Issue 18 - Article 17

Managing and preventing conflict: the view from SIDA

June 3, 2003
David Wiking

There are no ‘magic bullets’ when it comes to conflict prevention and management, but Sida’s mainstreaming approach could offer a fruitful way forward.

It is important not to exaggerate the impact of humanitarian assistance and development cooperation on the fundamental conditions and attitudes related to conflict; see, for example, the cases of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq and Kosovo. But aid can sometimes play a significant and constructive role. Specifically, it can be used to promote dialogue and reconciliation; enhance security and protection, for example by disseminating concepts of international humanitarian law and human rights, through security-sector reform, or by monitoring the behaviour of armed groups; and it can help governments or, particularly in post-conflict situations, civil societies to address the root causes of conflict, for example by assisting a government to improve its capacity to deliver services, or by promoting democratisation and economic growth.

Sida’s approach

Partly as a follow-up to its action programme for peace, democracy and human rights, in mid-1998 Sida submitted a strategy for conflict prevention and management to the Swedish government. In situations of open armed conflict, or when conflict is imminent, Sida seeks to encourage dialogue and to enhance security. Moreover, it also attempts to mainstream these processes, applying a ‘conflict-prevention lens’ to its programmes and strategies.

Encouraging dialogue and promoting security

In 1999 and 2000, Sida’s support for initiatives aimed at encouraging dialogue and enhancing security exceeded SEK300m (about $30m) divided amongst more than 250 projects, most of which are implemented by NGOs.

In terms of promoting dialogue, Sida pays special attention to projects which seek to influence the culture of violence, and to research, education, seminars and mediation at local level. Promoting security includes structural interventions to give individuals and groups a greater degree of protection. These interventions are implemented through a ‘preventive presence’ – civil peace monitoring and observer functions; demilitarisation, disarmament and demobilisation; controls on weapons and armed groups; reform of the security sector; and reforming and reinforcing those social functions and institutions that promote security. Examples include support for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Rwanda, and ‘track 2’ initiatives in East Timor and Sri Lanka.

Sida also supports projects designed to increase knowledge and understanding of the causes of conflicts. This includes influencing public opinion; encouraging research and applied research; and educational projects. Sida also supports several conflict-transformation/peacebuilding NGOs – International Alert, Conciliation Resources, Saferworld, the American Friends Service Committee and the Life and Peace Institute – with core funding. We are seeking to make this relationship more of a partnership in which we are able to learn from each other, rather than the kind of relationship usual between a donor and an implementing organisation. Engaging in such a partnership is time-consuming, and Sida is therefore not considering increasing the number of organisations it supports in this way.

Promoting structural stability

Preventing conflict means addressing the structural factors that underpin it. As in situations of ongoing conflict, the impact of development cooperation should not be exaggerated. Nonetheless, it can have a role insofar as it seeks to address the ‘root causes’ of conflict.

In Sida’s work, conflict prevention primarily comes into, or at least should come into, country analyses and strategies; in some cases, it is explicitly stated as a direct or indirect objective. Areas for cooperation are then deliberately chosen because of the expected conflict-prevention impact. However, it can sometimes be difficult to openly discuss the need for conflict prevention with partner countries.

Having worked with conflict management and conflict prevention for some years, Sida is now gathering lessons learned relevant to promoting dialogue and security. These include:

  • Promoting peace is a dynamic process, and requires long-term commitment.
  • It calls for flexibility, but within a broader strategic plan in which subsidiary goals, analyses and tools need to be constantly revised.
  • Ensuring gender equality is important if peace-building initiatives are to be sustainable (there is much that needs to be done in this area).
  • Finally, work in this sector needs to be based on proper analysis and knowledge; conflict prevention in general, and conflict management in particular, can often be a time-consuming activity.

Like many other actors in this field, Sida can, of course, improve the way it works with project support. In order to allow more time for dialogue and follow-up, we need to consider how we structure our work, and what kind of guidance we can provide to our partners in order to promote a common understanding, or a common point of reference. One way would be to develop and issue guidelines together with organisations applying to Sida for funds in this field.

Mainstreaming conflict prevention

At Sida, mainstreaming means applying a ‘conflict-prevention lens’; that is, looking at how projects and programmes influence, and are influenced by, conflicts. From a project perspective, the challenge is to assess how activities affect, and are affected by, conflict, and then avoiding feeding into conflict, and strengthening local capacities for peace. This approach is sometimes called Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment (PCIA). For example, assistance in electrifying rural areas in a country or region at risk of or embroiled in conflict could be positive as it creates increased income and job opportunities, thereby reducing frustration and grievance. At the same time, there may be a risk that, if only one group benefits, tensions with other groups may rise.

Sida’s guidelines for applying for funds for humanitarian assistance highlight the need for an awareness of the consequences – both intended and unintended – of humanitarian assistance. That does not mean compromising on humanitarian principles and the humanitarian imperative. The objective is rather to get partner organisations to search for alternatives or options when there are clear risks that a proposed project will worsen a humanitarian crisis, rather than mitigate it. In particular, the Local Capacities for Peace Project (LCPP) offers a realistic framework for starting to think about the impact of aid on conflict, and Sida frequently recommends its use.

Sida has also tried to work with conflict analysis at the macro level. In cooperation with the universities of Gothenburg and Uppsala, three conflict analyses have been produced, covering Angola, the West Bank/Gaza and West Africa. As part of this cooperation, a form of ‘help-desk’ has been set up, which is intended to make the kind of knowledge held by researchers available to Sida’s programme officers. The idea is to bridge the gap between theoretical and practical approaches to conflict prevention. Although exciting, it has proved more difficult than expected.

The story so far – and challenges ahead

Structural conflict-prevention and mainstreaming the ‘conflict-prevention lens’ are difficult and time-consuming. There is a lot still to learn; the field is still relatively new, and far from all development workers have accepted this approach. There is thus room for improvement. The challenge is not only finding new methodologies and means of analysing conflicts, but also changing the attitudes of actors involved in development issues. As attitudes change, improved coordination and cooperation, not least between donors, will hopefully follow.

David Wiking is Adviser, Conflict Management, in Sida’s Division for Humanitarian Assistance



Guidelines on Peace, Conflict and Development Cooperation (Paris: OECD/DAC, 1997)

Justice and Peace (Stockholm: Sida, 1997)

Preventing Violent Conflict – A Swedish Action Plan (Stockholm: Sida, 1998)

Democracy and Human Rights in Swedish International Development Cooperation (Stockholm: Sida)


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