How to invest in conflict sensitivity to escape the traps of complex humanitarian emergencies

Impuls 09/2019 by Rob Morris, Conflict and Security Adviser at Saferworld

There is a paradox at the heart of the humanitarian and development aid system. Whilst the number of people living in extreme poverty has decreased in the last thirty years, over the same period the number and duration of humanitarian crises has increased at an alarming pace.

As a result, human suffering has become more concentrated in pockets of instability and conflict such as the DRC, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria. These countries have often found themselves ‘trapped’ in protracted humanitarian emergencies, which collectively eat up an ever larger share of total aid spending.

So how can aid help create the conditions for sustainable resolution of these ‘emergencies’? Part of the answer requires aid actors to be more aware of how aid affects the root causes of humanitarian need. Adopting conflict sensitive approaches is one way aid actors can  do this in practice. 

Conflict sensitivity in South Sudan

South Sudan has suffered from three civil wars and intermittent inter-communal violence, resulting in protracted and recurrent humanitarian crisis over the past sixty years. The civil war following its independence in 2013 contributed to almost two thirds of the population needing humanitarian assistance and had displaced nearly 4.2 million people by 2018. The UN appealed for over $1.5 billion for humanitarian funding in 2019 alone, thereby dwarfing the government budget and becoming a fundamental part of the country’s social and economic system. Behind these statistics lie the suffering of over four generations of South Sudanese people, right across the country.

The aid community in South Sudan increasingly accepts the need to re-think the role that aid is playing. The recurrent episodes of instability and humanitarian crisis suggests that more needs to be done to break the cycle of conflict that drives so much humanitarian need. To rise to this challenge, four donors - the Canadian, Dutch, British and Swiss governments – established the Conflict Sensitivity Resource Facility (CSRF) in 2016 to support the uptake of more conflict-sensitive approaches by the aid community in South Sudan. The project, implemented by Saferworld and swisspeace, was extended for a further five years in January 2019. 

The CSRF aims to help these donors, and the wider aid community in South Sudan to better understand how their programmes can contribute to sustainable peace in the country. It does this by generating, collating and synthesising knowledge about the context, with the aim of ensuring that decision makers have access to evidence in formats that are tailored to their needs. But it goes beyond this, to working with individuals and agencies to build institutional capacities to apply this understanding in their day-to-day work. CSRF provides bespoke institutional support to organisations, runs open trainings, facilitates joint lessons-learning and collective problem-solving exercises and encourages open and honest debate and discussion about the shortcomings of the aid system, and how agencies can best manage these. 

Whilst the scale of the challenge is huge, CSRF has been able to catalyse meaningful change amongst aid actors in South Sudan. It has helped aid workers to better understand the context, and to question their role in shaping change within it. But more significantly, it has helped to encourage organisations to adopt policies and practices that are better informed by the specific context in South Sudan. Agencies have for example adapted project designs, adopted more open information-sharing and learning within and between organisations, or begun to consider conflict sensitivity risks in core operational functions, such as human resources and procurement policies.

Four key elements of the CSRF’s design have contributed towards this success.

1: Multi-donor partnership 

Multi-donor funding has helped to catalyse change in several ways. First, it means that the project can take greater risks and reap greater rewards. The spreading of financial risk across donors means that they have been more willing to invest in experimental, exploratory approaches – such as peer-to-peer learning or adaptation of standard HQ processes – needed to try and solve ‘wicked hard’ problems. 

Second, the engagement of multiple donors has promoted a degree of horizontal accountability amongst donors. The donors have been willing to learn from each other and to take a coordinated approach to influencing the aid sector in South Sudan more broadly. The multi-donor model also means that CSRF can draw on a wider network of contacts than would otherwise be impossible.

Finally, shared ownership of the project has led to a more ‘autonomous’ model; it has prevented the project from becoming a service provider to a specific donor and their projects. This has enabled the CSRF project to build a reputation as a neutral actor, rather than being seen as an extension of any one donor.

2: Multi-pronged approach

The CSRF has been able to focus on both building individuals and organisations’ understanding of the context, and helping them apply thatunderstanding in practice. We have developed a wide array of tools and approaches that can be deployed to help agencies understand and adapt to the context. These range from more contextual research and analysis to field accompaniment and problem-solving.

