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  • Dan Langfitt, Metha Bonefride and Nicole Kivava

Approaches to meeting emergent needs without sacrificing systemic change

Updated: Feb 12

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

This blog provides a timely discussion of how MSD approaches are increasingly being applied in contexts where emergency response services are a must. As the blog points out, market systems have always played important roles during various shocks and stresses. At the same time, donors have been hesitant to integrate MSD and humanitarian approaches. With the emergence of MSR lenses, it has become clear that applying systems lenses during shocks and stresses is critical to both dealing with the immediate needs of populations under threat, and doing so in a manner that provides the best chance of households, communities, market systems, etc. move past fragility. While this discussion is relatively new, it has become an increasingly more important as climate change and international political tensions are increasing the amount of stress on many lower income populations. Clearly, more support and engagement is needed to share, discuss and capture experiences and lessons related to the nexus of humanitarian response and systems thinking approaches that catalyze longer term change.


Donor-funded projects need to act quickly in a crisis—be it a time-bound natural disaster or the cumulative small stresses of repeated business failures and household tragedies—both to prevent backsliding on its objectives and because it’s unfair to expect staff to do business as usual in the face of suffering partners and beneficiaries. A project expected to create long-term changes in a market system faces a dilemma, though: does it inject resources into a vulnerable system to prop it up, at the risk of losing its credibility as a facilitator and undermining the market it means to strengthen? or does it back away from the crisis and leave it to organizations specializing in emergencies?

USAID’s Feed the Future Strengthening Livelihoods and Resilience Activity (SLR) works in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s northeastern Ituri Province, where markets are perilously thin, militias remain active, inter-community conflict is rife, economic prospects are bleak... and the project cannot back away from the crises that surround it. In its inception year, this resilience activity explored a variety of strategies (shared in more detail during MSS2022) to remain a facilitator while still acting quickly, including letting partner communities set their own development priorities. Flipping the script for pre-designed humanitarian interventions established SLR as a different kind of donor project, with a reputation for insisting on long-term commercial sustainability and up-front co-investment from its partners.

Youth in Kasenyi, Ituri working to prepare access roads and adjacent agricultural fields. The community asked SLR to support a vocational training program for a hundred young men in the community to productively invest the income they received from this work. Photo: Guerson Kobena, Commission Foncière d’Ituri.

Preserving a hard-earned reputation

One activity that emerged from the community-led co-creation exercise SLR facilitated in the lakeside village of Kasenyi was a land-titling and horticulture project, and one of SLR’s co-investments was land preparation. Local youth—many of whom are still courted by the local militia—did the work, and community partners asked that SLR assist with a self-employment program in which youth could invest their new income. In the context of militia recruiters and a cadre of young men who had just received a one-time payout, they saw this as an urgent need.

SLR does not have a direct mandate to focus on workforce development nor staff specialized in vocational training. Even if its lean administrative structure were suited to procuring and distributing packages of tools and other physical assets (SLR was deliberately designed without a grants facility), the project team had just spent eighteen months in Kasenyi branding itself as the development project that doesn’t give away free stuff. SLR’s original design made the project thoughtful, inclusive, and flexible when it came to developing and co-investing in activities, but not fast—and this had frustrated plans and partners alike in the past. Fortunately, by late 2023, SLR had also built a reputation with other projects in Ituri, including organizations with better emergency-response capabilities than SLR.

Convergent paths to partnership

SLR sought humanitarian and government projects to fill the need for cash and asset transfer so it could preserve its role as a facilitator, but these new collaborators had traced their own journeys to the partnership. Around the same time SLR was completing the first phase of land preparation work in Kasenyi, a humanitarian organization working in Ituri for years was assessing the end of one round of funding for a youth employment program and noted that some graduates had diverted cash assistance and sold off or repurposed their package of livelihood assets—in their analysis, some of the vocations were poorly chosen or unaware of downstream effects, like training computer technicians in a town with limited electricity and no internet, or flooding a small city with thirty young hairdressers. The organization was seeking to achieve better long-term results with its new round of funding.

