STRATEGIC & COLLECTIVE CONFLICT SENSITIVITY: Illustrated through the Rohingya response

In earlier blog posts (see below) I identified some common misunderstandings and a major blind spot, when it comes to working with conflict sensitivity in practice and its link with risk management, protection and accountability to affected populations. Here I add or confirm three points, often not well understood, and illustrate them with recent observations in Bangladesh.

Key Messages:

1.           Working with conflict-sensitivity starts with strategic, not just operational decisions.

2.           Relief workers, used to delivering goods and services, do not easily practice a different approach – and may not be encouraged to do so.

3.           Working with conflict-sensitivity in any given operating environment, requires a multi-agency, not an individual agency approach.


1.           Conflict-Sensitivity Starts with Strategic Choices.

Five months into the response to the rapid, large scale, influx of people fleeing persecution in Rakhine state, Myanmar (overwhelmingly Rohingya Muslims and a few Hindu families) in Cox Bazaar district of Bangladesh, the unintended consequences of major strategic choices are becoming clear.

 The response has been characterised by the massive scaling up of mostly UN and some INGO agencies, with much reliance on expatriate staff in a supply-driven, not a demand-led, process. These same UN agencies and INGOs have largely dominated the operational coordination platform, the Inter-Sectoral Coordination Group (ISCG). Institutional donors by and large have enabled this by how they chose to channel their funds. Though there are smaller international agencies that have chosen to support Bangladeshi partners, the overall picture is more one in which Bangladeshi CSOs find themselves now in roles of subcontractors. They are confronted with the usual 'hesitations' about national organisations, that they have ‘limited capacity and should not be overstretched’, are too dependent on a ‘founder’, constitute a greater 'risk of fraud and corruption' etc. Yet many have been ‘partners’ of international organisations for decades, and several of them have received direct funding from Western donors in the past; a history or track record that seems to be largely ignored. Many also feel frustration and upset over the still too frequent attitudes of 'superiority' among internationals.

 In the recruitment bonanza that accompanied the 'surge', many of them lost some or more of their best staff to international agencies offering much higher salaries. For many months, they have been largely absent from the ‘coordination’, or internationals invited some hand-picked national CSOs without due process to ensure the legitimacy of their ‘representation’. Some point out that only the Government has formal authority to approve or deny interventions, so that donors or international should not 'oblige' them to get 'authorisation' for their proposed actions.

A second consequence is the ‘distance’ from Government. Very few government officials participate in the ISCG coordination and standards-setting meetings. Surely, challenges on the Government side also play a role. The interaction between the different governmental entities involved is not as quick and smooth as the situation requires, and policies or their application e.g. regarding work-visa for international staff, are not always adapted and consistent. Unlike in other crisis situations, there seems to have been less effort to provide the also overstretched government entities with material support and relevant expertise, at national, district and even more so sub-district level, and to develop strong working relationships. The situation is not one of ‘conflict’, but there is a clear 'disconnect' that is creating some tension and makes 'joint' planning difficult. Bangladeshi CSOs are used to work closely with the Government. Their virtual absence from the ‘world of internationals’ may be a missed opportunity to build more effective working relationships with Government.

Thirdly, five months into the response, the negative impacts of the influx, and the growing ‘mixed feelings’ among the Bangladeshi ‘host community’, have become a top priority for the Government and for those Bangladeshi CSOs that have been working in this local environment for years. Strategically, this will mean that programmes and projects will have to be designed to also benefit those sections of the host community that have been most negatively affected – a classical ‘conflict sensitivity’ scenario, that is only beginning to get some attention. As one Bangladeshi CSO director put it: “If we maintain harmony between the refugees and the host community, then we can better afford to wait for the conditions for correct repatriation to emerge in Myanmar.”

 Overall then, we see areas of tension arising because of early strategic ‘choices’ that created a response heavily centred on international agencies and their expatriate staff, most of whom are newcomers to Bangladesh - and turning over very rapidly. There has been more 'replacing' than 'reinforcing' of national and local actors. If not handled well, this could lead to more difficult relationships, that are not in the interest of any of the affected populations and will reduce the ‘value-for-money’ for those who donated. Surprising is that these issues have not been better anticipated and proactively addressed, as they have presented themselves so often in other major crises.

