The Huey skimmed the jagged crest of the mountain at a furious pace. I squinted into the gale as the district of Now Zad emerged from behind the line of peaks standing guard. This rollercoaster 10-minute flight spared me the dangers of a gruelling, IED-riddled road journey from Musa Qal’eh.

This had been my third attempt to reach the north-western most district of Helmand. To date I had been forced to abandon this half of my remit by a predictable combination of unavoidable local problems and delayed flights. I was growing ever more frustrated and curious to visit this beautiful place with as violent a history as any in the country.

For decades Now Zad was a prosperous city of over 20,000, and an important transit route supporting the largest bazaar in North Helmand. Its riches appealed to the Taliban, who seized the town four years ago. Bitter fighting forced the population to flee, and razed large parts of the city to rubble.

Retaken in a massive assault by the Marines late last year, people are slowly starting to return despite it remaining one of the most heavily mined districts in Afghanistan.

I found cause for hope in this ghost town, walking among the few shops open in the once thriving bazaar. Sayed Murad Agha, new into post, is an active and enthusiastic Governor, and leads animated weekly shuras in which local elders and religious figures are courted for their views on the district’s future.

Security now extends almost 10km in any direction from the District Centre – maintained by a large contingent of Marines working hand in hand with the growing Afghan police and army presence. I was astounded to feel more secure here than in any other district in Helmand.

The challenge now becomes one of development – rebuilding the bazaar, repairing destroyed homes, ridding the area of mines, opening new schools and clinics, and bringing life back to the bazaar. Cautiously trying an ice cream produced as if by magic from an unlikely (and slightly alarming) looking soft serve machine tucked away in a tiny corner store, I was both surprised and encouraged. Things are clearly improving.

If it is true that stability emerges through an all too rare combination of sustained security, effective governance and visible development, then Now Zad is making more headway than most.

As the lumbering Osprey helicopter roared overhead, blasting its audience with a searing cloud of dust, so ended the era of Mullah Salaam.

With the fall of Musa Qal’eh to the British in late 2007, Mullah Salaam became the highest profile Taliban commander to turn over his arms and renounce his position. In return he was granted protection and the Governorship – in the hope that others would follow suit.

His subsequent reign – maintained through an iron fist, political ties and a notorious private bodyguard – made a complex situation only more frought.

Yesterday that all changed.

An unassuming man by the name of Neimatullah arrived as Musa Qal’eh’s newest Governor. Serving as Deputy Governor for Marjeh, Neimatullah earned a reputation for getting things done – high praise for someone overseeing a district suffering the heaviest fighting of 2010.

I was curious to learn more as we shook hands. He smiled through his cropped white beard, crinkling his eyes and nodded. ‘These people have lived in darkness for so long’ he said as we talked of his plans for the coming days. ‘We cannot simply sit and talk and promise. We must listen and act to demonstrate our commitment to them. We must not rest in the days ahead’

‘Step by step we will bring back the government to the people. And if we fail, we will fail together’ he said – looking at Angus, myself and Col Manning as he spoke. ‘But if we succeed, we will succeed together.’

I began to see how he had earned his reputation. Humble and thoughtful, sharing a wry smile yet offering a glimpse into the ambition behind his words. I sense a dim ray of hope beginning to emerge for this war-torn district’s future.

“It will probably be the greatest concentration of firepower in the District.” the battalion Executive Officer had assured me.  On his second tour in Afghanistan with the US Marine Corps, I was inclined to trust him on such things. That said, planning the security for the opening of a local madrassa – or religious school – was a first for both of us.

The opening of the Nasimia Madrassa

On the morning of the opening, an event publicised widely over RIAB – Radio In A Box – the Taliban had made their views known. In a gesture designed as a warning to the local population, they had opened fire on an Afghan National Police unit patrolling the area, darting in and out of their attack on motorbikes.

In spite of such tactics, or possibly because of them, a large number of local elders, as well as twenty or so enthusiastic students, turned out for the opening. As with such celebrations, speeches were held, poetry recited and gifts offered. The dignified silence of the elders contrasted with the barely restrained energy of the boys.

