The Imperative of Conflict Sensitivity in Humanitarian Operations

Volunteers help unload food packages at an Oxfam food distribution site in Herat, 2020. Photo: Kiana Hayeri
Paper author: 
Sharon Beijer and Agne Baltaduonyte
Paper publication date: 
Monday, March 8, 2021

Afghanistan is a complex and fragile environment with natural and man-made disasters exacerbated by protracted conflicts at local and national levels. It is ranked as the least peaceful country in the world2, while also facing serious humanitarian concerns – growing food insecurity, recurring droughts, and pro-tracted displacement.

In response, humanitarian organisations are providing much needed relief and support to affected communities. Oftentimes these communities also suffer from conflict, are hard-to-reach and/or under control of armed opposition groups (AOGs). To be able to operate in volatile contexts, organisations take safe programming and risk management measures to protect staff and benefi-ciaries.

However, a crucial component of humanitarian work in Afghanistan also in-cludes the recognition that humanitarian programming itself can exacer-bate existing conflict or cause new tensions to arise. This risk is espe-cially high in humanitarian programming, as resources are introduced to resource-scarce environments. This can affect power dynamics, perceptions of justice, challenge established societal roles and relations, etc. The recogni-tion that a humanitarian response can cause or exacerbate conflict constitutes conflict sensitivity. Conflict sensitivity refers to the ability of an organisation to:

1. Understand the context it operates in;

2. Understand the interaction between its intervention and that context and;

3. Act upon this understanding in order to minimise negative and maximise positive impacts on conflict.

When humanitarian actors fail to analyse the interaction between conflict dynamics and their interventions, the risk arises that humanitarian inter-ventions do more harm than good, and have the potential to put the commu-nities as well as partners we work with at risk.

To understand how conflict sensitive current humanitarian interventions in Af-ghanistan are, and to support reflection and awareness of this topic, Oxfam in Afghanistan carried out a set of qualitative key informant interviews amongst its own staff as well as staff from a variety of national NGOs, INGO’s, donors and coordination actors active in the humanitarian sector in Afghanistan. It also included a review of tools and documents used in humanitarian planning and design. 

This briefing note describes the findings of this research, presents best prac-tices and key concerns and offers recommendations to improve conflict sensi-tivity at all levels of the humanitarian response in Afghanistan.