ECC Platform Library


Building peace in fragile contexts: Lessons on conflict-sensitivity from South Sudan

27 July, 2016
Shreya Mitra

Earlier this month, armed clashes between competing factions of South Sudan’s government broke out in the capital Juba, a day after the nation’s fifth anniversary of its independence. The conflict dates back to political events and factional fighting that first emerged in 2013.

In July 2013, problems over power sharing and disagreements within the ruling Southern People’s Liberation Movement party led President Salva Kiir to sack his Vice-President Riek Machar and other members of the cabinet. Tensions further escalated in December, when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup.  What started as a primarily political dispute soon degenerated into a bloody civil war. Machar fled the capital and became the leader of a formal rebellion in December 2013.

President Kiir and Vice-President Machar have spent much of the last two and a half years leading opposing factions, largely along ethnic lines, in a civil war that has torn South Sudan apart. Machar returned to Juba earlier this year in April to join the government under a peace agreement. The violence that erupted this month however, reveals the extreme fragility of the peace accord.

Responding to the ongoing conflict dynamics in the country, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs contracted International Alert to provide technical support to its embassy staff, as well as their implementing partners, on ways to integrate conflict-sensitivity into their programming – particularly around climate sensitive interventions such as water and sanitation projects and agribusiness development.[1] These interventions are of particular importance given the increasingly warmer and drier weather South Sudan is experiencing. Without effective governance, rapid population growth and the expansion of farming and pastoralism under a more variable climate regime, may exacerbate existing tensions and increase the number of at-risk people in South Sudan over the next 20 years. Climate change will likely aggravate South Sudan’s fragile situation and may exacerbate existing tensions and conflict.

The recent violence in South Sudan underscores the importance to continually apply conflict-sensitivity at all stages of a conflict.  Here are some of the key insights gained and lessons learned from our work that can help partners implementing projects in fragile contexts.

Is conflict-sensitivity any different from risk management?

Project staff from a United Nations organisation building roads in South Sudan posed this question to us. A few senior project managers, with decades of project management experience under their belts, felt irked that donors were now using the ‘conflict-sensitivity buzzword’ to replace what they thought was good risk management approaches.

Risk management is a key part of conflict-sensitivity, particularly as risk management is the attempt to manage or mitigate known risks – of which conflict would be an important element. But there is an important distinction between the two approaches.

Risk management generally takes the project as the starting point and identifies the various risks to the project – be they financial, security or environmental. By contrast, conflict-sensitivity takes the context and conflict drivers as a starting point to identify the potential risks the project itself might pose to the context – particularly looking at issues of power dynamics, values and incentives, inclusion and social cohesion.

Conflict-sensitivity also considers how the project is affecting the broader context, which may be overlooked when focusing primarily on mitigating specific project-related risks. Moreover, if projects are only concerned with risk mitigation, the opportunities to enhance the positive impacts such as building peace and adaptive capacity to cope with climate risk will be missed.

Is conflict-sensitivity a tool or an approach?

This is a catch-22 question. Conflict-sensitivity as an approach runs the risk of seeming too vague, prompting questions such as: ‘What does it concretely mean?’ ‘What should we actually do?’ ‘How can we really measure the impact of our conflict-sensitive approach?’ Seen only as a tool, it can however, be reduced to a checklist exercise. It is important to strike a balance between advocating for conflict-sensitivity as a way of understanding how one’s project interacts with the context, and training partners on how to use specific tools to ensure projects are not doing any harm

Who benefits the most from conflict-sensitivity training in a project?

For conflict-sensitivity to be truly prioritised in a project, one needs the buy-in of senior management and leadership. Without them championing the issue, the practice would not necessarily be taken on board. However, conflict-sensitivity is most needed at the field level, where projects interface with the local context. Capacity-building and training activities need to go beyond the HQ staff and really target project implementers, such as, contractors, service providers and community liaison officers.

We adopted this approach with an agribusiness project, whose aim was market development for improved seed varieties in the Greater Equatoria region. In an information session with farmers and a partner seed company, we identified various conflict issues and outlined contingency plans. Issues discussed ranged from adapting to climate and rainfall variability, cross-pollination of seeds, timely delivery of quality seeds, competing with subsidised seeds from Uganda and the backlash from humanitarian organisations distributing free seeds. Effective project communication techniques and grievance reporting mechanisms for farmers to counter some of these challenges were discussed as part of a conflict-sensitive approach.

How can we measure the success of a conflict-sensitivity approach?

Practitioners and especially donors are keen to know how adopting a conflict-sensitive approach can be justified or, better yet, even measured. In other words, how would we know that the integration of such an approach is achieving the desired outcomes of doing no harm, avoiding conflict and indeed even helping build peace?

In many ways, this is challenging because it requires hypothesising a counter-factual, i.e. had we not applied a conflict-sensitive approach, it could or would have led to conflict. This is hard to prove. We cannot confidently and easily evidence that because we did x, conflict y did not happen. What we have been able to demonstrate, unfailingly, is the absence of a conflict-sensitive approach leading to conflicts.

But conflict-sensitivity is not only about conflict avoidance. It is as much about achieving positive project outcomes that may or may not have been intended. Yet, this still doesn’t fully answer the question about measurements of success.

At the very minimum, what should be measured and can easily be measured is the extent to which conflict-sensitivity has been genuinely integrated and applied within the project. This would include things like: functioning grievance mechanisms within projects; decision-logs that track project adjustments based on adaptations to the changing context; and flexible, adaptive programming that can demonstrate better project delivery. Monitoring and evaluating these processes would then help to identify the (positive) outcomes that they generate.

What role can donors play to support conflict-sensitivity?

The flexibility of donors is an important element for the success of conflict-sensitivity – especially in the face of climatic changes and the risk of conflict re-igniting. The problem is that this competes with the results agenda donors have to deal with. The Dutch embassy in South Sudan provided their partners with this measure of flexibility to the extent that it was possible. The Embassy also enabled us to work with them and their partners over an extended period of time, rather than just providing one-off trainings. Accompaniment and individual guidance was certainly the more effective way to assist partners on conflict-sensitivity, as we were able to engage them more substantively and support the process of change more effectively.


[1] From 2014–2016, we worked on nine different development, humanitarian and peacebuilding projects covering a breadth of issues, including natural resource management, water and sanitation, road infrastructure, agribusiness, security and rule of law, and wildlife conservation.

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International Alert

Tags adaptation climate change conflict peacebuilding South Sudan


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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