            2.      The Challenge of Working Differently.

The almost 700.000 people who arrived in Bangladesh over the span of a good three months in late 2017, were in a bad condition. Focusing on life-saving assistance, and the provision of basic services like shelter, water, sanitation and health, was the appropriate priority.

 But listening to staff from international and Bangladeshi agencies five months later, it is striking how superficial the understanding of the Rohingya still is. They are talked about as if they are a fairly homogenous ‘community’ which, among 700.000 people, is rarely the case. 'Majhis', or leaders of a ‘block’ of a certain number of refugee families, came into being during the influx, when the Bangladesh Army and other aid agencies needed help with the urgent distributions. Several aid workers are now talking about them as ‘community representatives’, which they are not, and using them as ‘key informants’ in their attempts to get ‘community engagement’. Yet they are all male, among a refugee population with a high proportion of women and children.

Not helpful either is the circulation of negative stereotypes about the Rohingya, among international and Bangladeshi aid workers alike. Much is made of their high rate of illiteracy, their being traumatised, their very conservative Islam, and the restrictions that are imposed on women. One can also hear more derogatory comments, about their lack of hygiene and of discipline, and their large families. Negative stereotypes do not encourage the curiosity that is needed to 'understand' this population better.

Kutapalong camp photo K. Van Brabant

Kutapalong camp photo K. Van Brabant

The few who are more knowledgeable about the Rohingya community, typically from engagement with them in Myanmar, point out that there are quite a few Rohingya who could access some education there, and often understand English and can read and write in the Burmese script; that there are many with a more moderate interpretation of their religious precepts, that there are informal woman leaders and a definitely willingness among several Rohingya women to engage more actively, if they are provided the safe space to develop that confidence and explore the opportunity, and that respected individuals and opinion-makers have been side-lined by the aid providers.

Some agencies use their projects to have more qualitative engagement with e.g. children, women and male adolescents. But the big players seem more focused on technological solutions to communicate with the Rohingya population and get their feedback and input. Technology is favoured because it makes it easier to process feedback and complaints as ‘data’ and to press a button to establish ‘trends’. Those familiar with the Rohingya however emphasise the vital precondition of ‘trust’, in a population that over the past 35 years has been systematically discriminated and at times violently persecuted in Myanmar. A trust that can only be very personalised: serious and sensitive issues are very unlikely to be shared with ‘someone’ at the other end of a phone line or an ‘app’, who is not known. All the more so, as the fear of ‘forced repatriation’ increases. Statistics, with their pretense of 'hard evidence', risk fuelling mistaken ‘insights’ and conclusions.

Over the years, we have conducted training on working with accountability and conflict sensitivity to aid workers whose experience was mostly of 'delivering' goods and services. We have learned that it can be a big leap from looking at social groups through the lens of ‘needs’ and ‘vulnerability’, to applying a lens of ‘power’, ‘inclusion/exclusion’, ‘stereotyping’, ‘distrust’, ‘tension’ and ‘conflict’. Much of this is not so easily visible (key power brokers can be residing far away), and people may be reluctant to talk about it when they don’t know if they can trust the aid worker/agency. In addition, aid workers can be reluctant to address abuse of power (e.g. via manipulation of information) including for personal profit, from influential local figures, for fear of reprisals.

Working with conflict sensitivity and accountability to affected populations requires a willingness and ability to step back from delivering goods and services, and learn about the less visible social, political and economic dynamics within and between social ‘groups’. It is a different interest and skill, requires different behaviours and may lead to different decisions and designs of interventions. For the time being, this is still in short supply in Cox Bazaar district. There is also little incentive to do so, if the whole programmatic logic, also encouraged by donors, remains concentrated on ‘delivery at scale'. Worse, there may be a ‘pressure to spend’, which leads senior managers to worry more about the ‘burn rate’ of the money, than about negative impacts or accountability to the affected populations.

              3.         A Collective, not an Individual Agency Responsibility.

For now, the assistance providers are not yet well positioned to work with conflict sensitivity and accountability towards the new wave of forcibly displaced Rohingya. In addition, few seem to pay attention to, or have any insight in, the dynamics between the Rohingya who took refuge in Bangladesh in previous years, and the newcomers who attract so much aid and attention.

