How might working to support children and young people on the move create problems, and how can these be avoided? This has been a central question shaping the activities of a regional project in West and Northwest Africa that was launched in 2022 and aims to support this young population as they navigate migration routes across Guinea, Mali, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia.
In West and North Africa, there are 40-45 million international migrants, and it is estimated that more than 5 million of these migrants are young people age 24 or below. With a focus on improving support systems for children and young people on the move, the project is undeniably trying to do something good. Yet, as with all projects and activities of Helvetas and its partners, there is always a risk that in trying to do something good the project also ends up causing harm. Helvetas and its partners must be mindful of the unintended effects of their presence and actions. They must be conflict sensitive.
Avoiding unintended consequences
Conflict sensitivity requires awareness that projects and the way they are carried out can have unintended consequences in the contexts where they are implemented. There are many ways in which the actions and behaviors of organizations can serve to aggravate existing tensions in a particular context, or even give rise to new conflicts. On the other hand, there are also many opportunities for projects to contribute positively to calming tensions and to reinforcing social cohesion. The nature of these risks and opportunities varies from project to project. Figuring out what they are requires conducting a dedicated conflict sensitivity analysis using a tool such as the Helvetas-developed manual, “3 Steps for Working in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Situations,” which is based on the widely used Do No Harm approach.
The “Children and Youth on Migration Routes in West and Northwest Africa” project aims to strengthen the access of young people on the move to education services, employment programs and protection services. It is a project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), which is led by a consortium consisting of Helvetas, GIZ and Terre des hommes. The consortium’s role is not to provide services, but to work with existing actors in Guinea, Mali, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia to strengthen their ability to ensure young people on the move are included in their services.
How to design a conflict-sensitive project
Several steps were taken to ensure that the project was designed and implemented in a conflict-sensitive manner. First, as part of the project’s inception phase, a study was conducted to analyze the main conflicts and issues of tension that are relevant to the project, to identify the main risks of doing harm and opportunities for strengthening social cohesion, and to propose possible ways in which the project could adapt to the risks and opportunities. At both internal and public launch events, the study was used as a basis for raising awareness of project partners and stakeholders on conflict sensitivity. The project’s country coordinators received in-depth training on conflict sensitivity and were then supported by conflict sensitivity experts to conduct participatory workshops in their respective contexts. These workshops brought together local partners and stakeholders to further contextualize the initial conflict sensitivity analysis and identify what specific measures were needed in each context to adapt to conflict-related risks and opportunities. The workshops helped to develop a common understanding of what are the risks of doing harm and how they can be navigated. They also helped to reinforce a sense of ownership of the project and a shared commitment to making sure that the various measures to avoid doing harm are implemented and followed-up on. During the workshops, participants identified six main risks of doing harm.
The first risk relates to the political sensitivity of migration and mobility. Both at the international political level and in the domestic political arena of some of the countries where the project is being implemented, migration policy can be a controversial topic and it is often instrumentalized by political actors. Attitudes towards people on the move vary significantly between the different countries where the project is being implemented. Care has to be taken not to contribute to the escalation of political conflicts related to migration. The project therefore clearly communicates that it is neither pro- nor anti-migration. It acknowledges that the reasons children and young people leave their homes are many and varied. These include fleeing violent conflict, escaping persecution within one’s family or community, seeking better opportunities for education and employment, or simply a desire to experience new things and new places.
The project recognizes that, whatever the motivation, mobility is a reality for millions of young people in the region. Like children and young people everywhere, they have needs and rights. Ensuring they have a life of dignity, also while on the move, need neither be an endorsement or a rejection of migration.
The second risk repeatedly evoked relates to tensions between local residents and people on the move. In some places, the arrival and presence of people from elsewhere is perceived as putting pressure on local infrastructure and resources. In order not to feed into tensions between local residents and those from outside the area, project interventions need to be carefully designed to ensure that young people on the move are accessing support to which residents are also entitled so that there is no perception of discrimination or favoring a particular group. The project team is also exploring opportunities to actively contribute to improving relations between local people and those from elsewhere.
A third area of concern is the relationship between children and young people who return home and the families and communities they return to. Those returning often face stigmatization. This may be because returning home is perceived as a failure, because of the original reasons that caused the person to leave, or because of what has happened to them during their time away. The project therefore needs to make sure that the various actors it works with are ensuring returns are carried out in the best interests of the child or young person concerned, and that there is sufficient follow-up and support to ensure that reintegration into the family and community can go as smoothly as possible.
A fourth risk is that conflicts arise between those implementing the project and the stakeholders and communities they are working with. Conflicts can quickly arise when a project fails to meet expectations. In the consultations, stakeholders emphasized the importance of expectation management through regular and transparent communication and consultation to ensure that objectives are set jointly, activities respond to actual needs and concerns, and misunderstandings are avoided.
Another source of potential conflict between the project and the societies it is working with relates to sensitivities around local norms and values. Particularly sensitive, in nearly all the contexts where the project operates, are questions of gender and sexual identity. Identity-based persecution and discrimination is one reason why young women and LGBTQI+ young people may choose to leave home. They also often face specific challenges and dangers en route that mean a tailored approach that is sensitive to their reality is required to provide them with appropriate support.
Yet, talking about and working on these issues requires a high sensitivity to local norms. The project therefore aims to support these specific groups of young people without directly challenging local norms and values related to gender and sexual identity. It will rely on two key assets to navigate these sensitivities: the leadership of local partners and stakeholders in defining the best approach, and a dedicated advisor on gender and social inclusion to support local partners in designing strategies that ensure these specific groups of young people are reached.
Finally, and not to be under-estimated, is the risk of contributing to conflicts between actors working on similar issues. The project is implemented by an extended consortium of several organizations. In each country it also works with a range of local actors and has to coordinate with other national and international actors. All these different actors have their own interests, cultures, structures and ways of doing things. This project is well-placed to not only mitigate and manage misunderstandings that may lead to conflicts, but also to make a positive contribution by improving coordination and communication. Its systemic approach conceives the project less as an actor in its own right, and more as a supporter, working to strengthen the existing system of support for children and young people on the move by supporting individual system actors and the linkages between them.
Effective conflict sensitivity requires a concerted, sustained effort
The positive experience of integrating conflict sensitivity into the project “Children and Youth on Migration Routes in West and Northwest Africa” shows such integration requires not only specific conflict sensitivity tools, training and thematic support, but also a significant commitment of time and resources, a clearly defined process that aligns with the overall project management cycle, and a strong commitment from a project’s leadership and staff. The project's experience therefore serves as an important example and inspiration to other projects on how to go about applying conflict sensitivity. For additional examples, read Helvetas’ recent publication “Doing No Harm & Doing More Good: Stories of Applying Conflict Sensitivity at Helvetas.”