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Polis Perspective 03/07/2015: Gender and power in science and development: gender discrimination is not a joke

Posted by / 3rd July 2015 / Categories: Polis / -


Stephanie Halksworth: Gender and power in science and development: gender discrimination is not a joke

Polis Perspectives are weekly perspectives of our team on Polis-related topics. We also share our favourite articles and tweets. This week’s perspective is written by Stephanie Halksworth on Tonya Blowers’ article “Focus on Gender: Sex, power and scientific influence” SciDev.Net, 24/6/2015.

In the article ‘Focus on Gender: Sex, power and scientific influence’ Tonya Blowers reflects on some pressing questions about gender, power and influence in the global scientific community, and considers the implications of Tim Hunt’s words and why we need policies that favour women’s inclusion as decision-makers.

In the case of Tim Hunt’s sexist outburst, such comments cannot be taken lightly, especially from a notably influential voice in the scientific community. His words are reflective of an antiquated and seriously detrimental attitude towards women and women’s role in science, an attitude that needs to be expunged at all levels. The fact that Hunt insists it was said in jest makes matters worse – gender inequality and discrimination are still a tragic reality, a reality all too often considered inconsequential and inferior in the list of priorities.

Women leaders in both the scientific and political spheres are still underrepresented to say the least. The article’s data conveys dismal figures with regard to the gender split of parliamentarians globally. As Blowers emphasises, we need to ‘bring more women into influential societies and committees that traditionally have been dominated by men’. This would lead to a fundamental shift in priorities and gender policies that would significantly benefit the scientific community as well as society as a whole.

The inclusion of women research leaders in community projects is imperative, asserts Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for environment, water and natural resources. For example, as water has been traditionally women’s responsibility, conferring with women has lead to bringing clean drinking water to many Kenyan villages. Blowers hits the nail on the head with the key message: ‘if scientific research is to benefit local communities and economies, women’s needs and experiences must be built into both the design and the implementation process’. The inclusion of women as decision-makers and leaders in all spheres, including the scientific, political and developmental fields is not just a matter of fair representation, but a necessary move that will advance society at all levels.

Polis Star Articles of the Week

Tonya Blowers: ‘Focus on gender: sex, power, and scientific influence’, SciDev.Net, 24/06/2015

Mark Malloch-Brown: ‘The UN is an under-funded bureaucratic labyrinth – and a force for good in the world’, The Telegraph, 26/06/2015

Chris Blattman: ‘Migration is the most effective development intervention on the planet, part XXVI’, Chris Blattman Blog, 17/06/2015

Polis TweetOur Favourite Tweets @polisproject

@meowtree: 9 Annoying Non-Profit Trends that Need to Die.

@rakidi: The 9 countries with the most entrepreneurs; #Uganda comes top. #Entrepreneurship

@polisproject: “Africa’s story isn’t one of chronic slow growth, but of boom bust & boom again” – A must read review #globaldev


For more in-depth articles and research, visit our Polis Publications page.


Connecting Local Realities: The case of women’s groups in Kenya

Posted by / 1st June 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

In recent years, there has been increasing focus on the role of women in development. A number of countries have committed themselves to tackling gender issues with the goal of improving the socio-economic status of women. This position of women is seen to be crucial for achieving wider developmental and social goals. Kenya, for example, has initiated a number of activities and policies that address the socio-economic empowerment of women, ensuring its integration in national development strategies aimed at achieving targets such as the Millennium Development Goals. Furthermore, efforts from International Organisations (IOs) and Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also contributed to the advancement of gender equality, especially within the education sector. However, their efforts do not always reach local women’s groups in rural Kenya, who themselves struggle to access the necessary information available to them. Although there exist initiatives that attempt to resolve this crucial chasm, improving connectivity is the key to local women’s groups partnering up with other actors in order to strengthen rural development.

Since the 1990s, an increasing number of women’s groups have been formed at both the grassroots and the national level in Kenya. Women’s groups make up the majority of local initiatives in rural development and they can play a fundamental role in the alleviation of poverty and addressing the social problems in their local communities. The motivations behind the formation of these groups vary from groups and communities: some groups are formed primarily to improve the living standards of their members, and some often in response to challenging situations faced by the community at the time, such as prolonged drought, famine or at times of socio-economic stress.  Some groups, such as the Mwethya women’s groups of Machakos District, are known for their commitment to water and soil conservation activities. On top of the need to conserve land, the key factors for the groups’ motivations is also the training, education and advice they receive.

