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How to Integrate Peacebuilding Into Humanitarian Aid Work

To achieve sustainable peace and reduce the need for humanitarian assistance, aid organizations need to address the underlying causes of conflict through peacebuilding efforts, write Jenny Vaughan and Joe Bubman of Mercy Corps.

Written by Jenny Vaughan, Joe Bubman Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Beneficiary heads of households receive their food vouchers, distributed monthly as a part of Mercy Corps food support program in Haymah Dakhliyah, Yemen. Credit Maia Baldauf for Mercy Corps


The humanitarian aid community has witnessed a dramatic shift over the past decade. Twelve years ago, 80 percent of aid went to survivors of natural disasters; as of 2016, 80 percent goes to survivors of violent conflict.

Brutal conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Yemen have contributed to a significant increase in global humanitarian appeals, from $7.1 billion in 2008 to more than $25 billion requested this year. These dual problems – conflict and humanitarian suffering – are inextricably linked.

However, the solutions to conflict and humanitarian suffering – peacebuilding and aid – are often seen as entirely different sectors: The former addresses the underlying drivers of violence, while the latter tackles some of its symptoms, such as displacement and food scarcity.

While we are no doubt saving lives with humanitarian aid, failing to integrate peacebuilding measures, such as promoting intergroup cooperation and resolving disputes, can perpetuate violence and humanitarian need. We can no longer wait to incorporate conflict management until an emergency is over or a humanitarian response is well under way.

There are several ways to address this problem.

1. Integrate conflict assessment into humanitarian analysis.

Humanitarian organizations should strive to understand how the needs of affected communities are often tied to the drivers and consequences of conflict. Conflict analysis enables aid organizations to identify if and how key stakeholders, such as government officials, militias and non-state armed groups, might impede humanitarian access to vulnerable people through regulations, threats and brute force.

As such, undertaking conflict analysis not only ensures that humanitarian aid programs are carried out effectively and in a manner that does not fuel tensions but also reveals how aid organizations can address social, economic, ecological and political drivers of conflict as part of their humanitarian response.

2. Integrate peacebuilding work into humanitarian assistance programs.

Peacebuilding efforts, such as activities aimed at managing disputes, mitigating tensions and strengthening social cohesion, do not necessarily need to exist as stand-alone projects. Aid organizations need to incorporate these activities into more conventional humanitarian activities, such as aid distribution, to prevent further conflict and reduce the need for humanitarian assistance.

The humanitarian response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017 is a good example of how this can be done. Instead of just distributing food to homes, Mercy Corps partnered with community leaders to convene community meals that gathered a diverse array of people. By changing the way Mercy Corps engaged stakeholders in planned activities, the distribution of food also enabled residents to strengthen social bonds and share information about federal assistance.

To rebuild relationships between communities and representatives, local officials could also be invited to attend such gatherings, where they can connect with community members, gain insight into community grievances and counteract the spread of misinformation.

While in some contexts the level of insecurity is so great that it would be nearly impossible to safely bring together people from different communities, it is possible to disrupt the cycle of violence while simultaneously meeting humanitarian needs.

In a recent report, Rebecca Wolfe and Dominic Graham of Mercy Corps shared insights from one of Mercy Corps’ humanitarian programs in Yemen, where villagers in the Haymah Dakhliyah district decided to use the distribution of aid as a way to bring the village together.

The villagers “agreed to hold distributions and education sessions across lines of division. Even more surprisingly, they agreed to leave their guns at home,” said the report. “The hope is that by rebuilding trust between villagers, local level outbreaks of violence that prolong suffering and limit the area’s development can be prevented when the larger conflict between the Houthis and the government – backed by a Saudi-led coalition – ends.”

Simultaneously, peacebuilding approaches can also be used to enhance the effectiveness of aid. Negotiating effectively for access with state and non-state actors enables relief agencies to provide lifesaving assistance to the most vulnerable communities. For example, in Iraq Mercy Corps has worked with our national partner, the Center for Negotiation Skills and Conflict Management, to resolve disputes nonviolently, ensuring the safe return of Sunnis to their community in 2006 and more recently leading efforts to persuade provinces to shelter Sunnis and Yazidis fleeing the so-called Islamic State group.

3. Advocate for donor funding and flexibility.

Conflict mitigation and peacebuilding cost far less than other interventions and can save tens of billions of dollars each year. But these programs are seriously underfunded, and aid organizations miss opportunities to pursue peacebuilding activities because of strict donor funding mechanisms and short timelines.

Ultimately, donors need to be flexible about adapting humanitarian programs to mitigate conflict and increase investment in long-term solutions. Donors should be open to setting goals for humanitarian programs that aim not only to meet urgent needs but also to resolve tensions, mitigate conflict, prevent violence and build social cohesion. Donors also need to fund programs that proactively address drivers of conflict in places where we see warning signs but where conflict has yet to break out.

To help communities and countries break the interwoven dynamic of violent conflict and humanitarian need, aid organizations must not only help people survive but also build their capacity to prevent and manage conflict.

The lesson is relatively simple: When communities are more cohesive, and when organizations address the reasons people are drawn to violence, we can build a foundation for long-term peace and prosperity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Peacebuilding Deeply.

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