Conflict sensitivity in practice: what is Saferworld’s ‘programme accompaniment’ approach? 

7 January 2022 Claire Devlin Conflict sensitivity in practice: what is Saferworld’s ‘programme accompaniment’ approach? 

Saferworld is using 'programme accompaniment' to support people working in challenging conflict situations. The approach is helping organisations achieve more meaningful results with people living through violent conflict.

Saferworld has been ‘accompanying’ national and international aid organisations working in complex conflict-affected countries like Syria, Lebanon, Uganda and South Sudan. We are using this approach to help organisations be conflict sensitive. This means understanding the dynamics of a conflict, becoming aware of how our own work interacts with those dynamics, and making choices that avoid harm.

Accompaniment is a type of support that is different to training, facilitation, or mentoring. It focuses on practical adaptations working with teams supporting a specific programme. This can and should be for any programme, not only those aimed at ending a conflict – it’s relevant for the provision of new infrastructure or basic services like health, education, or security; for economic development; or for change in social norms on equality, inclusion, or human rights. Accompaniment includes regular, open discussion and shared problem-solving between a conflict sensitivity coach and a specific team. The approach – which relies upon trust, partnerships and support over time – acknowledges the difficulties of working in and living through violent conflict.

How does it work and what have we learnt?

Saferworld matches organisations with coaches who understand a particular conflict situation and have experience in supporting organisational change. The nature of the relationship varies: there is no fixed design and the length can be from one year to (so far) up to three. Coaches problem-solve specific issues as needed over the phone or email, participate in internal team meetings or facilitate wider reflection sessions. Coaches also provide analysis, technical guidance and training on conflict issues. Here’s what we’ve learnt so far:

1. Implementing teams drive conflict-sensitive change in organisations; support teams enable it: accompaniment must engage both

It is usually an adviser’s or an HQ/regional office’s responsibility to improve an organisation’s ability to work in conflict. They are the people who approach organisations like Saferworld for their expertise. This is as it should be – implementing teams may need or want support to engage with the conflict, but don’t have time to arrange that support themselves. But implementing teams are often notified late, have little to no input into the type of support they get, and haven’t chosen the coach. So, they are the least involved despite being the most important for actually driving conflict-sensitive change and the closest to people living through conflict (as well as living through it themselves.) Saferworld has learnt to communicate with implementing teams as early as possible and consciously work to strengthen relationships with HQ-based teams. This means bringing both parties into new programme design processes that combine the ‘big picture’ of political economy and conflict dynamics with the detailed local reality of affected communities. Where organisations do this well, we have seen them make a variety of adaptations, including creating new staff positions, tailoring outreach to specific conflict-affected communities, adapting training curricula and others.

2. Institutional assessments are a first step for strong accompaniment – the organisation may already ‘know more’ than any single team realises

When a coach starts working with an organisation, everyone involved may assume that capacity to work in a conflict-affected environment is low, and immediately start providing support. But to realise the potential of accompaniment, a formal assessment of the organisation is always worth the effort. This step, which we call ‘institutional assessment’, can help identify a full view of organisational capacity and gaps for working on conflict. For example, how much of a priority is conflict sensitivity and for which teams? What specific conflict issues from that context resonate with staff? What do implementing staff learn from their own experience of the conflict and from working with communities? The assessment can also identify organisational systems, policies and practices that conflict sensitivity support can ‘piggyback’ on – or that may be obstacles, like approval processes or performance criteria. Lastly, an institutional assessment creates a foundation for building relationships, identifying challenges, and holding dialogue so that people can raise sensitive issues that emerge during accompaniment.

3. Conflict sensitivity is not only an area of technical or contextual knowledge in programmes, but part of a process of organisational development

The advantage of ongoing programme accompaniment – over one-off trainings and technical advice – is that coaches develop a deep understanding of an organisation and its programmes and practices. These elements are more important than technical or contextual knowledge about conflict. Being effective in challenging conflict-affected contexts requires self-reflection and adaptation. It involves difficult discussions about how different people perceive an organisation, how conflict dynamics challenge its approaches and even its values, and how its systems may be ill-suited to the pace and complexity of the evolving context. An organisation can address all these issues by making internal changes as part of its own development and as part of its relationship and partnerships with conflict-affected communities and community-based organisations. We choose coaches for conflict technical knowledge, yes; but the motivation and ability to understand the development of the organisation they accompany is essential. This is increasingly important in an aid sector focusing more on coordination, collaboration and coherence across many different elements of organisational work (peacebuilding, humanitarian and development).

4. Strive for ‘good tension’ in strong relationships

Programme accompaniment is as complex as programme implementation itself – it will never be completely smooth. Coaches may challenge fundamental design features of a programme, or the procurement, logistics, recruitment, communications or other processes that support it. For example, it is common for aid programme staff to have a certain ‘identity’ within a conflict, even if it’s an unwelcome imposition by parties engaged in conflict, who might, for example, see people of the same religion as implicit ‘allies’, or all foreign staff as ‘enemies’. A coach will ask teams about how different people perceive these ‘identities’ and what efforts they’ve made to counter those perceptions’ potential negative effects on the conflict, including whether they consider this in staff recruitment, communications, and other internal processes and systems. This touches on the identity of people ‘in the room’ and it can feel uncomfortable. However, reaching this point can enable far more effective engagement in conflict. Where people navigate these sensitive issues, we have seen organisations reach people previously overlooked because of assumptions about ‘identity’ within teams, including moving budget resources to undertake new consultations with them. A sign that an accompaniment process is working are these moments of ‘good tension’. As international agencies move to a position of less control and more trust in partnerships, an acceptance of ‘good tension’ in conflict support is even more important.


All these lessons interconnect – the right people and teams, an accurate institutional assessment, a clear understanding of organisational development, and a willingness to go through tense moments. Accompaniment can feel very complex. But working effectively and sensitively in conflict is a complex undertaking. Where training sessions, guidance documents, technical advice or other efforts have fallen short, an accompaniment approach may be the missing piece for bringing changes to specific programmes that can influence organisational practice on conflict sensitivity – resulting in more effective, conflict sensitive engagement with people and communities living through violent conflict.

Saferworld’s Conflict Advisory Unit focuses on supporting organisations to be more effective when working in and on conflict. To learn more contact Claire Devlin or read about our helpdesks and in-country facilities.