Similar concerns apply when more programming is oriented towards the ‘host population’. Socio-economic and environmental impact assessments and market surveys confirm the perception of ‘burden’ and negative impacts. There is awareness that certain sections of the ‘host community’, such as those whose land is now occupied by refugees or who compete on the daily labour market, have lost heavily, though others are benefitting through jobs and business opportunities. There has already been some mobilisation against the Rohingya and the aid agencies, fuelled by such grievances, and by the perceived higher standards of international compared to national ‘social welfare’. Negative sentiments can also be stirred up by disgruntled local power-brokers who failed to have their relatives or clients hired by international agencies or get the ‘bribe’ they asked for. At the same time, there continue to be many local people who host Rohingya in their villages and homes.

What doesn’t seem currently available, at least among the international agencies, is a deeper understanding of that varied entity called ‘host community’. Several of the more local Bangladeshi CSOs (very few women-led) who have been working in this area for years, on poverty reduction, income-generation and disaster preparedness, may have such deeper insights, and the experience of navigating local politics among formal and informal power brokers. A few may be implicated, but others will have retained their independence and principles. Tapping into that local knowledge and competency will however require seeing and treating them differently than as mere ‘subcontractors’.

There is a risk that, as Government and donors direct more programming also to the host community, there will be a repeat of the same array of fragmented, competitive, supply-driven and short-term projects, that is so visible in the response to the newest arrivals. That would be a recipe for increasing existing and creating new tensions, because different sections of the host populations will see they are treated differently, and local power-brokers will play one agency off against another. There will be no shared underlying analysis and understanding and no common strategy of engagement and political navigation. Uncoordinated and unrestrained collective behaviour will then undermine the efforts of individual agencies to work with conflict-sensitivity and accountability.

‘Success’, seen not only as the effective delivery of basic goods and services, but also in a manner that reinforces rather than undermines ‘social cohesion’ within and between affected populations, will require a fundamental shift in strategic and operational behaviours among a significant number of agencies, and different incentives from the donors. That will not happen without change in the underlying ‘business logic’, and an infusion of competencies that are not core among most of the ‘technical’ experts. Can the big ship change course on time?



DANCING WITH THE EXTRACTIVE INDUSTRY: The Limits of Normative Policy and Guidance

Big business, particularly the extractive industry (oil, gas, mining) in many countries is a catalyst for violence, violations and conflict.

Big business, including the extractive industry, is a catalyst for economic development, improved governance and peacefulness.

These ‘villain’ and ‘hero’ stories are, as Ganson & Wennmann point out in their excellent and thought provoking book ‘Business and Conflict in Fragile States. The case for pragmatic solutions’, the two prevailing narratives yesterday and today. Both narratives can find supporting evidence in illustrative cases and credible arguments.

The ‘business as villain’ narrative has a long history, that includes for example the Arab and European slave trade, the predatory practices of the Dutch and British East India companies, the ‘blood diamonds’ of Sierra Leone, the violence in the oil-rich delta in Nigeria, the secessionist and internal war catalysed by the Panguna copper and gold mine in Bougainville, and the many protests and violent clashes with communities over company behaviours and impacts in the Andes. The singular drive for profit is said to encourage greed at all levels of the society where the extraction takes place, causing immense social, cultural and environmental damage. Macro-level statistics support the argument: few countries with rich natural resources have actually made significant improvements against their Human Development Index, and the number of contestations and confrontations of local communities with companies, often backed by the state security forces, is clearly increasing. Not surprisingly, a recent DCAF report, authored by Pedro Rosa Mendes, makes a strong plea to look more closely at the relationship between “Business and Security Sector Reform”.   

