Protracted Conflict, Aid and Development: how’s that conversation going?

Spent two days this week discussing ‘Protracted Conflict, Aid and Development’. I was very much a fish out of water

Your discipline or mine?
Your discipline or mine?

– the conference was mainly for humanitarian and conflict types, whereas I am a long-term development wallah trying to get my head round these other disciplines as part of my new role at the LSE’s Centre for Public Authority and International Development. And it really hurt (my head, that is). Different language, or different meanings for the same words; people performing an intricate terminological dance – peace, security, amnesty, demobilisation, power sharing, conflict, conflict prevention – to which I don’t know the moves.

But as the conference wore on, the fog cleared a bit, so with advance apology for my flimsy grasp of the subject, here are a few impressions.

Firstly the vibe (academics might prefer ‘discourse’) felt very different from long term development: even more than other aid discussions, there was a disorienting gulf between the chaos and misery being discussed, and the besuited civility of Carlton House Terrace. The discussion is dominated by the international machinery of humanitarian and conflict responses at the UN and elsewhere and so feels tremendously top down. The language is sprinkled with portentous capitalised phrases of various international initiatives – the New Way of Working; the Grand Bargain.

The reality they are dealing with is awful and getting worse. Stephen Pinker’s optimistic take in ‘Better Angels of our Nature’ looks very last decade. Battlefield deaths are sharply up, the number of displaced people currently stands at over 65 million, the highest since World War Two. More non state armed groups were formed in

A long way from Carlton House Terrace
A long way from Carlton House Terrace

the last six years than in the previous 60. Conflicts are lasting longer, becoming the norm in some countries, rather than the exception.

This has helped trigger ‘a crisis of norms, institutions and tools’ according to Jean Marie Guehenno of the International Crisis Group: ‘Old conflicts don’t die; new ones start; Responsibility to Protect is in very bad shape; international justice is in difficulties. The things we thought were becoming new layers of international governance are now going backwards; dictators are on the up. There are grave doubts on what peace-keeping can achieve. Sanctions are more a sign of impotence than of power.’ His conclusion? ‘The humanitarian system is sometimes like a duck that continues to walk after its head has been cut off’. Ouch.

That crisis has triggered a rethink along the lines of ‘Doing Development Differently’ – more interest in power and politics, systems thinking, in not trying to impose cookie cutter solutions from elsewhere that seldom work. But it feels as if the rethink is being held back by the structure and mental models of the humanitarian sector. Short term and highly unpredictable funding doesn’t help, but the main discussion was a different and less obvious barrier.

Large parts of both humanitarian and conflict thinking base themselves on International Humanitarian Law (IHL), a series of global conventions and commitments, of which the Geneva Conventions on the rules governing warfare are the best known. IHL provides the moral and practical compass, but appears to be becoming less and less useful for two reasons: firstly, IHL is showing its age – it is at its most useful governing conflicts between states, but less useful for non state armed groups and being further undermined by technological advances. One NGO rep asked ‘if a ‘high value target’ is walking across a marketplace (off limits under IHL) and turns on their cellphone, is that now a legitimate target?’

But secondly, IHL is the antithesis of a bottom up, locally embedded approach to change. It is hard to see, at least in

Is that a helping hand or a dead one?
Is that a helping hand or a dead one?

its more formal, legalistic interpretations, how  it can be compatible with Doing Development Differently.

Maybe the dead hand of IHL explains why other attempts to rethink humanitarian response, for example by focussing on ‘prevention’ or ‘exclusionary institutions’ thus far seem vague and not very practical, although heading in the right direction.

The aid business seems poorly structured to deal with this crisis. Both official aid agencies and NGOs struggle with the risks of even talking to non-state armed groups; most funding remains siloed and short term, and often driven by donor politics rather than need – a UNDP speaker lamented that aid is politically pro-cyclical – as peacekeeping comes to an end somewhere like Liberia, donors lose interest and development aid falls off too, endangering progress by undermining the peace dividend.

One final question: are those best-placed to try and find a new way of integrating across humanitarian, conflict and long term development the multi-mandate organizations like Oxfam, because getting internal cross-disciplinary cooperation may be easier than between separate organizations? Or does being multi-mandate just tie your hands more comprehensively (eg can’t do advocacy on a country in case it endangers humanitarian access)? Oxfam spends roughly equal amounts on humanitarian and long term development, so maybe we could do more to bring together a group of multi-mandate organizations, raise some research and programme funding, and see what we can come up with/identify areas where people are already getting it right? (At this point, my colleagues will doubtless tell me we are doing it already!)

