International institutions working to improve the lives of people living in conflict-affected and fragile contexts are under-performing. In too many countries, the threat or experience of violent conflict stands in the way of progress, yet international institutions have often struggled to fully deal with this. Indeed, sometimes their well-meaning interventions have the perverse effect of reinforcing a status quo in which governments can persist in power without heeding the needs and wishes of those they rule. To support the development of peaceful and prosperous societies, international institutions need to change. First of all, their programmes need to be conflict sensitive, i.e. to be based on a thorough understanding of conflicts and power dynamics within the context, and tailored to avoid fuelling violence. But they can and should go further, building peace by strengthening the institutions and systems in society which can resolve conflicts non-violently. This means a major change of approach compared to the way most aid has been implemented in the past, so international organisations need to substantially adapt the way they are set up and the way they work.
Alert has been advocating for and supporting this shift in the international development and peacebuilding sectors for many years, using a combination of research, dialogue, training and quiet advocacy. We have contributed to some important changes, including:
- A widespread acceptance of conflict sensitivity in the policies of international development and humanitarian organisations such as CARE International, and in the work of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding.
- A growing acceptance of the need for climate change adaptation policies to be conflict sensitive, as illustrated for example in the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) 2009 White Paper.
- The use of specific tools and models appropriate to conflict-affected environments by key international institutions, e.g. the adoption of a “conflict filter” by the World Bank in Sri Lanka and a framework for economic development in conflict-affected environments.
- A deeper understanding of how to implement programmes in conflict sensitive ways amongst the personnel of international institutions including the United Nations, DFID and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- A realisation among senior policy makers that international institutions need to make substantial changes, as exemplified by the World Bank’s ground-breaking and influential 2011 World Development Report, which reflects and builds on ideas which Alert and others have been proposing for some years.
This work cuts right across Alert’s programmes and thus builds on our powerful combination of local and national presence in over 20 conflict-affected countries and our strong links to international organisations and donors. We gather and analyse data on overseas aid effectiveness and institutional practices in collaboration with colleagues in local and international organisations, in countries such as Burundi, Liberia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Uganda. Then we use the findings to conduct training and public and private advocacy with international institutions in the countries where they work, and at their headquarters in London, Brussels, Paris, Geneva, Addis Ababa, Washington and New York among others.
Our work on aid effectiveness combines empirical research, analytical rigour and an advocacy approach in which we work with staff of international institutions and those who hold them accountable to help develop a common understanding of the need to change and of how to implement the necessary changes. This includes:
- Field research to identify gaps and opportunities, challenges and good practices via our network of overseas offices
- Dialogue with staff of development and peacebuilding institutions, and with others involved in the development and peacebuilding sectors including government officials and civil society.
- Membership of the Advisory Group to the UN Peacebuilding Fund, which is chaired by Alert’s Secretary General Dan Smith
- Training workshops to share ideas and lessons learnt, develop critiques and make suggestions for improvement
- Publishing and disseminating reports which frame the problem and outline recommendations and practical solutions, for example The World Bank in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries: How, Not How Much, Working with the grain to change the grain: moving beyond the Millennium Development Goals, and the Peacebuilding Essentials for Economic Development Practitioners series
- Public outreach to inform and involve a wider community in the UK.
A multitude of organisations exist to help improve the lives of people in poor and conflict-affected countries around the world. They do so under various banners such as Aid, Development and Peacebuilding, and they include United Nations agencies, the European Union, the World Bank, the African Union, bi-lateral donors and international NGOs.
They have chalked up a number of successes and a steadily increasing volume of aid over the past few years, and many have become increasingly sophisticated in their analysis of poverty and conflict. But there is a lingering feeling that, taken as a whole, the international development and peacebuilding sector is under-performing. This is especially the case in conflict-affected countries and regions, where it is hardest to achieve the institutional changes in society which are such an essential part of the development process. The pernicious effects of climate change in many fragile contexts will make this even harder.
The reasons for under-performance are rooted not just in the complexity of conflict-affected and fragile contexts or in the lack of recognition and understanding amongst institutions of how to work effectively there, but also in the institutional inertia which affects all big organisations, which has often prevented them from being able to adapt their approaches. Recent work by the UK government and others on Statebuilding and Peacebuilding has provided a logical and potentially useful framework within which international organisations can support the emergence of institutions in fragile societies capable of improving governance and building peace. But this will require a substantial change in the way donors and others work, and one which they are finding it hard to make. International institutions need to take a hard look at the way they are organised and make substantial changes if they are to become more effective. These include re-examining the way they frame their mission and mandate, the goals for which they are held accountable and their internal systems and practices. Only then will they be able to contribute to the development of peaceful and prosperous societies in the way they wish.