Should aid work stop when militants move in?

  • By Sebastien Malo
  • 20/02/2019

A man walks next to an irrigation system built to water rice fields outside the town of Kouna, located in Mali's Mopti region, on Oct. 16, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sebastien Malo


When jihadists on motorbikes surrounded a village in Mali’s Toubakoro commune last October, a U.S. aid group helping local farmers improve their incomes found itself in a bind.

After their one staff member left the area for security reasons, reporting on the project’s progress to its British government funder was going to be tough.

Episodes like this expose a conundrum Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) is trying to solve, said government climate resilience advisor Vincent Gainey at a Nairobi gathering of aid workers and researchers this week.

As the world’s third-largest national aid provider ramps up its backing for efforts to build resilience to climate extremes, it is seeking to identify which fragile states are stable enough to receive assistance, he said. 

In Toubakoro, aid group Blumont International quickly found a solution to its problem.

It temporarily swapped its female employee for a man – a quick fix so it could carry on working without the jihadists shutting down the operation, said David Benafel, who runs the Wati Yelema Labenw (Action on Climate Change) project in Mali.

An inability to report to funders in such situations “hasn’t become an issue now, but it could”, he added. “If we’re being blocked, or if we can’t hold meetings … then we have to reconsider going in there.”

Incidents like these open up larger questions by exposing how “fragility is a really limiting factor” for resilience investments, said DFID advisor Gainey.

“We have to show the money we’re investing is having tangible positive impacts,” he said on the sidelines of the meeting.

“Unfortunately, in the cases where we can’t demonstrate that, then people come back to us saying, ‘Well, you’ve been wasting our taxpayer money’.”

There is not much point in setting up new irrigation schemes or improving the productivity of sorghum or millet “if perennial conflict undermines all of those development gains”, he added.


More than 80 development workers and government officials are meeting this week in the Kenyan capital to discuss lessons learned from a flagship DFID aid programme, now in its fourth year, called Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED).

Last year, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the country would lead on climate resilience at the United Nations Climate Summit to be held this September.

In war-torn countries like South Sudan and Somalia, poor governance and conflict can undermine development efforts, said Gainey. In those cases, life-saving humanitarian relief can be the more appropriate response, he added.

Yet on a “sliding scale”, some other countries DFID classifies as fragile states - such as Uganda - are enjoying a certain level of stability, meaning “the resilience model starts to become more workable”, he said.

But even emergency aid should sometimes be re-imagined to include plans for tackling longer-term vulnerabilities to stresses and shocks so as to protect people better in the future, said Alan Brouder, senior resilience advisor at Irish charity Concern Worldwide.

That would be a suitable approach, for instance, when providing support for people displaced nearly permanently by protracted conflicts, such as in Somalia, he added.

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