Many women’s groups have multiple agendas, and act as catalysts for manifold national development targets. These include poverty alleviation and the eradication of hunger, promote gender equality and empower women. A number of women’s groups in Nyamusi Division in Nyamira County, that undertake women economic empowerment programs engage in activities of income generation such as merry-go-rounds, known as a chama. A chama is a scheme where members pool their resources for investment, allowing them to access the resources to address individual, family or community challenges. Women’s groups in the Nyamusi Division also run programs that range from household poverty reduction programs; education programs, for example to address the need for equal opportunities for boys and girls in schools; or health initiatives to raise awareness in the community of the importance of good nutrition and hygiene, and the effects of HIV/AIDs; as well as social initiatives to raise awareness and tackle gender-based violence.

And yet despite evidence reporting the contributions of women’s groups to community-based activities and socio-economic and national development, there is still a crucial gap between the national and international entities working towards universal development goals, and the women’s groups who are contributing to these same goals. Efforts have certainly been made by governemental organisations, IOs and NGOs to increase funding and support for women in Kenya. NGOs have contributed to the facilitation and support of women’s groups, many of which provide guidance, loans, materials or training. Governmental efforts have also contributed to the economic empowerment of women, such as the Uwezo Fund and Women Enterprise Fund, are initiatives to finance and support women-led businesses and enterprises throughout the country.

However, these governmental initiatives are not reaching many women, let alone many rural women’s groups. Studies reflect that there are still barriers impeding the success of these women’s groups, and inadequate funding is a primary concern. For the women’s groups in the Nyamusi Division, this is certainly one of the leading obstacles they face. Lack of funding along with high levels of poverty mean that many programs, including merry-go rounds and income generation activities struggle to remain sustainable and effective, especially when individual members are unable to contribute financially and are obliged to leave the group. A problem that often occurs with NGOs supporting women’s groups is the traditional structure and approach that still drives many NGOs. They have a tendency to create dependency through non-local leadership. NGOs setting their own agendas instead of listening to the agendas set by local groups, make the latter adapt to the former. This then leads to a donor-recipient relationship, with the relationship turning into one of one-directional need, rather than partnership. Other constraints that can hinder their potential advancement include certain cultural norms, which can prohibit the full participation of women in rural development, such as women’s rights to land and property. Despite the elimination of gender bias in Kenya’s legal framework, many women are still unaware of laws that protect their rights to property ownership.

In addition to these barriers, there is another important question to explore: if the government’s incentive is there, why is it not going to the women that need its support? For many women’s groups, the answer is simple: they lack access to the knowledge and the tools necessary to connect to these opportunities. Many women’s groups lack the information to access funding and support; in fact, rural women’s access to current information in general is one of the major challenges facing women in developing countries. Access to relevant and affordable information is particularly scarce for those who are marginalized either by their locality, gender or due to limited access to other resources. Another important factor is poor infrastructure, which imposes constraints on women’s groups.

The importance of access to information cannot be underestimated, it is the gateway to finding essential knowledge, resources and funding required for the success and sustainability of women’s groups. There have been some innovative approaches to tackle the lack of access to information, such as the Association of Media Women in Kenya who set up the ‘radio listening groups’ initiative to make information more accessible to marginalized communities. Through these, some women have learned how to access the UWEZO Fund, as well as information on government services. But initiatives that focus on connectivity are too scarce.

Connections to multiple sources of information increases women’s awareness of their rights to land and property, to available funding, to resources and materials, to knowledge and ideas. Connectivity would enable women’s groups to proactively find and choose the resources that will allow them to proceed with their initiatives, without relying on a third party, without depending on external approaches, but with direct connections to partners beyond regional borders. It is fundamental to bridge that chasm between national and international partners on the one hand, and local partners on the other. Both sides are strengthened through these relationships; with this connectivity comes access to information, and with information comes further growth.


Interview with Dr. Ernesto Sirolli – Enterprise Facilitation

Posted by / 1st June 2015 / Categories: Polis / Tags: , , / -

This month´s focus is on Enterprise Facilitation, a person-centred approach to community and economic development, developed by the Sirolli Institute. Since 1985, Enterprise Facilitation has provided a mechanism for mobilising community leadership and community revitalisation around the world. This article is based on a conversation between Dr. Ernesto Sirolli, the founder and director of the Sirolli Institute, currently based in California, and Thomas Kruiper, Head of Communications at ReSeT’s Polis Project. 