Sacks of improved rice seed in a temporary warehouse in Mombasa territory. SLR negotiated for farmers to purchase these seeds themselves through a partial credit arrangement between farmer groups and the seed vendor, and witnessing SLR’s market-based to seed supply challenges (instead of directly distributing seeds) helped a humanitarian organization realize how its youth-employment activities could be complemented by SLR’s approach and led to a humanitarian–development partnership in Kasenyi. Photo: Jacques Famili, DRC SLR Activity.

The same organization was also distributing rice seeds as part of a food-security program at the other end of Ituri, where SLR had connected rice farmers with an input vendor offering seeds on credit, so the field-level staff of both projects were forced to coordinate to avoid distortions in the other’s activity. Each team learned how the other operated: the humanitarian organization was impressed that it was possible to negotiate an agreement between farmer groups and seed companies without the donor project paying for any seeds itself. And SLR staff became envious of the speed and efficiency with which the humanitarian organization could purchase and distribute a commodity like rice seeds when it needed to rapidly inject resources to restart a local economy. These interactions helped the teams understand how to work together, and they began co-creating a youth workforce activity with the Kasenyi community.

Unbeknownst to SLR, a Congolese government disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program aimed at reinserting ex-militia members into society was converging from a third direction. It was struggling to bring former combatants back to their villages because these (mostly) young men found limited opportunities at home, and while the DDR project had its finger on the underlying conflict dynamics among Ituri’s alphabet soup of militias, it was not designed to facilitate access to markets or customize livelihood models for Ituri’s unique commercial and logistical challenges. The DDR project therefore began talks with the humanitarian organization about economic livelihoods for youth returning to a conflict hotspot a bit inland from Kasenyi.

Through ad hoc joint site visits, informal conversations among field staff, then negotiations among the three projects’ leadership, a logical partnership emerged: the DDR project would lead community outreach and recruitment of participants for the vocational training initiative, the humanitarian project would lead procurement and distribution of the post-training assets, and SLR would guide the selection of economically viable training topics and work with local organizations to develop and deliver the curriculum. The pilot round of training for around three hundred young people is planned for lakeside Kasenyi where SLR received its initial community request, followed by the higher-risk Irumu town prioritized by the DDR project and the Mambasa location in the humanitarian organization’s remaining target location.

Time, trust, and understanding before sequencing, layering, and integrating

Though it is a satisfying story of development, humanitarian, government, and community partners playing to each other’s strengths, the training program is only just at its beginning, and much can go wrong in Ituri. It also raises process questions: the provincial capital Bunia is a small place, and most of the offices of the organizations working in Ituri are within a ten-minute walk of each other. By mid-2021, SLR was already well-known to both the government DDR project and the humanitarian organization. And yet—less satisfyingly—this youth-training partnership, which is promising and creative but hardly rocket science, did not even begin to come together until two years later. SLR’s theoretical presentations, formal co-creation meetings, or detailed workplan presentations did not sell its value to Ituri’s entrenched humanitarian and government organizations and projects. With the exception of a few first-movers in the private sector, most of SLR’s collaborators have been like the humanitarian organization, whose field staff needed months to practically observe SLR’s work with rice farmers and seed vendors before they could develop the trust and mutual understanding needed to collaborate on programming.

This hopeful effort at humanitarian–development–peace coherence is one strategy for responding to urgent needs without losing an eye for systemic change, and the experience will prepare the three partner organizations to work together more swiftly in the future. However, the path that brought them this far hardly amounted to a rapid response, and they are left wondering whether there was a faster way.

Towards (vertical) integration of the nexus?

The USAID Resilience in Pastoral Areas (RIPA) – North Activity in the lowland Somali, Oromia, and Afar regions of Ethiopia offers an example of a project with a different approach to addressing urgent needs in the livestock market system. Namely, RIPA–North was designed with a crisis modifier that USAID activated in mid-2022 in response to a worsening drought. The crisis modifier unlocked $1.5M in funding for the project to issue vouchers for animal feed and veterinary services, enable loans for livestock buyers from unaffected regions to buy animals from drought-stricken households, and other emergency interventions described in more detail in a learning brief appropriately titled “Meeting Immediate Needs and Protecting Development Gains”.