I turned to one young man seated amongst the crowd. He was a pharmacist with a small shop in the local bazaar. ‘Is this madrassa good for the community?’ I asked. ‘Very good.’ he agreed. ‘Do you think girls should be able to have education?’ I probed further, curious to hear the perspective of an educated man. ‘No’ he said bluntly. ‘It is against our tradition.’

The small successes in this campaign belie the challenges ahead.

We left as we came – in a mighty convoy of armoured vehicles of all description, both Marine and Afghan. And as the newly finished madrassa, gleaming with its new coat of blue paint shrank from view, I was left pondering its future. How long will it last? Will the community keep the Taliban at bay? When will there come a time when an event as seemingly uncontroversial as opening a place of education wont require ‘the greatest concentration of firepower in the district’?

‘Hamish, this is Archie – Chief of Operations in the Helmand PRT. We’re looking forward to getting you out here in a few days, but there’s been a slight change of plan. We now need you to head out to the district of Musa Qal’eh. Lots of good work to be done. See you soon.’

Thus began my unlikely adventure as a Stabilisation Adviser for the notorious district of Musa Qal’eh. Just one week in, I’m beginning to grasp the significance of a role inherited from an illustrious line of ‘Stabads’. Richard Jones first deployed into the aftermath of Operation Snakebite – the hard-fought but ultimately successful mission to retake the District in December of 2007. His six-month stint, enduring frequent mortar and rocket attacks, laid the initial groundwork for a reconstruction effort that is central to the District’s future.

My immediate predecessor, Mike McKie, arrived mid-2009 to build on eighteen months of hard work. His efforts – in partnership with two successive British brigades – have yielded remarkable progress in advance of the recent handover to US command.

The scale of the challenge however – and my remit – remains daunting; to support efforts to build Afghan security forces, to help improve governance across the District, to restore basic services such as water, sanitation and power, and to develop health and education facilities.

On top of all of this, Archie cunningly waited till I arrived to drop into casual conversation that my remit would also encompass that of the neighbouring District of Now Zad. With all that has come before me in these iconic places, his parting words made me smile; ‘You’ll love it.’

Big business has a rare opportunity to bring stability and development to Africa’s troubled Great Lakes region.


In August last year, the beleaguered communities of Eastern Congo were again assailed by war. The rebel general Laurent Nkunda’s Rwandan-backed militas launched yet another violent campaign, threatening to return a region tormented by ethnic division and vast mineral wealth to all out conflict.

Yet in the space of just six months, a wave of unlikely events has brought fresh cause for optimism to the Great Lakes.

Firstly and most importantly, the upsurge in conflict was curtailed in dramatic fashion. The international community commendably dispatched ministerial officials and peace envoys to negotiate but it took an unprecedented agreement between President Kabila of Congo and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame to arrange for the arrest of the rebel general and to deploy Rwandan troops to secure the region.

Perhaps even more remarkably, these same troops completed an orderly withdrawal just days ago, surprising those who feared the intentions of the Rwandans from the very beginning. Despite legitimate concerns of a power vacuum in their absence, exacerbated by a chronically inadequate Congolese army and the continued presence of numerous militias, the early signs are hopeful.

Secondly, a spate of initiatives have been launched to bolster the private sector’s role in the Great Lakes region. For example, in the face of a World Bank report that for the third year running the Congo was ‘the worst country in the world for doing business in’, German agency GTZ boldly launched the Responsible Business Network. This initiative consists of international corporations active in Congo and aims to introduce stronger governance and human rights practices in their businesses.

There also appears to be a growing momentum for greater engagement with the private sector in tackling the region’s illicit trade in ‘conflict minerals’ such as coltan, tin and gold. This should come as no surprise; the UN Expert Group recently uncovered evidence that ‘all the main parties in the conflict in eastern DRC – armed groups as well as the Congolese army – are financing themselves via the exploitation and trade of eastern DRC’s mineral wealth’.