Having worked for several NGOs in different sub-Saharan countries in the 1970s, Ernesto Sirolli knows all too well what the relationships between donors, NGOs, and local recipients of development aid look like. In his view, many development actors from industrialised countries believe wholeheartedly that they know precisely how to help and that they have all the right solutions for their aid-recipients. “They believe that if it wasn´t for the attitudes of local aid-recipients and the corruption of African policy makers, they would have already turned Africa into a Garden of Eden”. According to Sirolli, this misconstrued relationship between North and South has done a lot of harm in creating dependency and distorting local incentives for participating in development cooperation projects.

How different is Sirolli´s own philosophy? The Enterprise Facilitation method that he pioneered in 1985 is based on the idea that people that do not want to be helped should be left alone. His Enterprise Facilitators work with community-based boards to provide free, confidential business management and networking advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and existing businesses. Sirolli: “The only way in which you can truly help people is if they come to you to. And entrepreneurs will only come if you can guarantee confidentiality and if you take their initiatives seriously. The key is simply to shut up and listen.” Enterprise Facilitators thus focus on working only with people that have the intrinsic motivation to learn.

The Enterprise Facilitation method is the result of many years of experience and many mistakes that Sirolli made developing the method as a young man in Esperance, Western Australia. “The first time I made a connection, it turned out that my client never paid the supplier and that he had bankrupted twice before in the past, so I blew my contacts and my credibility. So we are incredibly careful before putting our clients in touch.” Now Enterprise Facilitators in over 300 communities worldwide make sure that the entrepreneurs they coach have the product, the marketing skills, and the financial skills before jumping into the deep. “And since no-one has ever been able to master all three skills by him or herself, we focus on forming teams of people with different skills. So rather than teaching entrepreneurs a skill they don´t like and will never do well, we connect them with people that can make their business stronger, because nobody can do it alone.”

Currently, most Enterprise Facilitators are based in rural and disconnected communities in industrialised countries, but Sirolli sees huge potential for his method and similar methods in the developing world too. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, an Enterprise Facilitator is working with entrepreneurs who belong to a local Methodist church in Katanga. Before agreeing to install the Enterprise Facilitator- who is also a local- Sirolli told the bishop leading the community that he would not do it unless the people in the community invited them,“…because otherwise we would yet again be missionaries”. So the bishop went back to the church and said: “If you want an Enterprise Facilitator in this community, you have to write Sirolli first”. He received 89 letters, and over the past two years, 187 new businesses were started, employing more than 750 people.

In the development sector, fortunately there is a growing amount of actors who recognise that NGOs should listen more and talk less. Local voices are increasingly included and local partners nowadays tend to get a slice of the pie when it comes to project implementation. But that does not mean that they are willing to give up their centre-stage position, because development workers also tend to have mixed incentives. “Many NGOs are so interested in raising money that they become great at telling beautiful stories about how they represent local communities and about how they will spend the money on fancy projects. But the fact is that they don´t represent these communities; they were never invited in the first place.”

Enterprise Facilitators thus only enter communities when invited, and only respond when they are asked for help. Their salaries reflect local standards and are typically paid for by local governments or external sponsors. “How different is that from your typical development cooperation project? Just try to get an NGO that is used to getting millions of dollars per year to implement their projects to switch to a system in which a local representative costs maximally 5000 USD per year.”

The Sirolli Institute is currently based in over 300 communities worldwide and aims to mainstream the Enterprise Facilitation method, both in developed and developing countries. His TED-talk “Want to Help Someone? Shut up and Listen!” has been shared over 2 million times.




Localising the Post-2015 Debate: What are the realities?

