There is widespread agreement among humanitarian, development, statebuilding and peacebuilding actors about the importance of conflict sensitivity. However, there are still various factors that have undermined the successful operationalisation of conflict sensitivity. These include:
Inconsistent application of conflict sensitivity…
…at the policy and organisational level
The majority of learning about conflict sensitive practice has been at the programme level, with little attention given to the policy level (Woodrow & Chigas, 2009). Although aid agencies have adopted policies in support of the principle of conflict sensitivity, there are few developed methods to assess the implications and actual impacts – and to ensure the conflict sensitivity – of donor’s policy decisions. These include decisions to start or stop whole areas of programming or to shift to greater reliance on budgetary support (see section on where and when to apply conflict sensitivity for further discussion). It is also difficult to engage in conflict sensitivity at the policy level if donors themselves are conflict actors in certain contexts.
In order for conflict sensitivity to be applied consistently, it should be embedded in an agency’s policies and operational agenda. Effective dissemination of conflict sensitivity requires an organisational commitment from top to bottom (Engelstad et al., 2008) (see where and when to apply conflict sensitivity).
The OECD (2011) finds that development partners have failed to systematically ensure that their statebuilding interventions are conflict sensitive and to monitor for unintended consequences. In Mindanao, a key barrier to the adoption of conflict sensitivity at various organisations was the management view that conflict sensitivity is an add-on and merely a box to check (Garred & Goddard, 2010). ‘Champions’ – individuals who learn the DNH approach, for example, and motivate people and/or provide incentives for others to learn and adopt the approach – could be relied on to encourage the uptake of conflict sensitivity within an organisation (CDA, 2009). Goddard and Brady (2010) found in their study on DNH in Cambodia that a recurring theme was the need for champions.
…throughout the project life cycle
Conflict sensitive approaches are most effective when applied consistently and holistically throughout the project life cycle – from analysis and design to evaluation. The widespread focus on developing conflict analysis frameworks has resulted in a relative neglect of practical guidance on how to operationalise the findings (Woodrow & Chigas, 2009). The do no harm project finds that where agencies conduct analysis, this is often relied on solely for initial programme design, with no monitoring of impacts and unintended consequences of the programme once implemented and follow-on programme adjustments (Woodrow & Chigas, 2009).
…at the inter-agency level
Even if organisations adopt conflict sensitivity in their internal processes, policies, funds and structures, the lack of an enabling external environment can adversely affect its operationalisation (Lange, 2006). Lack of coordination among actors operating in the same space, including national governments, donors, local partners and NGOs, can result in unintentionally undermining the work of others. In Nepal, the donor community commissioned numerous conflict analysis reports and assessment missions, but failed to come up with a joint assessment necessary to develop a joint response to the conflicting parties. Without a clear strategy, donors were initially unable to constructively influence the conflict situation (Paffenholz, 2005). There can also be a disconnect between departments and agencies that form part of the same country government, such as between the military and the development department. Lange (2006) emphasises that consultation and coordination among agencies – sharing of information and joint context analyses – is integral to strengthened conflict sensitivity.
Analytical issues and integrating findings into programming
Difficulties in gathering information, due to complex conflict environments, access issues, systemic power differentials between researchers and respondents, and intensive demands on time and resources, can undermine the ability to conduct effective conflict analysis and assessments (Bornstein, 2010). Further, a key challenge for agencies – generally and in relation to conflict sensitivity – is how to ensure that all information gathered and analyses conducted are made useable, presented in a ‘user-friendly’ way, and disseminated rapidly to those who can act on them to inform, design and monitor programming. Lange (2006) recommends experimenting more with web-based information management systems. Progress in integrating findings into programme design, implementation and monitoring also depends on commitment from decision-makers and formal mechanisms that link analysis and assessments to an overarching planning cycle (Bush, 2009).
Insufficient attention to Southern perspectives and endogenous models
Conflict sensitivity approaches and tools have been criticised for being Northern-led, with limited attention to endogenous models or collaboration with Southern actors to develop locally adapted approaches. Bush (2003) argues that the original intent of PCIA to create the space for actors in the South to develop organic, appropriate and user-friendly tools did not materialise. Instead, emphasis shifted to more mechanistic Northern-led tools and frameworks.
