Managing the Risks of Stabilization: Germany’s New Assessment Tool

12 January 2021   ·   Philipp Rotmann

Investing money to prevent crises, support stabilization, and build peace carries major risks. Taking such risks is necessary to achieve anything, but they need to be professionally managed. How does the German government’s new “stabilization risk assessment” tool compare to other approaches, and what may other actors learn from it?

Just because an initiative is designed to prevent violence or promote stability does not mean that it does – no matter how good the intentions, interventions in places of violence and volatile politics are fraught with inadvertent consequences that can undermine or even pervert their goals. How can external actors better manage the risks inherent in their attempts to prevent violence, support stabilization, and promote peace?

Following the emergence of “peace and conflict (impact) assessments” (PCA, PCIA) in the late 1990s and the introduction of “strategic conflict assessments” by foreign policy institutions in the US and UK in the 2000s, the field of risk management quietly focused on improving implementation. However, in most relevant governments and international organizations, risk management in programming remained a largely informal practice. In effect, donors outsourced the operational risks to their implementing partners and handled the remaining political risks to their strategic objectives in crude, binary terms: by making all-or-nothing bets on whether to fund a project and, on occasion, stopping an initiative altogether when the risk appeared to rise dramatically. Such decisions reflected an organization’s underlying predisposition to risk and, in some exceptional cases, top-down orders on individual projects or countries rather than the effective implementation of an analytical toolkit.

However, in recent years, the German government and the World Bank have reexamined their practices and built new or adjusted their existing risk management tools. Using exclusive data and interviews from an internal review, I analyze how the latest German effort differs from established approaches and draw some initial lessons.

No Effective Action without Taking Risks

In order to act “earlier, more resolutely, more substantially” in situations of acute crisis, in 2017 the German government resolved not only to scale up its civilian programming, but also to assume a greater “readiness to take risks” – in practical terms, to accept and begin actively managing risks in a professional way. In its own words, this required the German government to “make every effort to anticipate, identify and control the risks and effects of [its] actions better.” The German Foreign Office considers this particularly important for stabilization activities, which are designed to be “immediately effective, closely overseen politically, and focused on fragile areas with high implementation risks.”

For external actors, intervening in violent conflicts – even with civilian means – is always fraught with risks: the intervener has less knowledge than local actors, events move at a quicker and more volatile pace, and violence can result in radical political shifts at any time. In this way, working to prevent conflict escalation and rebuilding dynamic stability, resilience, and peace is a high-risk investment strategy – a worthwhile approach since its rewards often greatly outweigh its costs, but also one that requires fluid, adaptive management.

The political-diplomatic core effort of effective conflict engagement are managed rather fluidly, anyway, as they draw on existing resources (largely staff), require little logistical planning and build on a culture of ad-hoc decisions and incrementalism. However, achieving political goals through “programming” – i.e., investing money in practical projects that undertake specific tasks ranging from construction to dialogue – poses a greater challenge. The ways in which bureaucracies spend money are defined by fixed rules and pre-determined plans, which is a mechanism for accountable, democratic systems of governance to ensure proper control over the use of public money.

The road to project approval can take weeks or months, during which many of the original planning assumptions will have changed. Even more change will come during the duration of the project, and some of the planning assumptions or design decisions might turn out to be dangerously flawed.

As a result, the only projects that are safe from the risk of unintended consequences or the need for serious adjustments are those far-removed from crises and conflicts. These excessively risk-averse projects are not likely to make any great contributions to conflict prevention or peacebuilding. Establishing professional risk management is therefore necessary for donor bureaucracies, but also very challenging both on a political and managerial level. Introducing conscious and responsible risk-taking into a culture of risk avoidance, such as that of most public institutions, is difficult and creates political vulnerabilities.

Existing Tools: Built for Different Purposes

Existing analytical tools for risk management fall into two groups with their own specific strengths and weaknesses. The newer strategic conflict assessment tools such as the US State Department’s Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework (ICAF) and the UK government’s Joint Analysis of Conflict and Stability, function as a strategic planning tool, and the aspects that make them relevant for this purpose renders them, in turn, useless for managing program risks. The most common versions are designed to speed up the process: small groups of mid-level and senior public servants are expected to develop practical policy options over the course a few days. As a result of these key design features, conflict assessment tools are likely to focus on the macro level (“what can we do in country X?”), often without access to programming expertise or detailed scenario analysis (“what might be second-order effects if we did A?”). The results are abstract “entry points” for interventions, without much detail on the design of individual programs or projects. An alternative approach to strategic conflict assessments is conducted over months rather than days and yields more thorough analysis and policy options, but cannot help with urgent decision-making. The focus on the “strategic” big picture at the expense of specific programming options makes it impossible to assess the particular risks associated with a project’s implementation, for example risks from the selection of individual beneficiaries or subcontractors. Without considering such factors, strategic-level tools cannot help mitigate program risks.

