Developing a strategy I

Getting the basics right

Last week we looked at conflict analysis as a non-negotiable base for any intervention in a conflict situation. Bryn made a strong argument for rooting the analysis to a significant degree in the understanding of the very communities experiencing the conflict. He stressed the need to then be willing to work with the very complex - and often contradictory - narratives that the analysis will yield before elaborating on other key qualities any analysis must have in order to provide us with a good understanding of the realities on the ground. 


Building on Bryn‘s introduction into conflict analysis, I would like to now focus our attention on the value of developing sound strategies as a guiding framework for conflict transformation and peacebuilding initiatives. Today‘s article will lay out the basic thinking underpinning any strategy development process and will explore some of its key principles. Next week‘s post will focus on some of the tools that come in handy when developing strategies, especially in localities characterised by conflict.


De-mystifying strategy development

Let‘s start by de-mystifying strategy development processes. In simple words, strategies spell out the long-term direction of an organisation. They explain the very plan your organisation has come up to connect the here and now - that is the very situation you find yourself in at the moment and that you hopefully have a good understanding of as a result of a comprehensive conflict analysis - with your vision and goals - that is the situation your organisation hopes to see three, five, ten years down the line. In many ways strategies are a bit like road-maps. For road maps to make sense, we need to know the place we start from and we need to know the place we want to go to. For strategies to be of value, they will not only tell us which path to follow, but also information about the methods we will use, the people who will be part of the journey, the assistance we might require, the resources we need and much more.


Developing a strategy doesn‘t have to be a difficult process. And yet it seems many organisations working on conflicts shy away from spelling out their strategy. And while there might be good reasons for doing so, I believe the argument for actually having a sound strategy is overwhelming. In my eyes, a good strategy is essential to any strategic conflict transformation or peacebuilding intervention.


Yes, conflict situations are often very complex, quickly changing and often hard to understand. Yes, keeping up with the conflict dynamics can be time-consuming. Yes, we can not know for sure what the situation will look like half a year from now, one year from now etc. And yes, a new situation might ask for a different intervention. Yes, causes and effects in conflict situations are not necessarily linear and what we expected them to be. And yes, the temptation is great work on an ad-hoc basis and mostly just react to the developments on the ground. I am aware of all these realities and how they can impact on any strategy development process. And still, I want to make a case for having a strategy, one that is rooted in a good and up-to-date analysis, one that is clearly spelled out, one that is able to guide people‘s day to day work.


Having a strategy does not mean that you cannot depart from it. There are situations where sticking to your strategy just does not make sense, where changing the strategy is a wise choice. But any departure from an agreed strategy must be a conscious decision, needs to be on the basis of specific contextual situations arising and must be clearly communicated to all people involved. It must not be the result of people just being too busy with other things, people not being disciplined enough to actually stick to it, people having more exciting opportunities distracting them from it etc. 


Five key principles for strategy development

Let me formulate five basic principles you should have in mind when formulating a strategy.


No. 1: Know the present situation and how you got there

As mentioned above, strategy is basically a description of your plan of how you hope to change a given conflict situation towards a better future. This implies that you have a good understanding of the current situation, the main issues the conflict is about, the main actors involved, their interests in the conflict etc. As Bryn elaborated on the need for a comprehensive, up-to-date conflict analysis based on the local understanding of the conflict I will not go into further details here. You might want to re-visit his articles Best Practice Conflict Analysis I and Best Practice Conflict Analysis II or have a look at The Peacebuilding Practitioner‘s Conflict Analysis Toolkit (when signing up for the newsletter). 


No. 2: Know where you want to be a few years down the line

Just like knowing where you came from is key to developing a promising strategy, so is spelling out where you want to go. In the context of conflict transformation and peacebuilding that means developing a clear vision for the long term and a clear goal for the mid-term and describing the changes you hope to see a couple years down the line. I personally always found it helpful to write a positive statement describing the situation I would like to see. And do it in a SMART way, i.e. make it specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. 


Let me emphasise one point here: I think it is essential to be realistic and aim for what is achievable. Know what is possible in a given scenarios and what is not possible. Be honest about what your organisation is capable of delivering and what is beyond your organisation‘s current capacity. I am aware of slogans like ,Let‘s aim for the sky‘ and ,Let‘s strive for the impossible‘ and the like. And I think all they do is set you up for disappointment, frustration and trouble. 


Being realistic about what can be done in a given situation within a certain period of time is key. It will allow you, your staff and the communities you work with to see the progress and to be proud of it. This will build confidence and allow people to take on bigger challenges the next time. And it will make sure donors and beneficiaries alike are satisfied with you and your work as you deliver the progress you promised them. 


