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Conflict Sensitivity in Development Programing: An Orientation

Craig Zelizer

September 28, 2017
By Dr. Ben Hoffman, President & CEO of CIIAN
Most people working in relief and development now openly acknowledge that they often function in environments that are marked by escalated conflict, overt hostility, violence, killing and war. In past decades there might have been an implicit understanding among members of the development community that they have always been confronting structural violence. They work in societies struggling to move from marginalization and forms of institutionalized oppression to fuller development with the freedoms and opportunities that brings. Today, relief and development workers find themselves not only challenged by the long-term task of social transformation but the dynamics and destructive outcomes of overt violence. The challenges for these professionals, from the notion of neutrality to the logistical obstacles of delivering services to people caught in the cross-fire of warring factions or to communities torn apart by war are all too common.
So, if there ever was a “relief as usual”, or “pure development” work that functioned outside the pushes and pulls of local, regional and international politics, independent of power struggles and structural or overt violence, those days are largely gone. Exceptions might occur in the case of a purely natural disaster. There, the task is administrative, technical, and logistical while requiring human compassion and some tools and skills for dealing with genuine trauma. But not the trauma of social conflict, rebellion, and war.
How to function in situations of social and political conflict, in the midst of violence and war has become a real-world challenge today for relief workers and members of the development community.
One response has been to look to other disciplines for help. And it is natural that those seeking theoretical models to make sense of the reality in which they work, and those who want practical tools to cope in the midst of violence would look to the fields of Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding. There they might draw upon years of experience directly focused on conflict, violence and war. There they might find a ways to be certain that their work is “conflict sensitive”.
But what, in simple terms, is “conflict sensitivity”? And what does it imply for the manager of relief and development programs, and for the front line worker?
This article is an orientation to “conflict sensitivity in development program”. As such it is not going to dwell on the arrangement of why one should be “conflict sensitive” but it will present a framework for thinking about being in the actual situation, on the ground in a violent setting, and provide some guidelines that should help in a practical way. After all, conflict sensitivity is pretty much exactly what the words say. There is a prima facie sense that if one is working, providing food, medical services, educational programs or assisting women in micro-development projects in situations marked by conflict, that one should be sensitive to the conflict and its impact on the service one is providing. Ever since Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy and the early discussions in Social Psychology about the impacts of the experimenter on the experiment, people have understood that no one can intervene in a situation and not have an impact. Nor is it likely that the situation will not have an impact on the ostensible “outsider” no matter how much effort the outsider takes to put a shield between her and the environment in which she is working. Imagine just how powerful an impact a full-scale war, with brutalities, killings, bullets flying, anti-personnel land mines and wide-spread destruction has on the “outside helper”.
So, let’s start with a simple model that may state the obvious, except that what is emphasized in this framework is the omnipresent, powerful, sometimes ignored or unperceived influence of Context.
When one thinks about or starts to deliver services four essential components must be kept in mind:
  • the Local Actors ( to whom the services are provided);
  • the Service Provider
  • the Service itself; and
  • the overall Context in which relief or development are being undertaken
It is easy to have not thought deliberately about these different elements and the impact they have on even the most simple service delivery objective and activities. If they seem obvious, and one has thought about them in planning a development program, in recruiting staff and getting them trained and prepared to deliver services, in shaping the service to the local actors’ needs and capacities, it seems to be the case that these things are easily forgotten. It is difficult, in the heat of battle, to be mindful of these. Demands for service, pressures from within the organization one works for, or from donors who fund programs, simply take over and service providers often forget to track these elements and to weigh the importance of them on the good work intended.
So, let’s slow down this discussion and look a little more closely at the four components in play.
Local Actors may be declared or known adversaries; representatives of factions or interest groups in the community; or indigenous actors (even allies) committed to the goals of development. They may be high-level, middle-range, or grassroots representatives. They each have there own strengths and limitations, their own needs and challenges that will influence what gets done, and how it get done.
The Service Provider is an external third party explicitly engaged in Development work. He or she will come to the situation with years of education and experience, strengths and limitations. Some will have reflected on themselves and their professional practice, having identified biases, prejudices and will have consciously made adjustments or taken these into account so that they are able to maximize the value they bring. Others will not.
