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  • Dan Langfitt, Jaël Mbale and Pépin Mugisho

Is socioeconomic conflict a necessary by-product of successful MSD interventions? And if so, then what?

Updated: Feb 28

MSD Hub editor's note (Michael Field, Senior Systems Specialist, Vikāra Institute):

In this blog, the authors provide relatively detailed examples from USAID’s Strengthening Livelihoods and Resilience (SLR) Activity which works in Ituri province in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  The blog points out correctly that any substantial systemic change will results in tensions and trade-offs that could in turn result in conflict.  As the blog points out when SLR intervened in fragile contexts, it disrupted local contexts that increased fears and anxieties for communities, even when they tried to minimize such knock-on effects.  What is really important, is that SLR effectively monitored progress and spotted emerging concerns and acted to mitigate/manage any rising tensions. Increasingly, as MSD practitioners apply MSD in more challenging contexts, they are learning important lessons that are also applicable in less challenging contexts. For example, the emergence of MSR lenses as a more central element of MSD has also highlighted the importance of understanding social, cultural, political and market contexts, especially in how communities and market actors manage risks.  MSR frameworks often identify emerging areas of significant tension especially around access to essential resources like food and water that are mostly likely to generate tension between groups.  In this context, while not explicitly defined in the blog, a key takeaway that should apply to any application of MSD is the importance of mediation skills within activities and within social, political and market systems. 

Socioeconomic change creates winners and losers.  In the long term, we hope that inclusive and sustainable economic growth will benefit everyone, but at a smaller scale it will create novel opportunities for some people and businesses and force others to adapt or fail.  Market-systems development projects aspire to facilitate change in a way that avoids the catastrophes—political revolution, institutional slavery, rampant ecological destruction, colonial empire, genocide, and the rest of the litany—that accompanied Europe’s, then North America’s (and others’) transition to their economic systems today.  But it is naïve to believe that if an MSD intervention achieves its aim of catalyzing transformational change, the process will be a smooth one.  The curve charting such a transformation may feel steepest and bumpiest to communities in the most fragile places, where a low baseline leaves the most potential for progress as well as the greatest risk of violent conflict.  This makes extremely fragile economies interesting sources of reflection on the conflict that can emerge within communities making the transition from dependence-driven livelihoods to reliance on the market.

Vigorous debate in a community co-creation session in Djugu territory during SLR’s inception year.  It was clear from the outset that while communities agreed to move away from patterns of conflict and rely less on donors, a shared vision for inclusive growth was elusive: some members of the community stood to win, and others to lose, from specific programmatic interventions.  SLR eventually needed to extract itself from this community when intractable political dynamics made it impossible to design community partnerships that would not reinforce donor dependence and exacerbate tensions.  Photo: Dan Langfitt.

Donor projects must develop strategies to peacefully facilitate such transitions.  USAID’s Strengthening Livelihoods and Resilience (SLR) Activity works in Ituri province in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where persistent insecurity, weak governance, frail or absent infrastructure, and decades of humanitarian assistance have led to one of the most difficult environments in the world for a resilience project to apply MSD principles like facilitation and sustainability.  However, it has found that interventions built around a core philosophy of inclusive economic growth has gained traction with its partners and can achieve resilience objectives like nutrition, social cohesion, and local governance. Even simple ideas can have a rapid and significant impact in Ituri—but that impact can also include conflict.

Socioeconomic whiplash

SLR and its partners piloted one such idea in mid-2023.  Building on two years of work establishing relationships and credibility with communities in northern Ituri and seed companies interested in selling improved inputs to them, it introduced a pilot to sell hybrid maize seeds on partial credit.  The first season was a success: farmers saw bigger harvests, they were on track to repay the seed company in full, and the partner company began expanding its seed-on-credit initiative. SLR is involving itself less intensively in the expansion, instead leveraging the pilot with other companies selling improved potato and rice seeds in more vulnerable parts of the province.  It was a typical MSD intervention, a predictable win-win, and it caught on quickly once the groundwork was done and trust was established.

