Issue 54 - Article 14

Applying conflict-sensitive methodologies in rapid-onset emergencies

May 31, 2012
Anne Street, CAFOD

How do humanitarian responders and the organisations they work for take conflict into account when responding to rapid-onset emergencies? In what ways do the actions of humanitarian agencies exacerbate conflict? These were some of the questions a group of NGOs working together in the Conflict Sensitivity Consortium See The working definition of conflict sensitivity used by the consortium means understanding the context in which programme interventions take place, understanding the interaction between intervention and context and acting upon this understanding in order to avoid negative impacts and maximise positive impacts on conflict.  (CSC) set about answering in a commissioned report published by HPN in October 2011. Nona Zicherman, with Aimal Khan, Anne Street, Heloise Heyer and Oliver Chevreau, Applying Conflict Sensitivity in Emergency Response: Current Practice and Ways Forward, Network Paper 70, October 2011.  The research looked at the organisational frameworks and emergency manuals used by international NGOs, system-wide tools and standards such as the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in humanitarian response and the HAP 2007 Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management and the Emergency Capacity Building Project’s Good Enough Guide. This analysis was complemented by in-depth interviews, surveys and focus group meetings with some 150 humanitarian responders, and by evidence gathered from three case studies of emergency response in the Haiti earthquake of January 2010, the Pakistan floods of July-August 2010 and the floods in eastern Sri Lanka in December 2010-January 2011.

Existing good practice

Much of the good practice the research identified implicitly took conflict into account, rather than using explicitly conflict-sensitive approaches. Indeed, practitioners consulted overwhelmingly favoured a minimalist approach, integrating conflict-sensitive approaches into existing frameworks rather than establishing new guidance and standards. This reflects a general feeling within the sector that project staff are often overwhelmed by the number of good practice commitments and quality standards their organisations expect them to follow. See for example David Bainbridge, ‘Addressing the Challenge of Compliance: Tearfund’s Quality Standards’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 48, October 2010.  Nevertheless, it was clear from the research that agencies need to do more to minimise the negative impacts of their interventions. The great majority of respondents could quote examples from their own experience where humanitarian response had exacerbated conflict. The case studies identified a number of such instances. In Haiti, for instance, the magnitude of the disaster and the imperative to respond rapidly meant that most agencies did not have time to explore relations with host and surrounding communities as they rolled out their programme responses in the camps. As a result, after an initial outpouring of sympathy the situation rapidly deteriorated, with numerous incidents of conflict between camp residents and people living immediately outside of the camp, largely over the absence of services outside of the camps. Humanitarian agencies had to work to repair these relationships, for example by including host community representatives in camp committee meetings and developing ‘neighbourhood strategies’ as part of their planning for the transition phase when camp residents are transferred to more permanent homes in resettlement areas.

The lack of clear conflict/context analysis, particularly in urban settings, meant that aid agencies failed to understand the complexities of land ownership. In June 2010 CARE initiated the Cluster Technical Working Group on Housing, Land and Property, a forum which bought together the Shelter, Camp Coordination and Management and Protection and Early Recovery Clusters to share experiences and access local knowledge. Had this shared analysis of pre-earthquake land tenure issues been developed at an earlier stage, it would have indicated that displaced people were likely to remain in camps for a considerable length of time, and more durable transitional shelter models might have been devised earlier. In Pakistan, poor coordination between NGOs, combined with a complex security situation and difficulties getting access to permits, resulted in uneven distribution of aid. In some cases even within the same village relief packages were widely different, causing considerable conflict both within the community and among the NGOs providing the aid.

Agency staffing practices had an impact on the conflict sensitivity of responses in all three case study countries. For operational agencies the first phase of a largescale response is characterised by high levels of senior management turnover and leaders who are not familiar with the local culture. Lack of language skills caused friction in Haiti, and a lack of proper orientation for new international staff in Haiti and Pakistan led to perceptions of cultural insensitivity. The identities of national staff chosen for assessment teams were critical in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In Pakistan national staff recruited from outside Punjab and Sindh did not understand local cultural norms. Local partners and communities recognised that outside technical expertise was needed, but felt that the predominance of ‘outsiders’ from other provinces was inappropriate, and caused conflict with the local population.

