Rethinking joint action on stabilisation and peacebuilding

Andrea Malouf

1 May 2016


As the Syrian conflict enters its sixth year, support in the form of a spectrum of stabilisation activities (including peacebuilding, rapid response, reconstruction, civil society, security sector reform, strategic communications and governance) continues to be provided to the Syrian opposition. Stabilisation support aims to fulfil a political objective but even with the hundreds of millions spent to date, stabilisation activities consistently fail to contribute to policy objectives, and often fail at the more modest programmatic outcome level. Why?

At its core, failure results from structural deficiencies in the way that stabilisation support is currently being delivered. Projects are compounded in complexity when involving multiple donors and implementers; departments of state apply inconsistent incentivisation systems; and all involved adopt the language of strategy more often than its practice and operate in an information vacuum. With the cost of failure rather higher than pure cost of projects (contributing, in the worst case, to the erosion of certain states’ abilities to project hard and soft power in the MENA region and, increasingly, in parts of Europe), recognising deficiencies in the stabilisation system is the first of many steps necessary to improve it.

  1. Management of outsourced implementation: A shrinking public sector across Western governments over the past three decades has resulted in greater outsourcing of project implementation to NGO and private-sector implementers. While this has increased project agility, facilitated the involvement of relevant experts and decreased risk to donors, the process has not been met with a commensurate increase in government capacity to manage projects. Often, donor mistrust of implementers can result in attempts to overcorrect by ‘policing’ implementers rather than assessing the project’s effectiveness against a policy objective. This is compounded by short rotations for personnel in high-risk locations and limited in-government capacity and/or expertise on regional, subject matter and management issues.Larger more complicated projects often involve multiple implementers with different corporate cultures and commercial interests, resulting in effects that may appear banal but affect implementation on a practical level, such as different working days applied to members of the same team. On this practical level, implementers who often compete are hesitant to share and pool the wealth of information and research they have accumulated particularly when handing over projects to a competitor. Poor information flows between implementers, and between donor-implementer can hinder the ability of individual projects to coherently connect into a broader foreign policy or military objective.
  1. Joint-action, varied interests: Donors often share political risk by co-funding larger high-risk projects. Despite being aligned on the broad policy principles in hand, donors come to projects with their varied risk appetites and ‘red lines’, and therefore push implementers in different directions. Theories of change—at times flawed instruments of uncertain scientific value—become less clear when, donor after next, ‘tweak’ language to align with their foreign policy. Lack of clarity at this level translates into incoherent project implementation on higher value projects, slows decision making on critical matters, and makes projects less responsive to rapidly evolving conflict dynamics.
  1. Commitment bias and measuring success: The basic instinct to commit to a decision made under a different circumstance results in legacy projects which often duplicate efforts and lack results. Donors and implementers attempt to mitigate the risk of duplication through their coordination meetings, but these lack practical on-the-ground effect.Critically, in the context of great uncertainty, civil servants can find themselves grasping to find measurable and controllable activities as a natural reaction to those factors beyond their control and therefore give greater weight to actions than results. Within governments, varied corporate cultures and objectives across departments means that success is measured against different indicators. The audit-lite approach adopted by certain departments of state (to good effect in certain contexts) becomes less appropriate in fast-paced stabilisation projects. Assessing projects on their inputs (X number of resource delivered) and outputs (more Y in area or person X) can create the appearance of success where a project fails to deliver against a policy objective.While donors measure projects at input and output level, very little attention is being paid to whether these resources have the desired effect (short-, mid- and long-term) or, more pertinently, the effect of these resources on conflict dynamics.
  1. Implementing blind: Finally, this author has observed instances where successful project implementation is more often due to accident than it is to design, and results from those micro-political dynamics over which observers have little visibility and can rarely grasp. With donors focused on projects that are heavily ‘action’ based, research is seldom perceived to be a worthy exercise in its own right, meaning that much of the implementation is taking place in the context of vast information gaps, exacerbating risk of policy failure.

These factors, often coupled with unclear policy direction from the capitals, sometimes varied civil and military objectives, and short funding cycles result in an ad hoc approach to stabilisation.

With the Syrian conflict slowly changing shape, stabilisation projects currently being implemented will need to be reassessed for relevance. Successful implementation of any future projects (in other words, the project’s ability to achieve its political objectives) requires donors and implementers to jointly address some of these structural obstacles and change their working relationships. Critically, both need to mature their understanding of the micro-political dynamics that bear so heavily on projects so that they might start to explore how they can shape and influence dynamics on the ground: this, after all, is the ultimate objective of stabilisation activities.


About the Author

Andrea Malouf

Andrea Malouf provides strategic analysis and planning support to public- and private-sector clients working with Aktis Strategy, a development consultancy.

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