Farmers tending unprecedentedly expansive fields of high-yielding maize near Ingbokolo, Aru territory.  On average, they recorded harvests of 2,500 kilos in the pilot season, for some a tenfold increase over past production from traditional saved-seed varieties, and they were able to access this volume of improved seed thanks to a pilot that offered hybrid maize on partial credit to qualified communities.  Photo: Jaël Mbale.

Seed-on-credit schemes will hardly seem radical to readers of this blog series, but in Ituri, this pilot amounted to a sharp change in livelihood strategies and economic mentalities. After years of inputs coming to smallholder farmers inconsistently, of variable quality, but at no cost and without accountability, improved seeds were suddenly available reliably, but at a price and with technical and contractual conditions.  Instead of communities with the best self-advocacy getting seeds from humanitarian organizations for free, SLR and its partner seed company assessed farmers’ land availability, trustworthiness, and commitment to good agricultural practices.  For some partner SLR communities, this felt like socioeconomic whiplash: under the emerging system, businesses or individuals with the social position and skills for navigating the humanitarian system could lose status or market share to others who were better at business plans or at growing and selling crops in a market-driven economy.  SLR neither planned nor wished for socioeconomic conflict as a by-product of its pilot seed-credit intervention, but it wasn’t terribly surprised by what happened next.

Stealing from the… rich to give to the poor?

The first bump in the road occurred in an isolated, ethnically divided community bordering Djugu, Ituri’s most insecure territory.  The southwestern part of the community had more displaced people, it received more humanitarian aid, and it was more heavily influenced by the local militia.  When SLR introduced the seed company and its pilot credit initiative, farmers from this side of the community took offense at the idea of paying for seeds in the first place.  They declined to participate.  This suited the seed company fine (for the purposes of the pilot, it needed to limit the number of participants anyway), so it worked with the more receptive farmers on the northeastern side for the first year.  In September toward harvest time, though, SLR began to hear stories about crop theft.  Reports trickling in from trusted community members described people from the southwestern side of town openly stealing cobs of maize from fields in the northeast.  Although the northeast–southwest split did not map precisely to ethnic fault lines, there was enough alignment of crop-theft patterns with Hema–Lendu–Alur divisions to merit alarm.

SLR faced a dilemma: on the one hand, it had been heavily involved in launching the pilot in this fragile, impoverished community—it facilitated the entry of the seed company, vouched for farmer groups, and introduced maize mills as potential customers; and in parallel, it had co-invested in land preparation to inject cash into the town’s economy and help participating farmers afford the down payment on the seed—but SLR neither represented the seed company, guaranteed the purchase of outputs, ensured repayment for the seeds, nor assumed any legal obligation to the community in case the pilot failed.  The project wished to maintain some semblance of a facilitation role and prepare to step into the background next season.

On the other hand, it saw its intervention potentially harming a community it was trying to help.  The SLR intervention manager therefore intervened, but almost invisibly, with a week of phone calls behind the scenes.  She deftly coached the aggrieved farmers in the northeast on peaceful ways to dissuade their neighbors from stealing their maize, and she encouraged neutral community leaders to remind the would-be Robin Hoods in the southwest that at the beginning of the season, they had chosen to opt out of the seed-credit pilot.  Successful maize producers on the northeast side reassured their disgruntled neighbors that if the pilot was a success—and if they were able to sell a large (read: not stolen away) harvest and pay back their credit—the seed company would expand the credit facility.  Then, in the upcoming season, farmers on both sides of town could benefit.  The theft stopped.

Getting the lay of the land: SLR staff was able to navigate an emergent conflict in western Mahagi territory because it had spent time with its private-sector partners surveying and understanding land-use patterns around fields like these, near Kambala, and the socioeconomic dynamics of the communities that farm them.  Photo: Meta Bonefride.

