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Network Paper 70 - Applying conflict sensitivity in emergency response: current practice and ways forward

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 15:00

Anne Street - Senior Humanitarian Advisor, CAFOD and co-author of report
Geoffrey Loane
- Head of Mission, ICRC
John Plastow - Programme Director, CARE International UK


Wendy Fenton - Coordinator, Humanitarian Practice Network

Anne Street, Senior Humanitarian Advisor at CAFOD and co-author of the report, opened with a presentation outlining the paper, its findings, and recommendations for the sector. The presentation highlighted:

  1. The objectives of the review
  2. The methodology used to carry out the review
  3. The Conflict Sensitivity Consortium’s definition of conflict sensitivity
  4. Existing tools, standards and approaches that are explicitly or implicitly conflict-sensitive
  5. Case studies of recent agency emergency work in Haiti, Sri Lanka and Pakistan
  6. Key conclusions
  7. Recommendations for the sector
  8. Minimum standards for agency-led conflict-sensitive emergency response

John Plastow, Programme Director at CARE International UK,followed with a review of mainstreaming and applying conflict sensitivity at agency level. John noted the report is an accessible and realistic resource for practitioners, which takes into account the pressures humanitarian staff face in the field. He emphasized the report is built on existing practice but brings the conflict and humanitarian spheres into dialogue, an overlap that has been missing in the past.

While recognising that safety and security are top priorities for any agency, John noted that at times this has led to sacrifices being made in situations where aid is needed the most. Conflict sensitivity can help bring a more nuanced analysis of conflict risks and possible mitigation measures, enabling agencies to move from a risk aversion to a risk management approach and therefore to operate better in high risk areas..

John went on to highlight some of CARE’s current work on conflict sensitivity and its broad organisational commitment towards context analysis. He cited the creation of safe spaces to talk in Somalia, based on the storytelling methodology, which have allowed staff and communities to speak about difficult and sensitive issues without fear, and therefore bring a better understanding of the operating context and risks. In addition, in Haiti, CARE has been heavily involved in inter-agency shelter work including the creation of a Housing, Land, and Property Group that has brought together members of clusters and local communities to resolve issues linked to land ownership. On the Kenya-Ethiopia border, CARE has been promoting cross-border work around natural resource management by building a dynamic analysis into the Humanitarian Programme Cycle. John noted that although these examples are all implicitly conflict-sensitive, the approach needs to be made more explicit. He added this is being taken forward by CARE’s Central Emergencies Group in Geneva who are integrating conflict sensitivity into CARE’s Emergency Toolkit and investing in developing a conflict-sensitive training curriculum for staff at different levels.

John concluded the key lesson is that context analysis and conflict-sensitive approaches should not take place only at the point of intervention; it should be an organic part of the humanitarian cycle and kept relevant for practitioners.

Geoffrey Loane, Head of Mission at the ICRC, gave the final presentation and opened with recognition that the paper is an important contribution to analysing humanitarian work and its relationship with conflict. Geoffrey went on to discuss the unintended consequences of humanitarian work and its impact at both individual and agency level. He noted an organisation’s presence, such as the ICRC, can lead people to assume areas are conflict free when this is often not the case. He stressed a need to recognise the impact of power relationships, political agendas, community and personal interests on the success or failure of humanitarian work.

 Geoffrey went on to discuss how humanitarian staff and agencies can ensure their resources are conflict neutral. He emphasized that organisations and individuals need to ensure they are ready and have the appropriate contextual knowledge before entering the field. He mentioned developing networks that enable field staff to engage at all levels as well as documenting and communicating effectively within these field teams.

Geoffrey asked what this all means for field agency work? He noted, in concurrence with John Plastow, that a lot of conflict-sensitive work is already taking place but needs to be formalised.  He argued humanitarian individuals and agencies are creating additional security risks if they are not taking a conflict-sensitive approach to their work in the field. He closed by emphasizing the need to analyse all options, know your limitations and be self-critical.

Wendy Fenton, Chair of the event and Coordinator of the Humanitarian Practice Network, summarised key points from the three presentations:

  • The importance of applying conflict-sensitivity to programming and work on the ground. She stressed getting this right should be a starting point;
  • Ensuring conflict analyses and conflict-sensitive approaches are dynamic and not fixed in time;
  • Both individuals and agencies should be self-aware and know their limitations.

 Points raised in the discussion included:

Positive impact: The focus seems to have been on avoiding negative impact as opposed to developing the skills and tools to pursue a positive impact. Geoffrey responded by proposing baselines are established to define if agency presence has made a difference and whether the situation is more or less secure. He stressed the importance of measuring positive impact and organisational honesty about both achievements and failures. Wendy noted it is important to distinguish between positive impact in relation to conflict dynamics and in relation to programming and the work agencies are trying to do.

Conflict neutral: Geoffrey explained it is not so much about being conflict neutral but instead about challenging agencies and individuals to think about their impact and the interaction that will always take place between activities and conflict dynamics. John noted the world’s eyes are now on the humanitarian sector more than ever so there is an increasing need to act appropriately and be conflict-sensitive.

Minimalist approach: Anne confirmed the report highlighted an overwhelming support, among humanitarian staff surveyed, for a minimalist approach that would not increase the burden of existing frameworks and guidelines that need to be implemented in an emergency. John added it is an incremental process with initial acceptance of conflict analysis as the first-step.

Project cycle: A number of agencies are already acting in a conflict sensitive way but a systematic approach throughout the programme cycle is lacking. John stated this report is part of a broader commitment to contextual analysis across both emergency and development programming. The panel agreed there is an overall need to be more explicit about conflict-sensitive practice.

Local organisations and partnerships: Local organisations, often seen as purely implementing partners, may be passively excluded from the decision-making process. Geoffrey acknowledged all organisations have something to offer, not only those who are in a resource-heavy position of power. He stressed the importance of creating relationships at local level to make the most of contextual knowledge.


Drawing on field research from Haiti, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, interviews with over 50 humanitarian professionals and a document review of aid agencies and sector-wide guidance and standards, this paper maps the current state of conflict-sensitive practice in emergencies. It identifies good practices which can be built upon, key gaps,and points out practical ways to integrate conflict sensitivity more strategically across the emergency programme cycle.

One of the key conclusions from this study is that there are clear opportunities for synergy between conflict sensitivity integration and the emergency capacity-building initiatives currently ongoing within many agencies. Significant improvements can be achieved through relatively simple steps which complement existing tools, standards and efforts to improve programme quality. The paper suggests six minimum standards for conflict sensitive emergency response which, if applied, would not only help minimize harm and reduce conflict risks but also increase the overall effectiveness of humanitarian response.

This paper, published by the Humanitarian Practice Network, is based on research commissioned by CARE International UK and CAFOD on behalf of the Conflict Sensitivity Consortium with the participation of World Vision International, Peace and Community Action, Catholic Relief Services, ActionAid International and Plan International.