Having learnt from its negative experience with staff turnover after the Indian Ocean tsunami, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) does not allow short-term assignments for senior staff; instead, they are asked to commit to a humanitarian crisis for a minimum of a year. In Haiti, the CRS emergency coordinator arrived in-country about three days after the earthquake, and was still there at the time of our research, 16 months later. In Haiti, CARE addressed tensions between national and international staff with regular weekly orientation and briefing sessions, where cultural and contextual issues were regularly discussed. In Pakistan, efforts were made at team-building but interviewees felt that they were insufficiently prioritised amid the pressure to deliver aid.

Minimum standards

The research suggested a set of six minimum standards for conflict sensitive emergency response:

  1. Emergency preparedness plans should include a regularly reviewed and updated conflict analysis.
  2. Initial emergency assessment should include a ‘good enough’ conflict analysis identifying key drivers of conflict.
  3. Partnership strategies and partner selection should be analysed in relation to conflict dynamics.
  4. Management and operational staff should receive training on conflict sensitivity.
  5. All new staff should have orientation on the conflict context.
  6. Conflict-related questions and indicators should be included in monitoring and evaluation tools.

Adopting these approaches would enable emergency responders and the humanitarian organisations they work for to implement more conflict-sensitive programmes, while avoiding the need to engage in a whole new area of work, with the inevitable application of new tools and frameworks.

The research identified ways responders can ensure that their programme interventions are conflict-sensitive at each stage of the emergency programme cycle (see Figure 1). In Sri Lanka, one of CAFOD’s partner organisations, Peace and Community Action (PCA), was involved in the response to the floods on the east coast in late 2010/early 2011. PCA noted the importance of ‘process’ for conflict sensitivity: rather than focusing on whether the task has been done or the money spent, i.e. output questions, PCA monitored conflict sensitivity by asking questions such as ‘how many people from group A and how many people from group B received X?’. PCA also introduced a specific section on conflict sensitivity in reporting templates. This approach enabled PCA to adjust its programme interventions and increase effectiveness, for example changing the location of the field office so that different communities could reach it more easily. This had the effect of reinforcing links between the communities and enabled more equal participation in the project by each.


Looking beyond the CSC research, one interesting question is the extent to which humanitarian responses can have a long-term positive influence on conflict. Although this was not addressed in the study, the longer-term impacts of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar provide some interesting food for thought. In the aftermath of the cyclone, humanitarian responders, particularly international organisations, struggled to gain access to affected communities. The government of Myanmar viewed both national and international NGOs with deep suspicion, and most international organisations were unable to send staff into affected areas without lengthy delays. Yet local organisations were able to mount an emergency response, and in the absence of international NGOs often played a pivotal role in delivering aid. Research conducted after the cyclone concluded that the disaster, while causing terrible loss of life, provided an opportunity for significant development in Myanmar civil society. According to the study: ‘An acceptance that organisations can develop a working relationship with Government and benefit from it, was a key learning expressed by many of the organisations we interviewed. This learning reinforces the importance of networking and building relationships’. How To Guide To Conflict Sensitivity, Conflict Sensitivity Consortium, March 2012,

A World Bank study following the tsunami in Aceh in Indonesia came to a similar conclusion: ‘The unprecedented response (national and international) to the tsunami has created opportunities for a response to the conflict in Aceh. Human resources and aid delivery mechanisms are already in place. In many parts of Aceh, those affected by conflict, and especially those in the mountainous interior, are now worse off than those who were directly impacted by the tsunami. Villages in conflict-afflicted areas, and particularly in the rural mountainous interior, have received almost no development aid from government, NGOs or international donors while the conflict has raged. The improvement in security that the peace process, if successful, will bring, provides new opportunities for reaching some of the poorest people in Aceh’. World Bank, Conflict and Recovery in Aceh: An Assessment of Conflict Dynamics and Options for Supporting the Peace Process,

Whether it is impacting on conflict at the community level or changing the way governments view civil society actors, our research indicates that NGOs need to be more deliberate in the steps they take to minimise the negative impacts and maximise the positive impacts of their programme interventions. Adopting the six minimum standards set out here would go some way to achieving this.

Anne Street is Senior Humanitarian Advisor at CAFOD.


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