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Camels in Djibouti Camels in Djibouti Photo credit: Dominic Naish

Not a priority: the lack of contextual understanding in humanitarian missions

by Dominic Naish
4 May 2021

Humanitarian agencies worldwide increasingly recognise that the ‘doing’ part of their work must be supplemented by a ‘thinking’ part. The ‘new way of working’, the nexus approach and the rise in prominence of conflict sensitivity are all outworkings of an appreciation that humanitarian contexts require thought as well as action. The challenge for the humanitarian sector is how to keep thinking – through research, analysis and reflection – when at the coalface of delivering assistance. In my experience, humanitarian NGOs are mostly failing the challenge.

I worked as a researcher and analyst in the humanitarian world for five years, doing six missions with three different organisations. In all but one of my missions, I left feeling my work had been wasted. More than this, I left with the conviction that the humanitarian sector’s raison d’être is to implement projects, and it will pursue this regardless of how much or little it understands the contexts it works in, or the ripple effects of its interventions.

Unintended consequences

Here are two very brief examples.

In a rural location in the Horn of Africa in 2018, I came across a well-known international humanitarian NGO working with communities suffering from poverty and occasional violent conflict revolving around the camel trade, the mainstay of the local economy. The NGO undertook a market analysis of the camel trade with informed local stakeholders, and designed its programme based on the findings. Technically, the NGO’s project was sophisticated and effective. The camel traders began to work more cooperatively, reducing livestock theft, improving the health of herds and negotiating collectively with buyers. However, now that the camel trade was effectively centralised, it was easy for the local authority to bring the market under its logistical and fiscal control. The local authority was led by an autocrat who ruled by repression, coercion and arbitrary violence, and his new-found grip on the camel trade only strengthened his power and impunity.

In another example, I undertook a research project on the Ethiopia–Somalia border on refugee cohorts. Towards the end of the research, I discovered that it replicated almost exactly the findings another researcher from the same organisation had published nearly 25 years earlier. The sizeable humanitarian community in the border region, including the UN, apparently had no institutional memory and so had been repeating the same short-term responses in the area for decades. Now, the refugees were reluctant to engage with a new effort to grant them the right to seek jobs. This wasn’t because it was necessarily a bad idea, but because the refugees did not believe that these efforts were grounded in a historical understanding of their circumstances and perspectives.

There are no obvious answers to situations such as these. I’m not arguing that supporting the camel traders or the refugees was wrong. But these examples demonstrate the marginalisation of contextual understanding within the daily reality of humanitarian programming. Had the first NGO undertaken a political economy analysis before embarking on the camel project, it could have recognised the risk of empowering the malign local authority and taken mitigating steps. Had the humanitarian community taken the time to absorb the history of the refugee cohorts criss-crossing the Ethiopia–Somali border, they would have had a completely different perspective on how best to engage with them.

Important but not a priority

In headquarters, in think tanks and at conferences, everyone involved in humanitarian work agrees that contextual sensitivity is important. Many international NGOs now hire conflict analysts, research or advocacy specialists or humanitarian affairs officers to work in country offices.

Throughout my career, I found that this importance was drastically lessened at mission level. There, not only was contextual sensitivity low, but there was little sense that this was an issue. Joining the Libya response, in my first programme team meeting I sheepishly announced that I’d spent my first weeks in post gaining a basic understanding of who was fighting whom in Tripoli and why. ‘You’d be the first one’, responded a protection team leader. Shortly before I finished my mission in Venezuela, senior management called a meeting to announce the opening of a new project to address the health needs of returning migrants near the Colombian border. Trying to make the point that this was clearly a task far beyond the capacity of our organisation, I asked what our exit strategy was. There was silence before the baffled head of mission answered ‘we’re not doing an exit strategy, we’re going to respond’. In Addis Ababa, I met an emergency team leader who had just arrived to do a scoping exercise for a response in Oromia, a region where a huge internal displacement crisis was unfolding. ‘Are you going to Oromia?’ I asked him. ‘What’s Oromia?’ he replied. Interactions like these, demonstrating indifference to contextual sensitivity, were the norm throughout my humanitarian career.

As a researcher in country missions – typically working solo – I was repeatedly in a difficult situation. One manager explained that my work was not high enough on his priority list for him to give it his attention. Another informed me that 99 percent of my role was useless. Another tried hard to make my work meaningful but, lacking institutional support for material that was not sufficiently programmatic, left before the end of my project; as far as I know that year’s worth of research was never used by anyone. Still others simply ignored me for the duration of my contract.

In the later stages of my career, I began to see the underlying constant: humanitarian country missions are not required to understand the contexts they work in. They are required to implement. Understanding is a bonus. From a managers’ point of view, having a staff member whose job was to ask difficult questions about the mission was at best a curiosity, at worst a threat.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In one mission, the senior management team I worked under were committed to contextual understanding, learning from national staff and tailoring their programmes in response to research and analysis. I’m sure this happens throughout the sector – but it’s down to luck and personality, not to sectoral norms, and in my experience is by far the exception.

There are multiple reasons for the typical lack of traction for reflection and understanding at mission level. Many of them are based on deep-seated structural issues which will require years of widespread commitment to change. They range from the cultural (the sector both attracts and creates people who take pride in not sitting around and talking, but rather who move and act decisively) to the societal (the suspicion, sometimes unconscious, of local knowledge as partisan and ultimately untrustworthy) to the industrial (the profound short-termism engendered across the sector by 12-month budget cycles).

Practical changes

My thoughts are not aimed at those macro pathologies, important though they are. Rather, I propose practical measures that can begin to close the gap between contextual thinking and operational doing at mission level. There are two steps, and they should be taken in tandem.

  1. Make contextual sensitivity a fundamental pillar of country operations. International humanitarian NGOs hold country management teams responsible for programmatic objectives, functioning relationships with governments and sound budgets. Contextual sensitivity must be added to these non-negotiable areas.
  2. Invest in contextual sensitivity to ensure credible capacity. Contextual sensitivity in practice means generating evidenced analysis through primary and secondary research, absorbing the ‘thinking work’ done in headquarters and creating meaningful operational and/or advocacy outputs. In any country office, let alone those in countries suffering protracted crises, this is the work of a team. NGOs should have at minimum two researchers per country mission, at least one of whom should be a national staff member.

In practice, research teams should work alongside Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning departments, with an emphasis on learning – institutional, contextualised learning. Framing researchers’ work as learning should help to enact the two points above, and also to de-mystify it for the rest of the staff – far from an arcane practice requiring a PhD, all staff should understand that contributing their contextual knowledge to research efforts is a natural, usually rewarding, aspect of their role, requiring minimal extra effort.

These two measures rely on each other to be effectual. If NGOs make country management care about contextual sensitivity but neglect the capacity to generate it, they are simply setting management up to fail. If they augment their mission-level research capacity to a serious degree but neglect to make country management care about it, it will be wasted. Any international humanitarian NGO that is serious about being effective and accountable for its impact must do both. Stronger contextual sensitivity means more lasting impact from programming, being able to speak more accurately for those who don’t have a fair chance to be heard, and smoother departures from communities when missions come to an end.

Dominic Naish is a Senior Analyst at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. This piece was written in a personal capacity.

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