The ‘business as hero’ narrative also has its supporting cases and arguments. Its proponents point out that big business investments will develop new skills, create jobs and stimulate local enterprise, bring improved infrastructure and enhance basic services such as health, water and electricity. Oil allowed Norway to rapidly transform from a predominantly agrarian into an industrial and post-industrial society. The 2011 High Level meeting in Busan no longer put aid central but opened up the policy horizon to international investment as powerful driver of development. Such investment, and market forces more than ‘projects’, are seen as far more effective for job creation and poverty reduction. China’s urbanisation and economic modernisation policies are often referred to as the greatest poverty reduction success. From this perspective, ‘Ease of Doing Business’ assessments and rankings become very relevant. Oil, gas and mineral commodities remain primary ingredients for most businesses. Chevron’s Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta, Total’s relations with communities around the Yadana pipeline in Myanmar, or Pacific Rubiales Energy’s investment in making waste water useful locally, are some examples that ‘win-win’ situations are possible. This is well argued and promoted, for example, in FSG’s report ‘Extracting with Purpose. Creating shared value in the oil and gas and mining sectors’ companies and communities’, and the wider ‘Shared Value Initiative’ (

The ‘private sector-as-driver of development’ perspective has also become linked to the desire to build or strengthen legitimate, efficient and effective state institutions, that have a healthy governance relationship with all components of the population. Where natural resource extraction is already taking place, support is offered to the national government to manage the benefits for the population as a whole. Where it may start or be expanded, support is offered to national governments to strengthen their capacity to negotiate fine-tuned agreements that will ensure that companies take responsibility for minimising negative impacts and enhancing positive ones. Though relevant and appropriate, these efforts as usual tend to be pursued with a technical rather than a political economy perspective. That may hamper their effectiveness or even help to consolidate the power of an elite and its narrow supporter group.

The key question is: Are extractive industries willing and able to invest in win-win or shared value efforts? Although there has been progress over the past 15 years, the general feeling remains that many companies are not yet ready and sometimes not willing to take the step.

Non-company actors have taken three major approaches:

·       Pressure: Exposing and denouncing violations and negative impacts from extractive companies, often by international and increasingly national NGOs, remains a frequent strategy. It seeks to shame companies into changed behaviour or invite national and international oversight and regulation. Increasingly, such campaigners have also been engaging investors to exercise greater diligence. While appropriate, a confrontational approach naturally encourages defensiveness on the side of companies.

·       Persuasion: Articulating and calculating the business case: companies in trouble with local stakeholders risk e.g. direct costs from interrupted production, damage or loss of assets, injury or even death of staff, increased expenditure on security. Much bigger can be the cost of legal cases and reputational damage, leading in extremis to consumer boycotts, disinvestment and falling share prices. Benefits of serious societal engagement can be a stable business environment with little interruption in the supply chain, a more skilled, healthier and motivated local workforce that is often cheaper than bringing in workers from elsewhere; more competitive local suppliers, and new business opportunities in the local market. The key question is whether good societal engagement enhances the company’s overall competitiveness and sustainability? Sceptical company managers may point out that, irrespective of the costs of conflict in certain locations, their overall profitability continues to increase. Proponents of better societal engagement argue that it does bring ‘returns-on-investment’. They are supported by research such as the 2011 ‘Spinning Gold’ study, which looked at events around 26 gold mines over a 15-year period, and found that increased cooperation and reduced conflict with stakeholders enhanced the financial valuation of a firm.

·       Regulation or Partnering: Much of the recent global effort and institutional proliferation has concentrated on this approach. The Principles of the UN Global Compact were a milestone in this regard. Like never before, the UN focused on the private sector and invited them in as partners in creating a better world and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are an important complement. Investors are asked to take their responsibility and guidance, such as the Equator Principles, the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards, or the Principles for Responsible Investment, speaks particularly to them. There is now also a series of references particular to the extractive industry, such as the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development Initiative.

Most of the public debate has been about whether voluntary guidance is sufficiently effective, or whether a more binding regulatory framework is required. Less attention is paid to the more fundamental question: Even if a company makes major efforts to abide by these principles and standards, will it be sufficient to avoid or stop conflict and violence? Ganson and Wennmann believe not.  

What is the problem? Various factors make the translation of lofty policies and principles difficult. Here are some:

·       Mismatched time frames: Even if efforts to build more legitimate, efficient and effective state institutions at national level are successful, they are likely to take twenty to forty years (see World Bank 2011 Development Report). Companies nor communities in conflict can wait that long.

