Effective interventions

Finding the tipping points for change

Oxfam Novib

What should practitioners do and how can researchers contribute to a better understanding of informal security provision? Floortje Klijn explored these questions in relation to the interactive brainstorm on ‘Informal Economies in Fragile Environments: Exploring the links to justice and security’ on 23 November that was organized by the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law.

As a trained anthropologist constantly hungry for in-depth understanding of the context in which we work, I have always tried to reserve time for academic reading on the subject matter and context I was working on. It made all the difference in understanding the problems we were trying to tackle. As such, I participated in the interactive brainstorm of the Platform. The wealth of information and insights shared during the brainstorm illustrated overwhelming complexity and unexpected dynamics, and even more so the multi-dimensional roles that actors play and how they are not so black and white as we in the aid sector tend to picture them. As much as it was extremely interesting, a question kept raging on in my head: how on earth can we, as an NGO working on community security and security sector reform, make substantive change in this environment? How can we, for instance, work with people that trade drugs and use violence while providing security and have made it one of their tasks to protect the women of their neighborhood?

‘Let’s start with having coffee and talk more often’ was the response I got out of the group. That is true – very often we engage too much within our own circle, but is that really the only reason why we do not interact that much? It seems it is also a question of compatibility. Academics tend to analyze how people cope, sustain and gain within their communities as well as with a changing environment, whereas NGOs aim to bring change for people to better cope, sustain and gain. Analysis will definitely support NGOs in understanding the context, identified problems and different actors, so NGOs should use academic research more often.

More so, it would be good for NGOs as well as policymakers to be challenged on the assumptions we make and define in our theories of change. For example, the recently published evaluation by the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department on gender, peace and security in Dutch policies and implementation remarked on how little is known among policymakers and practitioners on gender equality and women empowerment activities as perceived by men and women in fragile and conflict affected areas and how it changes gender norms. Our assumptions as practitioners on women, peace and security for instance has still not been sufficiently challenged yet.

Interestingly, during the sessions it was noted that more research is needed to understand the tipping points of why local actors act or react differently to a changing environment. This comes closer to understanding how change happens and is indeed a welcome additional insight for practitioners that can potentially challenge our assumptions. I would however encourage academics to also conduct more research into the interplay between the realities on the ground and the impact of aid. Besides looking for whether or not the project has brought any change – for better or for worse – we also need to better understand how different actors, targeted or not, respond to specific interventions. How do interventions influence the tipping points of people’s actions? Practitioners in turn should seek to influence their own tipping points and more often start with a cup of coffee.

Photo credit: Community Policing Volunteers / Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID via Flickr

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