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Breaking through entrenched positions

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Start Network's Shveta Shah discusses building the portfolio of projects within the Disasters Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP).

My first foray into the Disasters Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) was 20 minutes into my first day at Start, when I had to attend an International Steering Committee for the Transforming Surge Capacity project, and be immediately ready to review, absorb the views expressed and even advise. And so it has carried on. It has been a rapidly paced, creative and dynamic approach to the construction and management of this portfolio.

INGOs in humanitarian work seem, from the outside, to operate as an exclusive club. Everyone seems to know each other and it is, typically, these existing relationships that form the basis for joint work. Coming to this as an outsider has added a significant edge to the role. This is also about where the power sits in the Start Network and who the powerful are – it’s mainly older white men, not people who look like me. So the question for me in this role is: how to lead DEPP within the Start Network, when I am not from the club and I don’t have the established relationships. Added to which, I don’t come from or share British / Western notions of leadership and I don’t have an automatic allegiance to this status quo.

All this leads me to relentlessly ask searching questions: Where and how do we find new, different and diverse collaborators from outside the club? How do we bring the club along with us on this path and how do we create two-way lines of travel between the club and these new and different outside humanitarian actors? How do we grow, develop and make more enduring relationships? How do we demonstrate openness, humility and the integrity to take on board multiple country and region cultural notions of leadership? If we cannot recognise these are of equal worth, how can we decentralise and disperse leadership? Are we ready to do this? Nearly a year later, as far as I am concerned, the jury is still out. But I’ve seen enough on this journey to be willing to be part of it.

Building the DEPP means bringing to life so many ideas (connected and disconnected), people and organisations. There are exciting moments but they also reveal the ambiguity that is whether our approaches truly work together for better humanitarian preparedness. The early days of the implementation phase have been beset with obstacles: contracting, recruitment, project start-up logistics, and building common understanding of how collaboration can work between so many stakeholders. The assumption that civil society organisations have cohesive ways of working has been sorely tested and continues to be so as the organisations involved strive to work closely together, sometimes having to cope with a considerable level of discomfort.

There are incredibly entrenched positions. There are even fraught moments with flashes of disrespect for peers, despite knowing that mutual respect is fundamental to effective collaboration. People and organisations need to be willing to give things up as well as taking new things on, this is easier for some than for others. Sometimes you find the grouping of people around a key theme, area of work, or action ignites passion and a melding of ideas for a completely new form – this is when the magic of programming arises. The results of these magic moments have yet to be worked seen, but the moment of birth for such imaginative ideas gives a sense of a bright future.

A further inhibiting factor for the DEPP is how the internal world of individual INGOs plays out. The current wave of re-structuring, reviewing, and strategy development sometimes disproportionately dominates the debate and detracts from our collective focus on creating new approaches to enable more effective humanitarian work. It also can have an effect on the ability of those involved to focus on the specific crisis-affected populations whom the DEPP is serving. On the other hand, as the year has progressed and the majority of projects have moved beyond the inception phase, facilitated discussions reveal that those involved in the DEPP are finding the bigger picture discussions a good opportunity to step away from their internal challenges and are relishing the opportunity to connect with peers and to spend time reconnecting with core humanitarian issues.

All this makes me wonder about how much time INGOs spend on their own power struggles and bureaucracies at the cost of accountability to disaster affected populations. Is there just too much distance between INGO actors and affected people and will we ever be able to help close the gap? Are our INGO members really willing to get beneath the rhetoric and work out how we can do this collectively?

There is also something of a conceptual and operational divide between programme management, monitoring learning and evaluation, policy, and advocacy – these seem to be artificial separations since so much of all our work is enhanced through understanding their interdependency. A more open challenge to this operational divide needs to happen sometime soon. One could see this too as an opportunity for forward thinking about humanitarian capacities and a hallmark of being involved in the Start Network. One of the great assets of Start is that we are ‘doers’ and ‘thinkers’ at the same time.

Finally, a consistent – and illuminating – theme that runs through the DEPP work is an on-going dialogue about the capacity of different actors in humanitarian work. We may claim to know what is out there and what is needed, but the reality is that we only have snapshots and pockets of understanding – there is very much that we do not know. Perhaps there is too little questioning of our own assumptions about the biases and norms we are starting from. This is the exhilarating part of the learning that comes from both the DEPP and the wider Start Network.

This blog was originally published in our latest case study Realities Behind the Rhetoric.

Read more about the Disasters Emergencies Preparedness Programme.

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