Such emphasis on particular methodologies has in certain instances resulted in little resonance with Southern organisations and alienated and marginalised local communities from peace and conflict assessment processes (Abitbol, 2013; Barbolet et al., 2005). In Pakistan, for example, the majority of staff at various local NGOs consider PCIA and conflict sensitivity as ‘alien concepts’ and have little interest in learning the tools and methodologies (Ahmed, 2011). In other environments, local communities have been receptive to the concepts and tools.
Regardless, there is a need to focus on local capacities and perspectives. The New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States is an attempt to place national partners of the centre of statebuilding and peacebuilding and could be relied on as a framework to counter perceptions of neglect of Southern perspectives.
Incentives / disincentives
Funding and timing
Pressures faced by implementing organisations to spend large amounts of donor money quickly can result in failure to adopt time-consuming conflict sensitivity approaches (CDA 2009). In his research on PCIA in Pakistan, Ahmed (2011) finds that in most cases, agencies opted for a hurried approach (based on decisions at headquarters). Development projects were implemented without a prior conflict analysis and the PCIA exercise was then partially performed after the fact to determine the projects’ impacts on local peace and conflict dynamics. He argues, however, that once a project is implemented without a conflict analysis, the benefits of the PCIA approach are significantly undermined.
Lack of accountability
If organisations are not held to account for failure to incorporate conflict sensitivity approaches or for the negative impacts their programming may have, they may have little or no motivation to engage in conflict sensitivity. CDA (2009) finds that donors rarely monitor for the use of do no harm by implementing agencies beyond the funding phase and thus have little knowledge of whether it is actually adopted. Further, donor policies rarely provide any consequences for failing to engage in conflict sensitive programming or penalise activities that actually caused harm (Woodrow & Chigas, 2009). Goddard and Brady (2010) find in their case study of Cambodia that donor logframes for implementing organisations did not include any indicators for DNH. At the community level, there are also no mechanisms for recipients of international assistance to hold organisations accountable for the negative impacts of projects on local people (CDA, 2009).
Peacebuilding organisations may find it difficult to acknowledge the need for conflict sensitivity due to the faulty assumption that their mandate to build peace automatically results in activities that contribute to peace (Resource pack). Similarly, organisations and actors engaged in particular sectoral work, such as security and justice sector reform, may assume that since such reforms are intended to transform a key driver of conflict, they inherently contribute to peace. Goldwyn (2013) cites this as a possible reason why conflict sensitivity has not been widely taken up in the sector. Such assumptions can result in lack of systematic conflict analyses, inadequate planning, uncoordinated approaches to peacebuilding and tenuous claims of success (Resource pack).
Although conflict sensitivity training exists, mainly on do no harm, more training, mentoring and capacity building is required – particularly in the South (Paffenholz & Reychler, 2007). In Mindanao, DNH training amounted to one workshop, without any monitoring or follow-up, which was insufficient to understand the tool or for regular and sustained use (Garred & Goddard, 2010).
Lack of capacity undermines the ability of organisations to mainstream conflict sensitivity (Paffenholz, 2005). Systematic conflict sensitivity training could contribute to the development of institutional memory and human resource capacity. Such training should include links with other training on issues such as gender, child protection and social protection.
In addition to developing conflict sensitivity capacity, Burke (2013) finds that it is important to encourage skills and ways of working that allow for country office staff to accrue political acumen and knowledge to operate effectively in contexts where conflict sensitivity is not adopted. In the far south of Thailand, some agencies without explicit conflict sensitive programming still addressed conflict issues due to internal attributes and institutional concerns over inequalities and political marginalisation. Goldwyn (2013) cautions that training itself can have conflict sensitive repercussions in terms of who selects and who is chosen; and whether those who are trained gain additional power.
Conflict analyses are political exercises that reflect often contentious determinations of the causes of conflict and interpretation of history (Izzi & Kurz, 2009). Ongoing assessments and evaluation in conflict sensitivity processes are also political exercises. There may be pressure to minimise or exclude controversial issues in order to make findings acceptable to a larger set of actors and thus useable. Izzi and Kurz (2009) argue that if the quality of analysis is compromised to a large extent, it may not be better than no analysis at all. Burke (2013) finds that aid agencies found it challenging to address causes of conflict in the far south of Thailand due to internal operational deficiencies and the need to negotiate with the recipient government that did not want these issues addressed. In many cases, government resistance constituted a complete barrier for organisations to engage in the promotion of peace.