Posted by / 1st June 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , / -

On my flight to Nairobi, Kenya in March this year, I sat next to Lydia, a director of a subsidised maternal health centre in the outskirts of Nairobi. I was itching to find out if the waiver of maternity fees in all public hospitals in Kenya as declared by president Uhuru Kenyatta two years ago, was making a difference as far reducing maternal deaths is concerned (Millennium Development Goal (MDG) no.5 – improve maternal health care). Lydia spoke of the doubts that many Kenyan women continue to have about the quality of maternal health care in public hospitals now that it has been made free. When I asked her whether there was awareness on MDG no.5 among the health professionals she has interacted with, she mentioned the health goals are not known by many local health workers and are usually first encountered when seeking for funding from international foundations and thus perceived as donor-driven. She pointed out that the health goals amongst others needed to be better communicated and ‘localised’ with incentives for them to be achieved.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) akin to MDGs, are discussed and agreed upon between United Nations, international organisations and country representatives. However their successful uptake and implementation depend on the involvement of ordinary local people who are not always aware of the objectives nor included in the decision making process. The anecdote above begs for a more detailed account of why localising SDGs is important and what simply the breaking down of these goals to locals implies for their achievement. Localising the SDGs is about getting the message understood and put to action beyond the national level. It is about making sure locals or ordinary citizens, businesses and community based organisations have a clear understanding of what these global development goals are for in order to fuse the goals with their own ideas or businesses. It is about them seeing that they have a stake in them and are hence motivated to insist that their leaders work with them towards making them a reality.

One of the key reasons to localise SDGs is that regional or local governments as well as other local actors (private sector, informal groups and community based organisations) are best placed to inspire and monitor ownership and commitment to realise these goals. Understanding that SDGs are not externally driven but part of improving livelihoods, can create an incentive for the locals to participate in their uptake. A localised approach of SDGs follows a multilevel and multi-stakeholder approach in enabling transformative agendas at the local level and a strong national commitment that provides adequate legal frameworks and institutional financial capacity to local and regional. The lower tier of government in many developing countries enjoys closeness to ordinary citizens and therefore serves as an essential partner and agent for change on the ground. The realities on the ground whether man-made or environmental cannot escape the observation of local leaders, and they are far better placed to understand which groups are marginalised, and how to involve them in bringing about change. The access of local actors is particularly essential in reaching out to invisible and ignored  groups who have for a long time been the subject in international development. Furthermore, national governments in most cases rely on local authorities for an assessment of the local requirements as well as capabilities.

Localising SDGs can also be a vehicle to building legitimacy of the national and local governments. Local governments play a fundamental role in ensuring that there is accountability, equity, transparency and rule of law when it comes to service delivery to citizens. When services are delivered to locals and they are content, citizens gain confidence and trust in government activities in their lives. Moreover, being on the frontline and affiliated to central government, local governments possess legitimacy; the SDGs demand national commitment to provide the necessary legal framework and financial as well as institutional capacity to local and regional governments. This ‘call-to-action’ to central governments pushes the implementation beyond the adoption of goals only in the national agendas but decentralising it to the local level, which was not done nor mentioned in the MDGs.

Duncan Green and his colleagues have underscored the importance of examining whether MDGs strengthened or weakened the social contract between citizens and the state, i.e. the impact of MDGs at the national level and what kind of decisions were made from the national to the local levels. The MDGs and SDGs stemmed from principles of the Millennium Declaration aimed at according various rights to people globally. Engaging locals and their leaders to understand and implement SDGs presents an opportunity to strengthen the social contract between the state and its citizens. By raising awareness of the goals, and creating the climate for people to follow through with the adoption of SDGs which can then feed into their own personal development, local involvement is likely to be guaranteed and government would have also in a sense fulfilled their role.

Accepting and acting on the fact that local communities understand their situation and can best articulate what is needed to make their lives better, is yet to take firm root in international development. Beyond 2015, an aggregate of ongoing Post-2015 debates equally shows that evidence for the goals to ensure involvement of locals abounds. Initiatives such as the Ground Level Panels which were held in Uganda, Brazil, Egypt and India, revealed the importance the groups surveyed put on inclusion, rights and identity and less attention on gender or water or energy or aid which were more emphasised by the High Level Panel.Localising SDGs in this case means recognising the potential of, or ongoing projects led by groups commonly perceived as vulnerable or marginalised. It calls for a shift from solely focusing on the vulnerabilities of these communities and moving on to harmonising their ideas with the targets of the SDGs.  As sharply articulated by GCAP Co-Chair Marta Benavides  ‘it is not for these people to accompany development but for development to accompany these people’.

