This Network Paper reports on a recent international meeting held to discuss the changing role of NGOs working in conflict-affected countries. The report comprises two parts. The first provides an overview of humanitarian assistance in conflict situations, with particular reference to the work of NGOs, the second is an account of the Workshop on understanding conflict and peace-building held by the UK Network on Conflict, Development and Peace (CODEP) in September 1996.

The paper discusses the comparative worsening of conditions for the increasing proportion of the world’s population that is affected by conflict. This has been accompanied, it is argued, by a reduction in international aid, and by the inability of the United Nations and governments either to prevent or to call a halt to violence. There has also been an erosion of collective international responsibility for permanent political solutions to conflicts. NGOs in turn have been left with no clearly defined boundaries in relation to working in countries in conflict yet are increasingly seen by donors as having a role in governance.

The report also examines financial trends in aid and the profound changes that there have been in the allocation of funds: the reduction in international development funding, a greater proportion of which is spent by governments through Northern NGOs although the level of their public donations has declined, the quadrupling of funding spent on emergencies in the last decade, and the increase in official funding directly through Southern NGOs and into the Central and Eastern European countries and the Newly Independent Sates of the Soviet Union. The backdrop to these funding changes has been the near bankruptcy of the United Nations.

The report details the challenges and dilemmas presented to NGOs by working in conflict situations: such as whether NGOs should be mirroring existing power structures or offering alternatives, how to achieve a coherent efficient approach which reinforces local coping mechanisms, and the relationship, if any, that NGOs should have with national and international political processes. It charts some of the ways in which NGOs have explored approaches to working in conflict and how their own input may have an impact upon the conflict.

The report of the CODEP workshop itself is not a verbatim account of the proceedings but reflects the diversity of views and experience of the participants. The discussion focussed on three regions of Africa; the Great Lakes, the Horn and West Africa and addressed three themes:-

  • Conflict analysis: covers definitions of conflict analysis, the necessity of doing it, and of seeing the positive as well as negative impacts and the challenge to NGOs in carrying it out. Concludes it currently ad hoc and gives recommendations for improvements to current approaches.
  • Programming in conflict: covers questions of accountability and appropriate programming, opportunities and constraints presented by conflict, whether Northern/expatriate NGOs are necessary in Africa and suggested ways of meeting the challenges. Looks at good practice with an emphasis on community-based approaches and national/international codes of conduct.
  • Peace-building and reconciliation: clarifies the terminology in use. Examines the mandates for NGOs’ involvement in conflict and the core values with which their work should be invested, a discussion of the ethical dilemmas faced by NGOs and strategies that could be successful.

The report indicates that while gender perspectives and policy are central to and were intended to inform all three themes, their genuine incorporation into peoples’ thinking was still a distant prospect. Recommendations are given for affirmative action.

Throughout both parts of the report are highlights of some of the current debates with case studies and examples of good practice.



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