July 16, 2023 | CSF Team

Conflict sensitivity during times of crisis



Conflict sensitivity during times of crisis

This note is one in a series of rapid guidance notes intended to highlight essential considerations to inform the aid sector’s understanding of and response to the crisis in Sudan since 15 April 2023. It is a primer only, meant to spark reflection and prompt further discussion. Please contact the CSF for further questions and suggestions (including for where more advanced and detailed guidance would be helpful – info@csf-sudan.org).


  • Conflict sensitivity is even more important during times of crisis to navigate a rapidly changing and fluid context and to avoid doing harm.
  • The four key considerations outlined below can help aid actors to apply conflict-sensitive good practice, including ensuring appropriate support for Sudanese actors, building time and resources for contextual analysis, adopting adaptive management practice, and selecting partners and modalities wisely.

1) Why conflict sensitivity matters during times of crisis:

As the crisis continues to evolve in Sudan, aid actors are working overtime to understand the dynamics, and take the necessary operational and programmatic steps to navigate the changing situation and avoid doing harm. This is something the aid sector has had to do many times over many years in the Sudans, and there are lessons from the past that we should learn.

  • Aid must avoid feeding the conflict. During times of crisis, aid faces significant risk of manipulation by conflict actors as aid organisations face pressure to continue to deliver assistance while concurrently drawing back field staff and operations for security reasons. This can lead to reduced oversight at a time when communities are facing greater insecurity, civil institutions that might otherwise provide accountability are under threat, and conflict actors may aim to control resources and provision themselves. The aid sector’s vendors and service providers, including logistical support and security provision, may also be owned by conflict actors.  Aid’s unintended support to conflict actors in times of crisis may not only resource violence at that time but can also become entrenched and persist into times of stability.
  • Aid must also avoid legitimising conflict actors. Authorities who are part of aid’s delivery and beneficiary selection derive both power and legitimacy through that relationship. In some cases, they may benefit materially, or by directing aid solely to their supporters.  This may help them to advance policies and positions that in some cases may be driving conflict. In times of crisis, as in other times, aid actors should avoid working with conflict actors, instead seeking to work with and through organisations that are helping to promote accountability to the people of Sudan.
  • Conflict-sensitive aid helps to improve communities’ abilities to manage social tensions and conflict.  Conflict and tensions mean greater humanitarian need, as communities have reduced access to markets, pasture, water, farmland, trade with neighbouring communities, and the social support and kinship networks that sustain so many. Conflict-sensitive aid supports greater community-level resilience and healthier community-level dynamics, which in turn leads to more effective aid, and ultimately less need for external aid. Fostering strong social cohesion also means quick and effective resolution to conflict, so that it does not escalate and lead to further displacement, death, and destruction
  • Aid must balance short-term humanitarian demands with their long-term conflict impacts.  In times of crisis, aid workers face increasingly challenging dilemmas.  We are often asked to make difficult decisions of when and how to intervene in times where there is incomplete information and many ways for our best efforts to go wrong.  Senior-level decision-makers, as well as field staff, must have the time, space, and analysis to consider not only the short-term, but the long-term impacts of aid decisions, to help ensure that our emergency responses today do not lead to more conflict down the road.
  • Communicating our principles and values.  Senior-level messaging about conflict sensitivity sends a strong message to all partners and local actors that aid must not feed or prolong the conflict.  This matters all along the chain of policy, strategy, design and delivery, as decisions made at many different levels will affect how aid interacts with the ongoing conflicts in Sudan.

2) Conflict-sensitivity guidance – four key considerations:

  1. Ensure appropriate support for Sudanese actors. During crises, local knowledge and relationships are critical to delivering aid programmes in a safe and conflict-sensitive way, which is especially true in the current context. Working with, empowering, and strengthening the agency and capacity of local responders and aid actors is one of the most appropriate, effective, and sustainable ways of doing this.
    • There is a difference between strengthening the agency and capacity of local partners, and simply outsourcing the risky elements of programming to local partners. Such ‘dumping’ of risk is both unethical and conflict-insensitive, and international partners should take extra steps to understand and mitigate this.
    • Aid organisations should be aware of and empathetic to the risks and challenges faced by local partners in times of crisis, in particular the extra personal burden they may face amid traumatic circumstances.
  • Local partners should be equally involved in project design, development, implementation and monitoring and evaluation, budget development, strategic planning and developing operational, communications and security contingency plans.
  • Local partners should receive adequate core funding and training to develop the institutional strengths they need to be conflict-sensitive, and as impartial as possible, themselves.
  1. Build time and resources for contextual analysis into activities whenever possible. Contextual analysis, whether at the organisational or the cluster level, is important to ensure that aid actors understand the implications of what is happening around them, and how their work is interacting with that context.
    • Subnational and localised analysis is particularly critical at highly fluid moments when major events may have far reaching implications in more remote areas of the country which may worsen over a longer timescale, especially given how such contexts vary across a country like Sudan.
    • Tools that can help include rapid assessments and collective approaches to analysis and scenario planning. Conflict sensitivity assessments (which focus specifically on the conflict sensitivity risks of specific activities and programmes) are a useful complement to context analysis processes. These need to be regularly revisited.
    • Effective understanding of context is not only about analysis tools: building strategic relationships and regular convening with other actors either from or working in specific contexts are critical for maintaining an understanding of unfolding dynamics on the ground.
  2. Adopt adaptive management practices. Flexibility is critical for both donors and aid practitioners.
    • Donors play a key role in encouraging and enabling conflict sensitivity – or the reverse. Pressure to keep to original objectives, timelines and indicators can lead partners to prioritise persisting with planned activities despite potential contributions to tensions.
    • Aid organisations should also consider if their decision-making protocols are flexible, informed by analysis, and decentralised to the appropriate level. Organisations that over-emphasise centralised decision-making and procedural bureaucracy tend to struggle to respond to changing contexts quickly enough.
    • There can be a tendency to retract into siloed approaches during emergencies, which can undermine collective analysis and approaches.
    • Timelines, modalities, objectives, targeting, and communication/community engagement should all be reviewed, considering new and changing dynamics to make sure they still make sense.
  1. Select partners and modalities wisely. Both donors and implementing agencies should regularly review and assess their partnerships, procurement choices, and delivery modalities in times of conflict, and work to avoid empowering conflict actors or legitimising de facto political actors.
    • Deciding who receives aid, who we partner with to deliver activities or ensure access, and which vendors and suppliers to use can come with many dilemmas, and sometimes it may feel like there is no choice but to work with actors whose means or goals are not coherent with our principles. Brainstorming based on honest reflection should be done to consider how to minimise or mitigate any negative impact we may have.
    • Agreement on joint operating principles and red lines may help to guide a collective approach, however these may only be as effective as the continued discussions and practical problem-solving linked to these as aid organisations navigate continually changing dynamics across diverse contexts.
    • Accountability to communities should be prioritised to ensure that unhelpful modalities do not become embedded into aid structures and systems and risk perpetuating societal inequalities or unequally benefitting power-brokers.

The CSF recognises that guidance notes have a specific and limited purpose.  Many practical problems tend to benefit from shared problem-solving between practitioners (including working with those outside of aid structures, across silos and especially with local interlocutors), a detailed understanding of context-specific challenges, and time for collaborative, open conversations in trusted spaces.



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