In translating the SDGs into practice, local governments will inevitably face challenges. One of these challenges with particular relevance to implementation to be conducted by local governments touches on choosing the relevant targets and setting them at the local level. The targets that could be taken up will ultimately depend on country policies, priorities and decentralisation and how they can also be aligned with national and local development plans. This alignment requires governments to set aside funding – an issue which remains thorny in many developing countries, some of which express that SDGs similar to MDGs did not take into account voices of those in developing countries.  The question of financing SDGs is also problematic because the goal setting has been primarily externally led, and there is a high probability of SDGs being perceived as another excuse to channel aid into developing countries, which reinforces traditional narrative of development with ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘donors‘. In a recent consultative meeting on Post-2015, some government officials complained that during the MDGs, donors did not provide funds to support ‘their’ MDG. Therefore in some circles, the feeling that SDGs are still donor driven remains strong and is hindering the ownership of these goals contrary to what localisation is advocating for. Recent debates on how to pay for the SDGs by the big financiers also unveiled the interests by different international organisations to channel money to specific sectors and not to others. These interests contravene the core goals of the SDGs meaning that for the local needs to be given priority, the narrative of development also needs to change to one that puts people first.

The means of implementing SDGs is a chance for member countries particularly in developing countries to mould the goals into country-specific development agendas and find ways of financing them. That way, local ownership will also be assured and the development narrative that speaks of partners is likely to develop in the long run. Several domestic options to finance SDGs have been tabled ranging from foreign direct investment, impact investment, tax collection from natural resources (put forth by the African Union) and close collaboration with the private sector. These domestic resource mobilisation options are also more likely to better take into account the needs of local actors and propose what kind of collaboration will be necessary with international actors. By focusing on local alternatives to finance the goals, Lydia and other health professionals in Kenya will understand the relevance of SDGs in their work.


Q&A with Isadora Loreto I Head of Research & Development

Posted by / 1st June 2015 / Categories: Polis / Tags: , / -

Isadora Loreto is Head of Research and Development. She joined the Polis team in June 2014 as a researcher and quickly afterwards became Head of R&D. Specialised in conflict studies, it is during her work as a jurist in different NGOs and research centers that she developed a strong interest for innovative approaches in international cooperation and development.

Hi Isa, could you please describe for us what the Polis Project is?

The Polis Project is a project which connects people’s initiatives and projects to the resources they need. Take a women’s group in Kenya who wants to improve rural development: they have the ideas on how to do it but they lack the materials and financial support. Through its online platform the Polis puts the group of women in touch with potential partners who can provide them with exactly this support. The women then choose the partner they think fits best their request! This is just an example of people that can benefit from the Polis Project and its simple method. Many more people are out there with brilliant ideas and initiatives and do not have access to what they need to turn their ideas into reality.

What lead you to become part of The Polis Project?

While focusing on peace building in the Middle East region for my research activities, I was astonished to see how many aid and development organisations would apply ready-made solutions to local problems without first listening to local voices. I started to develop a strong interest for initiatives and organisations promoting locally led development and I soon became convinced it was the only way international development could be effective. It is through my research on such organisations that I heard about ReSeT and the Polis Project. And as soon as I learnt more about the project, I knew that it was exactly in line with the way I was envisioning international development. I was given the chance to become part of the team first as a researcher and then as Head of research. To be honest, I could not imagine a project which would better fit my vision of what international development should look like: « local actors and global actors coming together to achieve a common goal: improving the lives of people, with local actors being in the driving seat. »

As Head of Research and Development, you are a core member of the project; can you describe your role and key responsibilities?

At the Research and Development department, our work is divided into two units: we work on the development of the project and on publications. The development of the project includes four types of activities:(1) researching and supporting the fundraising and communication teams;(2) researching similar initiatives (a market research);(3) researching relevant articles and papers for the Polis Project, and (4) developing the Polis method. The publications unit regroups all kind of publications the team is doing as well as the website content and the newsletter content. On top of that we coordinate the consultancy work the team does. To sum up, as Head of R&D I make sure my team researches and finds the information necessary to develop our project and acquire more expertise!

What is your favourite part of being head of Research and Development?

Everyday when I wake up I am excited about the things R&D needs to do because I know if we advance, the project as a whole advances and develops. Most of the time, I have a pretty busy day ahead filled with different internal researches and publications. But most importantly, I know I can count on my team to be fully committed and do their best to provide the relevant information and boost the project. Apart from the obvious fact that I very much enjoy working at R&D, the most valuable thing of my work is the team spirit we have, it is what makes us go beyond ourselves, achieve our weekly or monthly goals and be creative in the ways that we address issues and challenges we face!

What kind of publications does the Polis Project focus on?

