Working where it doesn't work

A couple of months ago I sat with my senior management team in Dubai to discuss the company’s strategy and the structure required to deliver that strategy over the coming period. This led on to a discussion about ARK’s value proposition and concluded that we should adopt a new strap line: ‘working in places that don’t work’. What delivering effect means whilst a conflict is ongoing was a subject I returned to this week as I was interviewed for an annual review of one of our client’s programmes in Yemen. 

The situation in Yemen is both tragic and desperately frustrating for those who have had the singular pleasure to visit and work in Yemen and get to know Yemenis and their beautiful country. In the face of widespread civilian suffering, it is understandable why some claim that the reason the international community does not do more to halt the conflict is simply that Yemeni refugees are not turning up on Europe’s doorstep. Yemen, like many of the current conflicts afflicting the MENA region defies easy categorisation or resolution. Like Libya, Syria and Iraq, Yemen is characterised by fragmentation and a failure of the social contract. What can the international community do in such circumstances where there are few or no legitimate, accountable national structures to work with and through, and perhaps little or no prospect this situation will change? Humanitarian responses are necessary but not sufficient and the appetite for intervention has gone, Iraq saw to that. 

This was the question I was asked about Yemen, based on work we conducted last year to map the capacity and capability of Yemeni civil society actors. There is no one answer but there is an approach that I believe is broadly applicable, and that is to start by asking conflict-affected communities their views. Ask them what they think, what future they would like for their children and what their priorities are. If we want to promote resilience because conflict resolution or in some cases even development is elusive, we have to reach out, and we have to listen. A small example from Lebanon. I wish UNRWA had enough money to support tertiary education and chronic health care for Palestinian refugees, but if the funds will not stretch, surely it is Palestinians who should decide their own priorities. 

Agency is key to self-esteem. When we starting working with the Syrian Civil Defence teams many years ago the key here was not just the lives saved, though how thankful we are for each of those. It was the fact that Syrian civilians were able to help themselves, to exercise agency and to be proud of their achievements. 

Alistair Harris, CEO, ARK

Dom Spiers