This is really difficult stuff, and it’s great that the conversation is under way, but it feels both that it has been going on for ages, without much result, and that it has a long way to go, with no definite prospect of success.

Hope commenters on this post can prove me wrong!

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


9 Responses to “Protracted Conflict, Aid and Development: how’s that conversation going?”
  1. Paul Harvey

    This stuff is certainly difficult but I think you’ve got bits of it badly wrong here. IHL really isn’t the problem in how humanitarian actors might do humanitarian action differently nor is it a dead hand. It’s about the rules governing warfare as you note – so is about how states and other parties to conflicts should behave. It’s always been flouted by both state and non-state actors but that doesn’t mean that’s its not just as relevant as ever and that it’s not just as important to try and get people fighting wars to respect it – for instance in Yemen now.

    You are right that mental models and ways of thinking make it hard for different actors working in conflicts (humanitarian, development, peacebuilding, human rights and others) to work differently, figure out when it makes sense for them to work together and when it doesn’t. For me that’s more about differences of principles and approach which boil down to different mental models for thinking about how international actors relate to states. Humanitarian action has tended to be state avoiding – resting on a problematic interpretation of independence (see – ) and development actors particularly in conflicts have tended to be too uncritical in how they work with states (see the UN in Myanmar for the latest example ( And here humanitarian principles and IHL thoughtfully employed can provide a useful guide to principled engagement with states – to try and persuade them to fight wars legally, to protect and assist their citizens, to allow aid to save lives and alleviate suffering and to try and resolve conflicts and alleviate poverty.

    You’re right that aid actors need to get better at talking to non-state armed groups (and states) in order to better negotiate access – a key finding of Humanitarian Outcomes, recent SAVE project looking at what enables access in dangerous places –

    And if you’re going to learn the moves a great starting point is Hugo Slim’s Humanitarian Ethics –

  2. Thank you Duncan

    I agree with your analysis of Pinker. You note that “Battlefield deaths are sharply up, the number of displaced people currently stands at over 65 million, the highest since World War Two, that more non state armed groups were formed in the last six years than in the previous 60 and that conflicts are lasting longer and becoming the norm in some countries, rather than the exception.”

    To me, these are signs of tightening limits to growth and the accompanying loss of genuine freedom as we move to a full world (e.g. see Butler CD. Limits to growth, planetary boundaries, and planetary health Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2017; 25: 59-65, free link until November 1, 2017 at What can be done? I think one thing that aid organisations can do is speak more honestly about these approaching limits; it is not enough to feed a hungry child or care for an injured child soldier with malaria; we have to also advocate for more fairness and development in order to improve the determinants of lower fertility and other elements of sustainability.

  3. Hi Duncan, I’m with Paul Harvey to be honest when he says that IHL is as vital as ever, irrespective of the fact that it – like a lot of very sensible rules – is honoured in the breach as well as the observance. By coincidence, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ‘guardians’ of IHL, has just put out some new ‘success stories’ of IHL working: Not that that at all should dent your exasperation that IHL isn’t respected nearly as much as it should be. But isn’t the key question whether IHL is the ‘antithesis’ of local change, as your post put it – or a vital complement instead?
    This, Duncan, is where we should own up to being old colleagues. I remember your analogy of the rice cake a few weeks ago – a rice cake that is made to perfection by heat from below and from above at the same time. Don’t local pressure and international influence, you pondered, combine to produce change, like the bottom-up and top-down heat on the cake? That would be a fascinating thing to explore in terms of restraining armed violence against civilians.
    One could argue that the international champions of IHL may have less influence on armed actors than they perhaps had – and that the bottom-up heat is more vital than ever. Let’s see where the evidence takes us. But it seems far too early to say that IHL is the antithesis of anything…. except the unrestrained killing of civilians.

    • Duncan Green

      I think I may have to concede the point on the rice cake, Ed. But somehow IHL doesn’t feel like it works in the same way as UN gender conventions (the source of the rice cake analogy) – feels too much like people see it as the whole story, not just part of the process (and needing complementary locally relevant political pressure – the equivalent of feminist movements, in the women’s rights/rice cake case). That may just be down to my lack of familiarity with IHL tho.

  4. Welcome to our world, Duncan.

    I’m glad you stuck it out at the recent London conference on protracted conflict. It is very useful to have your development perspective on the challenge of responding to the millions of people who are enduring the suffering and impoverishment of long wars.

    A few points to get out of the way early.

    First, the inter-governmental “Development Set” can be posh too – meeting in suits and eating canapés. So, I don’t thing the “disorienting gulf” between gentility and misery is unique to humanitarian policy circles.