Deciding which conflict sensitive approach and methodology to adopt also represents a political choice. Neufeldt (2007) identifies two distinct groups in development interventions: ‘frameworkers’ who use methods or processes that are scientific, linear and logical; and ‘circlers’ who are interested in the uniqueness of interventions and communities and immeasurable aspects. How conflict sensitivity approaches are selected, interpreted and perceived can affect whether they are successfully implemented or face resistance. Barbolet et al. (2005) find that the application of PCIA in Sri Lanka emphasised complex tools, tables and methodologies that did not resonate with many Southern organisations. Many PCIA frameworks have been developed in the North with little Southern input (Gaigals & Leonhardt, 2001). Bornstein (2010) finds, however, in her use of PCIA in Mozambique that it can be used flexibly. She opted against rigid evaluation with pre-established indicators in favour of a dialogue between researchers and local residents, which contributed to effective identification of conflict issues, information on key actors, and development of indicators.
CDA. (2009). Barriers and supports for do no harm (Issues Paper). Cambridge, MA: CDA.
This paper summarises lessons from case studies on barriers to, and supports for, implementation of do no harm. Staff turnover is both a barrier and a support, as the movement of trained personnel weakens capacity in one organisation but can increase it in another. Disincentives to use DNH include pressure to spend funds quickly, the fact that aid agencies are not held accountable for harm done, and confusion arising from the absence of a clear definition of what it means to use DNH. Ensuring free access to DNH materials has helped it spread, but there remains a need for translation into more languages.
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Lange, M. (2006). Conflict-sensitive humanitarian assistance: building capacity for mainstreaming. In P. Gibbons & B. Piquard (Eds.), Working in conflict – Working on conflict: Humanitarian dilemmas and challenges (pp. 155-170). Bilbao: University of Deusto
This paper, based on research with staff in international NGOs, highlights key challenges to mainstreaming conflict sensitivity, including information overload, inconsistent application of lessons learned, and staff recruitment, retention and development. Conflict sensitivity analysis should be integrated into existing planning and operational frameworks, rather than conducted through separate processes which put extra pressure on already over-burdened staff. Agencies also need to critically analyse the nature and dynamics of their relationships with local partner organisations as these are an important factor in the conflict sensitivity of the wider response.
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Neufeldt, R. C. (2007). ‘Frameworkers’ and ‘Circlers’: Exploring assumptions in peace and conflict impact assessment. In: Berghof handbook for conflict transformation. Berlin: Berghof Research Centre for Constructive Conflict Management.
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Burke, A. (2013). How do international development agencies approach peacebuilding in a sub-national conflict? Development in Practice, 23(7), 840-856. doi: 10.1080/09614524.2013.811221
This fieldwork-based study examines international organisations’ responses to conflict in Thailand’s far south between 2007 and 2012. While many agencies demonstrated little interest in addressing the conflict, some tried to support peacebuilding, although Thai government resistance and practical barriers generated obstacles. Conflict guidelines and toolkits were rarely used; instead, political awareness was important in negotiating space for peacebuilding. Findings suggest that for aid agencies to engage effectively in highly politicised subnational conflict environments, they need to demonstrate local understanding and flexibility rather than adherence to technical peacebuilding toolkits.
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Garred, M. & Goddard, N. (2010). Do no harm in Mindanao: Ingenuity in action. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects.
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Goddard, N. & Brady, E. (2010). Do no harm in Cambodia. Cambridge, CA: CDA
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Izzi, V. & Kurz, C. (2009). Potential and pitfalls of conflict-sensitive approaches to development in conflict zones: reflections on the case of North Kivu. (Paper presented at ISA Annual Convention, New York, 15-18 February).
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Abitbol, E. (2014). Assessing the power and practices of peace and conflict impact assessment. Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, 9(1), 3-9. doi: 10.1080/15423166.2014.899305
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Bush, K. (2003). PCIA five years on: the commodification of an idea. Berlin: Berghof Research Centre for Constructive Conflict Management.
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