How can a project respond to a crisis? Eric Bleich discusses how the USAID AgroInvest project navigated uncertainty in Crimea.

What do you do when another country takes control of the territory in which your project is  heavily invested—not just financially, but also in terms of staff, resources, equipment, and time?

It’s a unique crisis that a development practitioner might not think of, much less prepare for. But that’s exactly what happened in March of 2014 to the USAID Ukraine AgroInvest project, implemented by Chemonics, when Russia illegally occupied, and ultimately annexed, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea from Ukraine. AgroInvest is a five-year, nationally focused program focused on accelerating and broadening economic recovery in Ukraine and increasing the country’s contribution to global food security efforts.

AgroInvest faced the same challenges as many other programs operating in Crimea when the crisis hit. The occupation and annexation sent shockwaves through the numerous international donor organizations implementing development programs in that particular region of Ukraine. The ensuing weeks created unique questions we had never had to answer before while operating in Ukraine: Is it safe to travel to/in the region? Who is now governing the region? How can we support grantees and beneficiaries in Crimea if the peninsula is now under the control of a foreign country?

To answer these questions, and gain a better understanding of the rapidly and constantly changing situation, the USAID Ukraine Mission established and set in motion protocols for increased communication with its projects operating in Crimea. For example, I began speaking with my counterpart in the USAID mission multiple times per day to exchange information and provide updates. Additionally the USAID Ukraine Mission regularly sent updates to implementing partners and held more frequent “partners meetings” at the Mission. Some may argue that communication at these levels was overkill, but in such a rapidly evolving situation where new information and developments were happening on an hourly basis, there is no such thing as too much communication.

In those first days, as we watched the situation unfold, we mainly discussed safety and security issues. Gradually, updates began to focus more on the impact on the technical implementation of activities. Ultimately the increased two-way flow of information allowed for a more vivid and realistic picture of the situation to emerge, and helped us make better-informed and timelier decisions. This was especially important during a period of time rife with rumors, when regular channels of communication and information transfer—such as cellular phone service networks and both radio and television news outlets—were experiencing interrupted service.

Ultimately, USAID issued notice that all activities in Crimea were to cease. At this time, AgroInvest was in the final stages of installing post-harvest processing equipment at several agricultural cooperatives, many of whom were operated by Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority who felt particularly vulnerable during the crisis, given their historical treatment by Russia.

Russia deported Tatars en masse from Crimea to Central Asia in 1944, and they were only able to return to their native Crimea upon Ukraine’s independence in 1991. Despite being able to legally return the minority continues to face social and economic discrimination. Since the return to Russian rule in 2014, this discrimination has greatly increased, especially in the forms of limited free movement and freedom of speech.

We couldn’t just “cut and run”—there were relationships with beneficiaries, ongoing partnerships, and three years of development progress hanging in the balance. Project activities were slated to continue until January 2016—almost another two years. Had we immediately ceased operations in response to the crisis, we would have lost the trust we had developed with our partners in Crimea and left our Tatar beneficiaries even more vulnerable.

So we faced the following dilemma: USAID was telling us to stop working in Crimea, but ceasing activities overnight would cause the cooperatives more harm than good. In a few weeks of conflict, the progress of three years of capacity-building partnerships could have been erased.

The solution? AgroInvest worked closely with USAID and its beneficiaries to develop rapid close-out plans that allowed us to speed up the final stages of implementation for select activities while it was still programmatically and legally feasible. This flexibility allowed for the activities to come to adequate conclusions and achieve their desired development impact, rather than be abruptly terminated. Had AgroIvnest not been able to complete the activities we started with the Tatar groups, we would have been seen as partners only willing to stick around when it was convenient. Staying and working with them when the conflict arose and intensified demonstrated our commitment to ensuring we were able to do all we could, while we could, to help the Tatar farmers develop a competitive advantage that they could benefit from—regardless of what country’s legal and governing framework they fell under.

The increased communication established during the crisis has also proven beneficial to addressing the myriad of unique development challenges the crisis in Ukraine has brought with it. These include difficulty working in and around the areas of Donetsk and Lugansk that are currently controlled by separatists, addressing the growing internally displaced persons crisis, and dealing with the ongoing financial crisis impacting development activities across the country.

The take-away here—one that we should all take to heart—is that we must not wait until conflict breaks out to develop these types of communication protocols and plans. While you may not need in-depth phone calls with USAID several times per day in times of peace, having a plan in place in advance will save time and minimize confusion if and when a conflict arises. By nature, development programs work in less than ideal conditions. As such, it’s all the more important that we, as implementers, find ways to work harder and closer with our programmatic partners when crisis situations arise or become worse.