Community stabilisation and operationalising the nexus: lessons from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Somalia

December 18, 2020
Sam Grundy and Sarah Zingg
Putting communities at the centre of the community stabilization approach

As the number of populations displaced by violent conflict and environmental shocks continues to grow and their displacement become more protracted, the world has committed, through the Humanitarian-Development-Peace-Nexus (HDPN) and New Way of Working (NWOW) to move beyond responding to humanitarian needs to resolving them sustainably. This includes proposing stronger collaboration between humanitarian, peacebuilding and development approaches as well as investing in local capacities.

The 2011 IASC framework on durable solutions for internally displaced persons remains the predominant guidance for policy-makers and practitioners. However, while it recognises that reaching solutions is a long-term and challenging process, the framework sets a high standard for determining when displacement has ended. In reality, a growing number of internally displaced people (IDPs) never achieve these standards or conditions, long after the emergency phase of a crisis has passed.

This article argues that progress towards durable solutions is impeded as a result of multivariate instability; insufficient attention to the factors that maintain instability are preventing sustainable recovery and result in re-emergent crisis situations. Supported by examples from Mozambique, Somalia and Zimbabwe, we propose that a community stabilisation approach (CSA) can be critical and catalytic in transitioning away from humanitarian crises and laying foundations for longer-term recovery. In so doing, this strengthens the nexus by providing ‘mortar between the bricks’. Closely aligned to the pillars of the HDPN, the CSA is grounded in three programmatic principles: the approach must be community owned; government led; context specific, flexible and adaptable.

Displacement crises, whether human induced, environmental or a combination of the two, can have diverse, complex and catastrophic impacts on people’s lives. This includes physical, visible impacts as well as less visible effects such as inter- or intra-communal tensions over scarce resources, marginalisation of different social ethnic or religious groups, insecurity, exploitation, and criminal or rent-seeking power structures. Some of these factors may have led to displacement in the first place. All of these impacts can weaken the social, physical, cultural, economic, judicial and security structures and systems required for societies to function. Leaving them unaddressed can result in the re-emergence of violence, humanitarian crises and displacement.

The CSA is intended to improve stability at community levels, reduce the risk of emergent or re-emergent conflict or crises, and establish foundations for recovery.

Despite ‘stabilisation’, as an intervention modality, being widely interpreted (including being associated with coercive, securitised interventions), community stabilisation is non-coercive and is a process of establishing mechanisms, systems and resources, or changing attitudes and behaviour, to address different dimensions and drivers of instability.

Box 1. Restoring community-level stability as a pre-requisite for sustainable recovery in Somalia

In Somalia, the forced removal of Al Shabaab from urban areas, such as Afgoye and Dinsoor, between 2014 and 2017 left displacement-affected communities with humanitarian vulnerabilities and risks, recovery needs and varying dimensions of instability. For instance: 

- recovered areas were inhabited by those displaced by conflict and receiving returnees;
- caretaker administrations were established, but the departure of the non-state armed actors to adjacent rural areas maintained insecurity and left a power vacuum and general lack of trust in local leadership; and
- communities remained fragmented, particularly as a result of perceived affiliations of different populations with Al Shabaab.

The entry point for community stabilisation was to re-start civilian–leadership interaction through town hall meetings, establishing a community hall and addressing intra- and inter-communal grievances through mediated dialogue and traditional forms of reconciliation. Services and economic activity were also rapidly restored and levels of social unity bolstered through sports and cultural events. Although conditions were not yet conducive for sustainable recovery or durable solutions to displacement, there was a critical need to reduce the imminent risk of re-emergent violence, displacement or crises in the short term, as a prerequisite, incremental step and foundation for sustainable recovery.

As illustrated above, a CSA helped address humanitarian/recovery needs and restore capacities for peaceful co-existence, but the immediate priority was to improve stability. To this end, the CSA ‘process’ focused on providing rapid, context-specific interventions that emphasised dialogue and restored trust in local leadership – these were as important as the ‘product’. One could argue that the CSA is ‘old wine in new bottles’, but the emphasis on stability distinguishes it from, for example, early recovery and peace-building, as it is typically a longer-term process that addresses the root causes of conflict.

Community owned

‘Community’, defined geographically, is at the centre of the CSA approach. Fundamentally, the CSA succeeds when communities are empowered and have the agency and ownership to drive positive change. In displacement crisis contexts, giving a voice to different population groups in a safe environment can be the first step towards improving stability and addressing tensions or grievances. The CSA is more than simply consulting with communities about their needs; it is about embedding ownership and responsibility within them from the outset.

A core methodology within the broader CSA is community-based planning (CBP), which describes a structured participatory analysis, planning and recovery process, adapted from more traditional forms of community development to be shorter and more adaptable to the dynamic and often volatile character of crisis contexts.

