“It Will Always be Important to Rely on the Insight of the People You Are Working With” – An Interview with Frode Mauring

In keeping with TiP’s mandate to ensure that this is a ‘Practitioner’s Journal’ we periodically chat with well-known ‘practitioners’ to get their views and feedback on topics close to their hearts. We ‘sat down’ (via Skype) with Frode Mauring, the Special Representative of the Administrator for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the occupied Palestinian Territory, to discuss linkages between the global and local agendas, and how he sees these working in practice. Follow him on Twitter @Frode_Mauring

TiP:        Thank you for chatting with us today.

FM:        It is my pleasure.

TiP:        There is so much talk about ‘lessons learned’ and ‘best practices.’ What are your thoughts on the value of these ‘lessons’ and ‘practices’? How relevant are they to our day-to-day work?

FM:        I put high value on lessons learned, but they need to be practical and accessible; otherwise they are just a burden and feel like mass-produced ideas. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but to make ideas relevant to the context that we are working in. Good practices are the basis of our work: they inspire us, and then we build on them to make them relevant to our specific contexts. You cannot copy an idea directly —there has to be discourse between people to make an idea work.

I feel that it’s important to learn from other people’s experiences, because, individually, we have finite personal experience/professional experience on which to draw. It will always be important to rely on the insight of people you are working with and their tacit knowledge. You can rely on documents and ideas only to a certain extent; there should always a human component.

TiP:        What do we, as development and humanitarian practitioners, need to do to increase the value of lessons and good/best practices to our national and local counterparts?

FM:        In my experience, the more experience the people we are working with have, the more they seem receptive to new ideas. They don’t feel threatened by these ideas. However, this depends again on discourse. It’s not about telling and recreating something, but of engaging together and creating something new, building on work already undertaken. It’s not just the idea, but the process of building on the idea as well.

TiP:        A significant portion of development and conflict management theory is global in nature – very general, such as the MDGs. In your opinion, how relevant are such theories to your day-to-day work? How do you make a global concept work in diverse country contexts (and sometimes diverse contexts within a country)?

FM:        Conflict countries and post-conflict countries are vastly different from those which are not. They might have the same manifestations and problems, such as the MDGs, but how you address these agendas in conflict and post-conflict countries versus countries not experiencing conflict will be different. For me, working with global agendas in Kosovo and then in Russia, proved to be very different. Kosovo is a good example. The educational system suffered greatly even before the conflict, when there was a boycott of the educational system due to the ban on the use of the Albanian language. Civil society stepped into the gap during the 1990s, but after the conflict it meant that education challenges were different. So we had to ‘localize’ the MDGs so to speak. We didn’t have to focus on access to primary education but to secondary education, and in particular the gender dimension with the surge in rural-urban migration and the number of rural girls who had just arrived to the capital but were unable to access education. In relation to the MDGs, we had to ask ourselves: was conflict the driver of poverty, or was it the lack of investment in education? It makes a difference on how the MDG agenda is interpreted and implemented locally.

Of course, we need to be able to link to global agendas such as climate change and the diverse needs of individual countries to adapt to climate change. So we need to ensure our programmes link the local to the global context and vice versa, even when global agendas are very politicized and difficult to fund at the local level, because development partners and donors often have politicized development aid packages and are not interested in linking to the global agenda.

So, yes, the global agendas are important, but to get them funded at the local level, we need to contextualize them.

TiP:        You’ve worked in a number of countries going through political transition or experiencing/emerging from conflict. What ‘rules’ guide you in your work?

FM:        I think that one should have the same principle as doctors do in their Hippocratic Oath. First, do no harm. A lot of times I think that international actors, not necessarily only development actors, are not sufficiently cautious in keeping that in mind. For example, they might engage with groups of people and make priorities and promises that might cause more harm than good. This is very sensitive.

