Afghanistan + 2 more

Conflict and aid: Enhancing the peacebuilding impact of international engagement. A synthesis of findings from Afghanistan, Liberia and Sri Lanka

by Jonathan Goodhand with Philippa Atkinson

The research in this study has been funded by International Alert and the National Lottery Charities Board (Community Fund). The publication of this study was made possible by a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.
The authors would like to thank Eve Naftalin, Matt Suntag and Andrew Sherriff of International Alert for their support in the editing of this paper.

About the Authors

Jonathan Goodhand has worked for several years managing NGO programmes, conducting research and doing consultancy on NGO issues in Southern and Central Asia. He is currently a lecturer at SOAS in the development studies department.

Philippa Atkinson is an independent consultant who has published on humanitarianism and conflict, particularly in the context of Liberia. She was previously the Relief and Rehabilitation Network Representative for the West Africa region.

Executive Summary

This paper examines whether humanitarian assistance (HA) in war zones can support efforts to promote conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Is this an objective that should be pursued? Can it be operationalised in practice? Does this represent a more intelligent and expansive form of humanitarianism, or is it a dangerous distortion of humanitarian mandates? Our paper explores these questions and provides a synthesis of findings from country studies of Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Liberia1.

The report is structured as follows: Section One sets the scene by providing a brief overview of current debates on humanitarianism, conflict and peacebuilding. Section Two focuses on the three case studies, mapping out the defining features of the conflicts and responses in each country. Section Three presents a comparative analysis of the key findings and Section Four outlines the main conclusions and recommendations in light of these findings.

1. Current debates on humanitarianism, conflict and peacebuilding

It is argued that a growing critique of HA in war zones during the 1980s and 1990s has broadly led to two schools of thought on the need to reform humanitarianism.

  • Humanitarian maximalists - argue that 'new wars' require new responses which address the underlying causes of conflict. They believe that a broadening of humanitarian mandates to include developmental and peacebuilding objectives is necessary and HA should be linked to other policy instruments such as diplomacy and trade.

  • Humanitarian minimalists - argue for a deepening of humanitarian mandates, which has been described as a 'back to basics' approach. They argue for the primacy of the humanitarian imperative and the need to keep HA separate and distinct from other policy instruments.

A number of initiatives associated with these two responses are described. It is argued that current debates have become unhelpfully polarised and both 'schools' have generated insights that could usefully be incorporated into current practice.

2. Summary case studies of Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Liberia

An overview of the three country studies is provided, focusing on the nature of the conflicts, the history of international engagement and the humanitarian responses. The case studies highlight contrasting challenges and dilemmas for humanitarian actors. In Afghanistan, HA is delivered in the context of a collapsed state and an ongoing civil war. In Liberia,although a 'post conflict' context, with HA being directed towards rehabilitation needs,underlying tensions and the threat of renewed violence remain. In Sri Lanka, with a functioning democratic state and strong social development indicators, the challenges of HA are related primarily to how agencies engage with the state when it is itself a party to the conflict.

3. Comparative findings

A comparative analysis of the case studies is divided into the following sections:

Conflict analysis: The case studies highlight the need for careful analysis of the context. Inappropriate responses were frequently based upon the non-reading or misreading of the situation.The importance of an historical analysis and an understanding of the processes underlying state formation and collapse are stressed. Also highlighted are the dynamic and 'networked' nature of contemporary conflicts, necessitating ongoing,'Iive' conflict analysis and a heightened appreciation of the linkages between different actors and levels of conflict. Aid actors were found to be surprisingly weak in their analysis of non-state warring groups, in spite of the fact that they have a profound influence on aid policy and programming. Suggestions are made as to how donors and aid agencies could improve their contextual analysis.

Peace making: HA has been one of a number of policy instruments employed to address conflict and its impacts. In all three countries the international community has supported peace processes, although their engagement has rarely been coordinated and sustained. In the post Cold War world, all three have become 'orphaned conflicts', having limited geopolitical importance to the great powers.

Apart from the need for more robust political action, the cases illustrate the need for new approaches. The Afghan case study highlights the limitations of traditional diplomacy in conflicts involving multiple non-state actors who may have a limited interest in international legitimacy or the incentives that diplomats may offer. Moreover, in all three cases, civil society groups tended to be marginalised by peace processes. Peacemakers have often failed to look beyond the peace accord.

