Caught in the crossfire: development work in conflict zones

Richard Cheeseman reports from the 2015 Conflict, Security and Development Conference at King’s College London

The trend of a decline in conflicts that shaped the beginning of the Millennium Development Goals era no longer holds.

This insight from Bianca Jinga, governance advisor at DfID, during the opening session touched on a central theme for the Conflict, Security and Development Conference 2015 at King’s College London on 12 and 13 March – Post-2015 Development Challenges in Conflict Zones.

Bianca Jinga and fellow speakers at the opening session of CSD2015 at King’s College London.

In a world of numerous and escalating conflicts, with non-state combatants such as Islamic State challenging the very concept of what constitutes a “war”, how can the Sustainable Development Goals accommodate the new post-MDGs reality?

And what space is there for humanitarian aid and development? Throughout the conference, speakers repeated the key message that humanitarian aid and development programmes require access, a strong mandate and clearly demarcated roles if they are to operate effectively in conflict and post-conflict zones.

These issues were discussed in depth at the student-led conference. Expert speakers from academia, government, the military, NGOs and the private sector spoke on four panels:

  1. Health under fire: the difficulties of building health care in conflict zones
  2. The foundation of development: implementing education in areas of armed conflict
  3. Blue gold: impending threats to water security and development
  4. A complex partnership: the role of the security sector in delivering humanitarian aid.

The keynote speakers were Sarah Beeching, Executive Director of the Oshun Partnership, and Dan Smith, Secretary-General of International Alert.

HEALTH PANEL (chaired by Dr Preeti Patel, War Studies Department, KCL)

André Heller Pérache, Head of Programmes at Médecins sans Frontières, spoke from first-hand experience of working in conflict zones, including Syria, South Sudan and Sierra Leone. In these places the key issue for health workers is access (reinforcing a point made earlier by Sarah Beeching). Without a clear space for humanitarian work in conflict zones, independent from the military and state-building actors, the work of organisations such as MSF is severely hampered. Clear separation is essential, or the trust of the local population will be lost. Beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis, which may have destroyed most of the health infrastructure, the over-riding development challenge is the conflict itself.

“The conflict has to stop before you can build more health centres”

More insights from the panel:

In post-conflict situations, from Kosovo in 1999 to Libya in 2015, effective development is often hindered by the absence of a top-down strategy for health. Turf wars between actors, military and civil, and inadequate health intelligence are also barriers to progress.
(Professor Richard Sullivan Director of the Institute of Cancer Policy, King’s Centre for Global Health)

You can never really measure what has happened in a conflict. The challenge is to bring together all the anecdotal evidence and use it to establish the drivers of the conflict – the reasons why people started fighting. This can help you identify principles that may be of use in providing a humanitarian response to future conflicts.
(Dr John Seaman, Co-Founder, Evidence for Development)

EDUCATION PANEL (chaired by Dr Kieran Mitton, War Studies Department, KCL)

David Bull, Director, UNICEF UK, defined the role of education in conflict and post-conflict scenarios as a vital humanitarian intervention that empowers young people as actors, not victims. It also provides opportunities to identify traumatised children who need psycho-social support or health interventions, and to pass on potentially life-saving information such as how to identify and avoid landmines. Education has helped to break the cycle of conflict in Guatemala, where violence became endemic in society during nearly 30 years of civil war.

More insights from the panel:

Education is a power for good but is not a neutral intervention; there is always a political element. The education agenda is often manipulated by those who control power.
(Dr Tejendra Pherali, Institute of Education, University College London)

We have done the easy stuff in education in the context of the Millennium Development Goals; the MDGs don’t really work in conflict situations. Example: Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan where the needs of children are met for food, water, shelter and sanitation, but only

Rob Williams,CEO of War Child UK.

Rob Williams, CEO of War Child UK.

18% are involved in education. Those who are have to put up with crowded, uncomfortable schoolrooms. We need to make the case for education as a life-saving humanitarian intervention. Education can help to prevent participation in future conflict: in Sierra Leone, children with no education were nine times more likely to join a rebel group than those with education.
(Rob Williams, CEO, War Child UK)

“You can educate children in conflict zones; we do it all the time. You can do it for about $100 per child per year”

WATER PANEL (chaired by Dr Daanish Mustafa, Geography Department, KCL)

Dr Mark Zeitoun, London Water Research Group, Water Security Research Centre, described the process by which water resources in urban areas degrade over time during protracted conflicts. Direct, indirect and cumulative impacts on infrastructure lead to a long-term decline in the availability of safe drinking water, which is exponential and increasingly difficult and expensive to reverse. The normal development process of relief, recovery and rehabilitation does not apply when water infrastructure is severely damaged by conflict.

More insights from the panel:

Water can be both a source of tension between states and a target or weapon during conflicts. For example, when Islamic State gained control of Mosul Dam in northern Iraq last year it threatened to destroy the dam and flood the Tigris valley and Baghdad.
(Dr Marwa Daoudy, Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies)

Polar ice is poised to become a commodity in the world market for scarce water resources. Viable techniques have been developed for “harvesting” ice from the poles and transporting it by ship to arid regions for use as drinking water. Another potential source of political tension and conflict?
(Mika Mered, Polarisk Group)

SECURITY PANEL (chaired by Dr Birthe Anders, War Studies Department, KCL)

David Jones, CEO, Rescue Global, said there are four key strategic areas/questions for groups such as his working in conflict situations: Politics – what are the drivers of, and motives for, providing humanitarian aid? Perception – what are the risks and future threats? Polarisation – is there a danger of response groups and development actors pulling in opposite directions? Performance – are you prioritising activity and hours spent on the task over the impact of what you are doing?

“Remember, what we did in the past is not going to work in the future; otherwise things would be getting better, which they are not”

More insights from the panel:

Beware of increasing militarisation of the humanitarian sector. Keep a separation between military and humanitarian operations with clearly demarcated roles – when the two overlap it can be confusing and unnerving for the people on the ground you are trying to help.
(Hannah Bryce, Manager of the International Security Department at Chatham House)

There are differences in philosophy between the military and development: military is aiming for high-impact activity that has an immediate effect, and then to secure the hearts and minds of the local population; development agencies such as DfID are interested in the longer term. Military cannot be expected to guarantee a completely safe and secure environment for development work to take over from humanitarian aid. There are no perfect solutions – the important thing is for military and development agencies to keep talking to each other in conflict situations and to keep things as simple as possible.
(Vice-Admiral Charles Style, KCL and Royal Navy)


Dan Smith

Dan Smith, Secretary-General of International Alert.

Dan Smith, Secretary-General of International Alert, closed the conference by reminding delegates that history shows us that development can itself be a source of conflict. This has been true of England, the US and France, among others, over the centuries. However, non-violent conflict can be productive. Debate and argument among nations, institutions (formal and informal) and people are necessary for progress.

View an interview with Dan Smith filmed at the conference.

Dan Smith interview


About Richard Cheeseman

Freelance writer, speechwriter and editor
This entry was posted in Post-2015, Women's and children's health and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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