Mozambique | © Flurina Rothenberger

Five Lessons for Mainstreaming Conflict Sensitivity

BY: Owen Frazer, Gércia Aboo , Jürg Merz - 17. June 2024
© Flurina Rothenberger

The proportion of people living in extreme poverty in fragile contexts continues to grow. Development organizations need to ensure they are equipped to act safely, responsibly and effectively in such contexts. This includes managing the risk that interventions may unintentionally do harm.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 73% of people who are extremely poor live in fragile contexts. This figure is expected to increase to 86% by 2030. Helvetas has a long history of working in fragile contexts. Fourteen of the 35 countries where Helvetas currently operates can be considered fragile. One of these is Mozambique.

The WorldRiskReport 2023 identifies Mozambique as among the top 10 countries in the world exposed to disaster risks from extreme natural events and negative climate change impacts, and the most exposed in Africa. Mozambique is also currently dealing with a violent insurgency in the northern part of the country and a challenging economic situation related to the debt crisis, while there is increasing pressure on civic space and civil society organizations.

Working in fragile contexts poses several operational challenges linked to the complexity and fluidity of the situation, security risks, financial risks and increased risks of doing harm. To ensure that it maintains its ability to operate safely and effectively in contexts like Mozambique, Helvetas is guided by its “Fit for Fragility” framework.

The framework emphasizes three pillars: i) a humanitarian-development-peacebuilding nexus approach, ii) adaptive management, and iii) agile support systems. One area of particular attention under the adaptive management pillar has been the mainstreaming of conflict sensitivity. Helvetas Mozambique has been very active in this regard.

Mainstreaming conflict sensitivity

Conflict sensitivity is the awareness that our work, presence and behavior can have unintended consequences. It means taking action to avoid negative effects and reinforcing our positive impact. Helvetas has invested significantly in developing its capacity to work in a conflict-sensitive manner. Its approach on the topic has been guided by the manual 3 Steps for Working in Fragile and Conflict-affected Situations that was published in 2013, and the accompanying field guide.

However, a recent internal review found that while awareness of the approach is relatively high among the organization’s 1,500 global staff, it is neither fully understood by all staff nor is it systematically applied. An action plan was developed with the aim of reinforcing the mainstreaming of conflict sensitivity across the organization by being clear what should be done (policies), how it should be done (processes), and strengthening the capacities of those who should do it (people).

Informed by a review of the literature and a global internal consultation, five key lessons emerged about how to strengthen the systematic application of conflict sensitivity. The Mozambique program provides a good illustration of how these lessons are now being applied.

1. Strengthen the country perspective

Like many other organizations working in international cooperation, Helvetas has historically focused its conflict sensitivity efforts on the project level, supporting project managers to analyze the context where they are operating and to adapt their projects to avoid doing harm and to strengthen their contribution to social cohesion. However, many strategic decisions are made at the country level and many projects operating in the same areas are faced with similar challenges. While project-level analysis and adaptation remain important, it is also important to take a holistic programmatic approach.

Helvetas Mozambique therefore created a conflict sensitivity focal point at the country level who reports directly to the country director. The creation of this role has helped to promote joint context analysis and reflection on conflict sensitivity at the country level, promoting learning across projects and delivering training to project staff and partners in an efficient way.

2. Integrate conflict sensitivity into risk management processes

The goal of mainstreaming any topic is to ensure that it is integrated into existing processes, rather than treated as a separate topic. Unfortunately, sometimes this has remained more an aspiration than a reality for conflict sensitivity.

One obvious entry point for better integration of conflict sensitivity is to add it to existing risk management processes. Often, projects and programs consider security, financial and other programmatic risks, but neglect to consider the risks of doing harm.

As part of its risk management, Helvetas Mozambique regularly updates the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation’s MERV tool. This is done in a collaborative way with all the project managers during regular management meetings, with the process being led by the security advisor. Since the security advisor is also the conflict sensitivity focal point, this has made it straightforward to integrate conflict sensitivity considerations when applying the tool.

3. Foster regular exchanges on the topic

The danger of specialist topics like conflict sensitivity, which are not the core focus of a project, is that communication about them is typically top-down. Teams often do not feel equipped or empowered to take initiative on their own, and instead wait for inputs from head office advisors.

