Market monitoring and trade analysis in Darfur: ‘localisation’ in practice

October 30, 2017
Margie Buchanan-Smith
Livestock market in West Darfur

Between 2010 and 2016 a community-based Market Monitoring and Trade Analysis (MMTA) project in Darfur aimed to fill a critical information gap. Although trade is central to most livelihoods and to the economy of Darfur, there had been little analysis of how conflict since 2003 had disrupted trade and markets, and how they had adapted. Over a seven-year period, through market monitoring and in-depth trade studies, the MMTA project aimed to deepen analysis and understanding of patterns of trade and markets in Darfur for key agricultural and livestock commodities, and thus to inform and influence programming to support livelihoods, and to prepare for the eventual recovery of Darfur’s economy. An HPN article published in 2013 explains why it has been so important to monitor and research trade in Darfur’s protracted conflict environment

The project began as a partnership between the Darfur Development and Reconstruction Agency (DDRA), a national NGO, and the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University. A community-based market monitoring approach was piloted in North Darfur state in 2010/11. The first pilot year was funded by DfID through UNEP’s Sudan Integrated Environment Project (SIEP). Thereafter the monitoring network expanded, state by state. By the end of 2016 the MMTA covered all five Darfur states, with 47 community-based organisations (CBOs) monitoring 73 markets every week. In 2011 SOS Sahel UK International (SOSS) joined the MMTA partnership as the main grant holder with the European Union (EU), supporting DDRA in project management and compliance. Feinstein provided technical advisory support, latterly supported by the DFID-funded BRACED (Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters) programme led by Concern Worldwide in Sudan and Chad.

The MMTA project kept going during a challenging period when many international agencies were expelled or left and national civil society organisations came under close government scrutiny. Key to its success was the partnerships on which it was based, with DDRA, the national NGO, firmly in the centre. At a time when the humanitarian sector is grappling with how to become more ‘localised’, See the Grand Bargain emerging from the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in 2016: this article explains the partnership model underpinning the MMTA, the importance of working through local networks, the project’s approach to capacity development and what can be learned from its successes, and from the challenges it faced.

The partnership model underpinning the MMTA For a fuller description of the MMTA project model, see the MMTA ‘Guide for Practitioners’ (Barrow and Buchanan-Smith, 2017)

The MMTA partnership model built upon the comparative advantage of the different organisations involved. DDRA, a newly operational yet well-networked national NGO, was responsible for establishing and implementing the project, gradually expanding the CBO network on which the MMTA was based and managing the relationship with the government. The CBOs were tasked with collecting and contributing to analysis of the market information. Feinstein provided technical input, designing the project methodology and periodically adapting it, actively supporting the analytical process and the production of outputs, playing a quality control function, and helping to locate the project’s work in its wider context. As the grant holder, SOSS supported DDRA in project management and compliance, and in ensuring quality reporting back to the funder.

Ownership stayed firmly with DDRA: for example, their senior management had the final sign-off authority on all written outputs produced by the MMTA. Feinstein and SOSS played supporting and facilitating roles. A number of factors helped in creating this ‘localised’ partnership model:

  • It built on existing relationships between Feinstein researchers and some of DDRA’s senior staff and Board members, between DDRA staff and CBOs, and between SOSS and DDRA stakeholders.
  • The project expanded iteratively, starting small with a one-year pilot in North Darfur before progressively expanding into Darfur’s four other states between 2012 and 2014.
  • Some roles also developed iteratively and organically. For example, SOSS became the grant holder after the pilot year, when EU funding came on-stream and the project expanded. Feinstein’s technical advisory role also grew over time.
  • The project had separate funding streams for project implementation by DDRA and for the advisory support provided by Feinstein. This meant that the two were not having to compete for resources within a single funding stream, and diluted the contractual power-dynamic of this relationship.

It is testament to the resilience of the project model that the partnerships held fast over the duration of the project, indeed deepened. However, the fact that partnerships were built around one project limited opportunities to develop DDRA’s wider organisational capacity beyond project delivery and the technical skills to run the MMTA, and limited development of the CBOs’ organisational capacity beyond market monitoring and analysis. The project also lacked a process of regular and systematic review of key partnerships. Although independent project evaluations shed some light on the strengths of these partnerships and how weaknesses could be addressed, this could not substitute for consultation, feedback and reflection between project partners.

Local presence generating local knowledge

While the market monitoring included conventional data collection such as prices, transport costs and sources of supply, CBOs also brought their local knowledge. All CBO enumerators lived in the market they monitored, and spoke the local language(s). Oral analysis workshops were held in each state capital, initially on a quarterly basis and latterly every six months. These were crucial in interpreting market indicators and in drawing out some of the local knowledge of the CBO enumerators and DDRA staff. Enumerators also played a role in the in-depth trade studies led by Feinstein. In the livestock trade study, See ‘On The Hoof: Livestock Trade in Darfur’ (Buchanan-Smith et al, 2012) for example, they facilitated data collection and analysis from 19 livestock markets outside Darfur’s state capitals, revealing the informal agreements between traders from ethnic groups otherwise hostile to each other that kept the long-distance and cross-border livestock trade moving. Trust was an essential ingredient encouraging traders and others to share information and insights; CBO and DDRA staff’s personal relationships were key to building this trust. They also facilitated international researchers’ access to traders and key informants for the in-depth trade studies. International agencies regularly lost access to towns and markets in Darfur during the lifetime of the MMTA project, usually because of insecurity, but the MMTA had access continuously through its enumerators in those markets. Staff maintained contact by mobile phone, and most CBO enumerators made it to the analysis workshops.

