Conflict sensitivity in humanitarian programming

Ronan Macnamara

Posted: 30 September, 2016

Ronan Macnamara is an Irish Research Council scholar in the Centre for War Studies at University College Dublin. His project considers the evolution and impact of cash and voucher assistance in conflict and conflict resolution contexts. His blog post below is part of our theme for the month of September, ‘Research for a Better World’.

Having spent the last decade working in humanitarianism and development in conflict and post conflict environments around the world, I recently returned to Ireland to pursue a PhD in the Centre for War Studies in my alma mater, University College Dublin. This year, I was selected for a postgraduate scholarship by the Irish Research Council, for which I am equally humbled and grateful. This wonderful opportunity will allow me to focus on my research, full time, for the next three years. My research, taking the ongoing conflict in Syria as a case study, is born out of my personal experience in humanitarian interventions.

As part of the wider debate on the effects of humanitarian assistance in conflicts, my research examines the historical evolution, and the impact of humanitarian cash and voucher (C&V) programmes on ongoing conflicts and conflict resolution efforts. As opposed to traditional forms of humanitarian assistance (bags of cereals; medicines; clothing etc.) C&Vs are increasingly becoming the humanitarian assistance modality of choice. In 2015 the UN’s World Food Programme (the largest humanitarian agency in the world), for example, assisted one third of its global caseload with C&V. WFP alone has over 80 million WFP beneficiaries in 79 countries, demonstrating the truly massive scale and cost of these operations.

C&Vs inject large sums of hard currency into crisis-affected economies, providing an unlikely economic windfall for the often-struggling local communities, while simultaneously addressing the humanitarian needs of vulnerable people. C&Vs also allow beneficiaries to tailor assistance to their individual needs. For example, a family who require medicine one month, instead of a tent or food, can simply go out and purchase what they need themselves. This also increases the dignity of beneficiaries who are offered a modicum of control over the assistance they receive. C&Vs also eliminate massive logistics operations which often absorb the bulk of the costs of any humanitarian operation. It is easy to see why humanitarians, donors and especially beneficiaries and host communities favour this “wonder” modality.

However, C&Vs can also have a negative, and under-researched, impact on conflicts: Belligerents, who often operate with impunity in and around conflicts, can prey on vulnerable beneficiaries for the cash assistance they regularly receive from the humanitarian community. In this way, C&Vs can subject beneficiaries to “shakedowns” by armed groups, while the proceeds of the resulting extortion is being used by belligerents to fund their war efforts. The cost of this fraud can be measured in lives lost, not just by beneficiaries who lose out on much needed assistance, but also by the victims of weapons bought with humanitarian cash.

The concept of “Conflict Sensitivity” in humanitarian programming is receiving unprecedented attention due to recent events in Syria, South Sudan and elsewhere where humanitarians, who have long viewed themselves as somehow separated, if not quite immune, from the political fray have become embroiled in very conflicts that they seek to mitigate.

By conducting C&V programmes in conflicts, humanitarians are inadvertently opposing conflict resolution efforts, and even breaching the sacred “Do No Harm” principle. This issue is of particular interest to Ireland, which is actively funding organisations conducting C&V programme for Syrian refugees at the same time that Irish peacekeepers are operating in the Golan Heights. It is likely that at least some of the munitions employed around Irish troops in the Golan Heights have actually been paid for by Irish taxpayers.

I hope that my research will make a contribution to both the history of humanitarianism, and to the ongoing debate on how humanitarians can best assist those made vulnerable by conflict. Eventually, I hope to use the expertise I gain in my research to re-enter the humanitarian industry to help ensure that C&V programmes are implemented with greater conflict sensitivity.

Photo credit: WFP/Simona Caleo

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.

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