This leads to a “submarine effect” where the topic remains under the surface for long periods and only briefly surfaces during specific workshops or training events. The appointment of a conflict sensitivity focal point in Mozambique has greatly helped to counter this effect, with discussion of conflict sensitivity now integrated into regular meetings. This has helped to foster a shift away from an expert-led approach towards more peer-to-peer learning. In addition to regular training courses, individual refresher exercises are also used as energizers in meetings to keep the topic fresh and alive.

4. Focus more on individual skills and behavior

In the past, a focus on conflict-sensitive project management (CSPM) has led to a very analytic and technocratic approach to the topic. Staff and partners often find CSPM training courses too dry and conceptual. While conflict analysis and adaptation of project implementation modalities to mitigate risks of doing harm are essential, all individual staff and partners don’t need to master all these tools. However, everyone is expected to behave in a conflict-sensitive way.

Recognizing this, Helvetas Mozambique piloted a newly developed training course titled “Being Conflict Sensitive Essentials,” which focuses on developing individual attitudes, skills and behaviors related to conflict sensitivity. As well as learning about the basic principles of conflict sensitivity, staff learned techniques for appreciating multiple perspectives, being alert to the role of prejudices, and constructive communication techniques such as active listening, asking questions and non-violent communication.

This new course had a huge resonance with staff, who found it very helpful in their relationships within and outside the organization. It has also increased enthusiasm for the topic of conflict sensitivity more generally, creating additional buy-in for the application of CSPM as an approach. These courses are now being rolled out to Helvetas’ partners in both civil society and government, with whom Helvetas works closely in the implementation of its activities.

5. Keep it simple and practical

Conflict sensitivity workshops sometimes result in long lists of actions to be taken to ensure projects are conflict sensitive. Prioritization is essential. In Mozambique, analysis revealed two priority issues for multiple projects: ensuring site and participant selection was fair and avoiding political instrumentalization. These were therefore established as focus issues that all projects should take action to address and regularly report on.

Project staff and managers with limited time on their hands want their information to be brief and accessible. Helvetas’ original manual introducing conflict sensitivity is over 120 pages long. In collaboration with the country program in Burkina Faso, Helvetas has revised and updated the manual to produce a guide for facilitating CSPM workshops that whittles things down to the essentials, focusing on collaborative exercises and keeping conceptual inputs to a minimum.

Another realization was that people were eager for examples of what applying conflict sensitivity looked like in practice. We therefore produced a collection of stories of how Helvetas’ teams around the world have been applying conflict sensitivity, with several examples being supplied by the program in Mozambique. The emphasis was on illustrating the different way interventions can do harm, with examples drawn from different sectors such as water and sanitation, skills development and agriculture projects.

Finally, the value of a short and simple checklist should not be underestimated. For example, this one-page guidance with five key steps to ensuring conflict sensitivity is properly integrated into project documents, was widely welcomed.

What’s next?

While much has been achieved, there is always room for improvement. There are three avenues in particular that Helvetas would like to further develop in the future. First, encouraging more cross-program exchange and learning. Communities of practice are becoming a well-established tool at Helvetas; we are in the process of establishing them for conflict sensitivity so that different country programs can learn from each other.

Second, we’ll work on building up in-country training capacity on conflict sensitivity. Conducting training courses is time and resource-intensive, and often the most effective route is for organizations to contract external training providers. However, providers who possess local contextual knowledge and conflict sensitivity expertise are often hard to find – in Mozambique and elsewhere. Helvetas continues to dialogue with donors to support the development of such locally based resources.

Third, more focus is needed on streamlining the integration of transversal themes. Project staff are often overwhelmed by the number of topics they have to consider, from gender and social equity to conflict sensitivity to partnerships and advocacy. To help staff handle this complexity, Helvetas has developed a simple navigation tool for cross-cutting themes. We hope this can support the integration of these themes into project cycle management as efficiently and effectively as possible.

About the Authors

Owen Frazer is Helvetas’ Senior Advisor for Conflict Transformation and advises projects and country programs working in fragile and conflict-affected contexts.

Gércia Aboo is the Security Advisor for Helvetas Mozambique and the focal point for conflict sensitivity. Based in Pemba, Cabo Delgado province, she provides advice and support to Helvetas staff and partners, with a strong focus on operations in northern Mozambique.

Juerg Merz is the Country Director for Helvetas Mozambique, managing a team of over 60 staff implementing projects in the fields of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); water governance; food and nutrition; climate and disaster resilience; vocational skills and private sector development.

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