·       It’s the Local! The prevailing policy discourse on conflict, violence, fragility etc. continues to take the national state as central unit of analysis and action. Yet, as Ganson and Wennmann point out, the global learning shows that the drivers and actors in systems of violence and conflict are largely local, even if there is influence from actors and factors elsewhere. Local actors do not necessarily care about international policies and national legislation. The primary drive to reduce violence and conflict therefore must also be strongly local. The successful reduction of violence in Medellin came from collective local initiative, and is not automatically replicated in other Colombian cities.

·       Incomplete Problem-Analysis: Much of the policy prescription focuses on the conflict generated by company action, and assumes a fair degree of company control over the dynamics. In many instances, there are longer-standing patterns of conflict and violence that a company arrives into, and a multitude of actors that play a role in it. Even if the company tries to do everything right, it is only part of a wider dynamic, much of which is beyond its control.

·       Awareness, corporate cultures and capacities: A few thousand companies around the world now engage with these initiatives. Yet there are many more that remain unaware of them, and remain narrowly focused on company competitiveness and profit. There has been significant criticism, for example, of the ways in which Chinese companies operate in Africa, which are perceived as highly insensitive and causing many negative impacts. The many attacks on Chinese run companies and personnel indicate that this is not just a critique of frustrated Western neo-colonial powers. Chinese business and governmental officials have become aware of the direct and indirect costs. One important element here is simply lack of experience: Chinese companies, mostly state-owned enterprises, only started investing globally some 15 years ago. Abroad they operated as they were used to do at home, i.e. dealing with government only and relying on government to sort out all the social issues. They do not (yet) have the capacities of other multi-nationals to assess risks including ‘non-technical risks’. They are not used to dealing with NGOs, let alone engage in longer-term community relationship processes. Sustained, constructive engagement by, for example, the American Friends Service Committee, seeks to help these Chinese companies become more attentive, and better equipped to pre-empt and handle such conflicts (see Dr. Jiang Heng 2015: “An Evolving Framework for Outward Investment. A Chinese approach to conflict sensitive business” which is a slightly adapted English version of an original Chinese publication). Other companies have well established and more experienced Corporate Social Responsibility departments, but suffer from the ‘silo syndrome’: The people in the CSR department may be well versed in stakeholder processes etc. but this remains largely disconnected from the rest of the company culture and mind-set. In addition, many CSR initiatives remain conducted with a transactional mind-set: some charitable investment is made locally, on the assumption that the ‘social license to operate’ can be bought. This turns out not to be the case. Much deeper, broader and serious investments in relationship building is required. Some companies have come to understand this, but they rarely have the in-house competencies on societal issues that are required to manage such multi-stakeholder processes.

·       Trusted Brokers: As we know from experience, the effective reduction of violence and conflict requires collaborative action among many actors, across social and political groups and levels. This is often impeded by a competitive mind set and lack of trust. There is vital need then for individuals or teams that can gain the trust of all, to first act as connectors and convenors, and later as catalysts and facilitators. They can create the conditions for different actors to develop some functional relationship, discover their common interest, and mobilise in concerted action, each using its own strengths and entry points in their own domain of influence. Only such intentionally combined effort has a chance to transform entrenched patterns of violence, confrontation and conflict. This is where practical peacebuilders have expertise to offer.

My own work in Bougainville a few years ago, leading a very consultative peace, security and development analysis, confirms the above points. The Panguna copper and gold mine on the island (part of Papua New Guinea) has been closed for some 25 years. It was a major driver of conflict that led to an armed secessionist war but also extensive infighting among Bougainvilleans. For some years now, intensive efforts are underway to negotiate agreements that will allow the mine to be reopened. Although the population of Bougainville is relatively small, there are multiple ‘stakeholder groups’ to deal with. Within the mining area, there have been different and sometimes competing associations of ‘landholders’. Overwhelmingly male, they have pushed aside the women in whom land ownership here is traditionally vested. These demand to be properly included. Then there are those whose water, forest and land have and can again be affected by the environmental damage of the mining. But Bougainvilleans elsewhere on this small island argue that they too are stakeholders, as all have been affected by the decade of violence caused by the mine. Meanwhile there are the many individuals that are now making a living from artisanal mining, a livelihood that can be threatened by a renewed large-scale and controlled mining operation. The situation is further complicated by the widespread distrust of the Bougainvilleans in their Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), whose ‘consultations’ on the re-opening of the mine they saw as manipulative. Although virtually every department of the ABG had had a foreign adviser for several years now, virtually nobody on the island had ever heard of any of the international guidance or ‘soft law’ references that are relevant here. Nor is there public conversation about the development choices that Bougainville could make: rely predominantly on this natural resource, or invest much more in agro-forestry where most people make a living from? In such a small place, these are choices leading to significantly different futures. Finally, those seeking to broker an agreement and advising the ABG on its negotiation approach, were Australian. Irrespective of their actual integrity, this is a cause of deep distrust for many Bougainvilleans. They know full well that the mine was originally operated by BCL, a subsidiary of Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia, and that there are strong Australian interests in who will operate it again.

