It is important to view conflict and acts of violence through the proper lens.  The hijacking of the MAERSK Alabama and events such as those that unfolded recently in Algeria and Kenya are usually not solely products of jihadist ideology.  Rather, many events are driven by socioeconomic realities often exacerbated by the imperfect interface of struggling communities with industrial and commercial activity.  U.S. companies invested $48.5 billion in Africa in the decade through 2011 and by 2018 five of the world's fastest-growing economies will be in sub-Saharan Africa.

To peacefully transform the many diverse societies that are part of the African continent into more stable, commercialized economies, investment in projects must come from the bottom up, not just the top down.  To achieve this, corporations, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and governments should consider some lessons learned from Special Operations when it comes to implementing projects in Africa, especially in areas prone to conflict.  


To be successful, project managers must develop a highly detailed and thoroughly informed understanding of social, political and cultural dynamics on the ground before implementing any project.  This understanding can be driven in part by the use of open source data, including social science data and academic experts.  Many important factors regarding where to locate a project and who to work most closely with can only be determined by interacting directly with stakeholders in the ground in a positive manner.  Integrating this information with social science and academic data is critical.  While many actors use a wide array of data in planning and implementing projects, all too often projects are carried out in a way that does not incorporate local knowledge and a deep understanding of political situation on the ground.

Many times, I have seen well-intentioned large scale projects actually increase the level of conflict because they were initiated without realizing the full picture.

Another reality is that there is no relationship between the amount spent and the quality of the results.  On our missions, the focus was on spending the minimum amount on projects that yield the best returns and measurable results.  By ensuring that local community members have a direct role in doing the work and a direct voice in what projects are done and where, we were able to derive long term strategic benefits from small projects that often cost less than $25,000.  Other nations, including China, have taken this approach for years and as a result have generated significant goodwill in emerging nations around the world.

Projects must be built in a manner that will allow the recipients to sustain them long after the sponsors are gone.   A project that is dependent upon the use of technology that departs when the project is completed, or is reliant on machinery that local populations cannot service or maintain is a recipe for failure.  For this reason, it is essential that projects be maintained with equipment and infrastructure readily available over the long haul and that community members are provided with training in skills and trades that support it.

As moviegoers see the Hollywood version of the operation that saved Captain Phillips, hopefully they will also understand that the overwhelming majority of missions carried out by our Special Operators were done without firing a weapon to prevent conflict from beginning in the first place.  As the level of investment and the level of risk continues to rise in Africa, those seeking to provide public benefit projects should consider an approach that brings the proficiency of academic experts and social scientists together with unique capabilities of Special Operators and global development professionals.  Doing so will empower organizations and companies working in Africa and increase the benefit for local communities.  Embracing this hybrid model will enable projects to do more with less while truly decreasing conflict so that the future narrative is not a rescue on the high seas, but a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Jenks is the founder and CEO of The Institute for the Management of Conflict  He is a 15-year veteran of the Naval Special Warfare community.  He has worked in support of the U.S. Special Operations Command in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chad, Sudan, and Nigeria where he directly managed humanitarian and community projects across the globe.