Design, Monitoring and Evaluation for Peacebuilding

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Conflict sensitivity for peacebuilders


What is conflict sensitivity?

“Conflict sensitivity” is the notion of systematically taking into account both the positive and negative impact of interventions, in terms of conflict or peace dynamics, on the contexts in which they are undertaken, and, conversely, the impact of these contexts on the interventions1

“Any project set in a conflict-prone region will inevitably have an impact on the peace and conflict environment—positive or negative, direct or indirect, intentional or unintentional"2

Any aid program, including peacebuilding programs, can have negative impacts on the environment in works in.  Negative examples include inadvertently putting participants in the project or data collection at risk, or weakening traditional conflict mitigation mechanisms by introducing new ones.  And of course, positive impacts are what we seek, such as strengthening local capacities for peace, or building bridges or understanding between groups. 

Conflict sensitivity and “Do No Harm” (DNH) are very similar concepts. DNH was originally designed to (1) avoid negative impacts of the interaction between aid programs and the context in which aid happening and to (2) increase the positive impacts of the aid program on the local context of conflict, by promoting connectors and reducing the dividers identified in the target zones. Over time, many aid workers or funders tended to only focus on this first part of the DNH principles: the one linked to avoiding negative impacts. This can probably be explained by the lack of specific training of humanitarian actors on the real intended definition of DNH, and by a common misunderstanding in the interpretation of the name "do no harm". The every day use of the "Do No Harm" principles by the international community tended to interpretate the DNH as "simply avoiding to harm". One decade after the DNH, the "conflict sensitivity" concept appeared in the humanitarian community, shedding a new light on the original concept, with two main components:

  • avoiding “doing harm”
  • using the aid program to “do good” and maximize positive impacts on conflicts


Being a “peace-builder” does not (necessarily) mean being conflict sensitive

Increasing social cohesion is our organization’s mandate, so as peace-builders we’re already conflict sensitive”: This commonly shared assumption is only partially correct. Indeed, conflict sensitive programming and peacebuilding overlap: an essential part of conflict sensitivity lies in conflict analysis, which serves a basis for peace-building activities. However, while addressing the key drivers of conflict is at the heart of peacebuilding, conflict sensitive programming is a transversal approach that is relevant to all programing in a conflict context – including development, governance, humanitarian… and peacebuilding!

“Just because an activity is labeled as peacebuilding does not automatically mean that it has a positive impact on conflict. (…) Activities that promote dialogue, peace education, or reconciliation can also have negative impacts on conflict dynamics.”

Being conflict sensitive requires additional efforts for program implementers, and even though peace-builders may be better aware of the links between their activities and the conflict context, it does not make them automatically conflict-sensitive.

A three steps process

The Conflict Sensitivity Consortium defines conflict sensitivity3 as the capacity of an organization to:

  • Step 1: Understand the (conflict) context in which it operates;
  • Step 2: Understand the interaction between its operations and the (conflict) context; and
  • Step 3: Act upon the understanding of this interaction in order to avoid negative impacts and maximize positive impacts on the (conflict) context.

Step 1 - Conflict analysis: Conflict sensitivity cannot be undertaken without a strong, regularly updated conflict analysis; this is the base rock on which an organization should reflect on the links between its activities and the conflict itself.  It requires going beyond analyzing just the conflicts that are directly linked to your project. The deeper and more detailed your analysis, the more connections you’ll be able to make between your program and the context.

Step 2 – Making connections between the program and the conflict:  Once the conflict analysis is ready, it is now time to reflect on the project4 by asking: Why are we implementing this project? Where are we implementing it? When are we implementing it? With whom do we work: who are our partners, beneficiaries, and how do we select them? By whom: who are our staff members? How were they hired, based on which criteria? How do we work? For each answer to this question, peacebuilders should ask themselves:

  • Is this programmatic choice having a negative impact on the conflict context (exacerbating tensions)?
  • Is this choice having a negative impact on local factors for peace or actors that unite?
  • Is there a possibility for my program to have a positive impact on the conflict context?

Step 3 - Adaptation: Based on your understanding of how the project interacts with the context, it’s the moment to ensure that its effects are maximized: at this stage, it’s time to ensure that all programmatic options are sensitive to the conflict context and that the project makes the best out of it.