The Service itself may be the product of diagnostics undertaken by the Service Provider in partnership with the Local Actors, and given “shape” and “scope” by the potentialities of the overall Context. It may not. It may be a program, a set of actives that are “laid on” the situation, because someone believes it is the right thing to do or someone has found the funds to deliver this particular service, and so forth.
The Context in this model is understood as a living reality, an organic environment or “milieu” with powerful influence on Local Actors, the Service Provider, and the Service itself.
These four elements, apparently innocent in themselves, each have an impact on the enterprise of Development. Likewise if the subject were providing relief services, violence prevention activities, or post-violence peace building.
But more than needing to pay attention to each and its implications in its own right is the fact that they function interactively!
The model is an interactive, dynamic model that places the Context in an all-encompassing perspective relative to the three other components.
Thoughtful, disciplined, reflective Development practitioners are well-served to use these simple components when determining what is needed, how it should be provided and what elements need particular attention to ensure that the best effort is made. Do you have the right Local Actors engaged with you in the work you are doing? What might be done to make this better? Is the service you are providing needed now and needed in the form you are intending to deliver it? What impact is the Context really having? Can you in any way influence the Context constructively while retaining your credibility and meeting your program’s mandate and objectives? Are there ways to reduce the impact of the Context on your legitimate efforts?
When the Context is open warfare, these elements and the dynamics become even more highlighted for people whose job it is to provide Development programs, for relief service providers, for conflict resolution and peacebuilding practitioners. Is one’s conflict sensitivity is adequate? Or to look at it another way, conflict is in your face and you are forced to address it.
When there is no overt violence, for example, no apparent human rights abuses, no rattling of sabers by contending factions, and yet you know there is a form of structural violence – then too there is the need to be conflict sensitive. The typical indicators associated with heightened conflict and overt violence may not be evident. Yet the social, political and economic environment – the context itself – may be perceived and experienced as violence by some within it. To ignore these more hidden forms of violence is to risk dong the wrong thing, putting resources in the wrong place, even adding to the harm that is being done.
This brings us to the importance of unpacking the concept of conflict itself.
A common definition is that conflict is the perception of incompatible interests. Sometimes it is thought of in terms of a “clash”, “contention”, or “hostility”.
The view I take is that conflict is a symptom of something deeper. Like anger, conflict is a symptom. Anger is the symptom of a failed expectation, of fear of a perceived threat. It is often called a secondary emotion. Likewise, underneath the layer of conflict is violence. And if you look closely at violence it will become apparent that it has to do with power. Violence is the abusive use of power.
Peace and conflict are not incompatible. There are many peaceful, developed societies that manifest conflict. They express and resolve conflict without resort violence. Peace and violence, however, are incompatible.
So when we think about being “conflict sensitive” we are really being challenged to be violence-sensitive. And this may take the diagnostician to the level of a closer examination of power.
It is fairly mainstream now for those working in development to follow the axiom of “do no harm”. In tandem with this is the notion that one be “conflict sensitive” and think about the impact of programs on “the conflict” in the situation in which one is working. So we are encouraged to look for indicators of conflict, such as human rights abuses. Or the exasperation of hostile rhetoric between factions; and we are to adjust our programming to limit the negative impact of them on the conflict. To not exasperate the conflict.
When our sensitivity to conflict, and or conflict sensitivity assessments are informed by the deeper probing, to the level of violence and power, we are more equipped to plan and provide services that is the real goal of development work, justice and peace.
Some guidelines that may help in planning and conducting development programming include:
  • be more than “conflict sensitive”: equip yourself and staff with conflict analysis tools and techniques;
  • conduct good analysis, looking at all four elements in the interactive dynamic model (Local actors, Service Provider; Service; and Context) paying attention to the nature and form of violence as found in the type of conflict being manifested;
  • put an emphasis on violence reduction as a prime objective to reach the goal of peace;
  • be transparent in your planning and delivery of services, to engage others constructively and to avoid charges of bias;
  • pay attention to violence and lethality in your efforts to deliver development programs that lead to sustainable peace and in your responsibility to avoid harm to others and staff;
  • think of unintended consequences, positive and negative, of the services you deliver;
  • be vigilant in reflecting on practice.


Cross-posted from https://www.facebook.com/notes/canadian-international-institute-of-applied-negotiation/conflict-sensitivity-in-development-programing-an-orientation/1661618000546099/

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