SLR was able to navigate this bump in the road without abandoning its role as a facilitator neither by luck nor with explicit advance planning, but rather through the application of conflict-sensitive facilitation principles.  It invested time up front to learn about the community and work with the seed company to map out potential fault lines, applying lessons from USAID-funded work in nearby South Sudan about putting the community first (but not alone!) in activity design.  In Mahagi, this participatory process led to an invitation for everyone in the community to participate in the seed-credit pilot based on objective eligibility criteria. The transparent self-selection by the southwestern contingent not to participate was crucial to those resentful community members accepting responsibility later on.  SLR had also spent years differentiating itself from humanitarian organizations in the area, convincing the community and the seed company that SLR was not going to bail anyone out in case of non-performance. This reduced the moral hazard of the community turning to SLR for monetary compensation for stolen crops instead of resolving the internal conflict themselves.

Most important of all, though, were the transparent and consistent rules SLR’s partner established for the new seed-credit regime: the southwestern part of the community stopped stealing from their northeastern neighbors primarily because they believed that next agricultural season—and for seasons and seasons thereafter—they would have a fair opportunity to access the same seeds on the same terms.  Transparency and rules create islands of predictability within a sea of chaos.  Chaotic socioeconomic systems are corrosive to human psychology over time—put simply, our brains don’t tolerate true chaos for very long—so one tactic for breaking cycles of disaster and dependence is to create pockets of order where positive disruptions can take root and build the foundations of eventual stability. SLR’s initiative to extend the seed-credit pilot to the edge of Djugu territory, in spite of its insecurity, was an effort to nurture one such pocket.

(Rogue) marketing and (mis)informed customers

In late November, during preparations for the subsequent agricultural season, a murkier conflict emerged to the north, in Aru territory near the border with Uganda.  In this more stable part of Ituri, the pilot seed-credit initiative had been particularly fruitful, and the seed company was scaling up its marketing.  As word of the initiative spread through Aru’s farming communities, so did a panic that the seeds were genetically modified organisms, inferior in taste to the traditional lower-yield maize varieties, and dangerous if consumed by children.  None of the maize-milling operations in the area would buy the harvest, lamented the WhatsApp conspiracy theorists, and everyone was being hoodwinked by a malevolent Ugandan agro-industrial company.

One of the main thoroughfares in Aru City, the administrative capital of the territory where rumors spread that hybrid maize seeds were unfit for sale on the local market.  Although more stable than other parts of Ituri, Aru’s economy is relatively unsophisticated when it comes to features like customer choice, which makes consumers vulnerable to manipulative marketing. A relationship between seed distributor and retailer based on trust and regular communication was crucial for discovering and dispelling the rumors as soon as they began: in the midground, the partner seed company’s sales representative speaks with one of their local agents at his kiosk.  Photo: Dan Langfitt.

SLR knew that the maize seeds were hybrids, not GMOs, that the varieties had been extensively tested and consumed in Uganda for over a decade without ill effect, and maize millers were in fact lining up to buy Aru’s increased maize production—SLR was even co-investing with some of them to move them closer to the zones of production.  When SLR began tracing the rumors through its community partners, it heard that an alleged representative of an international humanitarian organization had gone on a local radio show and raised concerns about the safety of the new maize variety, stated the maize was ineligible for its school feeding programs, and discouraged farmers from buying the new seeds, on credit or otherwise.

Customer choice is an important feature of a developed market economy, but choice is not a given in zones with a high degree of dependence on government social programs or humanitarian organizations.  Humanitarian (ex-)beneficiaries at the beginning of their transformation into customers are not inherently adept at navigating these choices, and they can be more susceptible to manipulative marketing.  On the other hand, a lifetime in a conflict-prone area offers many lessons on combatting disinformation, and Aru maize farmers had developed a healthy skepticism of institutions and the media.  Unlike in the more unstable Mahagi town on the border with Djugu, where SLR needed to intervene swiftly to stem emergent conflict, the market actors in Aru found a solution to this brief panic on their own.

Trusted community members like this agro-dealer, at her storefront in Aru city, were essential to quelling rumors about the safety of the hybrid maize seeds SLR and its partner seed company were promoting as part of a new seed-credit initiative. Photo: Dan Langfitt. 