Although most of our work is typically focused on internal researches directly linked to the development of the project, publications are also essential. They indeed demonstrate our expertise and knowledge on local-global relationships. This is why all our Polis publications analyse local-global dynamics. I guess your next question would then be: “but what do local-global analyses mean?” It means that we focus on cases where there are interactions between the global and the local level, where global actors’ actions have an impact on the local level. The local level can be understood as community level, regional level or even national level. With the Polis Publications, our main goal is to give our perspective on relationships between the global and the local level. Because this is what the Polis is all about!

How does research & development contribute to the other departments in the Polis Project?

Let’s say that we are like the backbone of the Polis team! All our activities have one common goal: supporting the fundraising and the communications teams. It can be the research we do on specific organisations related to fundraising or communications, our market research on similar initiatives, which is essential to expand our knowledge of others that work in a similar way, or some field research necessary to understand the demand for the Polis Project. But it is also feeding them with articles and papers, which are relevant for our work and project. The fundraising and communications teams know they can rely on us to provide them with the most accurate information they need. This means that all the Polis teams: R&D, communications and fundraising work together to make the project advance and develop.

As R&D, you have contributed to the development of the Polis Postcards and Polis Perspectives, can you tell us a bit about them?

Both Polis Perspectives and Polis Postcards are recent initiatives by the team to strengthen our communication with our network.
With the Polis Perspectives, our idea was to give our perspective on a different article each week which one of us found very interesting. We also share articles we enjoyed reading and our favorite tweets of the week. It is a way for us to share what we find interesting and relevant and to connect the Polis Project to the broader development sector in a different way!

The Polis is all about access and connection being available for people at the local level, right? With the Polis Postcards, we wanted to give the opportunity to local people to present their initiatives and get some exposure. It is a simple idea just as if they were sending a Postcard telling us their story! On the top of that, it is a great way for us to get in touch with people that could benefit from the Polis Project and to envision potential further collaboration.

What are your ambitions with respect to research and development in the coming months?

My ambition is to see the Polis Project further develop and to continue making the work of R&D as relevant as possible! The coming months will be an intensive period for us so R&D will need to be at its sharpest and keep their eye on the ball. We will be focusing the team’s publications on today’s current global development issues, local realities, and local-global dynamics. Through our Polis Postcards and new weekly Perspectives, R&D hope to continue analysing, exploring and informing the public of our research and connection to the field!


Global Problems, Local Solutions: The Case of C.A.R. and the International Community

Posted by / 29th May 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

We live in turbulent times, where new crises hit anytime and anywhere,” said Christos Stylianides, the European commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management. “But our attention must not shift from ongoing humanitarian crises such as this one. The people of the Central African Republic (CAR) continue to need our help to survive and rebuild their lives.” According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, 2.7 million people are in need of aid in CAR, 436,000 are internally displaced, while more than 460,000 people are living as refugees in neighbouring countries. The humanitarian community has received only about a fifth of the total funds required for the UN strategic response plan. On Tuesday 26 May, the European Union announced a new assistance package for CAR worth €72m following the call by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza urging European countries to help CAR to return to democracy by the end of the year. “CAR lacks a lot of money” she said, which is needed to re-establish security and long lasting peace and to organise elections. She added that CAR “cannot go to the polls without having security in the country”. All of this typifies a reaction from the international community that is too little, too late and possibly even counterproductive.

As is all too common in the case of sub-Saharan conflicts, the upheaval in CAR has been accompanied by headlines describing it as a “forgotten humanitarian crisis” and “ignored emergencies“. These types of phrases are not all that hyperbolic, with the wider world only showing moderate interest at best. What is even more “forgotten” and “ignored”, however, are underlying local dynamics before and after such crises hit their peak. The current meek reaction of the international community- with peacekeeping intervention and diplomatic pressure- is still an improvement on the status quo. Engaging local communities during those times that no imminent crisis looms, engaging local communities would go a long way in avoiding humanitarian crises in the first place, but those are hardly ever priorities. Unfortunately, without humanitarian victims, interests in long-term dynamics tend to be deep down on the agenda. As a result, international information and knowledge on grassroots realities on a country such as CAR are minimal. When a crisis then forces a reaction, national governments and other parties that can hardly be considered neutral and constructive counterparts are the only partners the international community focuses on. The result is insufficient and ineffective action. CAR is a clear example of this lack of local connections.

