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Demystifying Conflict Sensitivity

July 31, 2020

Since becoming an independent consultant two and a half years ago, I’ve had several assignments concerning conflict sensitivity. This experience has made me realise that some of the messaging about conflict sensitivity put out by conflict and peacebuilding experts – perhaps including myself when I worked for a peacebuilding NGO – risks over complicating the issue.

At its heart, conflict sensitivity has always seemed a simple enough idea. It’s based on the idea that any significant action taken in a conflict-affected context will interact with the dynamics there, and is likely either to make things better or worse for peace. An irrigation project may – by unlocking the productive potential of land – bring age-old arguments about land tenure to the surface. Or it may create an incentive for those arguments to be resolved, so that communities can benefit from the new possibilities. A timber company felling timber in an area affected by ethnic tensions may well inadvertently inflame those tensions, depending on how it goes about its business; or it may help improve relations between ethnic groups, if it takes the trouble to understand the situation and tailor its way of working accordingly. There are many examples and resources available – for example on the conflict sensitivity hub.

The main thrust of the conflict sensitivity idea is that those intervening in conflict-affected contexts need to understand the peace and conflict dynamics there as well as possible, and tailor their intervention accordingly. In so doing, they can minimise the harm they might otherwise cause, and instead potentially make a contribution to peace. It’s perhaps not obvious at first, but it’s not rocket science, either.

One of the things proponents of conflict sensitivity – correctly – emphasise, is the need for effective monitoring. This is because the peace and conflict dynamics are constantly evolving, and because the interaction between the intervention and these dynamics is constantly evolving too. Therefore, the need to keep a finger on the pulse, to be able to anticipate changes and react in time. One of the things conflict experts are often asked by intervenors is, how they should do this monitoring? What kinds of systems do they need to set up?

Obviously the answer is partly context specific: it depends on the nature of the peace and conflict dynamics, the nature of your project, and the specific interaction between them. This will differ from sector to sector, from different kinds of conflict (from interstate war, through civil war to local ethnic tensions, for example), and due to the specificities of time and place. But at heart, it can helpfully be reduced to three generic questions, which all projects operating in conflict affected locations can ask as part of their management or monitoring system every few months, and whenever major new activities are being initiated. These should consider not just the local project zone, but also the wider context:

  • What changes have we seen in the peace and conflict dynamics in the past period, and what do we foresee in the next?
  • What two-way interactions have we seen, between the project and the peace and conflict dynamics; what is the impact of these; and what can we foresee in the next period?
  • What adaptation or mitigation actions have we taken/should we take?

These questions don’t necessarily need external peace and conflict experts to be deployed – though it can be helpful to bring them in from time to time. Getting staff together, along with partner organisations or others as appropriate, to ask these questions in a simple 2-3 hour workshop format may often be enough to gather the information needed, and design mitigations and adaptations as appropriate. Conflict sensitivity becomes easier, the more you do it. At heart it’s an intuitive idea: it’s not rocket science, but matters a lot.

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