    Secondly, development is also dominated by arcane “international machinery”: DAC for one; the many intermediate objectives, indicators and review mechanisms of the SDGs for another. So, in terms of inter-governmental superstructure, we have a lot in common.

    Thirdly, a lot of humanitarian work is poverty work – conflict impoverishes people deeply and fast. Today’s “war poor” are usually left furthest behind.

    But I want to focus on two very important points you raise: that the humanitarian system is very “top-down”, and that IHL is merely a “dead hand”. You are absolutely right on the first count and wrong on the second, but both are importantly related.

    I wish humanitarian action was more a people’s movement than it is. Like you, I believe that activist social movements have done so much to transform the way poverty is framed and responded to by States and international development policy. The principle of “rising up” has always been critical to the anti-poverty movement.

    Such upwards movement is always there in people’s response to armed conflict and chronic violence but not perhaps as obviously as in your mass demos. People act courageously on their own initiative, form associations and risk death to help each other. But you are right that their space and their oxygen is often taken from them. Sometimes by the violent force of parties to the conflict, sometimes by expeditionary international agencies.

    This is why the current move to “localization” in humanitarian policy is so important to get right. Social movements inspired by humanitarian principles from the ground up are often profoundly creative and resilient. But old problems in development run deep in humanitarian action too: the risks of capture and suppression.

    Localization will not be real if it is a power shift captured by elite civil society alone. And many conflicts have the suppression of social movements as one of their core objectives. This means that even when national and grassroots humanitarian action blossoms, it will still need complementary international action by organizations like the ICRC. Sometimes access is only granted to neutral, impartial and independent organizations who have the support of international law and interested States.

    Now your point about “the dead hand of IHL”. You suggest that IHL deadens a more imaginative response to civilian suffering because it is out of date and top-down.

    IHL is not out of date. Its rules are good. People imagine that it used to work much better in the “good old days” of international armed conflicts between States, and it now cannot keep up with modern times. Such golden age thinking bears no scrutiny. It has always been a real struggle to ensure respect for IHL in inter-state wars as well as non-international armed conflicts. No time was easier than today, and today is no more difficult than times past.

    Ensuring people’s protection in armed conflicts is a continuous struggle with significant successes every day (wounded healed, hungry fed, people safe, families reunited, prisoners visited and water services repaired) and many striking televised failures in which people are forcibly displaced, summarily executed, raped and bombed in their homes.

    So your development movement and my humanitarian IHL movement share the principle of struggle. But you are right to suggest that our struggle looks top-down. This is partly because of the dangers of capture and suppression I have already described. It is partly because there are so many guns and bombs around this struggle as to make it truly existential for many people wanting to organize.

    It is also because IHL itself does not lend itself easily to a global movement akin to that around climate change, land rights, labour rights or gender equality. IHL is a set of complicated rules which require interpretation in practice. Successful bottom-up global humanitarian movements have not been in the name if IHL itself but for particular slices of IHL rules: the protection of hospitals; the abolition of land-mines, the prevention of sexual violence, the protection of children and education, and most recently a ban on nuclear weapons.

    I hope this may change and that people will make IHL itself a global issue. I would be delighted if a global movement arose with banners demanding that the principles and rules of the Geneva Conventions – recognized universally by States – must be respected. We get close sometimes but still have nothing of the depth and scale of environmental concern, or your own movement to end poverty.

    So, I hope your development set may join us. You know a lot of the moves already, and we certainly need support on responding to the deepening poverty created by armed conflicts.

    Hugo Slim

  5. Thanks Duncan and all, Really good to read this discussion.

    Is there anything being produced from the meeting itself?
    I’m particularly interested to hear about the discussions you hint at in the second part of your blog, around bridging the ‘divide’ between humanitarian and development communities, and how evidence on the balance between immediate needs and long-term equitable development can better be heard and considered by both ‘communities’, often working under different funding and with their different objectives and measures of success? How does evidence around the long-term, equitable ‘system-building’ effects of humanitarian interventions (positive or negative) get received by the humanitarian community? And vice versa?
    Our ReBUILD programme ( is working in this area, including how the long-term health system effects of humanitarian/emergency responses, including protracted crisis responses, can be better understood, the positive effects supported, and some potentially negative effects (e.g. around governance, local ownership, health workforce incentives and deployment) managed without compromising the immediate health needs.
    And given your comment about the role of organisations like Oxfam, with mandates in both areas, I’d be really interested to hear anything that comes out on this during your upcoming Oxfam Research Network conference. Often it can be as much of a challenge addressing such a divide within organisations as it is between different ones. Anyway, if it’s not on the agenda, perhaps you could raise it? Would be great to have one of your blogs on that!

    Nick Hooton