October 30, 2023 | Audrey Bottjen

Benefits and challenges of an area-based approach to programming

The aid sector in Sudan continues to look for ways to navigate the challenges of delivering assistance in a volatile context, support ‘hard-to-reach’ populations, manage relationships with authorities at multiple levels, and work in a complementary, supportive way with local responders and populations. This complex effort requires new approaches to how aid actors understand the context, work together, and respond to needs and vulnerability of crisis-affected populations. 

Area-based approaches can offer some solutions. By area-based approaches, we mean programming that is organised geographically around an identified set of interacting population groups, is multi-sectoral and holistic in its approach, and uses participatory methods to involve the affected population in the design and implementation of the programmes.1 

Aid responses have tested different approaches to this area-based model2 and lessons learnt can be identified from contexts such as South Sudan, where these approaches have been tested over the past five years.  

Drawing on these lessons, this piece introduces the potential benefits and drawbacks that an area-based approach could have for Sudan and reflects on how we could start moving towards such a model. 

What are the benefits and challenges of area-based approach?  

Potential benefits of area-based approaches in the Sudan context include: 

  • An aid response that is locally managed and uses participatory methods will be able to involve a greater number of local stakeholders in a more meaningful way, including local officials, community-based organisations/civil society organisations, first responders, and communities. This helps the aid sector make good on its commitments around localisation and accountability to affected populations. 
  • Decentralised decision-making means that decisions are more contextualised, more timely, and are made with greater involvement of local communities.  
  • The participation of local communities and existing community structures can enable a longer-term strategy to aid delivery, more institutional memory, and more coherence within the aid sector.  
  • If set up appropriately, it can draw on multiple organisational skillsets and sectors in a collaborative, rather than siloed way. 
  • The multi-sectoral approach is well-suited to enable humanitarian-development-peacebuilding (HDP) collaboration, as aid actors from different sectors develop and act on shared goals in partnership with the community. This may be most effective when these are organised around one or more collective goals, for example, durable solutions, natural resource management, or a peace process. 
  • There are potential cost savings around shared infrastructure and security, depending on the set up. 

However, there are also challenges that area-based approaches can face: 

  • It is important to get the architecture and incentives right. Donors and designers must ensure that implementing organisations are incentivised and enabled to share information and work collaboratively toward the programme’s goals. 
  • There are likely to be additional costs associated with coordination, collaboration, learning, and adaptation. 
  • Ensuring downward accountability is always a challenge in the aid sector. This is supported by decentralised decision-making and building organisational capacities for engagement and outreach. 
  • Finally, managing competition can be challenging. Large organisations may naturally dominate the landscape, which can undermine the programmatic goals around local participation and multi-sectoral collaboration. Donors’ criteria for partner selection should include the quality of organisations’ local relationships, ability to collaborate, and contextual knowledge. 

Some thoughts on how to do it 

When designing an area-based approach to delivering aid in Sudan, consider the following: 

  • Areas should not be defined based on administrative boundaries, but around social and natural resource eco-systems – groups that compete or collaborate politically or over resources.3 This is already happening naturally in some areas of Sudan due to access constraints. 
  • Contextual analysis of the ‘area’ should be done on a rolling, ongoing basis to ensure aid programmes are well-adapted, effective, and conflict-sensitive. 
  • Donors and programme designers should ensure that there are mechanisms and funding for collective analysis, meaningful principles, and learning at the area level. Accountability around these functions should exist, but need not be punitive. Alternatives include feedback loops that enable transparency, learning and adaptation. 
  • Aid actors should ensure that collaboration, rather than competition, is rewarded and that one set of actors does not dominate the funding and planning space.  
  • A ‘neutral’ management actor that does not compete for project funding may need to be set up at the area level, outside of the UN or NGO or state structures, to organise the strategy, planning, analysis and coordination with all stakeholders. 
  • An adaptive approach must be used, with evolving objectives and analysis, and strong linkages to policy and diplomacy. 

Transitioning to more of an area-based approach will require leadership and some amount of intellectual and institutional investment. By its nature, it requires a contextually-driven approach. With access and operational constraints already pushing the aid sector in in this direction, it is vital that aid actors in Sudan learn from experiences in other contexts and take a proactive, deliberate and principled approach to alternative models.  

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