The dance continues.


CONFLICT SENSITIVITY: Some Misunderstandings and a Blind Spot?

In 1999 Mary Anderson published ‘Do No Harm: How aid can support peace-or war”’. It was the start of an intensive reflection and learning about ‘conflict sensitivity’. In essence this draws attention to the two-way interaction between our presence and programming within an environment where there are tensions or open conflict. It makes us anticipate how conflict might impact on us and in that sense is not unlike aspects of ‘risk management’. But most importantly, it asks us to be very attentive and careful about how our presence and programming can aggravate a situation, by increasing existing inequalities, tensions and conflicts or creating new ones.

Since then many agencies have produced their own manuals; some collaborated in the Conflict Sensitivity Consortium that produced many resource materials; lots of people have been on training courses, and some donors are asking that agencies applying for funding in volatile situations demonstrate organisational competency in conflict sensitivity ways of working.

Yet in my own recent work on conflict-sensitivity with diplomats, donors and operational agencies, I still come across some persistent misunderstandings – and a major blind spot.

1. Not Uncommon Misunderstandings.

a. Because we work in or on conflict, we are automatically conflict-sensitive. A reaction not uncommon among diplomats and their advisers, it actually equates ‘conflict sensitivity’ with simple awareness that there is ‘conflict’ around. That is not good enough. ‘Conflict sensitivity’ demands that we are very attentive to whether our presence and actions actually aggravate the situation. If the diplomatic world really acted with ‘conflict sensitivity’, we would not see the frequent competition between countries and individuals for primary roles in ‘mediation’. After all, this signals to the conflicting parties that strive rather than collaboration is actually OK, and gives them plenty of opportunities to play games and shop around for the mediator most amenable to their interests.

b. Conflict sensitivity is a(nother) methodology. Manuals and training courses on conflict-sensitivity teach us, for example, about ‘dividers’ and ‘connectors’, to be attentive to who benefits from resource transfers and what ‘messages’ we send, also implicitly through our actions and behaviours. This our overloaded colleagues in the field are then expected to apply on top of, say, methodologically guided gender and market analysis, monitoring of smart indicators, and perhaps later ‘outcome harvesting’. Yes, also for conflict-sensitivity there is methodological guidance. But working with strong conflict-sensitivity is first and foremost a responsibility. The medical Hippocratic Oath to ‘above all, do no harm’ is an ethical prescript, not a methodology. If our goal is to protect people from distress, to relief suffering, reduce violence and build peace, then not aggravating the situation should be a concern that goes deeper than a methodological worry. Not only at the project level but also at the macro-level. If only the big international players had acted with greater conflict-sensitivity in Iraq after 2003?

c. The unit for conflict-sensitive practice is the individual agency: Much of the effort has been focused on ‘mainstreaming’ conflict sensitivity within individual agencies, and their partners and contractors. That is necessary but not sufficient. Very often tensions and increased conflict arise from the dynamics generated by the actions of different agencies. To use the above example: The conflict-sensitive behaviour of one mediator can be totally offset by the actions of other would-be mediators. If one agency has been supporting local communities to grow dry land rice and develop a seed bank, and another then comes in with free food handouts, the rice and seed bank work will probably collapse, and conflict ensue between the agencies and different members of the community. If one agency offers medical care to refugees and host populations, and another only to refugees, the resentments in the host community will still persist and may increase. Individual agency monitoring systems are not geared to assessing possibly negative impacts of different agencies intervening in different ways around similar issues in the same environment.

