Remote control, remote impact?
Whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere, development has become a standard element of comprehensive international engagement in conflict-affected states. As a result, donor agencies are striving to implement assistance programmes in environments with high security risks. An increased exposure to insecure working environments has prompted considerable investment in security and risk management. In practical terms, many organisations operating in insecure environments are confronted with resolving the basic tension between accepting risks and remaining safe. A common consequence for organisations is to withdraw international staff to highly secured working environments with restrictive security, apply travel protocols, and sometimes even a shift to remote development management.
The session “Remote control, remote impact?” provided an exchange on the impacts and experiences of risk management measures on peacebuilding efforts in conflict-affected environments. Masood Karokhail (The Liaison Office, Afghanistan), Björn Richter (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, GIZ, Afghanistan) and Dr. Ulrike Hopp-Nishanka (German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, BMZ, Germany) shared their experience from working in and on conflict-affected environments.
- Risk exposure, assessment and the answers to deal with it, differ for governmental and non-governmental staff.
- Some indispensable presuppositions have to be fulfilled in order to proof that remotely controlled project implementations are reasonable: 1) long term commitment, and a trusting partnership between remote international staff and local staff on the ground, 2) a team with firm knowledge of the local region, 3) local NGOs as partner organisations who are well accepted and respected on the ground, and 4) a strategic approach with enough flexibility to adapt the programme on non-linear processes.
- Even though obstacles and challenges occur: It is – for various reasons – a challenge to build up and maintain trust-based relationships for a long-term commitment from a remote distance.
- International stakeholders should define a red line as a matter of trust and transparency. A red line that serves as an expectation-management-tool towards local actors on the ground – be it the partner government, the local NGO as programme partner or local staff.
What does risk management and remote control refer to?
Very often, remote control is simply defined as absence of international staff – be it governmental or non-governmental. However, remote control is not solely reserved for international staff. It can also apply to a government with only limited outreach from the capital to the provinces, pointing to a “canyon between the national and the provincial level”.
But there are pre-stages to remote control and it is worth noticing that risk management procedures of international governmental stakeholders are more restrictive, whereas international non-governmental organisations are being given more flexibility. Therefore, the risk exposure, assessment and the answers to deal with it, differ for governmental and non-governmental staff.
The good, the bad and the red line
Risk management can be seen as an instrument to enable the implementation of projects in conflict-affected environments, where they wouldn’t be feasible otherwise. But some indispensable presuppositions have to be fulfilled in order to proof that remotely controlled project implementations in conflict-affected environments are reasonable: 1) long term commitment, and a trusting partnership between remote international staff and local staff on the ground, 2) a team with firm knowledge of the local region is a key factor, 3) local NGOs as partner organisations who are well accepted and respected on the ground, and 4) a strategic approach with enough flexibility to adapt the programme on non-linear processes.
However, difficulties and obstacles remain: it is a challenge to build up and maintain trust-based relationships for a long-term commitment from a remote distance, especially when this is undermined by staff rotation principles of external actors and limitations in the use of technical communication. In addition, a lack of qualified personnel on the ground and the limitations to control budget-intense programmes through local partners very often aggravate this challenging situation. The diverse approaches of risk assessment and management might limit the few common safe spaces for face-to-face exchanges and trust building between international and local partners even further. The Serena Hotel in Kabul is a case in point. With its tight layers of security measures, international governmental protagonists – government officials, politicians, diplomats – regard the hotel as a safe place. However, due to its exposure and visibility it might neither be suitable nor safe for others, such as local NGOs.
International stakeholders should define a red line as a matter of trust and transparency. A red line that serves as an expectation-management-tool towards local actors on the ground – be it the partner government, the local NGO as programme partner or local staff. Where exactly to draw the red line in view of the safety and security of staff and the impacts of programmes remained nevertheless unvoiced.
The dilemma of hierarchy
Under conditions of remote control, creating and maintaining trust as well as living solidarity have been proven to be the most crucial elements: trust within the teams and trust between international and local partner organisations. Local partners – their insights, information and networks – are acknowledged as an important source of security and as irreplaceable. However, remote management within insecure environments tends to result in a transfer of security risks, away from international towards national/local staff and partners. This hierarchy of protection and risk transfer remain a dilemma – normatively and practically. As a participant from the global south of the session put it: „And locals know: If there is any threat, you jump on your plane and go“. The physical and social separation of international and national staff and the distinction between their access to security related measures taken (protection or information) can lead to mutual resentment and mistrust – in times when trust is essential.