This flexibility has allowed us to respond to emerging opportunities for impact, adapt our work for different organisations, and encouraged us to adapt and change as we generate more learning about how change happens in South Sudan.

3: Multi-year approach

Multi-year funding means that CSRF is able to focus on changing mindsets and influencing organisational systems; processes that inevitably take time and require patient, incremental changes. CSRF has been able to sustain engagement and build the relationships that underpin these changes – for example relating to how organisations approach the design and procurement of new projects or discussions regarding the sensitive issue of returns and resettlement.

The duration of the project also enables the team to investigate longer-term issues that are often neglected in shorter-term engagements. For example, the CSRF has supported organisations to understand how aid may be influencing patterns of urbanisation, climate change and economic diversification; all long-term drivers of peace and conflict in the country.

4: Single-country focus

Perhaps the most important factor in contributing towards CSRF’s impact has been the focus on one country. The team is run by a small team of South Sudanese and international staff, most of whom have been working on or in the country for many years. The team therefore has strong contextual understanding and is positioned to help improve the sector’s institutional memory and point out when it risks repeating past mistakes.

The CSRF team has become a valued and respected source of knowledge and advice for many key actors and influencers in the aid sector in South Sudan, including the Humanitarian Country Team, UN cluster system, diplomats and heads of missions.  Developing such deep relationships would most likely not have been possible through an initiative that sought to span multiple countries.

Challenges and dilemmas

One challenge relates to how a country-based facility can effectively engage with systemic drivers of conflict insensitivity, such as highly projectised aid, inter-organisational competition and barriers to localisation. Addressing these issues requires sustained engagement of donor and implementing agencies’ headquarters. What balance should CSRF strike in trying to promote marginal change within the system or transform the system itself?

There is also a risk that highly flexible projects such as CSRF can be pulled in so many directions that their ability to focus on meaningful change is undermined. Dilemmas regularly arise over how to decide which issues to prioritise – for example, is it more worthwhile to focus on the conflict sensitivity opportunities of greater localisation or the risks emerging from livestock support? To help manage this, CSRF has developed criteria to select a small number of thematic areas around which to concentrate its work. 

Learning how to make change ‘stick’ in a context where turnover of international staff is rapid and the volatile context means that organisations rarely prioritise longer-term thinking is another major challenge.  CSRF tries to manage this by providing both ‘broad and shallow’ support to individuals across the sector (e.g. through open trainings), as well as ‘focused and deep’ support to a smaller number of organisations in order to support institutionalising change that may be more sustainable. CSRF has produced a Learning Paper that summarises some lessons related to this.

Finally, the sensitivity of issues relating to conflict can inhibit open and honest discussion between agencies. CSRF has been experimenting with ways to create safe spaces where donors and other aid actors can come together and discuss their shared challenges in open, constructive ways.

Taking the CSRF model to other contexts

How transferable is this model to other contexts? Several factors may be contributing to the model working well in South Sudan. The massive scale of the response, and the long duration of humanitarian crisis has nurtured a sense of frustration among the aid community that past lessons have not been internalised. This has encouraged donors to think creatively about new ways to promote more coherent responses, and made it easier to justify investing in new and experimental approaches. 

These factors – among others – mean that the approach taken by CSRF would certainly need to be adapted in other contexts. However, the core elements of the CSRF model can provide a strong foundation for promoting uptake of conflict-sensitive approaches to international aid in other places. It is not however, and should never been seen as, a ‘silver bullet’ to escape the trap that many countries faced with complex humanitarian emergencies find themselves in. The aid sector is driven by many factors beyond the control of any one initiative, and aid is just one – albeit significant – part of the political economy in these contexts.

CSRF can more realistically be thought of as a catalyst of change. Its success is dependent on the willingness of aid workers and organisations to reflect critically on their own role in the conflict and adapt their behaviours accordingly. But the donors’ decision to fund an experimental project such as CSRF represents a desire to shift away from ‘business as usual’ and embrace this challenge. Our hope is that the work of CSRF will contribute towards an aid sector that is better positioned to support sustainable peace.

For more information on the CSRF and innovative approaches to building institutional capacity for conflict sensitivity, see the recently published Learning Paper or contact Robert Morris (CSRF Learning Adviser) on rmorris[at]saferworld.org.

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