It turned out that the person on the radio show did not speak for the international humanitarian organization at all, and the school feeding program reassured maize mill operators it would be open to buying maize flour ground from the hybrid maize variety.  The seed company’s two permanent sales representatives in the province reinforced messaging about the safety and palatability of their maize variety through a network of mobile agents and agro dealers trusted in their communities.  The truth about the deception spread through social media and by word of mouth.  The SLR team’s working hypothesis is that the radio provocateur was acting on behalf of a handful of entrepreneurs who buy maize flour in western Uganda and transport it across the border to sell to the school feeding program at a high markup… but SLR and its partners could not reach him for comment because he had fled to Uganda in the face of community backlash to his radio appearance.

Although SLR was not called on to resolve the immediate problem, it has taken lessons from the brief panic that threatened to destabilize the seed company’s operations in Aru territory, and it is taking steps to help the system respond.  SLR helped facilitate radio appearances for representatives of the seed company to explain the differences between hybrid and GMO seeds, and it reinforced the importance of radio journalists vetting or at least contextualizing the guests they give a platform to.  The school feeding initiative originally blamed for the disinformation is operated by a European humanitarian organization with a commitment to market-friendly programming, and SLR is working with their provincial leadership to clarify its position publicly.  Finally, it is working to identify the Uganda-to-Aru maize middlemen it believes to be at the root of the provocation, but its approach will begin from a place of empathy.  These importers stand to lose their entire market in one or two seasons if their main customer shifts to purchasing maize flour from Aru farmers instead of from cross-border traders. SLR hopes to work with them to diversify or reorient their businesses to new roles in the value chain so that they, too, can benefit from the socioeconomic changes in progress—and will no longer try to scupper them.

Back to the HDP Nexus

Experiences from other projects point to other system actors to include in the change process—not just buyers and sellers of goods, or supporting services like the media.  An orthodox market-systems lens usually filters out donor-financed activities as “outside the system”, but DAI’s experience with refugee economies in Ethiopia and Uganda shows that not only are humanitarian actors an entrenched part of these fragile systems, they can be valuable partners in facilitating a transition to one more reliant on the market.  Alliances between humanitarian, development, and private-sector actors can take time and patience, and maintaining the role of a facilitator requires creativity and discipline, but the FCDO-funded SHARPE activity in Ethiopia, Ikea Foundation’s SMILES activity in Uganda, and USAID/Uganda’s Inclusive Agricultural Markets activity show that complementary NGO and MSD skill sets can lead to sustainability and scalability of innovations in refugee livelihoods.

The donor-project graveyard at Kasenyi: a familiar sight in the eastern DRC.  Ituri is replete with such monuments to aid and development initiatives of yore.  These placards are tempting to mock when they are the only visible results that remain of the funding, but they also serve as a reminder of the intangible human experiences that go along with that work.  One key to managing emergent conflict in changing systems could be found across the gamut of those staff, partner, and community instincts, knowledge, and relationships.  Photo: Dan Langfitt.

One of the factors experts cite as a major impediment to humanitarian–development–peace coherence is the lack of conflict-analysis skills.  Development practitioners with a background in economic growth sometimes feel this gap more acutely than their colleagues in governance or natural-resource management.  If good, systemic economic development is bound to create conflicts, though, shouldn’t all economic-development activities—not just those in fragile, conflict-affected places like Ituri—adopt a conflict-sensitive lens to their programming, or else see their gains mooted by counterbalancing feedback from disgruntled Mahagi farmers or Aru–Uganda maize middlemen?  Like so many questions in the management of complex change, this one boils down to practical, programmatic trade-offs: budgets, staffing, partners… and the familiar conclusion that there is never enough time, money, or expertise.  On the other hand, perhaps we can take heart from lessons in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, or Ituri: in our colleagues, community partners, and private-sector collaborators, we may already have the knowledge and relationships we need to contend with emergent conflict. The art of conflict management in MSD programming may just be about nurturing and listening to them properly.


Dan Langfitt, DAI 

Jaël Mbale, SLR 

Pépin Mugisho, SLR  

Dan Langfitt is a Principal Specialist in DAI’s Resilience & Stability practice and was the DRC SLR activity’s Director of Partnerships and Operations until April 2023. SLR’s Jaël Mbale and Pépin Mugisho made major contributions to this piece. Thanks to Vikāra’s Mike Field for suggesting the provocative topic.

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