The Congolese Prime Minister last week invited international donor agencies, government officials and civil society representatives to a brainstorming soiree in Kinshasa specifically to unearth new ideas for a short-term stabilisation plan which prioritises economic recovery. The momentum appears to have spread to Europe where in The Hague, international companies gathered at the behest of the Dutch Minister for Development to do exactly the same. This followed a February gathering in Brussels of the “Task Force” on illegal exploitation and trade of natural resources – comprising European donor agencies working under the auspices of The Contact Group For The Great Lakes Region.

And the Germans once again seem to have taken the initiative. Next month they begin an ambitious pilot project in partnership with the Rwandan government and a prominent minerals investment company to introduce minimum standards of ethical and environmental practices. This bid to create ‘islands of good governance’ is taking place amidst the very militias, corrupt traders and officials who have exploited the hundred million dollar a year trade for over a decade, fueling the horrific conflict and exacerbating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Definitely no place for the fainthearted.

Even the UN’s much maligned peacekeeping force MONUC has joined the act. For the first time in its nine-year history, MONUC is now mandated to ‘use its monitoring and inspection capacities to curtail the provision of support to illegal armed groups derived from illicit trade in natural resources’. A tall order perhaps, but a significant step in the right direction.

This moment presents a unique convergence of interest in the role of the private sector as a force for stabilisation and development. It must be said at such a time that continual calls by activist groups for the withdrawal of business are not helpful. Their persistence in pressuring the multinationals with sanctions and boycotts may have served their purpose but now may do more harm than good. If their efforts serve to drive away reputable companies then the void left behind will only benefit those at the root of the problem.

A far more pressing issue is the global economic crisis. Massive falls in the prices of copper and cobalt have devastated the mining sector – resulting in the cancellation of 40% of concessions in the Congo’s Katanga region alone and forcing over 350,000 people out of work. In a rapidly declining market, the litmus test for industry will be to innovate more sustainable approaches to doing business.

But in a rare moment of relative stability the cast of players involved must seize the initiatve:

  • The private sector should resist pressures to withdraw and instead deliberately source its minerals from the region while demanding accountable governance and minimum standards across supply chains;
  • Donor agencies must take new steps to promote genuine cross-sector dialogue that serves the interests of affected communities and which leads to coordinated action;
  • MONUC must play its part by disrupting the provision of support to the myriad illegal armed groups;
  • Civil society should invest in alternative livelihoods programmes for those forced into artesianal mining;
  • The national and provincial governments must promote an integrated strategy for economic development while at the same time confronting corrupt officials and traders;

The solution cannot lie in disengagement. Sustainable peace in the Congo always seems a distant dream but at a time when stepping away is simply not an option, the call should be for new partnerships and collaborative leadership.

Spend enough time amidst one of the world’s ever present humanitarian disasters, and you may become outraged by the failings of leadership. You might witness aid programmes stagnate under the morass of infighting, power exploited for political gain, or morale vanish as leaders obfuscate and deliberate.

Spend a little longer however, and acts of true leadership reveal themselves. You watch as teams are galvanised, crippling dilemmas resolved, intractable problems overcome or action sparked which brings aid to people living in crisis.

On reflection, it may become apparent that leadership, however flawed or inspired, is one of the most critical determinants of success or failure of any emergency response.

A humanitarian operation is desperately unforgiving territory for leadership. There is little tolerance for failings and few rewards for risk taking. So much is beyond control: fresh outbreaks of conflict, geopolitical wrangling, oppressive and unpredictable regimes, recurring seismic tremors or relentless demands by stakeholders wielding competing influences.

Whatever remains within the leader’s grasp is overshadowed by the sheer scale of the task, prey to problems which arise at startling speed, living conditions fraught with hardship and the inexorable pressure of ensuring security of the team, and scarcity… of everything.

At its core, leadership in such an environment demands an emotional resilience that few manage to develop and fewer sustain. The innermost test is perhaps the most taxing; the battle to stave off cynicism, the void of emotional support, the toll on spirits when things don’t get any better. This, compounded by the need to remain a pillar for others.

