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As global complex crises abound, how can the US ensure its responses are sensitive to conflict?

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The number and severity of crises over the last decade was stretching the aid sector well before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Violent conflict is the primary driver of humanitarian needs, with the World Bank estimating that by 2030, two thirds of the world’s extreme poor will live in areas affected by conflict. Donor governments are having to become more nimble, knowledgeable and strategic in their efforts to respond to conflict, while addressing humanitarian conditions and promoting long-term development

To help their staff rise to the challenge, a number of European donors – including The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, and the European Investment Bank – have established conflict-focused global ‘helpdesks’ and country support ‘facilities’. The helpdesks produce tailored conflict analysis and guidance across many countries and themes, while conflict-sensitivity facilities are focused on individual countries, serving as a resource for an entire national aid sector. Both models are comprised of NGO consortiums with deep experience in the sector and context.

As a major donor, is it time US agencies invested in a similar kind of support?

Tried and tested models

Conflict and humanitarian helpdesks are designed to close the gap between conflict experts and the INGOs, donors, and financial institutions who need reliable and timely analysis and guidance. They provide this on demand, using a global network of experts, but always matched to the immediate needs of donor decision makers. Individually commissioned written guidance and training on conflict sensitivity risks being forgotten soon after completion, but helpdesks can help retain this knowledge through continuous dialogue with the institutions they support. They also learn and evolve over time, developing a better understanding of the institutions they work with—their systems, outlook, and ways of working.

There is not one helpdesk mold and they can be designed to meet whatever mix of analysis, advisory, and accompaniment support an institution needs. For example, the Sida Helpdesk has a focus on human security and humanitarian assistance, the EIB helpdesk focuses on conflict integration. Yet all helpdesks rely on earning the trust of their counterparts through their integrity and the quality of analysis they produce, before being invited to look at more sensitive donor programs and strategies.

Helpdesks tend to have a global remit, while facilities focus on specific contexts and conflicts, such as those in South Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and recently Sudan and Afghanistan, and provide more comprehensive and sustained forms of support to an aid sector in a single country or region. In such contexts, aid can be siloed, with humanitarian, development, and peace support not necessarily working together. Having a context-specific hub allows the facilities to build a close network and community of practice across organizations in these different sectors, connecting them to share information and reflect, both among and within donors, aid agencies, and implementing partners.

Why the US and why now?

The US Government has signalled a major new commitment to conflict prevention by passing the Global Fragility Act, in which the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will play a critical role. Major reforms at USAID, including the long sought merger of the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and Food for Peace into the new Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, set the stage for more coherent policy and action. These are welcome commitments to more strategically address conflict and fragility and require a wider more systemic integration of conflict analysis at all levels. There is already a strong basis for this. USAID is well acquainted with conflict sensitivity and integration, and has been since the formation of the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation in 2002 (now the Center for Conflict and Violence Prevention). USAID helped pioneer innovative tools and approaches like the Integrated Conflict Assessment Framework to guide conflict analysis and inform interagency contingency or crisis response planning.

More recently, large USAID contract mechanisms for conflict mitigation have helped missions and implementers to undertake conflict analyses and demonstrate how they integrate conflict sensitivity into strategies and programs. They also facilitated training programs on conflict for USAID staff in Washington DC and in overseas missions. However, these models tend to be linked to conflict-specific programs, or confined to particular agencies. This means they are only available to the staff and programs who have access to conflict sensitivity support, and makes it difficult to pool learning across – and among – offices, bureaus, agencies or departments or to stimulate demand from across a full range of programming and policy areas.

What’s missing then is coverage, consistency, and coordination. All of these are vital if conflict sensitivity is to move beyond the confines of conflict programming and conflict specific staff and become a widespread systemic practice in the humanitarian and development sectors, as USAID clearly recognizes in its recent policy guidance. Progress towards this systemic practice will also produce new insights and creative innovations.

Value added at critical time

Helpdesks can help cover entire institutions working in complex contexts and benefit from doing so, gaining a bird’s eye view of how conflict sensitivity is and is not being integrated in different departments, while sharing useful insights and experiences that connect dots throughout. They are also able to offer a flexible range of support quickly, from the program to global strategic level and at any point during institutional processes, adapting to the specific and evolving needs of the institution’s staff.

Facilities go even further for their particular contexts. They can conduct institutional conflict sensitivity assessments that highlight gaps, siloes, and opportunities across aid agencies. They can broker sensitive conversations among staff, including across different agencies and partners to learn and adapt. They can also bring together different aid actors from donors to community-led organizations, linking the national aid sector to different insights and perspectives.

With the right support, both helpdesks and facilities can also explore how to bring conflict sensitivity into debates on policy areas such as resilience, the humanitarian-development-peace nexus, and localisation, all of which have considerable local and global implications for the aid sector. Beyond this, they act as ‘institutional interpreters’, helping hard-pressed teams figure out what these policies mean for programs and for conflict sensitivity in the most volatile or complicated contexts.

Next steps

Ultimately, these models work best as a bridge – between local sources of grounded, contextual knowledge and analysis about conflict on one side, and the jargon, debates, and ways of working of INGOs and donors on the other. As such, experts and research institutes from places affected by conflict are integral to both helpdesks and conflict sensitivity facilities and should be supported to be involved and manage implementation. Organizations like ours, but also donors looking for support, must do better to direct more opportunities and resources for them within this space.

What form a USAID conflict sensitivity helpdesk would take or how USAID might innovate to design new forms of support within priority countries or regions is ripe for exploring. And the ability to provide institution-wide support, not only at an initial analysis stage but in continuous dialogue, could be a major advantage in integrating conflict across a much wider range of USAID work. A system-wide support facility could also help to bridge the gap between centralised analysis and planning, and the practical implementation of conflict integration in partnerships and programs. There are many options. What is clear is that, having come so far to build its own understanding of conflict sensitivity, it’s time USAID takes the next step.