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Promoting conflict-sensitive approaches

It is widely recognised that aid, commercial investments and many other types of external interventions can exacerbate conflict or help build peace, even if this is not their primary objective. A conflict-sensitive approach minimises the negative and maximises the positive impacts of any interventions on peace and conflict dynamics. Conflict sensitivity is relevant for all actors engaged in fragile and conflict-affected contexts and has implications for each stage in the life cycle of an intervention.

Conflicts often revolve around competition for power or resources. By introducing new resources into an area, or by altering how decisions are taken and policies made, external interventions inevitably have some kind of impact on peace and conflict in recipient communities. These impacts can be beneficial or damaging, direct or indirect, intended or unintentional. Interventions can for example, challenge or disrupt existing power relations, create competition for resources between groups, fuel underlying tensions or contribute to corruption. Equally, when well planned, external interventions can help bring competing groups together, promote more equitable and fair societies and help to create more peaceful communities.

Over the past 15 years an increasing number of international organisations, including donors, INGOs and international businesses, have recognised the risks associated with their interventions, and have tried to adopt a more ‘conflict-sensitive’ approach. This entails:

  • understanding the context they operate in, especially the conflict dynamics
  • understanding the nature of their engagement and how this affects the conflict context, and vice-versa
  • acting on this understanding to avoid reinforcing conflict dynamics and to capitalise on opportunities to support peace

While many of these agencies have made commitments to conflict sensitivity, there is some way to go to translate this into changes in practice. This is particularly evident in countries recovering from conflict, where short-term programmes and cumbersome aid mechanisms are often ill-suited to long-term conflict transformation. Meanwhile, poorly developed regulatory frameworks, lack of oversight mechanisms and often a lack of local knowledge and understanding increase the risks of conflict insensitive business practices.

A range of new threats meanwhile are challenging the abilities of international actors to effectively manage the risks of operating in fragile contexts. These include the increased prominence of, and threat posed by organised criminal groups such as international drug trafficking networks, as well as violent ‘extremist’ organisations. Other long term trends, such as climate change and globalisation are also having profound impacts on global patterns of peace and conflict.

Adopting a conflict sensitive approach can be a low cost, effective means of helping aid agencies, businesses and governments navigate these difficult contexts in a way that can minimise any negative and maximise the positive impacts of interventions on peace and conflict.

Practical ways of putting conflict sensitivity into practice include:

  • conducting comprehensive and nuanced conflict analysis, and updating it regularly
  • consulting with local stakeholders and ensuring their security concerns are taken into account
  • ensuring reconstruction and development projects benefit different regions and groups equitably
  • operating in a way that supports the local economy and provides employment opportunities to local people
  • engaging responsibly with political leaders and government institutions to avoid fuelling corruption and patronage politics

Conflict sensitivity is an essential aspect of making external interventions more effective in conflict-affected and fragile states. It is also an important principle for all international actors, including rising powers, to understand and act on in their increasing engagement in conflict-affected states.  

Saferworld is internationally recognised as one of the leading agencies in promoting and building capacity for conflict sensitivity across a wide range of international actors, including government agencies, multi-lateral institutions, INGOs, local civil society and international businesses.

In 2004 Saferworld, along with a handful of other peacebuilding NGOs, produced a resource pack on conflict-sensitive approaches, still regarded as the key reference work on theories and methodologies in this area. More recently, Saferworld played a leading role in the Conflict Sensitivity Consortium, a group of 35 development and peacebuilding agencies, set up to help mainstream conflict-sensitive approaches in participating agencies and in the sector more broadly. In 2012 the Consortium produced a 'How to guide to conflict sensitivity', which provides detailed practical guidance and examples on conflict sensitivity, and a policy brief targeted at donors, which sets out the business case for a conflict-sensitive approach.

Saferworld was also one of the first organisations to systematically research how development activities and other forms of external aid can unintentionally exacerbate conflict. We have been commissioned by a number of governments and multilateral bodies to assess the conflict sensitivity of their engagement in conflict-affected contexts; for instance the EC Delegation in Colombo, Sri Lanka, commissioned Saferworld to assess its development cooperation in Sri Lanka in 2009-10.