Few other contexts come close to the leadership challenges of a humanitarian crisis

And yet, the international humanitarian community finds itself in an untenable situation of its own making; on the one hand it’s ambitious undertakings rest almost entirely in the hands of those leading them, and on the other, it has failed to adequately value the importance of such leadership.

And the omission is deeply ingrained. Although humanitarian organizations and donors themselves acknowledge that the humanitarian response provided is not good enough, the issue of leadership is rarely confronted. The dominant management framework that underpins almost all humanitarian endeavour (and funding) the world over – the logical framework – utterly fails to value the role of leadership in successful programme planning and delivery.

And so the most important questions of humanitarian leadership remain without adequate response:

–        How can courageous and inspiring humanitarian leadership be developed?

–        How can a humanitarian organisation build a culture of excellent, accountable leadership?

–        How can humanitarian endeavours become infused by acts of such leadership?

Wasafiri is deeply committed to generating leadership action to serve people living in crisis. We believe that developing effective leaders, supported by organisations who value the importance of such leadership, is fundamental to responding successfully to the acute demands of today’s humanitarian crises.

Recently my brain has been aching with the complexity of how to improve food security and rural incomes for the poor… 960 million people are hungry. 80 million more than last year. 75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas. They could produce more food, but they do not have access to the capital, seeds, fertiliser, knowledge, tools, and markets (amongst other things) that would make it possible. Climate change is already undermining the productivity of poor farmers, and will do so more and more. Production needs to double if we are to feed the inevitable 9 billion people who will be on Earth in 2050.

There are thousands upon thousands of pages of reports and books to read, all analysing the problem. Development agencies are heavy with them. Desks piled high and walls lined with creaking shelves. I was briefly seduced by the idea that perhaps I could be the one to find the answer. If I read enough, and thought hard enough then perhaps I could suggest the perfect combination of measures that would eradicate hunger and rural poverty. All I would have to do was persuade the world to follow my suggestions. It seems to work for Jeffry Sachs.

But that’s not how change happens. Change happens when the right people are brought together in an empowering context to innovate solutions to problems they have a stake in. Change happens when people take risks to do something different, to work together, to learn from mistakes. Writing a report on the Nigerian rice market is unlikely to change much. Bring together Nigerian smallholders, a food supply chain company, some investors, the government and a charity that provides farmer training, and they are likely to create meaningful change and quickly – possibly without writing a single report.

Markets are good at change. People innovate, take risks, act with commitment, and if they are successful then the surplus is reinvested to got to scale. If they fail, then learning is quick and the initiative ends. Food globally is almost entirely produced and distributed by the private sector, and for over 5 billion people this works remarkably well with business driving up productivity and quality.

However, markets are clearly failing to serve the billion hungry people. The barriers are such that is just not commercially viable  – often not even for these individuals to produce enough food for themselves. The Malawian farmer will not buy new seed or fertiliser when the price of maize is so volatile that he is likely to make a loss when it comes time to sell.

When markets are failing to deliver on a public good such as food, then the state has a role to play. The danger is that the state tries to address the problem by attempting to do the work of the private sector. Politicians cannot be seen to fail, so reports will be commissioned to analyse problems, waiting for the perfect solution to emerge before taking any action. And actions, no matter how misdirected, are declared a success and continue to swallow up resources.

Instead, the state should act to make markets work for the poor. Through convening stakeholders, reform of regulation, or providing risk finance, the state can tip the balance of opportunities and risks in favour of commercially viable food production. Then it can step aside and let the market innovate and act to make change happen. Feeding the hungry requires less words and more leadership action.

Wasafiri is committed to generating action that improves the lives of the poor. We recognise hunger as a complex global issue that requires public and private sector actors to collaborate if we are to achieve long-lasting systemic change. There is a need for cross-sector activity that identifies market failures, convenes actors, innovates commercially viable solutions, and drives co-ordinated, focussed action. The public sector can demonstrate leadership by helping convene, providing risk finance or reforming regulation. The private sector can demonstrate leadership by innovating commercial solutions to make markets work for the poor, that is to get more food on the plates of hungry people.