On Conflict sensitivity:

On Conflict analysis:

On Monitoring, Evaluation and Conflict sensitivity

  • Monitoring and evaluating conflict sensitivity, Goldwyn and Chigas, March 2013


About the author:

Charline Burton is SFCG’s DME Specialist in Africa. Previously, she has been managing conflict sensitivity programs since 2011 for SFCG in the DRC. Views expressed herein do not represent SFCG, the Learning Portal or its partners or affiliates.

  • 1. “Resource Pack: Conflict-sensitive approaches to development, humanitarian assistance and peace building: tools for peace and conflict impact assessment”
  • 2. Bush, K (1998) in « Conflict Sensitivity Consortium How to Guide to Conflict Sensitivity », February 2012
  • 3. Conflict Sensitivity Consortium, “How to Guide to Conflict Sensitivity,” February 2012, p. 2.
  • 4. Question list from the Do No Harm framework

I am sorry, but this sentence is just factually wrong.

"while DNH only focuses on avoiding negative impacts of the aid program on the context, conflict sensitivity seeks to find ways to use the aid program as a vector for an increased social cohesion and for conflict resolution."

Do No Harm has always focused on promoting connectors and reducing dividers. It is right there in the title of Mary B. Anderson's 1999 book, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace -- Or War. On page 67, she writes: "By using what has been learned through past experience, aid workers can ensure that future aid does not exacerbate or prolong conflict and that it does strengthen connectors and support local capacities for peace." (emphasis added)

Dividers and Connectors are the basic context analysis tool within the Do No Harm Framework. The rest of the Framework deals with examining how a program has both negative and positive effects on Dividers and Connectors and then adapting the program to have better impacts. Those better impacts can come from either mitigating Dividers or supporting Connectors. This has been in every variation of the Framework since 1996.

The Local Capacities for Peace Project was begun in 1993 to examine the interactions of assistance and conflict. It was born out of a recognition by practitioners that aid was both causing and mitigating harm, but that the mechanisms were uncertain. We wanted to understand HOW assistance interacted with conflict so that we could engage more thoughtfully and mindfully. Along the way, Mary was convinced to use "Do No Harm" in the titles of a booklet in 1996 and the 1999 book that is still one of the clearest statements of why we in these fields need to think seriously about conflict and context.

In 2001, Mary asked me to take over as the Director of the Project. At the same time, many colleagues were lobbying us to rename the project as the Do No Harm Project specifically to take the word "peace" out of the name. They were finding that they came under pressure from governments, other authorities, and sometimes their own organizations if they were involved with a project explicitly about peace. We agreed to change the name in order to support our colleagues in their work.

The term "conflict sensitivity" was coined in the early 2000s. I believe I first heard it in 2003, a decade after the beginning of the Local Capacities for Peace Project and the first publication of Ken Bush's PCIA. There was something of a growth industry around context analyses in those days, as so many organizations were grappling with working in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some people felt there needed to be a term to separate some specifically humanitarian/development types of analysis from the general pool. Do No Harm and PCIA were pulled along into the new walled garden of conflict sensitivity with their children.

The Do No Harm principle, first put down by a Hippocratic writer 2400 years ago, has a long history as a basis and guide for ethical behavior. Do No Harm is the principle that the wellbeing of the beneficiary or recipient of our action is the primary concern. This is not a focus on the potential negative impacts of an intervention. It is a holistic perspective that pays attention to both harm and benefit. The warning of the words "do no harm" reminds us to think before rushing to do good, not to stop us from considering the good altogether. Indeed, harm in this formula has no meaning without benefit. The physician, the peacebuilder, the humanitarian or development worker is always in a situation where benefit is understood as their purpose. That is why Do No Harm is our principle. Do No Harm does not apply to many other professions, which in turn have their own underlying principles.

As an aside, the persistence of literal readings of the English words "do no harm" is curious. The original Greek document (Epidemics) has been translated into dozens of languages. A literal reading of the phrase in just one of those languages cannot be allowed to obscure the underlying principle. Nor can a literal parsing overwhelm the history of how those words (usually in their Latin semi-translation, primum non nocere) have been understood and practiced. Perhaps people are simply unaware of the origins of the phrase? 

