Conflict sensitivity

Reflection among aid actors after the devastating genocide in Rwanda led to the realisation that humanitarian and development actors contributed to increasing tensions and exacerbating the conflict. Aid interventions have since been understood to become a part of the context – and in conflict settings, to become part of the conflict. This acknowledgement that aid is not neutral also led to the recognition that donors need to consider the inadvertent side effects of programming on conflict. Conflict sensitivity emerged as a concept and tool to help aid actors to understand the unintended consequences of aid and to act to minimise harm and achieve positive outcomes. Although conflict sensitivity originated in the humanitarian field, it has since been applied in a wide range of development, peacebuilding and statebuilding contexts.

In order for conflict sensitivity to be effective and to maximise impact, it should be mainstreamed within an organisation. This requires institutional capacity, commitment and the right incentives. Conflict sensitivity also needs to be applied consistently at the different levels of intervention (project, programme, sector, policy and inter-agency); and holistically throughout the programme cycle (design and planning, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation). Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of conflict sensitivity should be included early in the design of interventions. There must be flexibility to adapt and modify the original project design during implementation in response to M&E findings. Conflict sensitivity also needs to coincide with gender sensitivity – paying attention to the possible unintentional impacts of interventions on the lives of men and women, girls and boys.

This topic guide discusses the origin, evolution and applicability of conflict sensitivity. It highlights three key conflict sensitive approaches and tools: Do No Harm, Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment (PCIA) and Aid for Peace. All three approaches and tools examine how aid interventions can impact on the context. At the core of Do No Harm is analysis of dividing and connecting issues and actors. PCIA adds an additional layer of assessment – looking not only at how aid impacts on context but also at how the context can affect aid interventions. Aid for Peace differs from PCIA by focusing first on the peacebuilding needs in a specific context and tailoring interventions to meet those needs. The guide outlines briefly the methods, advantages and disadvantages of these approaches and tools. It also provides links to a range of additional NGO and donor conflict sensitivity approaches and toolkits.

The guide also discusses and points to literature on applying conflict sensitivity to particular sectors: humanitarian programming, stabilisation programming, security sector reform, services, infrastructure development, economic recovery, private sector, and natural resources, climate change and land governance. In addition to sector approaches and tools, there are now overarching policy frameworks, such as the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, which emphasise the importance of conflict sensitivity.

Challenges to achieving conflict sensitivity include: inconsistent application of conflict sensitivity at the inter-agency and policy levels, and throughout the project life cycle; analytical issues; insufficient attention to Southern perspectives; funding and timing constraints; lack of accountability for failure to incorporate conflict sensitivity; faulty assumptions that mandates to build peace automatically result in contributions to peace; capacity issues; and political pressures that can undermine conflict sensitivity processes. Where available, the guide outlines suggestions from the literature on how to address these challenges.

About this Topic Guide

This Topic Guide was written by Huma Haider (GSDRC, University of Birmingham; . Its production was supported by the UK Department for International Development.

GSDRC appreciates the contributions of: Georgina Yates and Mark Segal (DFID), Diana Chigas (CDA-Collaborative Learning Projects), Erin McCandless (The New School for Public Engagement), Althea-Maria Rivas (CDS, University of Bath) and Brigitte Rohwerder (GSDRC, Institute of Development Studies).

Suggested citation

Haider, H., (2014). Conflict Sensitivity: Topic Guide. Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.