The first principle for aid policy makers, identified in the OECD-DAC Guidelines on ‘Helping Prevent Violent Conflict’ (2001, p. 23), is ‘to do no harm and to guard against unwittingly aggravating existing or potential conflicts’, in addition to ‘maximising good’ and strengthening incentives for peace. Now well accepted in the development community, this principle rose to prominence after the devastating genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Genocidaires exploited humanitarian relief to refugee camps in order to consolidate their own power and to launch attacks within the camps and against Rwanda (Brown et al., 2009). Uvin (1998) argues that development agencies were also responsible for exacerbating structural violence in the lead up to the genocide through various actions that exacerbated conflict dynamics. This included recruiting predominantly Tutsi local staff, heightening tensions between Tutsi and Hutu groups. The increasing complexity of the post-Cold War environments in which aid workers were operating – and growing examples of aid unwittingly feeding into conflict and undermining peaceful recovery – resulted in deep reflection among aid workers on their role and involvement in these contexts.
Aid interventions have since been understood as part of the context – and, in conflict settings, part of the conflict. Although interveners may strive to follow humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality, local populations do not perceive interventions as neutral or experience them as having neutral impacts (Wallace, 2014). Rather, the mere presence of aid workers and aid flows can affect local dynamics and power balances.
Aid can also alter political settlements. Depending on the context, donor support for electoral competition, for example, can lead to a more or a less inclusive political settlement. Donors risk doing harm by promoting elections in which key political organisations, elite factions or oppressed groups are excluded or face incentives to boycott elections and engage in violence (OECD, 2010).
Aid can thus have both positive and negative impacts. Negative unintended consequences of aid can derive from:
- Resource transfers, including the diversion of resources to fund armies and weaponry; reinforcement of war economies; uneven distribution of resources that fuels inter-group tensions; substitution of government resources required to meet civilian needs toward financing the conflict; and legitimisation of conflict actors (Anderson, 1999).
- Implicit ethical messages, such as hiring armed guards, conveying the message that it is legitimate for arms to decide access to humanitarian aid; and placing different values on different lives, reinforcing inequality (Anderson, 1999). In the latter situation, aid can contribute to gender-based violence or other human rights abuses.
- Political impacts, for example altering the political settlement; adopting a position of neutrality in asymmetric conflict that has the effect of endorsing the strongest party; or focusing on direct, physical violence while neglecting other forms of violence (e.g. structural violence) (Reychler, 2006), resulting in the persistence or worsening of societal tensions.
- Exacerbating ‘dividers’ (negative factors that increase tensions between people or groups, reduce their ability to resolve conflicts non-violently and may lead to violent conflict) and weakening ‘connectors’ (positive factors that reduce tensions between people or groups, improve cohesion and promote constructive collaboration). Factors may include systems and institutions, values, symbols, attitudes and actions (OECD DAC & CDA, 2007).
This acknowledgement that aid is not neutral but becomes a part of the context also led to the recognition that donors need to be accountable for the inadvertent side effects of programming on conflict. Conflict sensitivity emerged as an important concept and tool to help aid actors to understand these implications and to minimise harm and achieve positive outcomes. The Do No Harm project was launched in late 1994 to answer the question: How may assistance be provided in conflict settings in ways that, rather than feeding into and exacerbating the conflict, help local people disengage from the violence that surrounds them and begin to develop alternative systems for addressing the problems that underlie the conflict? Learning from various case studies and responses from humanitarian and development practitioners, the project developed a framework for programme analysis, design and planning in conflict contexts.
Conflict sensitivity serves not only to decrease the potential for violence but also to increase the effectiveness of assistance. Adapting aid policies and programming to the context and better assessing the risks of operating in the environment can improve the sustainability of interventions and minimise risks to projects, partners and beneficiaries. When working in a conflict setting, one needs to take into consideration various issues relating to asymmetric power relations, cultural diversity, and the values and beliefs of the local populations. Development interventions also have the capacity to contribute to peace, such as through fostering common interests among stakeholders, neutral spaces for interaction, positive communication outlets and mechanisms for cooperation. By providing non-violent means to work together and to address contentious issues, they can demonstrate alternatives to conflict (Bush, 2009).
Conflict insensitive aid fuelling conflict in Sri Lanka and Nepal
Pressure to spend large amounts of aid rapidly in tsunami-affected Sri Lanka favoured government-controlled areas that had the absorption capacities, which contributed to uneven regional distribution of resources – one of the root causes of the conflict. The influx of aid also shifted the power balance towards the government, which undermined the need to compromise with the other conflict party, the LTTE – exacerbating political tensions and violence (Paffenholz, 2005).
