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Risk Landscapes and Development Interventions

Created: 24 March 2015

All of us as individuals and as the representatives of different communities, professional associations, social or ethnic groups; we all have our own risk landscape. This is a landscape of opportunities that we can benefit from along with the challenges that can limit us or threaten our development.

In different contexts the risk landscape may be more dynamic or less dynamic, risks may be more persistent due to institutional constraints, or be related more to the behavior of individual people, or a combination of any of these. The risk landscape of a farmer in Malawi, for example, will be very different to that of a Dutch farmer. Similarly, the risk landscape of Ebola-affected communities will be different from that of a fragile community.

With development interventions we change the risk landscape of the direct beneficiaries. Development interventions also change the risk landscape of those indirectly affected. This is known as a risk proliferation effect, a kind of ripple effect, which will result from any development intervention.

The risk landscape is like a shadow cast by each of us individually and by our society collectively. We cannot escape our shadow under any circumstances. We will always have opportunities that we can take and challenges to face. Thus when we initiate a development intervention we are changing the risk landscape of our beneficiaries. In so doing, we may heighten some challenges and remove some opportunities, or vice versa. Development partners have devised LogFrame and the Theory of Change to define the priority objectives of development interventions and the course of action to be taken. But are the risk landscapes of those who will be impacted by the intervention also taken into account? Do we monitor the changes triggered in the risk landscapes of our beneficiaries to ensure that, ultimately, we don’t leave them worse off? Do we take responsibility for our interventions by ensuring responsiveness to the changing risk landscapes?

“We don’t have time for risk management, we have to run our projects,”
a senior manager in a large NGO once told me. Very sad, however, this is somewhat symptomatic of the development sector – we make our best assumptions and we have a plan to implement.

Instead, let me suggest a different perspective for development programming based on the following main principles:

  •  Understand the ‘initial’ risk landscape of the target beneficiaries prior to any development intervention
  •   Set the priority objectives for the intervention as a ‘desired’ risk landscape of primary beneficiaries. This would imply careful consideration and explicit reference to the potential challenges and desired opportunities our intervention would trigger for its beneficiaries. Also, this implies consideration of connections among various risks (networked risks) and account for the risks that could be triggered for the larger cycle of the indirect beneficiaries;
  • Design M&E system so that it provides feedback loops on both the progress made (retrospective view) and the emerging risks (forward-looking perspective);
  • And last but not least, create room for prospective learning along the implementation to embrace the newly emerging changes and navigate through these changes towards the most desired ones.

More thoughts on each of these points I will provide in the next blog posts.