What do we want to achieve?

To have any chance of succeeding, an intervention in a conflict or unstable environment must have a defined purpose, obvious though that may sound. It must reflect a policy or a strategy that can be articulated, and is both reasonable and achievable. On more than one occasion I have been told there is a strategy, but it is classified, it is outdated or simply unachievable.

So, this perhaps is where the problem starts. There is frequently an imperative to ‘do something’, often in response to a revelation in the press or public outcry to an event, but without a clear idea of what. And this reminds me of one of favourite strategy quotations from Richard Rumelt ‘A long list of things to do, often mislabelled as strategies or objectives, is not a strategy. It is just a list of things to do’. How true. 

In the Monitoring and Evaluation literature you encounter the logical framework and the theory of change to help with this. These essentially challenge one to articulate how inputs and activities will result in outputs that contribute to outcomes and broader societal impact. How one moves along this results chain is the theory of change – how this process will happen, and the challenge along the way is to try and move from contribution to attribution – to establish whether the result can be attributed to the intervention. To flesh this out somewhat, a police training might look like this. Expert trainers and financial resources (inputs) are used to deliver training modules (activities) that result in trained criminal investigators (outputs) who improve the overall crime detection rate of the police (outcome) resulting in increased public confidence and adherence to the rule of law (impact). This type of thinking comes from the development world, and is entirely intuitive and, frankly, understandable and useful. So let’s now zoom out to the conflict in Libya as an example. If the objective was to promote a stable Libya that is responsive to its people’s needs, clearly that did not happen. The decapitation of the Libyan regime set in motion a series of events from the fragmentation of the country and the growth of Islamic State to the transformation of Libya into the migrant springboard into Europe. Do we think these second and third order effects could have been anticipated before the military campaign took place? Clearly yes. What then was the strategy that underpinned the Libyan intervention? These issues are not simple and we know from the strategy literature that your intended strategy is never your realised strategy as in the real world emergent strategy needs to be developed in response to events. But that does not abrogate us from our responsibility to explicitly state what we want to achieve and articulate whether that goal is logically achievable based on our inputs and activities. 

I am reminded of a conversation I had early in the Syria conflict with a senior member of the US Government in Washington. As someone who was a practitioner in International Humanitarian Law and who had started Syrian programming focused on accountability for gross human rights violations back in 2011, I wanted to know after the Ghouta chemical weapons attack what was the US’s strategy for Syria. My interlocutor looked at me and said ‘Our strategy is not to have a strategy. Whatever happens, after Iraq, we are not going to get involved’. One of the risks in this business is to forget that not acting is also a course of action and hoping that things will not get worse is a vain hope. They frequently do, and Syria is testament to that.

Alistair Harris, CEO, ARK

Dom Spiers