Science, Finance and Innovation

Promoting peace and development: pros and cons of conflict sensitivity

4 min


Neil Ferguson and Rebecca Wolfe

With a growing share of development assistance targeted at fragile countries, it is important that investments not only promote development but also build peace. However, the risk that such interventions could inflame further tensions calls for ‘conflict sensitivity’. Perhaps due to ease of implementation, expedience, or the relative novelty of the concept – and of conducting interventions in these environments – conflict sensitivity often provides the same inputs to different communities, without considering unique needs. This may inhibit achievement of development goals, at least for some groups, exacerbating tensions and undermining peace-building objectives. More nuanced approaches are needed, with a refined understanding of when and how to use development programs for peace.

Today, numerous donors and development agencies – including the US Agency for International Development and the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – concentrate on providing assistance in fragile countries. The World Bank has also increased its aid to these environments, with some regional banks, such as the Asian Development Bank, following suit.

Behind these investments is the belief that conflict and weak governance hold back economic development. To reach poverty alleviation goals, it is therefore necessary to also address conflict. Additionally, increased development in these scenarios is expected to contribute to greater stability, which in turn will spur further growth and development.

While there is mixed support for this virtuous cycle, donors and implementers often jointly target both objectives through development interventions. Yet running development programs in places mired in, or at risk of, violence and hoping they mitigate conflict poses new problems. For example, inequality of access or the poor distribution of assets could inflame tensions.

To reduce these risks and to address the causes of conflict, many interventions are designed to reflect ‘conflict sensitivity’. This largely means that interventions should be specific to the conflict dynamics of the context and should understand how the intervention may affect those dynamics, positively or negatively. A classic example is a program that not only reaches those most affected (for example, those who were injured), but also those who experience some change in circumstances as a result of violence.

Why conflict sensitivity may compromise development objectives

While there are notable exceptions, conflict sensitivity in practice mostly defaults to providing the same inputs – whether cash, training, agricultural materials, etc. – to each group. This ensures that all groups are included, but because of the relative positions of different groups within their contexts, needs are often different.

For example, in numerous societies, one ethnic group is more likely to be traders while other groups are producers. This risks an intervention that performs better for groups whose needs are more aligned with its design; and as a result, one that fully realizes neither development nor peace-building objectives.

Such risks could arise in any situation where groups’ needs differ. This calls for a rethink on what it means to implement programs in a conflict-sensitive manner. Specifically, conflict sensitivity should avoid joint provision to all relevant identified groups, unless their needs are demonstrably the same. Rather, efforts must be made to address the heterogeneous needs of groups.

Experiences in Jordan and Lebanon

While these worries might appear theoretical, concerns arise in the real world. For example, a recent impact evaluation in Jordan and Lebanon focused on a program where the conflict sensitivity strategy involved providing vocational training to hosts and refugees jointly. In both countries, refugees may only work in certain sectors – such as agriculture or construction – which have been historically considered ‘undesirable’ in host communities.

Refugees in the program became more optimistic and more generous to members of the host community; they could also deal with short-term economic stress more effectively. But in the host community, improvements were absent: indeed, acceptance into the program lowered their optimism, which could fuel future tensions. By attempting to be conflict-sensitive without being sensitive to the needs of both host and refugee communities, the program limited its development impact and might have exacerbated tensions.

Such outcomes are unlikely to be limited to this one setting. They will be present anywhere that conflict sensitivity defaults to joint provision for groups facing different obstacles to development.

How to be conflict sensitive

This is not to say that conflict sensitivity is not important or should not be done: rather, that it should be done with more nuance. When conflict sensitivity de facto means doing the same things in diverse communities with diverse needs, and conducting these activities jointly, donors and implementers risk achieving less, not more.

Thus, there is a need to be more discerning about the needs of different communities. In particular, conflict sensitivity should mean a better recognition of when inter-community needs are similar enough to justify joint approaches and a better recognition of when it might limit outcomes. In doing so, conflict sensitivity stands to reduce the risks associated with violence and to promote stronger development outcomes.


Neil Ferguson
Program Director for Peacebuilding Research, ISDC
Rebecca Wolfe
Senior Lecturer, University of Chicago