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Conflict Sensitivity Programming: Why and How

Program designers for stabilization and peacebuilding programs take the term ‘unintended consequences’ seriously. And there is good reason for that. When things go wrong in stabilization and peacebuilding efforts, not only are precious resources wasted, but people in the communities we work can be more at risk because of our efforts.

Consider the example of Lebanon. The country that hosted the largest refugee per capita unintentionally reinforced perceptions of economic injustice between local communities and Syrian refugees when they generously provided free health services for refugees that host country citizens struggling with poverty had to pay for.

Alternately, in Kenya an NGO ensuring access to clean water by constructing wells closer to remote villages ended up increasing family and inter-village conflicts. Women would use long walks fetching water to also negotiate and resolve community issues. The presence of wells nearer to their villages inadvertently eliminated an effective reconciliation practice.

Yet stabilization and peacebuilding programs are more needed now than ever. Violent conflict has been steadily on the rise for the past 10 years, impacting one out of three countries around the world. The sheer scale and complexities of these settings also means that designing and delivering conflict-sensitive programs has never been more important.

As we at Dexis began doing more and more work in conflict-affected regions of the world, we realized that we would need to up our game in understanding and applying conflict-sensitivity principles and practices. It was clear to us that conflict sensitivity and the Do No Harm principle were essential and not a check-the-box activity. We needed to not only draw from our successful experiences but also from unsuccessful ones.

One team member recalled his time in Iraq, when project personnel would travel to villages in military helicopters to provide technical assistance. After these visits, these villagers were targeted by bad actors operating in the area, all due to the transport used. We responded by hiring Iraqi subcontractors from that region to be the eyes, ears, and face of the project, who could operate under the radar, and who had a nuanced understanding of local dynamics. This was Do No Harm in action. But it starts with knowing what not to do.

Dexis has been further integrating conflict sensitivity across its programming. In just one example, on a recent conflict prevention project, we improved our understanding of conflict dynamics and approaches across multiple countries undergoing complex political transitions by developing regional and in-country networks with civil society organizations so that their insights could drive our programming. In another example, on a private sector development program, our team analyzed conflict dynamics, inequity, and patronage systems to prioritize diverse sectors with the potential to employ vulnerable populations and to reflect inclusivity of workers from the different regions of the country.

For program designers or implementers looking to integrate conflict sensitivity into their organizations and initiatives, consider three must-dos, as listed below, which take us back to the basics:

Establish conflict sensitive programming as essential. Organizations need to build an organizational culture that recognizes the critical importance of conflict sensitivity in all programs and operations. This needs to come from leadership and be continuously reinforced across all levels.
Develop an enterprise-wide framework to apply conflict sensitivity principles. In headquarters, are teams advocating for a preliminary conflict analysis early on to really inform project design, activities, choice of partners, and recruiting? In the field, are we taking a step back to review the larger system, and engaging with the cultural, social, and underlying community dynamics? Are we taking the time and prioritizing the resources needed to conduct the conflict analysis and apply it across all systems and roles? For field operations: Who is confirming that offices are in neutral locations and that work planning respects local festivals, religious observance days, etc.? For field finance: Will people lacking formal banking options be able to receive funding? For IT teams: How are systems protecting the data privacy, security, and anonymity of partners and staff from surveillance, cyberstalking, or targeting?
Ensure all—and we mean all—staff is trained in conflict sensitivity principles. While human resources staff and recruiters should be seeking people with skills like flexibility, tolerance, humility, and adaptability—qualities important to challenge assumptions and respond rapidly to programmatic shifts in conflict-affect areas—all staff should be given the opportunity and share the responsibility of asking how they can provide a more conflict-sensitive and inclusive approach to their work. This begins with staff training, ongoing discussions, and a sustained sharing of ideas to integrate lessons learned across the entire organization—from headquarters to the field and back—and in every department.

Applying conflict-sensitive principles and practices provides the opportunity for us to achieve more sustainable outcomes. Failing to do so can have a detrimental impact on the communities where we work. Consider if exclusively hiring project staff from a capital could fuel grievances that workers from other regions are taking jobs without investing in the local workforce. Or when project design staff contact human rights activists in a country, they may not understand when emails and phones are being monitored and inadvertently put those activists in harm’s way.

As conflict continues to grow and shift in many areas around the globe, infusing conflict sensitivity in programs and organizations becomes increasingly vital. Without these approaches, programs risk not only undermining key development outcomes but can put communities at risk of further instability. Done right, we heighten the odds of achieving the ultimate goal: sustained and inclusive positive peace.

Erika Kirwen is a Senior Technical Advisor on Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding to Dexis.

Photo by Eric Lafforgue / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP