One of the recurring challenges in mine action, and international development more generally, is transferring programs and institutions which were initially established and funded by outside donors to ownership by local authorities. I have spent a lot of time lately reading through a series of reports by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) about the experience of transitioning mine action programs to national ownership in places like Cambodia, Mozambique, Albania, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. Its part of a background research project to help inform the dialogue process on transferring the Tajikistan Mine Action Centre (TMAC) to national ownership by 2015. Here are a few quick thoughts on what I have learned so far about the challenges of “local ownership” in mine action:
- Underestimating institutional inertia and path dependency. Mine action programs established as UNDP or UNMAS projects (such as TMAC) are wary of being transferred to the control of a government ministry which might end up curtailing its resources and influence, while implementing partner organizations are also skeptical about disturbing the status quo. Looking at the global picture, in almost every case where mine actions programs were originally established as directly managed programs under the UNDP or another international entity, the process of transitioning them to national ownership has either been painfully strung out or just failed altogether. By contrast, programs established under local government control from the start – even if they depend heavily on foreign donors for funding and technical assistance – generally have a much easier time adjusting to the withdrawal of external partners.
- Conflict between short-term pressures and long-term objectives. When creating a mine action program from scratch in post-conflict environments there are intense pressures to “get on with” demining operations without delay, which usually implies hiring staff outside the government system and paying much higher salaries. A rushed program set-up like this can quickly become a source of conflict with existing civil servants, who may feel their authority has been circumvented by the UN and international NGOs. Moreover, talented staff may not remain in the mine action sector once international funding runs out, resulting in the loss of local capacity that had been built up. Unfortunately, concepts such as national ownership and local capacity-building can often be viewed as secondary priorities by international organizations, viewed as a task separate from “getting the job done.”
- Good planning is necessary but not sufficient. Naturally, many external evaluations call for better transition planning, and the need to make this a priority early in the program lifecycle. Unfortunately, even the most prescient and well-organized transition plans can quickly go off-track when outside factors interject, such as changes in key personnel or even governments, shifts in donor priorities, operational setbacks, or any number of variables. Moreover, overly complex transition plans may simply be ignored, especially if the political commitment or technical competence of national officials is low (as happened with the mine action program in South Sudan).
- Skilled and committed leadership is vital. Having an influential and determined individual who sustains focus and momentum is absolutely critical to breaking through the above-mentioned obstacles. High level government officials, as well as foreign donors, have many competing priorities crowding out their attention, and will quickly lose interest in a transition process without determined efforts to keep things moving. By contrast, trying to support capacity development and local ownership without focused leadership or adequate commitment from stakeholders is much like pushing on a string – it won’t get you anywhere.
To recap: promoting local ownership in mine action is hard, especially when the program has a relatively low profile nationally, as is the case in countries such as Tajikistan. Ultimately, however, the fact remains that abrupt and unplanned transitions are costly and can lead to total program collapse, which leaves both donors and host governments worse off. For this reason, nationalization and local ownership remain important goals for all stakeholders.
For those who have encountered these issues in your own work – what do you think?