Box 2. Community-centred approaches to restore capacities for peaceful co-existence, Zimbabwe

Following an outbreak of violence between two communities in Buhera District, Zimbabwe, resulting in displacement on both sides, CBP was introduced to restore stability and capacities for peaceful co-existence. It encompassed a community-wide assessment, participatory planning and community-driven recovery process. Key stages included forming representative socioeconomic groups from the two communities (such as traders, single-headed households and youth), mapping of past events (both positive and negative), and a situational analysis and visioning process aimed at a common goal for recovery, peace and development. The participation of ‘peace actors’ in the community, such as women leaders and elders, was key to establishing a basis for inter-communal engagement. The community groups also agreed on the roles, responsibilities and contributions of community members in the identified projects.

One of the community-defined priorities was the need to strengthen livelihoods and food security. As a result, two solar powered irrigation schemes comprising 160 members from both communities were established. Community members once in conflict were farming side by side.

While the project addressed tangible recovery and development needs, the stability dividend was achieved through the process, which focused on restoring inter-communal interactions and collaboration underscored by a unified vision for the future.

As illustrated above, the CSA prioritises community-based recovery through community-based public works or cooperative entrepreneurship, over and above, for example, outsourcing infrastructure needs to a contractor or distributing livelihood kits. In a given project, the CSA considers empowering communities as the greatest resource on the one hand, while on the other, it sees strengthening social cohesion through community-wide cooperation as critical to restoring stability.


In addition to restoring social cohesion, or horizontal links as described above, re-establishing vertical links through strengthening the social contract between communities and their local leadership is a central component of the CSA.

Where opportunities exist, supporting government to be effective, transparent and accountable to their communities can contribute to improved stability and establishing foundations for the pursuit of durable solutions.

Box 3. Supporting local authorities to restore peace and stability, Mozambique

Since 2018, violent attacks by armed groups affiliated with the Islamic State have resulted in the displacement of over 500,000 individuals in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province. In addition to responding to humanitarian needs and addressing security threats, restoring the capacity of local governments to be effective, accountable to and trusted by the communities they serve, and strengthening social cohesion were identified as priorities. This would restore community-level resilience while focusing on enhancing systems for two-way communication.

To this end, civil society organisations (CSOs) and local government officials were trained on contextualised peace-building concepts, inclusive participation and how to convene community dialogues, including identifying factors that divide and connect communities. Community dialogues were then convened in conflict- and displacement-affected communities across the province.

The Government of Mozambique and local communities were also supported to restore and establish Community Safety Councils (CSCs), which the government considers a key link between communities and law enforcement in promoting security and restoring stability at community levels.

Opportunities for engaging with government at the local level, however, should be carefully evaluated against the risks of association with states who are de-facto or de jure parties to a conflict. This poses dilemmas for humanitarian actors and principles when local authorities are not working in the best interests of populations, or where the need to improve stability is more urgent than the capacities of local administrations to play a prominent role.

Context specific, flexible and adaptable

Finally, the CSA requires a localised understanding of the multi-dimensional factors, including perceptions, social dynamics, security risks and the role of different stakeholders, in displacement contexts.

Such analysis can be embedded in the participatory context analyses of CBP alluded to in this article. However, in unstable situations, rapid assessments can also be undertaken and built on iteratively to establish a profile of the intervention area. Irrespective of how contexts are analysed, local drivers of instability cannot be addressed unless they are known or if interventions are based on logical assumptions alone.

Displacement crisis contexts are invariably dynamic and processes towards recovery non-linear. As such, the CSA must be adaptable to emerging opportunities and threats. When a majority of projects emanate from logical frameworks, flexibility can be constrained, including by donor requirements. This flexibility can be maintained by applying a CBP methodology, where projects are defined by the community rather than the logical framework (see Box 2), or by establishing rapid small grant mechanisms (see Box 1).

In conclusion, when following global commitments to the HDPN or NWOW, more attention is needed on how to operationalise this on the ground. The CSA is not a radical departure from standard approaches to crisis response; economic or infrastructural recovery needs are often similar across contexts. But the CSA could provide a way of doing things differently through its alternative methodologies and focus on stability as an incremental step towards achieving durable solutions.

Sam Grundy is a transition and recovery expert at IOM’s Department of Operations and Emergencies.

Sarah Zingg is a stabilization, peace and HDPN expert at IOM’s Department of Operations and Emergencies.

This blog post builds on a previous paper: “Community Stabilization – An Approach for Facilitating Progress Towards Durable Solutions and Operationalizing the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus: Lessons from Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Somalia”, Migration Research Series No. 66, International Organization for Migration, Geneva, 2020”


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