Knowing when not to act is another important lesson. In Liberia it has been argued that the international response may have precipitated the CPE because it stalemated a situation that otherwise would have been decided through a military takeover.

Aid responses: The importance of understanding the political economy of aid as well at the political economy of conflict is stressed. This includes an historical analysis of how aid regimes in individual countries change over time in response to international and country-level developments. The recent call for greater coherence between aid and other policy responses is critically examined. In Afghanistan aid became a substitute for sustained political action. On the other hand, in Liberia, at certain stages of the peace process, aid complemented other policy instruments and helped reinforce the peace settlement. It is argued that more thought should be given as to how HA can be kept both distinct but complementary to other forms of engagement which build or consolidate peace.

The central role played by donors within the aid systems is illustrated in all three case studies. Funding in each country tends to be highly concentrated amongst the major multi-lateral and bi-lateral donors and their influence at the operational level is growing as more conditions are placed on aid. This is accentuated by a growing NGO dependence on official funding sources, inducing a 'crisis of conformity' amongst the NGO sector. In Afghanistan,the problem appeared to be most acute where NGOs demonstrated a limited capacity to conduct independent analysis, challenge donor agendas and develop advocacy strategies accordingly. It is argued that the overbearing influence of aid donors and the lack of downwards donor accountability are systemic problems which need to be confronted and tackled.

These problems are reflected in donor understanding and approaches to conflict.Three different donor approaches to conflict can be identified:

1. Working around conflict: treating conflict as an impediment or negative externality that is to be avoided.

2. Working in conflict: recognising the links between programmes and conflict and making attempts to minimise conflict-related risks, so that aid 'does no harm.

3. Working on conflict: conscious attempts to design programmes so that they have explicit conflict prevention and peacebuilding objectives.

It was found that, although policy rhetoric has changed, in practice, the major international donors have tended to work 'around' conflict.While it is important to keep a sense of proportion about the role of aid in fuelling conflict, donors who worked 'around' conflict, paid a lack of attention to the context and inadvertently exacerbated underlying tensions.While donors are increasingly aware of the need to work more effectively in or on conflict, what this means in practice is still not clear.

4. Conclusions & Recommendations

A number of conclusions are mapped out, including:

  • The need for careful analysis and customised approaches, which are calibrated according to timing and context.

  • Be realistic about the potential of HA to influence the wider dynamics of peace and conflict. While improvements should be sought, addressing short-comings in the humanitarian response system, in itself, will rarely be enough to 'bring peace. Much can be done to improve current policy and practice in the area of HA. However, this should not distract attention from the need to invest in more robust and sustained political and diplomatic responses.

  • Develop greater complementarity between aid and other policy instruments. As Macrae and Leader argue (2000), perhaps we should be talking less about coherence (which may be unrealisable in practice) and more about complementarity, remembering that there needs to be something for aid to complement; a political vacuum cannot be complemented.

  • Develop targeted approaches rather than 'across the board' negative conditionalities, sanctions and disengagement, which were found to have a limited effect on incentive systems.The only exception to this was, perhaps, the use of targeted sanctions on individual warlords in Liberia.This suggests the need to think very carefully about 'smarter' sanctions, which link into a wider response. In general, however, confrontational conditionalities have had negative impacts, while principled and consistent engagement has often produced positive effects.

  • The categorical positions of humanitarian maximalists and minimalist are unhelpful. More effort should be devoted to exploring the middle ground and identifying what enlightened humanitarianism means in practice. What current debates and empirical studies show, is the need for donors to be more conscious and honest about the tensions and trade-offs caused by pursuing multiple objectives between, for example, peace, justice and humanitarian needs. There is a need for donors to be more transparent about how they weight different objectives and arrive at policy decisions.

  • Cultivate a greater conflict 'mindfulness'. It is incumbent upon donors to develop a more sophisticated analysis of the dynamics of conflict and an understanding of the linkages between aid and conflict. It is not argued that all donors be held accountable in terms of how or whether their aid contributes to peace. However donors should be able to demonstrate a cognisance of the links between aid, conflict and development, just as now, as a matter of course they are expected to show an appreciation of the gender implications of their policies and practice.

Recommendations focus on three areas:

1. Supporting an enabling environment for conflict prevention and peacebuilding

These recommendations are primarily focused at national governments and international agencies, such as the United Nations and OSCE involved in peacemaking and peacebuilding (or conflict fuelling) operations.

