© Oxfam America

Reality Check: Applying a Systemic Approach in a Fragile Context

BY: Adwyait K. Roy, Muroň Pavel, Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 29. August 2016
© Oxfam America

Imagine working in a remote area that experienced the fourth highest number of disasters in the world over the past 20 years! Farmers are dependent on a single crop but lost everything with a devastating blow by a super typhoon. This worsens existing despair due to high economic inequalities and exclusion….

Eastern Samar, a province located in the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines with a population of 470,000, is a good example of a fragile context: ineffective and non-inclusive institutions; weak capacity to cope up with shocks; and lack of stability. The province was hit by typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, in November 2013. It was the strongest typhoon to ever make landfall – 4.1 million displaced, 14 million affected and over 6,000 dead. [1]

This is why Helvetas and two other consortium partners, PIN and ACTED, implement a project funded by Swiss Solidarity. The project applies a systemic approach to contribute to the recovery and long-term development of Eastern Samar and its people. In this blog post, we present the experiences of the project, focusing on key challenges of working in a fragile context and corresponding measures taken.

Project rationale

The five year project was designed in mid-2014 to support the livelihoods recovery of poor farming households. It engages actors to improve key services in the agricultural system to increase farmers’ income and resilience to vulnerability. The project addresses root causes of the agricultural system, mainly supporting farmers’ livelihood shift from coconut production to other sources such as crops, commodities and livestock. Coconut, decimated by the typhoon, is a nut-bearing palm tree that requires an average of six to ten years to produce the first fruit but can take 15 to 20 years to reach peak production.

Key services in the agricultural system lacking or underperforming include quality inputs and improved practices, suitable financial products, and better market linkages and skills in business planning by public and private actors. Enhanced availability, quality and affordability of the services are expected to enable farmers to increase their production and productivity, leading to better income and resilience.


Risk to disaster and vulnerability

Eastern Samar remains ‘extremely vulnerable’ to natural disasters. After typhoon Haiyan, it was hit by successive typhoons: Hagupit and Melor. About 92% of the local population was affected, leaving huge damages behind. In 2016, the area further experienced abnormally long drought, which negatively affected crops.

‘Aid intensity’ and direct delivery

A common dilemma in fragile contexts is balancing short-term versus long-term objectives. After typhoon Haiyan, there were 25 agencies operating in Eastern Samar in 2015, including large international NGOs and UN agencies. Several government agencies also provided recovery assistance. A vast majority of them implement cash and food for work projects, and provide free handouts.

When the project was planned in mid-2014, it was not envisioned that NGOs and government agencies would still be engaging in emergency interventions two years after the disaster. As a result, many farmers are now heavily dependent on external assistance. They prefer to engage in activities that bring them immediate income or goods/inputs rather than attend capacity building activities where free handouts are rarely provided for long time.

High institutional weakness of actors

Even before typhoon Haiyan, the province has been flagged as the second poorest province in the Philippines with a poverty rate of 55.4% between 2006 and 2012. Typhoon Haiyan exacerbated this situation. The province is highly neglected with weak service delivery both from private and public sector actors. The actors are either highly dysfunctional or non-existent, leading to a lack of services for a large part of the population. Remoteness of many of the farmers, who live in sparsely populated villages, also pose additional challenges in terms of distance, movement and service access. This makes successful engagement of actors a daunting process.

Measures taken

Coordination with other agencies

The project management regularly attends provincial and regional coordination meetings with a number of implementing organisations. These meetings have mostly been used to exchange information, and they have not led to any coordinated actions. Some NGOs also do not participate on a regular basis, preventing agreements on meaningful coordination. The project still continues to initiate bilateral meetings with major NGOs and other implementing agencies. Indeed, coordination through field facilitators/technical officers works better than management level coordination.

Improving project implementation

The project has improved its implementation by strengthening its strategy of providing support to its partners and actors. The project realised that even if farmers are more interested in receiving free handouts from other NGOs, they lack basic services and knowledge/skills such as how to use seeds and sell their produce. Therefore, the project intensified its support to increase the capacity of individual traders, input sellers, and consultants as service providers to fill in these missing services. About 20 local service providers trained through the project have emerged as key to support the improvement of farmers’ livelihoods.

The project continuously assesses the agricultural system to better understand opportunities and main constraints. Taking context as the starting point in designing and implementing interventions is one of the ten principles of ‘Good International Engagement’ in fragile situations that the project learns and improves.

In a highly aid-intensive context, it is quite difficult to ‘attribute’ emerging successes solely to a single project. However, the improved monitoring system of the project indicates most of these come from the ‘contributions’ of the project. The project has so far reached 6,000 farmers, who received services from the local service providers in 128 barangays, the lowest administrative unit. About 967 farmers reported increased production by at least 20%, and 1,450 farmers increased sales by at least 10%. The average sale proceeds increased from 1,197 to 2,219 Philippine Peso. [2]

Knowledge sharing and learning

At the beginning of the project, it seemed that direct delivery approaches could be difficult to ‘unlearn’ for many of the NGOs in the region. The small success of the project already at this stage has caught the attention of NGOs that struggled to effectively reach and support farmers. It has also slowly started motivating other service providers to adopt the improved service delivery model. The project hopes that with better facilitation (e.g. robust and responsive management and leadership; communication and relationship management), monitoring and knowledge management (e.g. the willingness to be self-critical and open to learning), it will be able to change the behaviour of more market actors and NGOs towards a shared vision of improved agricultural system in Eastern Samar.

The way forward

Role of the project: financial and other inputs (e.g. providing training) from the project were initially required to kick-start the process. Yet, the project still has significant roles in supporting improvement of a package of services in the agricultural system. Producing meaningful results that can stimulate successful engagement of stakeholders requires well-thought and feasible strategies.

Better understanding of the context and the agricultural system: The project has improved its analysis of the agricultural system and identification of its root causes. It has taken stock of the current picture and developed a realistic picture of how the service delivery system would work after the project’s life span.

Knowledge management and learning: the project has accumulated valuable lessons; however, knowledge management and sharing of the achievements and lessons has so far been limited. Generating evidence using a good monitoring system to demonstrate to others – beneficiaries, private sector actors and development agencies – will be critical to contribute to long-term impacts in a challenging, fragile context.

Additional Sources

Picture: courtesy of Oxfam America.

[1] Typhoon Haiyan Early Recovery, Livelihoods and Agriculture Plan, Humanitarian Country Team

[2] 1 US Dollar = 47.14 Philippine Peso

Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies
Adwyait K. Roy works for Helvetas as Chief Technical Advisor of the project in the Philippines.
Muroň Pavel works for PIN as Project Manager of the project in the Philippines.
Helvetas - a partner for true change
Truly changing lives
Change takes place where people have decided to break new ground. Teófilo Caraballo, for example. He made it possible for his family to drink clean water from their own tap.