d. Conflict-sensitivity can be practiced from an office: Aid workers nowadays spent far less quality time ‘out in the field’ than 25 years ago, because we have so much bureaucracy and communications to deal with, and security procedures to observe. Yet there is no effective way of finding out, timely i.e. before derailment or escalation, whether your presence and actions have negative impacts, than being ‘out there’. You need to have your finger on the pulse. You need to really understand the environment you are operating in. Good monitoring ‘systems’ with ‘indicators’ that pick up rising tensions or conflict, still fundamentally depend on people picking up and correctly interpreting the signals. At the same time, we cannot overly rely on the indicators we monitor, because in their own way they create tunnel vision. They focus our attention on certain elements, and distract us from looking wider. We need to also hang around in that environment with a mind, ears and eyes open to the ‘unexpected’, the signal that we had not identified as an ‘indicator’.

 2. A Major Blind Spot? Interventions to catalyse transformative change.

‘Do No Harm’ thinking has been developed first and foremost with reference to relief operations. But as the mediation example already shows, it is applicable to the wider spectrum of political/diplomatic, developmental, peace and governance ‘interventions’. Within the peacebuilding world, the notion that ‘peace work’ might in certain instances increase tensions and conflict is still as surprising as diplomats discovering that perhaps they are not that ‘conflict sensitive’.

Many of these interventions pursue outcomes that change the status quo, particularly with regard to power relations. Where there is no real ‘democratic culture’ we know that the introduction of multi-party politics and elections heightens tensions and conflicts as the competition for power and control over state resources gets sharper. Rights-based programming is going to make the duty-bearers uneasy; security sector reform will be seen as a threat by certain elements in the military and police; women empowerment programmes challenge the social superiority of men; peace work is troubling to those who benefit from the war economy; providing farmers with reliable and timely market information reduces the power of the middlemen who buy their produce and take it to market etc. In some instances, the change process will increase tensions but there will not be too much upheaval. In other situations however, those who feel that their power is being challenged, will resist more strongly and even fight back.

So what does this mean with regard to conflict-sensitivity? If the outcomes we pursue imply significant changes in the socio-economic and political ‘order’, some people are going to perceive their interests as being ‘harmed’. So our ‘Do No Harm’ motto cannot be absolute. A more equitable society rarely comes about without conflict. And where there is no elite or broader social pact that violence has no place in the power struggles, blood may well be spilled.

Certainly outsiders coming into another society, not just to relief suffering but with a larger change agenda, need to seriously examine their responsibilities in encouraging and supporting transformative change efforts. Because these change efforts will increase tensions and may escalate conflict. And because those most at risk of countermeasures by those in power, will usually be local people. Where our programmes empower women to pursue a significant change in the gender relations, sometimes angry men will threaten our agency staff. But overall it is their women who are most vulnerable to backlash. Just as the farmers are more vulnerable to aggressive attempts by the middlemen to maintain their monopoly positions, or local activists demanding disarmament and demobilisation can be attacked by fighters who don’t want to lose their power derived from the gun.

Here we see clearly that ‘conflict sensitivity’ is not a matter of ‘methodology’ but of ‘responsibility’. The central question is: What is our responsibility when we encourage and support transformative changes that can put others at serious risk? And what does this mean in practice?

Two attention points can be identified already:

  • Our ‘legitimacy’, our ‘social license to operate’ in this environment: If we as outside agency, with local partners, encourage and support transformative change that is likely to increase tensions and conflict, we can only do so if we have fairly broad-based acceptance and legitimacy among the local population.
  • Local stakeholders determine the threshold of acceptable risk: Given that they are most vulnerable to possibly violent backlash, it have to be local stakeholders that decide the tactics, timing, pace and intensity of the change effort. This is of course not as straightforward as it sounds: some will be prepared to take more risk than others and want to push on. Others will fear this is too dangerous. How do we handle this?

The practical meaning of ‘conflict sensitivity’ when programming for transformative change is not something that has been well researched and reflected upon. It is urgently needed. Any studies, case examples and reflections are warmly welcomed.