has a very tangible impact on donor confidence. For instance, the EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection division (ECHO) made explicit in 2013 that it will not fund programming using remote management, except in exceptional circumstances. This position is adopted not only because of the risks inherent to remote management outlined above, but also because ECHO is a “field-based donor” valuing “direct exposure to operational realities.”

Nevertheless, the UN Refugee Agency has called for an adjustment of donor expectations of upward accountability to facilitate response to intense humanitarian need. Policy and guidance on good practice is beginning to emerge, with particular focus on the following:

Preparedness—to position local actors and partners for success, international agencies must prepare national staff and local partners before transferring reliance and responsibility, assessing and supporting partner capacity. 

Localizing the response—highly localized, static and experienced local staff or partners are able to build long-term relationships in communities, helping to maintain access. Staff with a presence prior to the arrival of the armed group, and staff who are accustomed to working remotely are better positioned to negotiate access on behalf of the organization.

Programme adaptation—size, scale and sector should guide remotely managed programmes. In general, agencies find it makes sense to reconsider more complex programming, seeking simpler, smaller-scale options. 

Negotiated access

Chapter 5 looks at the assumptions made about local partners and their ability to maintain, or perhaps even expand, their international partners’ programmes. This can often be a tall order for local actors operating in fraught contexts. The research that does exist suggests access sought by local actors is highly relational, dependant on local networks and reputations, and can also be arbitrary and wielded by armed groups as a form of power. Research has in fact found that the complex nature of access can increase mistrust between local NGOs and their international partners because of discrepancies in principles, perceived or otherwise, or an inability to understand the reality of negotiating access within the crisis context.

The ethics of risk transfer

There is also a degree of tension between the emphases placed on different types of risk. Donor governments focus more on systems and tools for reducing fiduciary risk, whereas agencies focus their attention on security risk management. However, neither set of approaches to these aspects of risk management is designed with local partners in mind. A particularly salient point when we consider that approximately 90 per cent of those injured or killed are national staff of international or local organizations. Many international agencies admit that they are only just beginning to think about their own responsibilities in this area.

Coordinating and monitoring remote partners

Despite improved coordination mechanisms for crises response, including the cluster approach, an adequate system has not been adapted for remotely managed programmes and the coordination of local partners. Monitoring remotely managed projects is even more challenging. This is partly due to difficulties in collecting the right level and quality of information to guide programming decisions, and partly because it involves overcoming the same security and access constraints that triggered the shift to remote management. Despite this, progress has been made by narrowing monitoring requirements to a smaller set of indicators, and/or widening the collection and analysis of feedback from affected communities, contractors, and the project team.

While Chapter 5 documents examples of good practice, the need for further review and evaluation of lessons in the field is critical to refining remote management practices. Continued analysis will support improved capacity development and partnership with local actors, and provide evidence for international guidance and frameworks to facilitate better coordination in country, and donor confidence. Broad dialogue, decision-making and action are needed to revise how the international system supports local partners, with realistic consideration of which programmes, partners and accountability requirements are best suited for each high-risk environment.

The role of donors in remote management in Somalia: eyes wide shut

International actors are concerned that despite channelling aid to Somalia for many years they have little understanding about the risks involved in operating in an insecure environment, and the impact of their assistance. As a result, a buzz is emerging within the donor community about the need for remote monitoring, data collection and accountability.

Donor governments are piloting remote-monitoring mechanisms using digital technologies and third-party actors. But this has been slanted towards technical considerations; less energy has been dedicated to understanding the politics and local implications.

In Somaliland, information from third-party monitoring has helped implementing agencies identify human rights abuses and contract disputes, enabling them to understand the impact of projects in areas they have left.

Where positive outcomes have been achieved, the key has seemed to be clear communication between the donor, international and/or local partners, and the third-party monitor.

It can also have negative impacts. Violence around contractual issues in Somalia is common and it is important to consider local dynamics before the initiating external monitoring in which international actors transfer power to another group.

In Puntland conflict arose between local actors where an organization was hired to conduct third-party monitoring of other local agencies that they also compete with for funding.

There is also an uncomfortable tension between a desire for more accountability and the fear of exposure and punitive measures. Local aid agencies (and their international partners) fear losing funding if they highlight poor practice, while donor staff are concerned with the political backlash. Policy guidance on appropriate action is scarce. 

The information generated can be a useful tool to develop stronger partnerships between international and local actors and improve practice to ensure communities are receiving the assistance they need, but this often takes a back seat to concerns about financial risk and institutional reputations.

The issue at the heart of the debate in Somalia is the paradox between knowledge informing practice and practice informing knowledge. The difficulty of access should strengthen local partnerships and the increased data and focus on accountability should improve aid effectiveness.

The primacy on mitigating institutional risk, however, suggests apathy among donors and a lack of confidence that better knowledge will improve practice – perhaps in part because of the complexity of the environment or resistance to change.

The priority is on rolling out mechanisms that increase accountability, but which may fail to address power politics and humanitarian obligations that new knowledge brings, or harness it as a tool to strengthen local partnerships.

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World Disasters Report - Chapter 5