Helping you help others: how to get the support you need to navigate conflict as an aid actor
Delivering aid in a place dealing with violent conflicts is a complex task and one fraught with risk. Mistakes and misunderstandings in such places have major consequences for aid workers, their organisations and above all, the community members who aid is supposed to benefit. Yet for aid workers from other countries, understanding the societies they work in can seem daunting, let alone figuring out how their own work might impact conflict for better or worse.
Many donor institutions and aid agencies in this situation commission specialists in conflict sensitivity and in the particular area of operations to help their teams understand and respond to the conflicts affecting their area of work. Yet there are several kinds of support available, all of which have different strengths and weaknesses, with some better suited to some situations than others. Here, we have picked out a few, sharing some lessons on how to get the most out of them.
Get on the training train!
Trainings are a great way to help staff get to grips with the basics of conflict sensitivity, and help them think through the practical implications of it for their work. This will leave staff with ideas and skills that can be used to enhance their work. When held in person, trainings can foster change at an organisational or even sectoral level by sparking conversations between participants, through which, communities of practice can emerge.
Fortunately, there are countless training resources, toolkits and manuals relating to conflict sensitivity, including a growing number of virtual and/or self-guided courses. There are also courses devoted to improving understanding of particular contexts, their societies, environments and economies. In Sudan, the CSF offers a regular ‘Introduction to Sudan’ course, while the Rift Valley Institute holds an intensive annual course on Sudan and South Sudan.
Yet even the most advanced and comprehensive trainings have limitations.. At the same time, the knowledge gained through trainings can be quickly lost due to staff turnover or become outdated over time.
Make critical friends
For organisations lacking pre-existing policies or expertise on conflict, it can be helpful to seek mentorship from a trusted organisation that specialises on conflict issues. In the last few years, peacebuilding organisations and networks including Saferworld, CDA and swisspeace have partnered with humanitarian and development programmes to integrate conflict sensitivity into their design and implementation. In Sudan, the CSF serves as a critical friend for the country’s aid sector, joining problem-solving discussions, inputting into and helping aid agencies think through the difficult questions that conflicts raise.
Unlike individual training courses and analysis pieces, this kind of support is continuous and flexible, capable of providing all sorts of ad hoc inputs on request throughout the programme cycle, whether at strategic meetings or programme proposals, planning and learning processes. Over time, this allows the ‘mentor’ to build lasting relationships with staff and an understanding of the internal dynamics, systems and entry points within the organisation, adapting their mentoring approach accordingly.
Unfortunately, none of this is guaranteed. Deeper change can depend on the degree to which the organisation seeking support is willing to be open, both to criticism and to new ways of thinking, or else mentorship might feel like an imposition to staff – clear senior level messaging around this can also make a big difference. Meanwhile, the mentoring organisation must strike a tricky balance, providing critical and ambitious guidance that can spur genuine reflection and change, while at the same time maintaining trust as a constructive, supportive partner.
Contact a helpdesk or ‘conflict sensitivity facility’
At the donor or national level, a more comprehensive and strategic intervention is sometimes needed. In the last decade, multiple European donors including Sida, the FCDO, the Austrian Development Agency and the EIB have supported dedicated call-down or ‘helpdesk’ facilities focusing on conflict sensitivity. These helpdesks cover entire, or even multiple, countries, institutions and their partners, and respond to ad hoc requests for conflict analysis, desk-based research and reviews of specific documents or interventions.
Helpdesks are easy for overstretched donors to use. They are adept at developing a bigger picture of how their partner institution is approaching conflict from the operational to strategic level, and over navigate complicated organisational debates and dynamics. However, they can take considerable investment in time, information and resources, to get the most out of and can risk duplicating rather than building on analysis in situations where it is not readily available.
Lastly, there are conflict sensitivity facilities like the CSF, and its counterparts in South Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan. These facilities offer many of the functions listed above, including capacity building and accompaniment while being able to produce or pool analysis like the CSF’s knowledge hub does in Sudan. Yet what is unique about these facilities is their ability to broker conversations and learning between different aid actors, including donors, INGOs and national aid actors in ways that break down siloes and help an aid sector build a shared sense of its approach to conflict.
So help is at hand for wanting to work in a more informed and deliberate way to address conflict. Yet while each option available to aid actors has its strengths and weaknesses, how they fare will often depend most on how they are ultimately designed and used. Ultimately, for any external guidance on conflict sensitivity to be useful, it will need the right partners, a design tailored to the specific needs of the organisation it is supporting and most importantly, the resources and flexibility it needs to learn, highlight uncomfortable truths and collaborate to make change.
In Sudan, the CSF is eager to help donors and aid agencies think through the challenges they face relating to conflict and share learning on the options available to them, including their relative strengths and weaknesses and how to develop them to ensure needs are met.
 The CSF is currently developing a self-guided, online course introducing the principles and practice of conflict sensitivity
Photo: UNAMID Protects WFP Food Delivery for IDPs in Sudan (Credit: UN Photo)
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