The international community has always had this tendency to react to conflicts, rather than help preventing them in the first place. This has direct consequences during the crisis itself. Without a network and local engagement mechanisms in place, the reaction of outsiders is almost completely dependent on their direct and centralised counterparts: government officials, rebel groups and large scale actors. They are the primary source of information, and the go-to actors for understanding the underlying problems. The true social and economic factors- only clearly understood at a local level- are unknown to, or simply ignored by, a reactive international community. As a result, any solutions brought forward from the outside tends to be a patch to stem the bleeding, rather than a constructive contribution to long-term stability and wellbeing. And thus the cycle continues in perpetuity: ignored local and national problems fester; crisis hits, political and humanitarian reaction from the international community; underlying local realities and causes are ignored; most visible problems are hastily dealt with; international community withdraws; local and national problems continue.

In these situations, the fact that central counterparts are the only negotiating partners as well as sources of information is a major obstacle for an international community not knowledgeable on the very issues they pretend to solve. With very few attempts at talking to people at a grassroots level, any action taken is biased towards those responsible for the crisis in the first place. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2013, the privileged interlocutors of the international community have been the transitional government and the main opposing armed groups (the Séléka and anti-balaka). Due to their role in the conflict these actors were given a monopolistic space within the negotiating sphere. Given that these parties are both responsible for any violence as well as using it to their advantage- as is the case in any of these conflicts- not involving and representing grassroots actors means dealing with the rotten surface, rather than finding true answers. Without representation from the wider population it is hard to believe there is a real support for reconciliation and national cohesion. Finally, this month, the CAR took an important step toward fostering national cohesion through its Bangui Forum on National Reconciliation. The Bangui Forum brought together nearly 700 leaders from diverse groups within the CAR’s society—including the transitional government, national political parties, the main opposing armed groups, the private sector, civil society, traditional chiefs, and religious groups—to define their collective vision for the country’s future. Although peace and national reconciliation have not been achieved yet, the conclusions of the forum seem to mark the beginning of a new chapter for CAR.

A good example of how, from the beginning of the conflict, the international community’s interests were to stabilise the conflict and avoid bloodshed while undervaluing the importance of local realities and its complexity, is the deployment of the peacekeeping operation MINUSCA (the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic). The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) established it by its resolution 2149 of 10 April 2014 with the mandate to protect Central African Republic civilians. If the reasons that pushed the UNSC to create the MINUSCA are understandable with regards to the violence of the conflict, it is by no means a long-term solution. Then again, the language used suggested that MINUSCA was a profound solution to the problems faced by the country. The text includes indeed the full “peacekeeping package” with sentences such as “to assist the Transitional Authorities in mediation and reconciliation processes at both the national and local levels (…)” and “to provide good offices and political support for the efforts to address root causes of the conflict and establish lasting peace and security in the CAR”. Without any deeper understanding of what those root causes were, these phrases were fanciful at best, and disingenuous at worst. Sub-Sahara African history is littered with all too many similar cases of pretension trumping reality.

More than a year after the establishment of the MINUSCA, the expected impact of the peacekeeping operation is still uncertain. The mandate of the operation is too ambitious and does not correspond to the complexity of the field. In most places in the Central African Republic, reconciliation has started between the different communities but it stays fragile. The country is still working to end the cycles of violence and reunite its people. 436,000 people are internally displaced and most cannot go back to their hometown because they fear the re-eruption of violence. On top of that, the peacekeepers’ first mission is to protect civilians, but the latest scandal about the UN covering up the sexual assault of children by French troops raises the question of trust. The success of peacekeeping operations depends on creating a bond of trust with local populations. What kind of message does an institution that covers up sexual assault on minors send to vulnerable populations? They may stop other types of violence in the short run, but the long-term outcomes may be to exacerbate the very human insecurity that leads to conflict. The unholy mix of an unrealistic mandate, absence of long-term solutions and a lack of trust by local populations is the ideal cocktail for ineffective and counterproductive outcomes.

Sadly, CAR is an all too typical example of an international community uninterested in- and therefore out of touch with- local realities in sub-Saharan Africa. Lingering conflicts that require long-term international approaches based on local networks are instead ignored until a humanitarian crisis can no longer be avoided. Reacting to the symptoms rather than the causes means a perpetual cycle of violence in which the international community is at risk of being a perpetuating influence by strengthening centralised and warmongering actors, rather than representing those suffering the consequences. Greater investment in grassroots networks and development of local human security before conflicts escalate is essential for sustainable social development. That is where the international community’s priorities need to be, rather than using the military to bring only temporary short-lived peace.

This article was written by Isadora Loreto and Balder Hageraats.