In Nepal, aid was also allocated to more accessible areas, which limited benefits to the most conflict-affected regions and to the poorest. In addition, aid programmes that focused on capacity building and awareness raising benefited mainly elite groups with little benefit to the most excluded. Programmes that called for community contributions placed an undue burden on women and the most poor – and were resented by them. All of this had the effect of exacerbating patterns of exclusion – a key driver of the conflict (Vaux 2002).
Contributing to peacebuilding in Indonesia through inclusive processes of aid distribution
Development work in Indonesia has shown that projects with explicit and accessible processes for managing disputes arising out of development activities are less likely to result in violent outcomes than project without such mechanisms. The government’s (World Bank-financed) Kecamatan Development Project aimed to deliver resources to rural communities through inclusive, transparent and accountable decision-making mechanisms, designed based on extensive country research. The project helped to improve inter-group relations and to democratise village life. Although it was not an effective mechanism for working directly on wider, non-project conflict, it is possible that modifying the programme would allow for effective local conflict management (Barron, Diprose, & Woolcock, 2007).
Anderson, M. (1999). Do no harm: how aid can support peace – or war. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
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Brown, S., Goldwyn, R., Groenewald, H., & McGregor, J. (2009). Conflict sensitivity consortium benchmarking paper. Conflict Sensitivity Consortium.
Why is conflict sensitivity important, and what does it mean? This paper, prepared by a consortium of ten UK NGOs, traces the emergence of conflict sensitivity to the realisation that aid can be used as a weapon of war, as in Rwanda, Somalia and elsewhere in the mid-1990s. Conflict sensitivity is important for humanitarian, development and peacebuilding actors as it can help them recognise and address the unintended consequences of their interventions.
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Paffenholz, T. (2005). Peace and conflict sensitivity in international cooperation: An introductory overview. International Politics and Society, 4, 63-82.
Peace and conflict sensitivity has successfully entered the mainstreaming agenda of development agencies, with much institutionalisation and conceptualisation. In practical terms however, a co-ordinated system for peace and conflict sensitive aid implementation is absent. This article explores the gap between rhetoric and practice and identifies key challenges.
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Reychler, L. (2006). Humanitarian aid for sustainable peace building. In P. Gibbons& B. Piquard (Eds.), Working in conflict – Working on conflict: Humanitarian dilemmas and challenges (pp. 135-154). Bilbao: University of Deusto.
How can humanitarian aid contribute to sustainable peacebuilding? This paper notes multiple examples of unintended negative effects of humanitarian interventions, including the failure of blue helmet peacekeepers to protect civilians in Bosnia and Rwanda, the control of refugee camps by belligerents in Thailand, Pakistan and Congo, and the worsening of ethnic, religious and caste tensions by NGO staff recruitment policies in Sri Lanka and Nepal. All actors in conflict zones should establish peace and conflict impact assessment systems to help them recognise, analyse and manage impacts of their interventions.
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Barron, P., Diprose, R., and Woolcock, M. (2007). Local conflict and development projects in Indonesia: Part of the problem or part of a solution? (World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, no. 4212). Washington, DC: World Bank.
This World Bank working paper argues that development projects are capable of stimulating as well as reducing conflicts. Those projects that have explicit and accessible procedures for managing disputes arising from the development process are much less likely to cause conflict.
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Frieden, J. (2012). A donor’s perspective on aid and conflict. In S. von Einsiedel, D.M. Malone, & S. Pradhan (Eds.), Nepal in transition: From people’s war to fragile peace (pp. 100-113). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
How have donors helped or hindered the peace process in Nepal? This chapter draws on the author’s personal experience to explore the role of donors during and after the 1996-2006 war. Aid agencies struggled to recognise, understand and internalise three key conflict dimensions: its political (rather than economic) roots, elite capture of aid, and the extent of insurgent control in the countryside. However, aid programmes helped minimise displacement and ensured basic services during the war; and donor re-assessment and re-engagement following the 2005 coup helped protect human rights and supported conflict resolution. Donors still need to improve co-ordination of peace and development activities.
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Vaux, T. (2002). Nepal: Strategic conflict assessment. Consultant’s report for the Department for International Development, UK.
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Uvin, P. (1998). Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda. West Hartford: Kumarian Press.
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Conflict sensitive consortium. (2012). Promoting conflict sensitivity among donor agencies. Policy brief. Conflict sensitive consortium
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OECD DAC and CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. (2007). Encouraging effective evaluation of conflict prevention and peacebuilding activities: Towards DAC guidance. OECD Journal on Development, 8 (3).
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- Wallace, M. (2014). From principle to practice: A user’s guide to do no harm. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning. See document online
- OECD (2010). Do no harm: international support for statebuilding. Paris: OECD. See document online
- Bush, K. (2009). Aid for peace: A handbook for applying peace & conflict impact assessment (PCIA) to Peace III projects. INCORE, University of Ulster, and United Nations University. See document online