Strengthening Resilience in the Aftermath of Conflict with Locally-Driven, Creative Policy
This post is written by Jessica L. Anderson, Senior Conflict Advisor, Center for Resilience, Bureau for Resilience and Food Security.
Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is a region in Southeast Bangladesh historically impacted by porous borders, instability and armed conflict. More than two decades of fighting formally came to a close in 1997 with the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord but social, economic and political integration is a work in progress. This remote and hilly region remains wary of outside involvement, with low levels of trust in an area prone to cyclones, flash flooding, and landslides. USAID/Bangladesh’s Food for Peace funded SAPLING program, led by the Helen Keller International (HKI) with technical support from CRS and Caritas, is creatively working alongside trusted local actors to ensure disaster response does not suffer in this context.
Since early 2017, USAID’s SAPLING activity has been working with the Government of Bangladesh’s Disaster Management Committees (DMCs) at all administrative levels in its working area. These committees are set up nationwide to support disaster preparedness and response, with roles and responsibilities defined under the Government’s Standing Orders on Disaster (SOD).
But as Chief of Party Treena Bishop shared with us, “Our team quickly recognized a gap – the SOD mandates who should occupy the seats on the DMCs, but in a multi-ethnic area such as the CHT, this shoe didn’t fit properly. In the CHT, traditional leaders are life-long representatives of people from 11 different ethnic minorities. To be effective and sustainable, we need to train these highly respected local leaders to support their communities in times of disaster and systematically include them in Disaster Management.”
The SAPLING team identified several trends that are often seen in fragile and conflict-affected places around the world. For one, mistrust is very high; a result of years of fighting, marginalization, or the disintegration of social ties across communities. And second, legitimate governance — where people believe in and respect the people and policies that govern their lives — might not always come from the usual suspects. Beyond national politicians or public servants, perhaps traditional authorities or school teachers are equally important local actors for representation and problem-solving.
SAPLING didn’t waste time addressing this governance gap. They began collaborating with each of the twenty-six union-level DMCs in their programming area to include traditional leaders immediately. They found a quick and creative solution for creating a more inclusive committee by encouraging DMCs to fill their “open seats” with traditional leadership. Today, these DMCs boast membership of 103 traditional leaders.
But SAPLING did not just stop by influencing their programming area. Their next step was to broadcast their success to the national level. SAPLING — with Catholic Relief Services in the lead on Disaster Management — recommended that the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief systematically include seats for traditional leadership on the local DMCs. Their advocacy worked. The Government accepted this proposal and incorporated it into the revised Standing Orders on Disaster — which were approved in late 2019. Thanks to this policy change, traditional leaders must now be included on DMCs throughout Bangladesh, systematically increasing social inclusion for ethnic communities nationwide.
This success story is important for a number of reasons. It gives us a great example of how to strengthen resilience and promote sustainability in a fragile, post-conflict place, which is increasingly where USAID investments are headed. It also gives us several concrete answers to the question of how to think and work differently in these contexts. In this story, those answers include thinking creatively about key challenges such as mistrust and social cohesion, carefully assessing the local context, allying with new partners, and thinking about how to amplify local wins into even more sustainable and impactful systems-level change.
The SAPLING team faced a complex and multi-risk environment. People are still struggling to recover from decades of conflict and marginalization, all while they face the ongoing threat of climate-related shocks including landslides, flash flooding, elephant attacks and rat infestations. With open eyes, the SAPLING team set out to create meaningful local disaster response systems in this tough context and they found a creative and exciting policy solution. These structures are now a systems-level source of resilience that can help mitigate the impact of future disaster shocks, all while strengthening trust and collective action in Chittagong Hills Tract. By wrangling directly with the realities of the context, this success story shows how our programming can create peace dividends in the very places that need them most. SAPLING’s work highlights that policy matters, and that thoughtful, outside-the-box policy can make all the difference for strengthening resilience in fragile and conflict-affected places.