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Building peace in fragile contexts: Lessons on conflict-sensitivity from South Sudan

Earlier this month, armed clashes between competing factions of South Sudan’s government broke out in the capital Juba, a day after the nation’s fifth anniversary of its independence. The conflict dates back to political events and factional fighting that first emerged in 2013.

In July 2013, problems over power sharing and disagreements within the ruling Southern People’s Liberation Movement party led President Salva Kiir to sack his Vice-President Riek Machar and other members of the cabinet. Tensions further escalated in December, when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup.  What started as a primarily political dispute soon degenerated into a bloody civil war. Machar fled the capital and became the leader of a formal rebellion in December 2013.

President Kiir and Vice-President Machar have spent much of the last two and a half years leading opposing factions, largely along ethnic lines, in a civil war that has torn South Sudan apart. Machar returned to Juba earlier this year in April to join the government under a peace agreement. The violence that erupted this month however, reveals the extreme fragility of the peace accord.

Responding to the ongoing conflict dynamics in the country, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs contracted International Alert to provide technical support to its embassy staff, as well as their implementing partners, on ways to integrate conflict-sensitivity into their programming – particularly around climate sensitive interventions such as water and sanitation projects and agribusiness development.[1] These interventions are of particular importance given the increasingly warmer and drier weather South Sudan is experiencing. Without effective governance, rapid population growth and the expansion of farming and pastoralism under a more variable climate regime, may exacerbate existing tensions and increase the number of at-risk people in South Sudan over the next 20 years. Climate change will likely aggravate South Sudan’s fragile situation and may exacerbate existing tensions and conflict.

The recent violence in South Sudan underscores the importance to continually apply conflict-sensitivity at all stages of a conflict.  Here are some of the key insights gained and lessons learned from our work that can help partners implementing projects in fragile contexts.

Is conflict-sensitivity any different from risk management?

Project staff from a United Nations organisation building roads in South Sudan posed this question to us. A few senior project managers, with decades of project management experience under their belts, felt irked that donors were now using the ‘conflict-sensitivity buzzword’ to replace what they thought was good risk management approaches.

Risk management is a key part of conflict-sensitivity, particularly as risk management is the attempt to manage or mitigate known risks – of which conflict would be an important element. But there is an important distinction between the two approaches.

Risk management generally takes the project as the starting point and identifies the various risks to the project – be they financial, security or environmental. By contrast, conflict-sensitivity takes the context and conflict drivers as a starting point to identify the potential risks the project itself might pose to the context – particularly looking at issues of power dynamics, values and incentives, inclusion and social cohesion.

Conflict-sensitivity also considers how the project is affecting the broader context, which may be overlooked when focusing primarily on mitigating specific project-related risks. Moreover, if projects are only concerned with risk mitigation, the opportunities to enhance the positive impacts such as building peace and adaptive capacity to cope with climate risk will be missed.

Is conflict-sensitivity a tool or an approach?

This is a catch-22 question. Conflict-sensitivity as an approach runs the risk of seeming too vague, prompting questions such as: ‘What does it concretely mean?’ ‘What should we actually do?’ ‘How can we really measure the impact of our conflict-sensitive approach?’ Seen only as a tool, it can however, be reduced to a checklist exercise. It is important to strike a balance between advocating for conflict-sensitivity as a way of understanding how one’s project interacts with the context, and training partners on how to use specific tools to ensure projects are not doing any harm

Who benefits the most from conflict-sensitivity training in a project?

For conflict-sensitivity to be truly prioritised in a project, one needs the buy-in of senior management and leadership. Without them championing the issue, the practice would not necessarily be taken on board. However, conflict-sensitivity is most needed at the field level, where projects interface with the local context. Capacity-building and training activities need to go beyond the HQ staff and really target project implementers, such as, contractors, service providers and community liaison officers.

We adopted this approach with an agribusiness project, whose aim was market development for improved seed varieties in the Greater Equatoria region. In an information session with farmers and a partner seed company, we identified various conflict issues and outlined contingency plans. Issues discussed ranged from adapting to climate and rainfall variability, cross-pollination of seeds, timely delivery of quality seeds, competing with subsidised seeds from Uganda and the backlash from humanitarian organisations distributing free seeds. Effective project communication techniques and grievance reporting mechanisms for farmers to counter some of these challenges were discussed as part of a conflict-sensitive approach.

How can we measure the success of a conflict-sensitivity approach?

Practitioners and especially donors are keen to know how adopting a conflict-sensitive approach can be justified or, better yet, even measured. In other words, how would we know that the integration of such an approach is achieving the desired outcomes of doing no harm, avoiding conflict and indeed even helping build peace?

In many ways, this is challenging because it requires hypothesising a counter-factual, i.e. had we not applied a conflict-sensitive approach, it could or would have led to conflict. This is hard to prove. We cannot confidently and easily evidence that because we did x, conflict y did not happen. What we have been able to demonstrate, unfailingly, is the absence of a conflict-sensitive approach leading to conflicts.

But conflict-sensitivity is not only about conflict avoidance. It is as much about achieving positive project outcomes that may or may not have been intended. Yet, this still doesn’t fully answer the question about measurements of success.

At the very minimum, what should be measured and can easily be measured is the extent to which conflict-sensitivity has been genuinely integrated and applied within the project. This would include things like: functioning grievance mechanisms within projects; decision-logs that track project adjustments based on adaptations to the changing context; and flexible, adaptive programming that can demonstrate better project delivery. Monitoring and evaluating these processes would then help to identify the (positive) outcomes that they generate.

What role can donors play to support conflict-sensitivity?

The flexibility of donors is an important element for the success of conflict-sensitivity – especially in the face of climatic changes and the risk of conflict re-igniting. The problem is that this competes with the results agenda donors have to deal with. The Dutch embassy in South Sudan provided their partners with this measure of flexibility to the extent that it was possible. The Embassy also enabled us to work with them and their partners over an extended period of time, rather than just providing one-off trainings. Accompaniment and individual guidance was certainly the more effective way to assist partners on conflict-sensitivity, as we were able to engage them more substantively and support the process of change more effectively.


[1] From 2014–2016, we worked on nine different development, humanitarian and peacebuilding projects covering a breadth of issues, including natural resource management, water and sanitation, road infrastructure, agribusiness, security and rule of law, and wildlife conservation.

Shreya Mitra is a Senior Programme Officer with International Alert's Environment, Climate Change and Security programme.


Photo credit: FAO community farming projects. UNMISS/