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.