The RIPA–North crisis modifier provided more than new funding and activities: it meant hiring new staff with skill sets in rapid-response work; it established a separate funding stream for crisis-modifier activities; and it set up a clear psychological delineation for the team between the project’s “regular activities” and its “crisis modifier” activities, clarifying why and how the project was engaging in heavier-handed interventions than staff were originally trained to consider as “good facilitation.” Activating a crisis modifier within an established project instead of outsourcing the response to an adjacent humanitarian actor also brought the advantage of strategic integration with RIPA–North’s development objectives (see page 7 of the learning brief for an illustration) and built on its existing network of market actors. Unsurprisingly, this made the emergency interventions more market-sensitive, and it offers a better chance of leaving the market system strengthened by the crisis—a key point from the ResilienceLinks webinar last week—instead of weakening it by cutting market actors out of the emergency response.

RIPA–North’s work with small private veterinary pharmacies (PVPs) is an example of how this approach to an urgent need strengthened the market system: thanks to the PVPs’ expanded customer networks and the crisis-modifier veterinary service vouchers, the PVPs expanded their client base by 20% during and after the drought, contributing to household resilience in the process. The most entrepreneurial PVPs also began to take on a wholesaler role, which caught the interest of the major national distributors of veterinary products. At this stage, RIPA–North only needed to facilitate the connection and offer some negotiation advice to increase the volume of flows of supplies to its target regions—returning to a classic facilitation role after its heavier-handed initial PVP engagement and its emergency support during the drought.

No shortcuts to fast MSD

Although the use of crisis modifiers and a large, well-networked, flexible project team is a promising way to respond quickly to rescue a market in crisis, the RIPA–North example does not mean that the capacity for systems-aware, market-strengthening, emergency interventions can be designed on short notice out of thin air. RIPA–North was building on well-established relationships with market actors like its network of PVPs, which in turn were inherited from the predecessor PRIME activity. Like SLR, RIPA–North needed time and trust. Both projects also used an evolutionary process in their activity design. RIPA–North focused on PVPs instead of community agents based on lessons learned from PRIME, and then it pragmatically layered emergency activities onto its development objectives when crisis struck. Near-constant security and infrastructure crises forced SLR to take a more opportunistic approach to where and with whom it could work, embracing messiness as one opportunity opened the door to the next: the land-tenure activity led to the idea for vocational training, and even the rice seed-credit initiative that inspired the humanitarian organization to collaborate with SLR drew from a pilot of maize seed credit emerging from a different patient partnership in another part of Ituri. Messy indeed. Strong internal adaptive management structures and a culture of learning are important to both projects. Donor flexibility has also been crucial to their ability to respond to urgent needs—for SLR, through USAID management choices favoring geographic flexibility and value-chain agnosticism, and for RIPA–North, through the formal crisis modifier.

RIPA–North works in Ethiopia and managed one major crisis, and SLR works in the eastern DRC and manages a continuous stream of little ones, and they have approached the need for urgent action with nearly diametric strategies—one by integrating crisis response into its own project structure, the other through partnerships with external organizations—but both projects’ experiences suggest that there are no shortcuts to good, resilient market systems development. It is possible to do the work in advance of a big crisis through flexible project design, smart contracting, and network-building, or continuously through an ongoing crisis with small pilot activities and practical relationship-building, but the time and trust and understanding seem always to be a prerequisite.

But if you have found a good shortcut, please let us know—and urgently.


Dan Langfitt, DAI

Metha Bonefride, SLR

Nicole Kivava, SLR

Dan Langfitt is a Principal Specialist in DAI’s Resilience & Stability practice and was the DRC SLR program’s Director of Partnerships and Operations until April 2023. SLR’s Metha Bonefride and Nicole Kivava made major contributions to this piece. Thanks also to RIPA-North Chief of Party William Baron of MercyCorps for his perspectives on the example from Ethiopia.

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Jan 10

We congratulate and are Proud of what SLR is doing in ITURI Province 🤗

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