IFAD operations in fragile contexts - how flexibility can really make the difference

Written by Francesco Farnè

As a recent graduate in International Politics and Relations, I am always tempted to analyse facts from a geopolitical perspective.

When I heard that the Near East and North Africa (NEN) Division was holding an event on IFAD’s operations in fragile contexts, with a particular focus on Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, as case studies, my curiosity got the better of me and I was eager to attend.

Many questions came into my mind and I hoped the event would enlighten me. How is it possible to carry out operations and projects in contexts where collective security, as well as basic civil rights, cannot be assured and the breach of peace is a constant threat? The adjective ‘fragile’ sounded even a bit reductive on first thought.

NEN staff from Somalia, Sudan and Yemen presenting their case studies
©IFAD/Francesco Farnè
The event, organized by NEN, brought together staff from Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. During the overview, we had the opportunity to take a deeper dive into the concept of fragility. In fact it is broader than I thought - fragility refers to a series of dimensions going beyond the only political/institutional perspective I had in mind. Fragile states have indeed weak policies, institutions and governance, but this usually has logistical consequences resulting in poor infrastructure (especially in rural zones), lack of financial services, as well as low resilience to natural phenomena such as climate change, water scarcity, soil erosion etc. The main lesson I learned was that all these spheres are deeply interdependent. And it can have serious impact when setting up an operation. A general policy suggestion follows from all this: flexibility is crucial when operating in such contexts. Smart policies in fragile contexts should be agile and adaptable to sudden context changes.

Among the case studies, the one that caught my attention the most was Somalia. Somalia is one of the least developed countries in the world. The country, where a terrible civil war took place in the '90s, is often referred to as an example of a failed state in books that deal with international law and politics. This was confirmed by Noel Harris, Programme Coordinator, Northwestern Integrated Community Development Programme (ICDP) in the Somaliland region, who gave a presentation on the challenges he and his colleagues had to face. I found out that, in addition to security and political issues, natural conditions in Somalia are also problematic. Severe droughts frequently affect the country threatening water supply and crop yields. Moreover, infrastructure was seriously damaged after the civil war, due to depopulation of villages, loss of agricultural equipment and degraded farmlands. All this contributes to make Somalia a fragile country.

ICDP had to respond to this ever-changing environment since its  conception. It started as an emergency assistance programme during the civil war. Then it became a post-conflict rehabilitation programme. Eventually ICDP focused on integrated development intervention. Such a transition from emergency assistance to post-conflict development required a prompt and flexible response by IFAD, which produced high-profile results. Food security in the target group has been achieved since 2011, just to give an example.

What I found so distinctive about this presentation and the whole event in general is the capacity to apply the concept of flexibility, presented in the overview, to reality. The programmes are really capable of adapting to fragile contexts and ever-changing situations with tangible results. Of course, it is possible to do even better, as emerged during the final discussion, but from my perspective, as a student used to theoretical academic concepts now understanding their application to the real world, it was impressive.