In Changing Times, Creative’s Approach Parallels World Bank Development Report Findings


Soldiers on duty.

A quarter of humanity still resides in a violent and frightening world says the World Bank in its World Development Report 2011. This fact might lead a pessimist to conclude that 60-years of development have been a failure. Other indicators, however, tell a different story — the efforts of the international development sector have not been for naught. For one, access to education and health care has improved for more people than ever before, as has life expectancy in most places in the world. Still, the challenge of coming to grips with conflicts in the last decade, or so, has bedeviled the international development sector.

When entire communities run amok, with no clear delineation between ally and foe, managing education, health and civil society projects requires tremendous tenacity. But, time and effort and, quite simply, this historical period in which we live have helped push the envelope on different approaches to effective development. As such, the WDR 2011 reflects an awakening to the extraordinary opportunity that lies before the international development community to reduce poverty and conflict.

The international development sector emerged from the ashes of a post-war devastated Europe and Japan six decades ago. The successful reconstruction of Europe and Japan and the influences of the Cold War paradigm largely reinforced a philosophically rigid approach to development. The publication of the WDR in April of this year represents a clear departure. For the most part, development trends have focused on addressing economic growth in the private sector, gender issues, capacity building, among others. These initiatives are not misdirected as they are essential to effective development. Nonetheless, they are inadequate in addressing the instability generated by a vacuum of societal institutions and an educated citizenry. Citizen insecurity impedes opportunities for revitalizing the social, economic and political sectors in strife ridden countries.

“I’m not necessarily an advocate of the notion that violence is a product of economic deprivation,” says James “Spike” Stephenson, Senior Adviser at Creative Associates International and former USAID Mission Director in Iraq. “For instance, in 1975 Lebanon imploded, though it had one of the higher per capita incomes around, so there are other reasons for violence. Consequently, there is a mutual need to have security accompany economic development. This has been evident for those who work in conflict areas. I mean, getting shot at while doing economic development will enlighten you quickly.”

And Stephenson, a seasoned development professional and former soldier, is no stranger to conflict. In addition to Iraq, his resumé includes postings in Serbia and Montenegro, Lebanon, Egypt, El Salvador, and Grenada among others. Over the years, he has thought long and hard about the chasm that separates the 1945 Marshall Plan approach from the violent theatre in which conflict plays out today in large swaths of Africa, Central America, South Asia, and other places. Conflicts today are often internecine eruptions over ethnic or religious differences fought in villages, towns, and cities where innocent civilians are under siege because enemy lines are not clearly delineated. In conflict areas, such as Afghanistan or Iraq, development professionals must rub shoulders with military personnel if they are to remain safe and carry out their mandate. This is true for development workers leading education projects as it is for those undertaking civil society or public works projects.

“The paradigm shift in the WDR 2011 is that it clearly posits that security cannot be separated from development and governance initiatives,” says Stephenson. “The NGOs and humanitarian organizations have not wanted to get involved with security, particularly where it meant interacting with the military. Part of this is that they want to preserve their humanitarian space. With the types of conflicts we have today, we don’t have the luxury of separating these various elements.”

Stephenson advises Creative’s Stabilization and Development division created five years ago to expand on the company’s forward thinking approach towards balancing development with stabilization on the ground. Having been on the ground administering projects for nearly 35 years, Creative’s approach to development is supported by the paradigm shift called for in the WDR 2011. “Creative made the decision 5-years ago that there had to be an intersection between development and stability,” says Stephenson. “In other words, Creative understood that effective development projects whether in education or community development must promote cooperation among stakeholders so that basic security reigns to allow economic activity. Whether working in education or community development, working in insecure environments has to be part of Creative’s brand.”


Even in conflict zone, children are the promise of the future.

Creative’s Community-driven methodology embraces full representation of all groups, such as youth, women and ethnic minorities engaging them to help prioritize urgent needs. “Take a prototypal village in let’s say Afghanistan where access to municipal services amounts to no electricity, water, or sewage. Our approach is to get communities to identify their own priorities. The first priority is often water because women spend a great deal of time collecting water. The second priority is usually a school or clinic. The third is either a school or clinic depending on what the second is. The fourth and fifth priorities are jobs for their youth. ‘We need our young to have opportunities, have an income or they go to insurgencies or gangs’.”

Stephenson collaborated in refining Creative’s methodology with Senior Vice President and Director of Creative’s S&D division, James Schmitt, a former military officer who served with Special Operations Forces and who was among the initial entry forces that arrived in Baghdad in early 2003. Schmitt’s resumé, like Stephenson’s, also includes several former postings in conflict and transitions zones such as Berlin, Kosovo, Afghanistan, the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, and New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. These experiences have led Schmitt to believe that our times call for a “bottom up” development model, one with a “core methodology for operating in rapidly changing environments and a commitment to engage with at risk populations and communities.”

Schmitt says he joined Creative because the company’s capacity for implementing development projects has been honed by many years of field work in complex environments. “Creative recognized the need to modify previous development methods to reflect the changing aspect of conflict and that it would have to work with those already on the ground such as the military. Among implementers, Creative’s approach stood as a first realization of this concept.”

Though the military and development professionals are on separate missions, Schmitt says that international development and military efforts must be complementary given the intersection between security and development in conflict environments. The military facilitates security which in turn allows civilian stabilization partners to foster conditions that enable community-led development activities to take root. Often we insufficiently construct the combined component mix necessary to allow for bottom-up sustainable development to initiate and take root within a conflict area. If one takes a closer look at development, it is a continuum — and in the conflict space the continuum starts and moves from a humanitarian space to the sustainable development space. To cover this distance one has to create a level of stability as a precursor for sustainable local development.”

In 2009, Stephenson and Schmitt developed a quick community impact project in Afghanistan for the Department of Defense. The project and method of approach was the first of its kind and is widely regarded to have been a success. Working with the military, the civilian project team identified suitable communities to coordinate road building and other infrastructure activities that facilitated trade between towns and villages and employed young males discouraging their recruitment into insurgent groups. The program was a quick impact community-based project in selected villages and tied community development to a reduction in insurgency activity and influence.

“Also, the project was a success because it had a specific scope, we were not there to teach or build the capacity of ministries,” says John O’Connell, a Technical Manager on Schmitt’s S&D team who helped administer the Afghan project. “In comparison some development programs are very broad and can get watered down, we had a specific mandate — quick impact and stabilization.”

Winning people’s confidence in an explosive situation requires an extreme sensitivity to context and culture. For this reason, villagers who benefited from the project only dealt with other Afghans and not expatriate advisors – in other words Afghan staff who could walk the walk and talk the talk, enabling the critical buy-in of shura members and other elders, a necessary requirement of a counter-insurgency plan. And, because it was Afghans helping Afghans the project gained legitimacy. As project activities were undertaken, the communities found they had something to lose and something to hope for by cooperating.

“Before we implemented anything, we told the communities that we wanted to hear from them what they needed. Some development programs come with a fixed mission, whereas in our approach, the communities told us what they wanted or needed first,” says O’Connell. “An approach like the Afghan project could be the future of development. It was a dynamic project, well in front of the curve. I felt as if I was standing at the edge and seeing a new horizon.” says O’Connell of the development sector’s unique opportunity to stem violence, build citizen confidence and pave the way for more comprehensive interventions.

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