Risk Management for “the Global South”

Flexing “traditional” risk management to get a more sustainable outcome (part 1)

We, as ever, are living in interesting times.

The “risk landscape” at the global level is changing at the same time as we, in the “development community”, are having to both broaden and deepen our involvement with more demanding stakeholders.  These stakeholders represent increasingly expansive range of funding sources and structures.

As a result, we are becoming more stream-lined, decentralised and above all, responsive.  How? By designing/ delivering, for a lack of a sufficiently expansive term, “better” projects. “Better” projects tend to be “better” managed projects. As risk management is essentially managing the “downsides” proactively, “better” managed projects, in turn, have highly effective Risk Management (RM) built into their very core.

How can we do that? To start with, we do so by understanding the risks that “hurt” and “how they hurt”.

How do we understand the risks that “hurt” in that specific project’s environment so that we can build in appropriate/ nuanced risk management? If you would allow me to quote DÁrcy Wentworth Thompson’s “On Growth and Form” book on biology:

“Everything is the way it is because it got that way”

In other words, to really understand the risk environment that has developed over time, we must first understand how it got that way. And this is where, for me, our approach to “innovative programming” kicks in.

I have found that the quickest way to “understand how it got that way” is by engaging both appropriate local and intelligently localised knowledge/ experts[1].

It’s this nuanced intelligence that allows us to learn the things that tends to have the most impact to our work. And this is where South-South Coordination (SSC) comes in – as it has become one the most efficient ways to both learn and apply this very approach. 

So, what have we learned from the utilisation of SSC – i.e. “appropriate local and intelligently localised knowledge and experts”?

Learning 1 – what tends to “go wrong”

The “typical” risk type clusters that tend to impact projects more adversely are, more often than not, driven by:

Learning 1

Learning 2 – approach to the response

In dealing with these risk types, we have seen that “one size does not fit all”; we need not only design the RM knowing these risks “in principle”, but also “in practice” - the environment/ organisational (culture) they occur within.

How? We have to be:

Learning 2

Furthermore, we must do the above by looking very closely at the needs and designing the most effective way to get the project to respond to those needs, leveraging the work that has gone before, but even more importantly, what has worked. 

Learning 3 – critical lesson from our previous experiences

So, what has worked before?

The most important aspect to appreciate (for us) is to understand how deeply relationship- driven “the Global south” tends to be culturally.  This is hardly a revelation. Building on this insight, however, (as we have) can lead to something rather special (i.e. “learning 4 and 5”) in the risk management space.

Learning 4 - subtle yet focussed application

Learnings from lessons 1 to 3 above gives us a distinct approach when designing risk management approaches. We look to, firstly, create an appropriate risk environment where the following is clear (albeit denoted with tact):

Learning 3

Our experience has shown that moving away from “shared (diffusion of) responsibility” to “empowered accountability” can be a very powerful thing indeed. The focus must be and remain on people, not process.

Learning 5 – avoiding common “distractions” 

Following on from the Learning 4, we also tend to find that sophisticated risk techniques (dependant on IT systems, blockchains, AI, or similar) ends up being, more often than not, distractions. At worst, our experience shows that they give the impression of progress and achievement, whereas the underlying modus operandi remains the same. We have seen time and time again how sophisticated IT systems are habitually bypassed/ circumvented due to the environment’s inertia/ relative immaturity.

We see that technological tools need to be seen as exactly that – tools (enablers). It is fundamental that the more important “people elements” are in place. For us working in “the Global south”, it’s aspects such as mindset, decision-making and culture that demands priority. It is also those elements that builds in genuine adaptability, resilience, and thus sustainability. 

There are many other key learnings we can share – especially in terms of execution of these “lessons” on the ground. I intend to write about those in due course as well as sharing results “from the field”. 


Ultimately, sustainable development tends to not be a sprint, but a marathon. Although it takes time to achieve something genuinely impactful, we can certainly be smarter in how we use that time, for ourselves, our partners, and ultimately, those we intend to help.

[1]  local can mean a region, a country, the sector, the organisation – whatever makes that environment “distinct”.