Over expansion of the network created some challenges.  While monitoring over 70 markets through more than 40 CBOs is impressive,  making full use of such an extensive network requires considerable management and ongoing investment which the project could not be sustain in the final phase.

A local network that is part of the local context, yet connected internationally

The challenges of operating as an aid agency in Darfur during the conflict are well-known. See, for example, HPG and ALNAP (2009). Key to continued programming are, first, an understanding of the principal stakeholders, especially within government, and second effectively managing those relationships. For the MMTA most of this responsibility fell to DDRA: DDRA staff negotiated technical agreements with at least two line ministries in each of Darfur’s five state governments, and secured permission from the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) at national and state levels to run the project. In at least one state this took some years before the authorities agreed to the project being established.

For DDRA’s senior managers, fostering and managing these relationships required astute political understanding and social skills. This responsibility also exposed DDRA, as the national NGO implementing the project, to political pressure. Its international partners could do little to support DDRA in handling that pressure, which became more intense as the project continued. Despite the project’s track record and individual government officers informally expressing their support for the MMTA’s work, formally there was increasing resistance to an information project run by an NGO. In a highly politicised conflict it raised suspicion, especially when the analysis captured the inter-relationships between trade and conflict. There was also concern that the project was not directly linked to tangible benefits. While the analysis was used by decision-makers within government, national organisations and international agencies, local government’s resistance to the project meant that it could not continue beyond 2016 solely as an information-gathering venture. The approach had to be rethought to link the project to more tangible programming outputs, but this meant a larger budget at a time when funding had become harder to secure.

While the project’s national partners have led dissemination at local level, the international partners have linked the project to international networks, within Sudan and beyond. The first two in-depth trade studies were presented in Sudan to government officers, Sudanese civil society organisations and international agencies, and Feinstein supported dissemination in the UK, the US and at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), where the MMTA was cited as an example of localisation in practice.

Capacity development

Capacity development has been a central theme in the MMTA project. Technical capacity for market monitoring, especially analytical capacity, was extremely weak at the outset, within DDRA and the CBOs. Few staff had any experience of market monitoring. As a newly operational NGO, DDRA’s project management capacity was also embryonic. The Feinstein advisory team took responsibility for the technical capacity development of DDRA staff, and SOSS supported and developed DDRA’s capacity to manage the project. DDRA, in turn, took the lead in developing the technical capacity of the CBO enumerators.

Most capacity development took place through on-the-job mentoring and coaching, and through ‘learning-by-doing’, supplemented with training workshops. The Feinstein advisory team worked closely, albeit remotely, with the MMTA team as they completed their (monthly, quarterly or six-monthly) analyses and drafted the respective trade and market bulletin. The Feinstein team provided detailed feedback on drafts and on-the-job training exercises. While this slowed down the production process, it ensured that the MMTA team retained ownership of the project and its outputs. In turn, DDRA provided on-the-job mentoring to the CBO enumerators through the oral analysis workshops in each state, occasional visits and regular contact by phone. Building capacity was an important process, but it was also slow and painstaking. Although much was achieved over the project’s seven years, this was not enough to reach the point where quality outputs could be produced by DDRA and its CBO partners alone. Capacity development is also vulnerable to staff turnover as people become more skilled and hence more employable by better-paying international agencies, though this was to some extent mitigated by DDRA’s sense of ownership of the project, which encouraged a number of staff to stay with it for the full seven years.


The partnership model underpinning the MMTA effectively incorporated a number of factors widely identified For example in Wall and Hedlund’s 2016 literature review. as necessary to support locally led responses: ensuring the local actors have ownership, investing in relationship-building and capacity development through a mentoring and supportive approach rather than a contractual relationship driven by project outputs, and the importance of separate funding streams for each partner. The project demonstrates how a partnership model built on comparative advantage can work in a challenging and highly politicised environment of protracted conflict. Trust has been an essential ingredient, with the international partners respecting their advisory and supporting roles, and prepared to cede power and responsibility. The longevity of the partnership depended on all partners sticking together through challenging periods, retaining their commitment to the overall project goals. Combined, this offers a powerful recipe for making ‘localisation’ work.


Buchanan-Smith, M. and Barrows, B. (2017) ‘Market Monitoring and Trade Analysis in Darfur. A Guide for Practitioners’. DDRA, SOSS, Tufts/FIC, UKAID, BRACED. March

Buchanan-Smith, M., Fadul, A.A., Tahir, A.R., Aklilu, Y. (2012) ‘On the Hoof: Livestock Trade in Darfur’, United Nations Environment Program

HPG and ALNAP (2009) ‘Where to Now? Agency Expulsions in Sudan: Consequences and Next Steps’

Wall, I. and Hedlund, K. (2016) ‘Localisation and Locally-Led Crisis Response: A Literature Review’. Local to Global. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation


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