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From Crisis to Recovery: Lost in Transition

InterAction - USA - Tue, 19 Feb 2013 15:28 GMT
Author: Lynn Yoshikawa
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Transition. Early Recovery. Post-conflict reconstruction. No matter what term we use, the international aid community’s weak leadership and resources to facilitate and support vulnerable people to move from crisis to recovery has left millions vulnerable.

For international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) committed to supporting vulnerable people from the onset of crisis – be it the result of civil strife or natural disaster – through their full recovery and beyond, the existing funding mechanisms, tools and structures are inadequate to meet the needs. Over the past year, InterAction, the largest coalition of U.S.-based non-profit humanitarian and development agencies, traveled to LiberiaPakistan and Sri Lanka to see what effective practices and policies were in place to support transitional programs. Overall, we foundunsatisfactory answers: in complex environments, good programming is often personality-driven and dependent on local political dynamics, rather than on specific tools or systems.
First and foremost, successful transitions take a long time – and there are no shortcuts. According to the World Bank, it took the 20 fastest developing countries “an average of 17 years to get the military out of politics, 20 years to achieve functioning bureaucratic quality, and 27 years to bring corruption under reasonable control.” With humanitarian projects typically running on 12 month cycles and development programs around five years, funding mechanisms fall far short in achieving transformational change.  
Furthermore, U.S. development structures and funding mechanisms lack the flexibility to support local priorities. Take a look at U.S. foreign assistance channels, where the majority of poverty-focused aid is siloed in flagship programs like Global Health or the Millennium Challenge Corporation, leaving few resources to support national or local priorities, such as education or microfinance. And yet, while supporting effective transition processes is expensive, more money is not always the answer. Afghanistan has been flooded with billions in aid dollars yet lack commensurate outcomes in reducing poverty and in some cases, have fueled insecurity

Lessons From the Field

Effective coordination among and within donor agencies, implementing aid agencies, and affected communities was widely cited as a major factor in good programming by aid practitioners and policymakers. In Sri Lanka, while we found newly constructed roads, public buildings and power lines in areas which had been leveled only four years ago, few ordinary people felt they were benefitting from the economic growth it supported. One major U.S. livelihood program was perceived by locals as supporting wealthy businessmen to profit from war-ravaged communities, but through coordination with USAID’s humanitarian staff, program staff changed the aid modalities to reach more marginalized communities and partner with the agencies and local entrepreneurs with long-term experience in these areas.
The post-war context in Sri Lanka also demonstrates that despite good programming and inter-agency coordination, effective transitions are often dependent on politics – a factor beyond the control of aid agencies. Although the largest camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, located in northern Sri Lanka, has now been closed, approximately 100,000 people are still unable to return to their homes and the government has not allowed the UN to conduct an assessment of their needs or intentions regarding return. Furthermore, the government’s occupation of civilian land has prevented about a quarter of IDPs from returning home, as well as contributes to locals’ fear of permanent militarization of their communities.   

What Should Be Done 

Facilitating effective transitional processes and programs is complicated and there is no one-size-fits-all program or strategy for success. Outside of major policy reforms or the establishment of new funding mechanisms, it remains incumbent on donors, aid agencies, governments, and civil society to ensure that our collective efforts are centered on addressing the needs of affected communities and strengthening existing capacities, and that these efforts are coordinated among humanitarian and development actors to maximize impact and efficiency. In addition, donor governments must prioritize diplomatic support, in particular, by ensuring that host governments and local institutions have the capacity and resources to support recovery efforts as relief programs phase out. 
While many aid workers have talked about the ‘culture clash’ between the fast-paced, reactive nature of humanitarian work compared to the long processes and timelines involved with development programs, we are all driven by the desire to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people. As such, we should place differences aside to focus on our common objective rather than our different systems and approaches. This means more coordinated assessments and analyses and joint programming among humanitarian and development practitioners. 
Decades of debates and studies have recognized the same challenges over and over again. While aid actors are not in control of critical external factors, we must ensure that programs are flexible enough to adapt in dynamic contexts and that our efforts are coordinated and complementary. Improving the way we respond is not just about being more effective or cost-efficient, but fulfilling our core mission to support the capacities and basic rights of people to recover from crises.

By Lynn Yoshikawa, Senior Program Manager for InterAction’s Transition Program, which aims to analyze aid agencies’ perspectives and challenges in the transition from relief to development, as well as identify areas of good practice. InterAction’s Transition Program is funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. State Department or the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.  

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