Notes from the Frontier: FSD Africa’s Fragile States Approach – A Learning Journey (I)

Part One – Our First Steps   

Last week, I read an interesting blog by the Head of DFID Kenya – Pete Vowles. In it, he asks himself the question: ‘is this blog self-indulgent?’ It’s the same question I’m pondering 30,000ft above Zambia on the descent into Harare – the next stop in FSD Africa’s drive to do more in difficult places.

My conclusion: ‘Almost definitely,’ but I’m going to persist, at least until you tell me otherwise. This is the first in a series of blogs in which I try to capture the highs and lows of a new journey for FSD Africa into the frontiers of financial sector development in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m told by colleagues it’s called a ‘Learning Journey’. I think of it more as a living case study – a chance to: a) self-diagnose in real time, b) avoid hiring expensive consultants to painfully reach back into cob-webbed histories of projects long-finished, and c) put down some markers of decisions made, mistakes un-avoided, and other, hopefully useful anecdotes.

The first thing you might notice is that I like to make lists (see above). This is likely to be a theme as we go ahead. As well as the cathartic effect it has on me, I hope it saves you some reading time if I organise my thoughts in this way. Here is my first list. It reflects three initial thoughts on our evolving fragile states approach…

  • A Living Strategy. In the wake of the UK Aid Strategy (2016), and a desire amongst FSD Africa staff to take our approach to the most vulnerable in more difficult places, the fragile states team within FSD Africa set about strategy-building in the summer months of 2016. The most important outcome of this exercise? Country and theme selection. The selection of DRC, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Forcibly Displaced People (FDP) reflects a combination of: a) need – where financial market failures are deepest and poverty levels highest; b) additionally – where few, FSD Africa-like organisations have a footprint, and c) feasibility – where FSD Africa can practically operate and has existing partners. But even with priority markets determined, a gap remained – the strategy felt hollow. Successful market development, especially in fragile states, requires a depth of relationships and understanding at the country level, which is why the fragile states team has been working hard over the past six months to develop partnerships, pipeline and presence in the DRC, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and for FDPs. Strategy-building is not done overnight, nor is it static. We update our country/theme theories of change almost constantly in our minds and on paper (when we get chance).
  • A Focus on ‘How To’. Building on a February 2017 think piece by MercyCorps and FSD Africa, the fragile states team has tried hard to recognise that howwe implement in fragile contexts is as, or more, important as/than what we implement.  As such, we’re following a four Ps approach. 1) People – FSD Africa has trained its fragile states staff on operating in hostile environments, and has pre-qualified a pool of fragile states experienced consultants to increase access to talent; 2) Processes – FSD Africa is increasingly familiar with marker hotels, visa processes and local fixers to support its operations;  3) Proximity – to facilitate market development effectively, FSD Africa is hiring part-time, in-country managers; 4) Programming culture – FSD Africa has an open approach to partnering, especially with people and institutions with greater expertise and stronger networks than itself. We’re working on it, but behind the projects, FSD Africa has worked hard to become fragile states-enabled itself.
  • The Competition Mechanism. Entering a new market is a tricky business for FSD Africa. Brand-awareness tends to be low (even when we lean on UK Aid logos and infrastructures), market diagnostics incomplete (are they ever, in fact, complete) and partnerships under-developed (long distance relationship building isn’t easy from Nairobi). As a way to build on initial country scoping visits, gain a license to operate and deliver something useful, we settled on the regular use of a competition mechanism. Focussed on the right theme (e.g FinTech in Sierra Leone, alternative credit models in Zimbabwe, and financial services for FDPs in Rwanda), competitions create a very useful reason to engage partners (public and private), set hard deadlines and provide a useful hook for media and VIP attention (which themselves can deliver market development outcomes). Though project management heavy, these competition mechanisms need not be financial resource heavy. And of course – we also hope to accelerate some bright ideas.

During this blog series, we plan to introduce a range of perspectives. Not only will this keep us on our toes as a team, but it’ll hopefully give some unadulterated flavour to our readers.

The first such perspective comes from ex-IFC fragile states team leader – Colin Shepherd. Over to Colin…

“During the past few years, there has been a marked increase in focus in on the fragile and conflict-affected (FCS) agenda. Development stakeholders have deepened their focus as they realise that impact in countries emerging from conflict can have a multiplier effect at both the country, regional level and global level when refugee migration is considered.  Intended outcomes and impacts however are not always realised. Some drivers affecting progress are often external, however there are many opportunities to improve effectiveness.  As a starting point, when developing a FCS program the following should be considered:

  • Interventions must be flexible and patient.  Set backs are to be expected.
  • The best resources must be mobilised on the ground.
  • Understanding market complexities must go beyond desk research.

The FSDA programme seems to be headed in the right direction on these points.

What we often forget when working in FCS countries is why we are there?  Yes, there is a need to provide financial services, improve infrastructure, create jobs and so on however the question development agencies should should be asking when developing programs in FCS markets is:  How is our intervention contributing to sustainable peace and stability?”

Joe Huxley is Director of Regional Strategies at FSD Africa. He tweets at @JoeHuxley.

Colin Shepherd is the former Manager of FCS at the IFC.


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  • Great insights Joe and Colin

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