Opinion: Delivering aid to conflict zones is extremely hard. Here are 5 ways to do it better.

A food distribution program for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh by Caritas Bangladesh, with CRS support. Photo by: Mahmud Rahman / CRS / Caritas Bangladesh / CC BY-ND

Delivering humanitarian and development aid in fragile and conflict-affected places is not easy. War zones are complicated and dangerous, and aid agencies must deliver urgent and life-saving assistance in the face of constant challenges and risks.

In such places, aid can sometimes inadvertently be misdirected, misspent, or, even when delivered exactly according to plan, unintentionally worsen issues such as inequalities and mistrust, thereby perpetuating causes of conflicts in the first place.

So how can we ensure that aid is delivered in a “conflict-sensitive” manner? The idea of conflict sensitivity is similar to the concept of “do no harm,” as adapted by Mary B. Anderson from the world of medicine. It means that assistance given to people in conflict-affected places should first and foremost avoid doing harm.

But we also need to go beyond this: In addition to doing no harm, aid organizations could actively design, manage, implement, and adapt their programs to maximize the opportunities to build peace. Humanitarian and development aid is essential to reduce suffering, and tackle the root causes of ongoing conflicts. Well-designed aid projects can help reduce inequalities, and promote greater trust between conflict parties.

Recently, International Alert partnered with United Nations Development Programme Myanmar to document experiences of integrating conflict sensitivity into the practice of delivering local and community development projects in Myanmar. Over the course of a year, we spoke with representatives from government, ethnic armed organizations, various local NGOs and INGOs, donors and multilateral organizations, and foundations, and conducted field visits to Rakhine State and Kayah State to learn about what works, or doesn’t, to make sure that aid is conflict sensitive.

Here are our top 5 tips.

1. Do your analysis — and use it to inform your programmatic choices.

The social, economic, and political landscape in conflict zones can change quickly. Therefore conducting regular analysis is essential to inform a conflict-sensitive approach.

Our research in Myanmar found that while most organisations had conducted some form of conflict assessment, this was often done at the start of the program and then left on a shelf and not used or kept updated.

Where analysis had been done, it was often either conducted on a sectoral basis without a wider context assessment — e.g. a needs assessments for WASH, etc. — or too broad to be useful to inform specific programs — e.g. too focused on so-called “big player dynamics,” such as Aung San Suu Kyi vs the military, or the military vs ethnic armed groups. This meant a lot of the analysis missed out on local nuances, such as relations between and within different ethnic groups, religious groups, or genders, which are crucial to informing programmatic choices, such as beneficiary selection.

Thankfully, there are some good resources available which can inform the process of conducting a conflict analysis, such as this resource pack from International Alert, and the Gender & Conflict analysis toolkit by Conciliation Resources.  

2. Consult early, meaningfully, and often with conflict-affected people.

While this seems like common sense, our research found that this was still an area of practice that needed strengthening. For example, communities we spoke to were critical of efforts by development partners to bring them in to consultations in a tokenistic way — often too late in the process, once the project’s broad parameters had already been set at a higher level.

Despite this, our report does document good practice — such as the example of one development partner listening to feedback about perceived conflict threats regarding an infrastructure program in the Southeast of Myanmar, which was adapted based on the feedback. This takes time, and is expensive. For example, partners working in the Southeast of Myanmar reported that it took on average one to two years to build trust with relevant stakeholders to be able to conduct their planned activities. Donors can play an important role to help partners be able to resource this appropriately.

3. Design for flexibility.

Development partners need to ensure that they have built in flexibility, or adaptive management approaches, into their program designs. For example, approaches or methodologies that have worked in “non-conflict” affected areas should not just be copied and pasted into conflict settings. Approaches will need to be adjusted to take into account the different sociopolitical contexts of conflict contexts. Additionally, since such contexts change rapidly, programs will need to be able to respond to changes in the operating context. Donors need to be understanding of these realities, and open to changes in project design accordingly.

4. Invest in monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

Our research found that monitoring and evaluation of conflict sensitivity is perhaps the weakest area of practice. We found few examples of systematic measurement of conflict-related factors. Where monitoring and evaluation was being done, it was often at the input or activity level, such as counting the number of people who attended trainings, rather than any changes in their attitudes or capacities as a consequence of the training.

We also found that few organizations had given thought to measuring long-term changes beyond the scope of individual project cycles. For example, while certain livelihood projects may deliver short-term results in terms of alleviating poverty and addressing conflict grievances, they may potentially deliver long-term impacts in terms of depleting natural resources or changing population demographics in ways that create new conflicts beyond project lifespans. To assist with this, International Alert and UNDP Myanmar also prepared a brief guidance note on developing indicators for conflict sensitivity.

5. Integrate across all levels of the organization.

While you might have the best, most conflict-sensitive project at the grassroots level, what impact is it having on wider contexts, including local markets affected by our procurement, housing, or travel policies?

Is there someone in your organization who is responsible for conflict sensitivity, perhaps a conflict adviser, and therefore problem solved? Well, not quite. Unless senior decision makers fully support the integration of conflict sensitivity into programming, match this with resources, speak to it in the way they advocate, meet with decision makers, and set the tone internally, then conflict-sensitivity advisers can find themselves swimming against the tide of pressures such as the demand to deliver more assistance, faster, at all costs.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Robert Barclay

    Robert Barclay is International Alert’s country director in Myanmar. He oversees programs on conflict sensitivity, natural resource governance, gender, and economic development across the country. Before joining Alert, he has worked on development and peacebuilding projects in Asia and Africa for humanitarian and development NGOs, and the U.K. government.