In contrast, older tools for peace and conflict impact assessment take a variety of forms, since the original idea has been adopted and adapted by different organizations since the mid-1990s, including for DfID’s (now FCDO’s) Strategic Conflict Assessment (SCA), USAID’s Conflict Assessment Framework (CAF), and GIZ’s Integrated Context and Human Rights Analysis (not available online). In theory, PCIA tools have two main objectives: first, to identify possible interaction effects between a proposed set of development or humanitarian activities (interventions) and the conflict itself; and by doing so, second, to help adjust these activities so as to minimize harm (“do no harm”) and maximize contributions to peace. PCA methods focus on a holistic understanding of the local context and populations’ needs, and many tools have been further expanded to include the narrower category of risks to project delivery (i.e., security risks to staff or contractors). Of course, common guides to conflict sensitivity analysis include questions about “unintended negative impacts,” such as enabling the wrong actors to appropriate material resources or bolster their political legitimacy, as well as distributional effects that are likely to exacerbate conflicts. However, the overall verdict after two deca­des of implementation is sobering: while the “analysis has improved, operational approaches to conflict sensitivity still appear more or less unchanged; or, at best, changes remain limited to a few successful pilot countries,” concluded Thania Paffenholz, one of the foremost innovators and practitioners of PCIA, in 2016.

Drilling Down to the Project Level: Focusing on Adaptation and Mitigation

As part of the recent “local turn” in civilian programming for violence prevention and peacebuilding, some major donors have begun to further develop new analytical tools to support faster project management. In 2020, the World Bank’s social development team in West Africa began piloting new security risk assessments, the purpose of which is not only to “to understand how security risks can manifest today” but also to “explore specific risk scenarios for the future.” In its social protection programs in the Sahel region, the World Bank is experimenting with more targeted data collection and “implementation adjustments” to adapt to changes in the risk landscape.

The German government’s “stabilization risk assessment” (SRA) tool follows a similarly formative but more political logic. The German Federal Foreign Office developed the SRA in 2017 and integrated it into all Foreign Office programming on crisis prevention, stabilization, and peacebuilding in fall 2018. The German SRA builds on a set of principles that are quite distinct from those underlying either strategic conflict assessments or PCIAs. The SRAs are designed to: (1) take responsibility for assessing and managing strategic and political risks on the part of the donor at a strategic-political level of decision-making, i.e. the ministry; (2) be lean enough to fit into a rapid programming cycle; (3) draw on implementing partners’ local knowledge where required, without getting dependent on potential conflicts of interest on their part; (4) span micro and macro levels, unshackled by the intended project’s geographical and thematic limits but enforcing political prioritization of analysis to remain nimble; (5) fit into the project design stage, after major policy decisions are made but before all project design decisions are locked in; and (6) focus attention toward decisions on mitigation measures and project adaptation.

Successful Risk Assessment Needs Reliable Analysis, Risk Tolerance, and Cross-Sectoral Collaboration 

Based on a recent confidential review of the German stabilization risk assessment tool I have undertaken between March and July 2020, the following lessons are particularly relevant for the broader community around programming in fragile and violent contexts:

1. Capability and resources: The quality and utility of a donor institution’s political risk management depends on its access to reliable political analysis of relevant conflict dynamics at a granular, subnational level. With such access, donors can benefit from lean, efficient and high-quality political risk assessments at the project level. An initial triage system helps to focus staff attention on those project proposals with the highest risk potential. On average, the SRAs require a few working days per project to conduct, and the workload is split between several staff members – which is very efficient compared to any approach that would require commissioned research, for example. However, this time investment is not insignificant, particularly if you consider the number of new projects approved by major donors.

As a result of increasing staff capacity in the relevant divisions and embassies following the Review 2014, the German Foreign Office has gained sufficient expertise to conduct SRAs well, at least for its main priority countries. However, personnel shortages remain a key constraint to implementing such risk assessments for all of its projects – one part of the broader effect that diplomatic staff shortages have on meeting the goals set by German policymakers across most political parties.

2. Culture: While risk management tools are necessary, they are not sufficient to single-handedly sway an institutional mindset toward greater “readiness to take risks”. The stabilization risk assessment tool has proven most useful in situations where a combination of entrepreneurial leadership and trusted collaboration with implementing partners had already produced innovative project ideas for which the SRA methodology was able to guide the political component of the due diligence process. By requiring explicit discussions, clear-cut decisions and internally-transparent documentation, the stabilization risk assessment tool has helped to build a culture of actively asses­sing, prioritizing and managing risks, which is necessary to make Germany’s increased investment in crisis prevention, stabilization and peacebuilding more effective.

3. Coverage and collaboration: While the German government considers the Foreign Office’s portfolio on “crisis prevention, stabilization and peacebuilding” (which includes mediation support) particularly prone to political risks, donors have many types of projects and programs for which the same is arguably true. Some of the most prominent examples include humanitarian action, the wide range of security cooperation with fragile states (where the risks and tradeoffs between contributing to and potentially undermining the security of the population(s) in question must be a constant consideration), and development cooperation in fragile contexts in which variations of peace and conflict impact assessments have long been used. Each of these areas has its own set of actors and its established ways of judging and dealing with political risk. Given the renewed attention to risk management across policy communities – from development to security assistance – it would be worthwhile for different sectoral and international institutions to compare notes and exchange lessons in the service of acting more targeted and more effectively.

Evaluierung Stabilisierung Conflict Prevention

Philipp Rotmann

Philipp Rotmann is Associate Director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi). @PhilippRotmann