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Adaptive Approaches and Conflict Sensitivity in fragile, conflict and violence-affected (FCVAS) settings – a comparison of approaches

The need to be flexible and adaptive in FCVAS has received attention for nearly two decades under the concept of conflict sensitivity, a concept which, at its core, denotes practice and thinking to ensure that any kind of aid programming in FCVAS flexes to the difficult context it works in.


The need for flexible, adaptive approaches in development assistance is increasingly accepted, and over recent years, a number of related tools, approaches and ways-of-working have been developed: Thinking and Working Politically, Adaptive Management, Problem-Driven Iterative Approaches. But does the term ‘adaptive programming’ risks being used to designate all kinds of things, with the ‘language spreading faster than its practice’? And how are adaptive approaches applied in fragile, conflict and violence-affected settings (FCVAS)?

A recent paper that reviewed the evidence on Thinking and Working Politically noted that the vast majority of case studies reviewed were not in FCVAS. Itad has been contributing to the evidence base on adaptive approaches to empowerment and accountability programming in FCVAS, as a partner in the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4AE) research consortium. A recent A4EA synthesis paper on three DFID adaptive management programmes summed up the case for adaptive approaches in these settings.

The need to be flexible and adaptive in FCVAS has received attention for nearly two decades under the concept of conflict sensitivity. A much-misunderstood term, conflict sensitivity is often thought of as ‘aid that works on conflict’, like peacebuilding or conflict prevention programming. But, at its core, conflict sensitivity denotes practice and thinking to ensure that any kind of aid programming in FCVAS flexes to the difficult context it works in. This is necessary to minimise the risk of ‘doing harm’ in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. For example, without understanding local dynamics in FCVAS, standard needs-based targeting risks reinforcing (perceived) inequalities and tensions between different population groups, as happened in Rakhine.

We’ve been exploring the commonalities and differences between adaptive programming and conflict sensitivity, to see what further insights can be learned from comparing and contrasting these fields of practice.

Contextual grounding

A better grounded and more robust understanding of context is the cornerstone of all adaptive practices. Thinking and Working Politically and other adaptive approaches emphasise the importance of a fine-grained analysis of the broader political context. For conflict sensitivity too, the first step is to analyse the context in detail. A variety of tools have been developed for this, for example, Political Economy Analysis and Conflict Analysis, but investing in more robust contextual analysis is only the first step. FCVAS are notoriously messy, unpredictable and changeable. How do we ensure our better analysis remains up-to-date? What kind of contextual trackers work best in what circumstances? In FCVAS, experience has shown that detailed (political) contextual information can be sensitive, pointing to the merits of considering verbal contextual updates.

Local knowledge

Directly linked to the centrality of good contextual understanding is the importance of local knowledge. This has been highlighted in both adaptive programming and conflict sensitivity practice. Without local knowledge, it is not possible to develop the kind of fine-grained analysis needed to Think and Work Politically. Likewise, it is local knowledge that informs the most effective conflict sensitivity practices. In post-conflict contexts, divisions and tensions are very visible because they have led to violent conflict. But there are many other societies where tensions exist under the surface. Only local knowledge can provide the level of detailed understanding needed if we are to take conflict prevention seriously.

Flexing to context

With the information in place to underpin adaption, the next step is to make this happen. The A4AE synthesis paper offers a helpful distinction between different aspects of adaptive management: delivery, programming and governance. This brings a focus on the different opportunities and challenges to putting in place adaptive modalities. More generally, Thinking and Working Politically and other related thinking places the need for adaptation front and centre.  In contrast, conflict sensitivity has been approached as an additional ‘issue’ to be ‘mainstreamed’. As a consequence, the adaptation that is required to respond to conflict sensitivity considerations has often proven challenging[1]. Operational pressures around programme spend and timelines can override the consideration of potential conflict sensitivity risks. Where programmes are pre-designed around an ability to adapt, processes can be put in place to enable operational issues like budget and timeline to support flexibility.

Risk management

Conflict sensitivity can become a ‘tick box’ exercise at the design stage, without much follow up throughout programme implementation. The ‘mainstreaming’ approach suggests that conflict sensitivity is a static, cross-cutting consideration. But as we have seen, at its heart, conflict sensitivity involves a constant adaption and flexing to difficult contexts. One suitable tool that has potentially been under-utilised is to approach conflict sensitivity as risk management[2]. Risk matrixes are part and parcel of programme management. They often list a variety of different risks, including, in FCVAS particularly, security risks of the context on the programme. Conflict sensitivity risks that outline potentially harmful unintended effects of the programme on the conflict context can be added. Adaptative approaches emphasise the importance of ‘working with the grain’ of existing institutions, but the A4AE synthesis paper noted how in some situations this may do harm. More broadly, adaptive approaches have been likened to needing a ‘compass, not a map’. A focus on risks and opportunities – and away from often static log frames – in adaptive approaches can bring us closer to iterative approaches.

We’ve set out four areas where conflict sensitivity and adaptive programming show some overlap. Further investigation of similarities and differences can help both fields of practice evolve. How do we best develop contextual tracking and ensure it incorporates local knowledge? How do we set up programming to enable flexing to context and ensure conflict sensitivity risks are taken into account? What is the potential role of risk management in conflict-sensitive and adaptive approaches? We welcome your comments, thoughts, examples and experiences!

[1] See Sabina Handschin in Conflict Sensitivity: Taking it to the Next Level

[2] See also Graf, Iff and Alluri in Conflict Sensitivity: Taking it to the Next Level