Developing unrealistic and unachievable goals will do the opposite. No matter how hard you and your staff try, you will not make the progress you need to reach your goals. This will lead to disappointment and frustration both within the organisation as well as within the communities on whose behalf you work. It is also likely to raise questions with donor organisations about why you are not delivering on your promises. So I would like to emphasise that program/project goals must be achievable.


For those of you who are not familiar with using SMART goals, let me give you an example. Picture the following scenario: A conflict situation in one part of the country. A heavy presence of police and military as well as para-state militias, often from other districts. Mistrust between the state and its representatives on the one side and the local population in the other. Abuses by the police and the military are rampant and a real concern. 


An organisation decides to address this issue. After analysing the situation and gaining a good understanding of the conflict dynamics at work, it might formulate the following goal: In five years cases of mistreatment of civilians by security forces in districts x, y and z is reduced by at least 50%. 


So let‘s check if this is a SMART goal. Is this clearly spelling out the changes the organisation hopes to see by the end of the project and as a direct result of its intervention? In relation to the problem we have at the moment? Yes!

It‘s specific - reduction of mistreatment of people by security forces in a certain area. 

It‘s measurable: 50% compared to current levels, presuming we have base-line data. 

It‘s achievable: Five years for halving the number of incidents seems realistic - given our analysis and the expertise and track-record of the organisation setting out on this initiative. 

It‘s relevant: According to the analysis the behaviour by the security forces is an issue that feeds directly into the conflict dynamics, creates further mistrust and resentment, more and more people call for revenge and a s a consequence the situation further escalates.  

It‘s time-bound: Within five years.


No. 3: Know yourself

So, now we have the starting point and the ending point. And as mentioned above a strategy spells out your plan to change the current situation into an improved one in the future. But it only makes sense as a guide for action and practical activities if it relates directly to an actor; i.e. your organisation.


In order to develop a sound and promising strategy you need to know yourself. You need to know what your organisation stands for and what would be missing if it were not there. You need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your organisation and the issues, methods and cooperations your organisation is really passionate about. You need to know its current - and future - financial and human resources. You need to know how acceptable your organisation is to key players within a giving conflict. You need to know your organisation‘s values and principles and the implications they have for what you can and cannot do. 


In my eyes it is also essential to be clear and honest about your limitations. Be honest about areas of work you wither do not have the capacity to do, you do not feel passionate about or you do not feel well placed to engage in. This openness is essential as all these aspects will impact on your strategy. The more you know about your organisation and how it is perceived in a given scenario, the better you are equipped to develop a comprehensive and realistic strategy. 


No. 4: Know what has worked in the past

Any strategy must incorporate lessons drawn from previous experiences. What worked in the past and why? What did not bring about the expected results and why not? Which assumptions underpinning your previous approaches proved to be correct? And are they still valid? Which assumptions collapsed when tested in the field? Which methods and approaches worked well? And with which group?


Having a detailed understanding about work undertaken earlier - either by your own organisation or by others - is essential. Drawing out the key lessons and learning from them is a must. This needs an open and honest approach, also admitting where interventions were weak, maybe counter-productive or in some instances even harmful.


No. 5: Make Educated guesses about future developments

As I said earlier, simply put a strategy is a mid-/long-term plan that links the current situation with the future, spelling out what is needed to address present conflict issues and achieve a clearly articulated improved situation in the future. We just looked at four key principles that help us when developing such a strategy. 


Experience shows that a meaningful strategy can best be developed if we have a good understanding of likely developments in the future. If we can foresee a development, we can be prepared for it. By 'foreseeing' I do not mean we know it will happen. But we have a good understanding of which dynamics are operating and how they play out. This often puts us in a good position to make an educated guess about which developments are likely to occur - either periodically/seasonally or from assessing earlier conflict dynamics. This needs to be reflected in our strategy.


So, let me sum this up again:

  • A strategy must be developed to the best of your abilities.
  • A strategy must be based on a sound analysis of the situation.
  • A strategy must be guided by a clear idea of where you want to be a few years down the line.
  • A strategy must take into account lessons from previous interventions and must reflect the capacities and experiences of your organisation.
  • A strategy works best if it pre-empts future developments. 
  • At the same time a strategy needs to be flexible.
  • A strategy needs to be adapted once key aspects in the surroundings change.
  • A strategy needs to change if it is not bringing about the expected results.
  • A strategy needs to have mechanisms that actually tell us whether the strategy that guides our actions is bringing the change we hope to see or not; if we are on the right track and are making progress against the set goal; if something important in the overall setup of the conflict is changing etc. And it needs to give us this information in a timely manner so that the strategy can be adjusted if necessary. 



In next week‘s post we will look at some of the tools that can help you to develop a strategy, especially if you are working in a conflict context. 


Post by Bjoern Eser from The Peacebuilding Practitioner.