Remote management has been the predominant modality since the very start of the Syrian crisis, and remains a common practice for aid and development assistance in fragile and conflict affected states, such as Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. Traditionally seen as a temporary and necessary (last resort) measure for operating in insecure environments, remote management offers a solution to high security risks and limited access in the Syrian context. Although some literature recognises the potential advantages of this practice, the prevailing view is that remote management should remain a last resort choice, unlikely to become an innovative model for future humanitarian engagement, given the challenges it poses to the quality of aid delivery.
Remote management entails a number of challenges, the most common being communication and risk transfer issues, reporting requirements, coordination, and at times, the inability of both international and local organisations to build strong partnerships based on trust and mutual learning. Distance management can pose other operational challenges, considering the compromises required from partners to provide greater accountability despite greater risks in unstable environments. These difficulties of operating remotely are widely discussed in the literature, reflecting the most common assumption that remote programming is a measure of last resort. The positive potential of Remote Management Programming (RMP) has been paid little attention so far.
Key Benefits of Remote Management: Upholding the Humanitarian Imperative
Face to face management or traditional management is always preferred to remote management. However, remote management still has many benefits that traditional management lacks. An important advantage of remote management is that it offers safety benefits, and enables organisations to reach the most vulnerable beneficiaries when the security situation is not permissive. In certain cases, the implementation of projects, especially those related to the delivery of goods, can be faster. Managing programs remotely may also help to build trust, improve the understanding of local context and strengthen local capacity, as shifting to remote management operations means transferring responsibilities to local staff, and ideally, should help to increase ownership among local actors.
Continuing operations remotely also leads to some degree of skill transfer, thus ensuring the sustainability of future interventions. By remaining present in the communities through remote operations, humanitarian agencies are able to maintain a level of management in the country. Presence and trust among local partners can be tremendously beneficial in the longer run. Finally, remote management encourages both sides to develop innovative implementation approaches, and increase efficiency in the light of its challenges. These are the main benefits arising from continuing operations through remote management commonly recognised in the literature.
Interview Findings: Capitalising on the Positives of Remote Management
As a part of its study on remote management in the Syria case, Trust has been conducting a series of interviews to reveal the key factors and practices that raise chances for success of remote operations in Syria. By doing so, the research team has also examined the longer run prospects of remote modality, and its advantages for staff located both outside and inside Syria. Reflecting on the findings, Trust finds that most of the assumptions circulated in the literature match the reality of Syrian humanitarian response, to some extent. From the practitioners’ perspective, remote management is a semi-permanent approach that will remain quite common in contexts like Syria. As such, remote management is neither new, nor innovative in its essence, but some of its benefits are worth considering:
- As we know from the literature, RMP poses numerous challenges to the quality of humanitarian operations. In reality, however, the practice requires some considerable investment in MEAL, that could actually improve the overall quality of programs. Due to the increased reliance on remote management, the humanitarian response in Syria has become faster and more flexible. RMP offers various levels of flexibility, the most important being the flexibility of working through partners and local networks;
- Remote management contributes to skill transfer, as continuing operations remotely requires stronger communication, interpersonal and technical skills. At the same time, with remote management it is relatively easy to develop knowledge. Local staff exposed to remote operations experience greater independence and choice of implementation practices. As a result, they can act as decision-makers and build relationships with national authorities;
- From the project management side of view, remote management encourages staff to think out of the box, learn by doing, reflect on the practice and innovate. Continuing operations remotely forces organisations to reconsider implementation practices, and encourages them to invest in local capacity. Remote management is seen here as a window of opportunity for Syrian NGOs, and those individuals already affected by the conflict, to empower themselves;
- Having a level of management present in the field, organisations are more likely to secure funding, and advocate effectively for stronger donor support, according to some of the interviewees based in Syria. We have found that in the Syrian context remote management fosters the process of mutual learning among partners, and results in greater reliance on local institutions. The practice also creates an opportunity for closer personal relationships among staff.
Most importantly, remote management avoids the complete closure of operations, and enables organisations to reach the most vulnerable beneficiaries in hard-to-reach areas, maintaining access either through remote control or partnerships with local organisations. Although a remote management approach has made interventions possible in highly insecure contexts, there is little said about its benefits in the wider literature. The interviews conducted by Trust reflect the need to re-examine what is generally understood by “benefits” and “challenges” of remote management, with the former often being an outcome of its limitations.