Over the past ten years through assessments, training, advocacy and advisory support, working with a range of governments, multilateral bodies, development/humanitarian agencies and local civil society groups, we have strengthened the capacity of a variety of stakeholders to operate in a conflict-sensitive way.

This has included a series of training events for the British government (including the Department for International Development, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Stabilisation Unit), the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs and Swedish international development agency at HQ level, as well as for IrishAid in Uganda, the European Union officials in Brussels and its Delegations in Central Asia, Oxfam in Sri Lanka, and with local NGOs in Georgia. We have been contracted by the European Commission to draft an operational guidance for conflict-sensitive programme design in EU External Action, an internal document which will assist EU staff to apply CSA in programming processes. Saferworld has also been working with Chinese policy makers, influencers and corporate actors to raise awareness of conflict sensitivity, and build capacity to integrate a conflict-sensitive approach into their interventions. In each case, we have provided technical and practical advice to these organisations with a focus on developing a systematic conflict analysis, linking that analysis to their particular work, and developing strategies to mitigate conflict risks and capitalise on opportunities to promote peace.

Saferworld has also undertaken practical work to integrate these approaches into specific development programmes. For example, Saferworld is working with another leading British peacebuilding organisation to build capacity of local civil society actors and EU delegations to apply a conflict-sensitive approach across 32 countries. In Uganda, Saferworld has been collaborating in a project to conflict-sensitise the Government of Uganda’s Peace, Reconstruction and Development Programme in the north of the country. Saferworld is also working with some of the UK’s largest humanitarian agencies to develop and pilot an integrated community-based resilience building methodology, drawing upon conflict sensitivity principles and practice.

In 2015, World Vision published the book Making Sense of Turbulent Contexts, with Saferworld's Tim Midgley as a co-author. The book pulls out key opportunities, challenges and lessons learned associated with designing and implementing participatory conflict analysis at the national level. It aims to encourage the use of participatory conflict analysis tools amongst the wider development community, and offers the Making Sense of Turbulent Contexts (MSTC) approach as one tool that can help to encourage collaboration among aid and civil society organisations operating in conflict-affected contexts.

In addition to on-going programme and policy work, Saferworld’s team of expert advisors and specialist country team members are available to provide a wide range of services to organisations genuinely committed to maximising their positive impacts on peace for local people. Our advisors can draw upon Saferworld’s global presence, as well as our networks of associates, local teams and partners and broader development professionals to ensure that our work is always informed by the most up-to-date developments on the ground as well as latest thinking in global debates.

Services we can offer include:

  • Impartial, independent and targeted advice for staff working at different levels
  • Analysis of global, national and local conflict dynamics, and identification of targeted, realistic and achievable recommendations
  • Support to design and implementation of conflict analysis, conflict-sensitive implementation and monitoring of projects and programmes
  • Conflict-sensitive evaluation of projects and programmes
  • Assessment of institutional capacity to implement conflict-sensitive approaches; design and delivery of tailored and targeted capacity building for staff and partners
  • Review of strategic and operational planning documents to identify potential conflict risks
  • On-the-ground updates of changing conflict dynamics and establishment of early warning systems

To find out more, please contact  conflictsensitivity@saferworld.org.uk

Featured projects

Conflict-sensitive approaches in Northern Uganda

This photo essay illustrates issues experienced by people in Northern Uganda, such as land conflict, and how we are working with them to find solutions and promote conflict-sensitive development.

Increasing capacities for peace

From 2013-2016 Saferworld worked alongside another leading peacebuilding organisation to build the capacity of local civil society organisations and EU delegations, to identify potential conflict drivers and develop effective responses across 32 countries.

Promoting conflict sensitive Chinese investment

Saferworld is working to promote more conflict sensitive investment by Chinese firms operating in conflict affected contexts across Africa.