Humanitarian workers assess the situation at the Syria-Lebanon border as part of efforts to help those who have fled the violence in Syria. Conflict sensitivity is often a consideration that is mistakenly lost in the rush to provide basic amenities following the outbreak of a conflict. Photo by: Mustafa Öztürk / IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

We are at a particularly important point in history, where some of the current conflicts around the world are arguably as complex as any in memory. The nature of these conflicts — particularly the most complex — simultaneously give rise to multiple issues, some of which seem to call for a more immediate humanitarian response than others.

In Syria, for example, the world has seen — among other things — the perpetration of many atrocities by various factions, the exodus or displacement of half the country’s population, the collapse of the rule of law and of public health institutions, and the widespread shortage of food.

In such cases, a nongovernmental organization’s most effective response involves both careful engagement at the grass-roots level, and a thorough understanding of the local context. But in the understandable rush to address these crises, this is one area — also referred to as conflict sensitivity — which is often ignored, an omission that can prolong and worsen the conflict as a whole.

The concept of conflict sensitivity was developed by Saferworld, the U.K.-based NGO, after a series of consultations in Kenya, Sri Lanka and Uganda in 2002-2003. Conflict sensitivity may long have been acknowledged in theory, but the use of such approaches makes it a matter of practice.

Sandra Ruckstuhl, an expert in sustainable development at the World Bank, told Devex that “when we’re delivering aid, whether we’re talking about short-term or long-term programs, we’re never external actors … We become part of the conflict environment, of that system of needs and grievances and all the kinds of things that are perpetuating conflict … So what we need to think about is how we are a part of that system when we’re doing our programming.”

Conflict sensitivity is often a consideration that is mistakenly lost in the rush to provide basic amenities following the outbreak of a conflict, Ruckstuhl said.

“I’m not saying we need to send a big team to go and do a six-month study before we remove the debris. But we need to be reflective at least in the way that we do our work and think about the impact that the work might have: where we remove the debris from first, where does it go, how do people perceive that operation, how does it affect the communities based on how the program is sequenced … anything like that.”

Saferworld’s head of policy, Larry Attree, is optimistic about the progress that reforms can make in this area, given that access to security and freedom from violence are now seen as key objectives of international development work. As he points out, several of the subjects on which his own NGO has campaigned are now incorporated under goal 16 of the sustainable development goals. For him, this represents a welcome move towards a proactive, preventative approach; an opinion shared by Patrick Safran, the secretary of the Steering Committee on Fragile Situations at the Asian Development Bank. “I think that this is a big improvement [given that] in the Millennium Development Goals [concepts such as] fragile states and conflict states were not even recognized,” said Safran.

Conflict in Context: A monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics,Cordaid, Mercy Corps, OSCE and USAID.

Attree also noted that the more peaceful societies, broadly speaking, share five characteristics that all conflict-conscious development strategies should aim towards. “They work to reduce violence and ensure the public feels safe; they ensure fair access to justice, livelihoods, resources and services; they enable participation in decision-making and constructive resolution of grievances; they have lower levels of corruption and bribery; and they’re less exposed to flows of drugs, arms, illicit finances and conflict commodities.”

In Attree’s view, those individuals who had been most inspiring in addressing conflict were those who “are prepared to reach out across conflict divides … even though they’ve lost so much and are in danger from doing so.” He highlighted an example from Papua New Guinea of women who, through putting themselves on the battlefield between rival groups in the conflict, were able to help bring the combatants to the mediation table.

It is this kind of grass-roots approach that best embodies the concept of conflict-sensitive development. To illustrate this point further, Attree gave the example of a German project that Saferworld had evaluated in Sri Lanka. Here, he said, the NGO had organized the villagers with whom it was working on the ground, drawn from all ethnicities, to deliver food and other aid to the Tamil people who had been driven out of northern Sri Lanka and into displacement camps.

“It wasn’t just that they were feeding these people, but that they got Senegalese and Muslim villagers involved in cooking the food and delivering it, and showing those people inside the barbed wire that they cared,” said Attree. “It’s about finding something that unifies people, even if the propaganda machine is whirring above you and the big actors in a conflict are intent on fighting.”

Oli Brown, a senior program officer at the United Nations Environment Program, agrees that this search for common ground is essential. “In times of conflict, he told Devex, “the environment can be something that brings people together, because they recognize that they have either shared environmental challenges or common resources, and unless they cooperate and collaborate over those resources they’re going to make life more difficult for themselves.” Brown points to the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, “which had survived three inter-state wars between those two countries, over the last few years … and has been a channel of communication that has helped collaboration and cooperation between countries.”

Ruckstuhl identifies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as another key case in point.  “When it comes to rebuilding governance institutions, water can be a first step,” she said.  “Throughout these negotiations, which never seem to end, water is one area where there has been most movement in the discussions over time; whereas if you [talk about] the settlements or the status of Jerusalem, it’s a non-starter. But [with] water, everybody needs it: it’s a shared resource, it’s a transboundary resource. It inclines parties to work together … it can be a point of entry.”

These efforts, of course, must form part of a carefully co-ordinated strategy towards peacebuilding: one which, in some of the current and more protracted conflicts, is sadly still proving elusive.

“In Syria, at the moment, there really is no peacebuilding going on,” said Carolyn Miles, the CEO of Save the Children U.S. “I think, in past conflicts and past crises, there has been the ability to link humanitarian and peacebuilding efforts. In this case, it’s just a huge void.”

Miles cited Rwanda in the mid-90s as a recent example of where this has worked. “That healing process, that process of change, was really driven by the people themselves,” she said. “Yes, the government and the NGOs did a lot of things, but people enabled that to happen. I think the reason that it was successful was that people inside the country decided they were going to go down the path of forgiveness and healing.”

While today’s crises may be some of the most complex in history, this is also a moment of opportunity. From their inclusion of principles of conflict sensitivity in the sustainable development goals, the world’s leading institutions have shown their desire to make it an important element of the post-2015 development agenda. This is a move which should lead to yet more sophisticated handling of the outbreak of violence, and hopefully to safer, more peaceful societies.

Conflict in Context is a monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Cordaid, Mercy Corps , OSCE and USAID. We’ll decode the challenges and highlight the opportunities countries face while in crisis and what the development community is doing to respond. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #ConflictinContext.

About the author

  • Musa Okwonga

    Musa Okwonga is a journalist, poet, broadcaster, musician, and PR consultant currently based in Berlin, Germany. He has written for several publications, including The Guardian, The New Statesman, ESPN and The New York Times, and is the author of two books on football, the first of which, A Cultured Left Foot, was nominated for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Find out more about his work at