- Strengthen political efforts to engage with and support countries at risk of, experiencing or emerging from violent conflict.

- Develop more balanced and complementary approaches, using a range of tools, including diplomatic, military, trade and aid instruments, so that they mutually support and reinforce one another. Develop a more optimal balance between short-term and long-term interventions.

- Do not use HA as the primary or sole instrument to promote conflict resolution or peacebuilding objectives.

- Be prepared to work collaboratively and sacrifice sovereignty in the interests of longer-term structural stability.

- Support policies that are consistent with and based on locally defined needs, rather than on external interests or domestic audiences.

- Develop regionally informed analysis and where possible, support regionally based responses.

- Develop a more optimum balance between sticks and carrots - provide positive incentives, as well as disincentives to conflicting parties.

2. Increasing the conflict sensitivity of aid donors

Develop downward accountability

The lack of downward accountability at all levels is a systemic problem, which needs to be addressed if aid is to become more responsive and consistent with local realities. Donors need to take the question of accountability more seriously; 2 a number of ways might be explored to encourage this including:

- Developing codes of conduct and standards for donors in the same way that aid agencies have been developing principles and operating standards.

- An ombudsmen for donors - in which they are held more accountable for their practice and the impacts of their actions - and a complaints procedure for when donors do not meet agreed standards of practice.

- Decentralise decision-making powers to the field level and insist on greater local consultation and analysis.

Develop understanding and analysis

Donors should improve their capacity to conduct joint conflict analysis.They should:

- Develop contacts with a wider range of institutions and actors who can help deepen and broaden donor analysis

- Develop a joined up approach to analysis, which draws upon existing frameworks and avoids compartmentalised thinking and approaches.

Develop internal capacities

Donors should address internal capacity constraints in order to development conflict sensitive approaches:

- Develop internal incentive systems which encourage learning and analysis

- Allocate more staff and resources for conflict analysis

- Free up more staff time for field visits i.e. spend more time in areas of conflict, listening to the views of those directly affected by war.

Develop new modalities

Donors need to develop new modalities to respond to the challenges of working in or working on conflict.This means customising policy and practice to specific contexts and phases of conflict:

- Develop more flexible systems, which are adapted to the need for transitional forms of funding, which are neither 'pure' relief or 'pure' development

- Provide longer term, multi-year funding

- Provide organisational funding,as well as project-based funding

- Support strategies and processes, as well as just projects

Strengthen investments in capacity building

Capacity building tends to be neglected in areas of conflict. The imperatives for speed marginalise local actors. International organisations often tend to absorb local capacities, rather than build them. Donors should be prepared to provide the time and the resources for capacity building:

- Identify and support institutions that can manage and mitigate conflict

- Develop broader and deeper relationships with civil society organisations, which extend beyond capital city-based, English speaking NGOs

- Develop a more sophisticated understanding of impact which accounts for the impacts of programmes on organisational 'norms, as well as forms'

3. Enhancing the peacebuilding potential of HA

Mainstream conflict sensitivity

Agencies attempting to develop more conflict sensitive approaches to HA should:

- Put a greater investment into political and social analysis

- Incorporate conflict analysis into strategic planning processes

- Develop a greater awareness of the distributional impacts of policies and programmes

NGO capacities

NGOs should develop their capacities to act as a counter weight to donor pressures and to engage with policy debates. Specifically they should:

- Invest in high quality and independent analysis, which draws upon the views and needs of the communities they work with

- Be prepared to take risks and challenge the policy responses which are not consistent with local realities and needs

- Develop their advocacy strategies and skills so they are better able to influence policy


1 See H. Atmar and J. Goodhand, Afghanistan Case Study, International Alert, London, 2001, M Mulbah and C Babu Liberia Case Study (2000) & J. Goodhand, Sri Lanka Case Study, International Alert London 2001. This study has involved fieldwork in the three countries, in addition to a UK-based desk survey. It has drawn heavily upon a DFID-funded research project conducted by University of Manchester/INTRAC, entitled 'The contribution of NGOs to peacebuilding in complex political emergencies'. It also draws upon research conducted by INTRAC for CHAD/DFID on conflict assessment.

2 NGOs have also made limited progress in developing strategic accountability in spite of interest in social auditing in the early 1990s. See S. Jackson and P. Walker, Depolarising the 'broadened'and 'back-to-basics'relief models' Disasters 23:2 1999, p.112

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