Finally, I must also take objection to this phrase: "conflict sensitivity’s scope is much larger than just 'not doing harm'." 

Once again, the principle is twisted by literal reading, but more than that, this statement misses entirely the power of a principle. Principles call us to our highest performance. There is no larger scope than applying our principles thoughtfully, intentionally, and powerfully.

(The Do No Harm Program can be found at

Dear Marshall,

Thank you for clarifying the issue of conflict sensitivity and Do No Harm. Conceptual clarity is key if we are going to be able to work "hands-on" in an effective way preventing violence and transforming conflicts.

Much appreciated!


Dear Mashall,


Thanks for your very valuable inputs on this blog, and specifically for the historical perspective of the « do no harm » / « primum non nocere » concept.

Your comments are very valuable as they highlight the gap in knowledge between the true and intended definition of “Do No Harm” and how it is generally applied in the field.  As you noted, the reference materials  explain that the principles of Do No Harm aim for actions to go beyond simply trying to not do harm, but in addition ensuring that the aid programs have  a positive influence on the conflict divider’s and the connectors. I also recon that the 3-step methodology described by the conflict sensitivity consortium is very similar to the methodology elaborated by the Do No Harm project.

The gap lies on how Do No Harm principles have been interpreted and the every day use by the international community – which is why I think this dialogue is so beneficial.  In my 7 years of experience working in the humanitarian /development sector in Eastern DRC, I have witness that the international community commonly understands the “Do No Harm” principles as “simply not doing harm.”  They are not at all consistent in applying the concept of “trying to ensure that projects do good as well”.  I believe that this is probably a consequence of the phrasing of the expression, as you explained so well.  Furthermore, donors also misunderstand the concept and further pass “their” definition of the concept to aid workers and NGOs. Let’s take the example of a recent UNDP call for proposals from the DRC, from which I extracted the paragraph on “do no harm” (the call was originally written in French). Here the UNDP also uses and highlights a limited definition of the principles:

Integration of the “Do No Harm” principles (max 2-3 paragraphs)

Here, it is important to provide details as to how the project is integrating the “do no harm” principles. The application of the “do no harm” principles is to ensure that assistance to communities or beneficiaries do not put them in danger or does not create divisions within the community.”



Once again, thank you for your valuable comments and clarifying that the intent of the  “do no harm” principles were always to go beyond the “avoiding negative impacts of aid”, just as you so well explained it in your comment.  I will edit my blog accordingly to ensure that it is more precise.  I welcome further thoughts on this dialogue from all readers on how they have interpreted or apply the do no harm principles vs. the conflict sensitivity framework. 

Thank you for this insightful post! In my graduate program, we discuss different peace initiatives that often times come across fairly realistic and reasonable, while at the same time difficult and brittle. As I continue to spend more time examining the different peace processes and the behaviours of NGOs operating in conflict-prone regions, I am recognizing the ways in which humanitarian interventions encompass many dangers and limitations that must be considered. Conflict sensitivity and “Do No Harm” (DNH) are concepts that I have come to appreciate as they encourage us to learn about the context of the conflict while placing responsibility on applying our learning so as to maximize the positive impact on the conflict. Although well intended, these principles are not as simplistic in practice and have proven to be highly complex in past situations where peace processes have had negative implications on the conflict. There are numerous factors to consider when approaching a foreign setting; different social groups carry differing perceptions on conflict and certain programs that may be implemented in one region may not apply to a social group found in another.

What I find myself struggling with when it comes to DNH is the idea of ‘moral obligation’ vs. not doing anything; if peace practitioners intervene and consciously know that their implication can bring about negative impacts or further the conflict, is it the best option to intervene? Is the goal to maximize positive impact or to find a balance between negative and positive outcomes? The question of intervening while knowing there is potential for more harm to be done vs. standing by and not doing anything at all appear as two extremes to me; these are not the only options we have when intervening comes into question. Of course, a deep understanding of the context is necessary in any given conflict but if one were to follow the “do no harm” principle, wouldn’t they do so with full devotion to that principle? If they know that they cannot fulfill that principle and that their programs might cause negative implications, do they have a role to play in that particular conflict? Just some thoughts and considerations that come to mind.