In Periods of Turbulence, Pilots Aviate, Navigate, Communicate: Democracy Assistance Providers Should Do the Reverse

  • Liz Ruedy

Last week, I was asked to be on a panel on “Utilization of Evidence and Research” at the USAID Democracy, Rights and Governance Partners’ Forum. 

I spent some time during my presentation talking about complexity-aware approaches, and how to make sure that evidence stays relevant in the complex environments in which democracy assistance programs operate. It got me thinking about how to consider evidence in the face of turbulence.

If you’re a frequent flyer, you’re familiar with turbulence: irregular or unsteady air masses causing anything from a slightly bumpy flight to a violent pitching of the airplane that makes even the most seasoned air passenger anxious. The good news is that pilots are well trained to handle even severe turbulence in part by following a simple rule of thumb: aviate, navigate, communicate. In other words, pilots’ first priority is to keep control of the aircraft and keep flying, then figure out where they are and where they’re going, and last, let people know what’s going on.   

Turbulence of a different sort is a common feature of political systems, particularly transitioning ones.  Complexity and systems thinking suggest that unsettled political processes, structures and norms can lead to turbulence of varied, and often unpredictable, levels – anything from a surprising electoral outcome to full-scale state collapse. For democracy assistance providers like IRI, responding to political turbulence means remaining nimble and adaptive to ensure that our work stays relevant even in the most rapidly evolving political contexts. 

But I’d argue that to support democratic outcomes in turbulent political contexts, the rule of thumb is to do exactly the opposite of what a pilot would do: communicate first, navigate next, and then aviate.  Here’s why.

Communicate: In complex, evolving political contexts, the most important thing is to have a good grasp of what’s going on. The best way to do that is to triangulate existing evidence with the perspectives and knowledge of a wide network of informed people. So, even before things start to get bumpy, start communicating. What are your partners, beneficiaries, and other contacts in the field seeing? What are other experts and media sources talking about? Is there emerging research and analysis out there that might help you interpret what’s happening? This gets back to how to think and work politically, which my colleague Matt Baker and I discussed in a previous blog.

Navigate: It’s important to remember that being nimble and adaptive does not mean that the strategic plan goes out the window. In times of political turbulence, a clear, long-term vision and strategic goals are perhaps even more important because they provide a framework for decision-making. We need to navigate through political turbulence thoughtfully and deliberately. Good communication and evidence-gathering will hopefully provide you with a clearer sense of where things are and where things might be going, so the next step is to consider the implications for your approach and your immediate objectives. What changes need to be made? Are the underlying assumptions of your theory of change still valid?    

Aviate: It’s tempting to avoid acting in periods of turbulence and to delay program implementation until things settle down. And indeed, sometimes that’s the right decision. But political turbulence can represent the periods in which democracy and governance assistance is most needed, and well-considered, informed action on our part is vital. If action is taken after sufficient evidence gathering and consideration of how to respond, democracy assistance providers can and should continue to engage with political actors and processes, sharing ideas and expertise that promote democratic outcomes and, ultimately, greater political stability.

Of course, how quickly you move through the communicate-navigate-aviate process depends on how significant the turbulence is, and how quickly changes are happening.  Maybe you’re encountering significant political upheaval that necessitates a longer, more in-depth review of your whole programmatic approach. Maybe the turbulence is light but frequent, and you can continue push forward with your workplan after brief but regular periods of reflection and just a few tweaks here and there. The most important thing is to be deliberate about it and adapt accordingly.

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