Applying conflict sensitivity in emergency response: Current practice and ways forward

Nona Zicherman et al.


Using an analysis of existing agency tools and standards and case studies of three recent emergencies, as well as extensive consultations with humanitarian professionals in headquarters and field offices, this paper explores whether and how conflict-sensitive approaches (CSA) are currently being applied, explicitly or implicitly, in rapid-onset emergencies. It maps the current state of conflict-sensitive practice in emergencies, identifying good practice where it exists and highlighting ways to more strategically integrate conflict sensitivity across the emergency programme cycle. The paper also addresses opportunities for synergy with Sphere and other key standards and guidelines used widely in the humanitarian sector.

This research used qualitative and quantitative methods to triangulate findings and develop conclusions and recommendations. The methodology included a review of documents from five aid agencies as well as sector-wide guidance and standards. Key informant interviews were conducted with staff members working in senior management, advisory and humanitarian surge capacity functions, complemented by a broader survey of humanitarian professionals. Short periods of field research were undertaken in each case study country, involving consultations with over 50 individuals through focus groups, individual interviews with NGO staff, local government officials and donors, visits to project sites and discussions with partners, crisis-affected people and other stakeholders.

Key Findings:

  • This study reveals good understanding of and support for a better integration of conflict sensitivity in humanitarian response. Existing emergency programme guidance and sector-wide tools are relevant to conflict-sensitivity in emergencies and can be built upon; there is no need to start from scratch. However, there are significant shortcomings in the practical application of conflict-sensitive approaches in recent large-scale emergency responses, linked to a lack of widespread and appropriate mainstreaming of conflict sensitivity tools.
  • A key gap is the lack of integration of conflict analysis tools in emergency manuals. While this review found many examples of implicitly conflict-sensitive practice, where staff members took measures to better understand the conflict context and tried to ‘do no harm’ with the assistance they were providing, stakeholders emphasised that, since such initiatives are not part of a formal mainstreaming process, they are currently almost entirely dependent on the knowledge, experience and commitment of individual staff.


Agencies need to explicitly mainstream conflict-sensitive approaches so as to measure, track and institutionalise good practice, and ensure that adherence to minimum standards of conflict sensitivity in emergencies is not dependent only on the commitment and experience of individual staff members.

The report suggests six minimum standards that will help organisations mitigate the potential harm of their emergency response activities and improve the conflict sensitivity of their interventions:

  • Long-term emergency response preparedness plans include a regularly updated conflict analysis, as well as conflict-sensitivity training for both senior and operational staff.
  • A ‘Good Enough’ conflict analysis is included as part of the rapid emergency assessment phase.
  • Partnership strategies (including the selection, identity and spread of partners) are analysed in relation to potential conflict risks.
  • All new staff, both international and local, are given orientation including information on the conflict context.
  • Participatory methods are used to foster community engagement in developing targeting criteria and managing distributions, non-beneficiaries are consulted during post-distribution monitoring and conflict-related questions are included in post-distribution monitoring tools.
  • Conflict benchmarks are included within Real-Time Evaluations and After Action Reviews.


Zicherman, N., Khan, A., Street, A., Heyer, H., and Chevreau, O. (2011). Applying conflict sensitivity in emergency response: Current practice and ways forward. HPN Paper 70. London: ODI.