Conflict Sensitivity in South Sudan, 2015

Aid interventions in South Sudan: Integrating a conflict-sensitive approach

This article was originally published in 2015, in the International NGO Training and Research Centre’s (INTRAC) newsletter, ONTRAC, issue 59, available here.

Photo: The influx of thousands of people displaced by Abyei violence has placed enormous strain on food and water resources, South Sudan. © Hannah McNeish/IRIN

Integrating a conflict-sensitive approach into the operations and projects of institutions and organisations – including governments, humanitarian and development organisations – often results in more sustainable and stable interventions.

A ‘conflict-sensitive approach’ means understanding the two-way interaction between activities and the context. Whenever an activity is carried-out, it will affect the dynamics of that context and, likewise, the dynamics of the context will affect that activity. Conflicts that have not been taken into account can impede projects from achieving their goals. More importantly, projects that have not taken account of latent or active conflicts can unintentionally exacerbate them and do harm. Once this is understood, actors can take action to minimise negative and maximise positive impact. In politically charged and conflict-affected situations, which can be volatile from one day to the next, using a conflict-sensitive approach is vital.

Conflict-sensitivity is not an addition to the activities that are being implemented, but a way of thinking about how projects are implemented, taking into consideration on-the-ground factors – including those that might have been viewed as outside the scope of the project – before deciding on the action that is needed.

A first step in integrating a conflict-sensitive approach is through conducting a conflict or context analysis, which allows for a better understanding of the dynamics with which the project might interact. While it is important to keep an eye on conflict at the national level, the local-level factors where activities are going to be implemented are in most cases more important to understand, because the project will directly interact with these.

International Alert is engaged in South Sudan in a partnership with the Netherlands embassy to support the embassy and its development and humanitarian partners to integrate conflict-sensitivity into their projects throughout the project cycle.

Two of these have borehole components – that is, drilling boreholes to improve access to drinking water. Drilling and maintaining boreholes might seem like a relatively straightforward activity that would be influenced little by the local drivers of conflict. In unpacking this, we found that it is complex and tricky, and takes buy-in and negotiation from many different layers. In understanding the dynamics on the ground and the project’s potential interaction with these dynamics, it became clear that deciding where to put boreholes can cause tension.

First, there are the geological specifications of where a borehole can go (i.e. where there is water). At times, it can take three or four tries to find the water point, and a technical team is paid for each hole drilled regardless of whether water is found. Then there are the community members, who might want a borehole in a certain location sometimes to serve the greater good and other times to serve the elite – and may or may not take account of different gender needs and perspectives. If a borehole location is selected in one community over another, this could also negatively affect the relationships between communities. Finally, regardless of the planned purpose of the borehole, it will more than likely be overused.

For example, if its main purpose is potable water for human consumption, the reality is that there is a good chance that it will also be used for crops and livestock. The concern is then disease. If this overuse is seen as coming from a group outside of the community (such as pastoralists) this creates additional tensions between already conflicted groups. These are only a few of the factors at play in this scenario.

Once there is an understanding of these dynamics, an organisation must decide how to move forward, and how to continuously monitor the context in relation to the project and the project in relation to the dynamics. This is done through working with stakeholders – both direct beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries – to ensure that potential problems are being mitigated, problems are being solved as they arise, and the project is being implemented in the most effective way possible.

In the example of the boreholes, involving the stakeholders (in this case different segments of the community, including potential ‘outsiders’ who may use the water) is truly important for their understanding of and investment in the project. For instance, they should be involved in selecting the borehole locations and in discussions on the potential benefits and downsides of the project.

More often than not, problems arise and are ‘solved’ without the involvement of the stakeholders or, even worse, the beneficiaries are blindsided because they were unaware of the potential negative consequences.

Using a conflict-sensitive approach requires flexibility from both implementers and donors. In South Sudan, the context is evolving and conflict can flare-up quickly. While a conflict-sensitive approach should give implementers more awareness of the interaction between their projects and the context, it also means that it is more than likely that some activities will need to be shifted to avoid fuelling tensions.

Donors must be open to hearing the case for these changes and make decisions in partnership with the implementing partners. While none of this is entirely new and in many ways echoes good aid practice, in politically charged contexts this mobility to change when and as needed is extremely important for long-term peace and stability.

Blog: Summer Brown, Peacebuilding Issues Programme Manager, International Alert

Photo: The influx of thousands of people displaced by Abyei violence has placed enormous strain on food and water resources, South Sudan. © Hannah McNeish/IRIN