I literally have a collection of civil war and misery and conflict and post-conflict contexts, what have you. Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, the Balkans, North Caucasus, Palestine… Above all others, development actors, those who set priorities, need to understand the conflict and see the linkages that contribute to a particular issue. Development actors are not alone in operating in these political environments. There is most often a vast range of political actors, including the UN itself, such as the Department of Political Affairs or Peacekeeping Operations. It is important not to have a mentality of wanting to be more relevant than one actor or another, or to operate as if certain (political/development) challenges didn’t exist. There are so many actors, such as the US or the EU, which is emerging as a key political actor, the UK. In a complex environment, one needs to see the linkages and understand that development is not the only solution. For example, in Kosovo, eight years after NATO’s intervention there was ten times more money pumped into security (police and military) than into development. Now, it could be said that the security situation would have been better if more money had gone into development from the start. But to operate as though there were no security challenges would have also been very naïve. We can’t be shy about engaging with other actors in this type of contexts.

We must also see how the conflict is driving other development challenges, such as poverty, access to health and education, the environment. The political constraints might make it even more complex, particularly in relation to accessing resources. For example, in some situations you cannot access global resources to address these problems, such as in Kosovo and Palestine, who cannot access such funds as the Global Environment Facility, therefore hindering our ability to be a facilitator of change. And the consequences can be the loss of biodiversity, for example. We need to figure out how to ease these constraints, but these are ultimately political decisions.

Capacity development is so important, but is a challenge in post-conflict countries. We have to tailor our activities to the particular context. Working together needs to be an integral part of how we undertake capacity development. We must not only interact with international actors, but follow the principle of ‘do no harm’ and engage with all groups, relevant groups in civil society and, potentially, non-state actors. For example, in Palestine, we are restricted by the Quartet principles from engaging with Hamas beyond mere technical levels, which sometimes complicates our work. Another example was in Kosovo, where we had great success with the returns and reconstruction programme (for the Serbian community that had fled Kosovo during the conflict and was being helped out to return) because we had such a strong network with civil society groups on both sides. This led to success with the security sector reform, which we based on the same principles, and then with decentralisation and local governance. These were major aspects of the conflict resolution process; engaging with local communities gave them confidence that they had some influence over their own destiny.  It furthermore gave them the opportunity to develop their own characteristics based on the composition of their populations.

Dialogue with these groups takes time, but it is worthwhile. You can use your relationship to leverage space and create convening power. Building relationships with non-state actors can have a positive spill-over effect. You need to find ways to bring people together in a non-threatening way, even to bring conflicting parties together to work on a common, non-conflict-related or non-political issue.

TiP:        What has been your most memorable moment working within the UN system?

FM:        Haha! I would have to think about that. Is it possible to have more than one?

I think that the small arms collection in (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia in 2003 was a particularly memorable moment, because it happened against all odds. Everyone said it would not be possible. But it brought a number of high-level actors together who had not previously cooperated. All it took was one major political figure to come out in support, despite major public opposition.

In Kosovo, it was when the Parliament unilaterally declared its acceptance of the Millennium Declaration. Only a couple of MPs voted against it. This was an astonishing achievement, particularly in the political environment at that time. In Gaza, we’ve been able to provide jobs to women, which has made the difference between living a life in poverty and a more ‘middle-class’ existence, meaning their children can go to school…

Of memorable but at the same time bizarre moments I would count when together with the UNICEF and FAO representatives I had a meeting with the Kosovo Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture, in which we discussed contingency planning for Avian Flu.  At some point, we were asked to leave the Prime Minister’s office, walk across the street to the Ministry of Agriculture and conclude the discussions there.  Later in the evening we heard that the Prime Minister had been made to resign so this was indeed his last meeting while in office!

There were just so many great things in so many corners of the world. Not all of them transformational changes, but for me they were important steps that helped bring about change; they were actions that directly impacted, positively, ordinary people’s lives. It’s not about personal achievements, but the difference we can make, and bringing about those differences, for people.

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