Helping donors adapt to conflict: five lessons from running conflict sensitivity helpdesks

10 February 2020 Tim Midgley and Alastair Carr Helping donors adapt to conflict: five lessons from running conflict sensitivity helpdesks

Donors and aid agencies want to support peace in the countries where they work, while not making conflicts worse. To help them do this, Saferworld’s Conflict Advisory Unit runs helpdesks which provide accessible and practical support. Here, Alastair Carr and Tim Midgley reflect on what they’ve learnt so far.

What is a conflict sensitivity helpdesk?

A helpdesk provides timely advice and analysis to help organisations, donors and international financial institutions, operating in conflict-affected societies, maximise their support for peace, without unintentionally making things worse. The aim is to respond in a matter of days, providing high-quality analysis and translating it into practical support and guidance that’s relevant to the client and the context. This should involve minimal effort from those requesting it—sometimes just a phone conversation. Tasks can include anything from analysing the drivers of conflict in Mali, to assessing the conflict risks of an infrastructure project in El Salvador, to looking at an entire donor portfolio or regional strategy.

Saferworld manages and contributes to helpdesks for donors and international financial institutions. A helpdesk is a two-way learning approach. While we’ve gained insight into institutions with more resources and influence than us, they’ve learnt to adapt policies and behaviour in ways that promote peace throughout their work. We’re proud to have recently completed our 100th assignment for Sida, the development arm of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This milestone seems a good time for us to share our top five reflections below.

1. It’s what you know and who you know

Any helpdesk promoting conflict sensitivity needs a firm grounding in the theory and practice of the concept and its implications for work in a conflict setting. Saying that, it’s impossible for the core partners of one helpdesk to cover all the technical issues and contexts that arise. Our helpdesk depends as much on its broad networks of specialists, amassed over 30 years of work on conflict prevention and peacebuilding, as it does its own team of experienced conflict sensitivity experts.

2. Get advice at important moments throughout the project…

Guidance from a helpdesk can be sought at any point. Whether it’s reviewing an operational context, realigning a programme mid-way through, or learning and applying lessons at a later stage, helpdesks can offer strategic and operational advice and support throughout the programme cycle. In this sense, helpdesks can be particularly useful when brought in at critical design or reflection points in a project. The guidance can also build on previous steps, so the helpdesk learns from and better tailors its assistance to the specific needs of a project.

3. …and for different parts of an institution, from the operational to the strategic level

At any given moment, the Sida helpdesk will likely be working on a range of tasks focusing on different projects, problems and places. At the same time, higher-level assignments might be reviewing an entire programme portfolio or a select part of it. Together, this gives the helpdesk and Sida a comprehensive sense of its engagement in conflict contexts. Not only does this need robust facilitation and coordination, it also requires access to a broad skillset that can investigate and interrogate conflict sensitivity analysis both at the granular and global levels.

4. Be responsive not reactive

A helpdesk’s not-so-secret power in improving institutional approaches to conflict sensitivity is its ability to cater for the immediate needs of its clients. Following an email, two Skype conversations and a couple of week’s wait, the task commissioner at Sida will usually have a bespoke piece of technical guidance or contextual research designed to their specific requirements. However, a helpdesk should aspire to be more than a convenient means of outsourcing support. It should keep the bigger picture in mind. By translating technical jargon into practical advice, strengthening in-house knowledge of conflict sensitivity and fostering internal reflection and impetus toward structural or operational changes, it can help institutions to be more considerate of where and how they work and more responsive to conflicts.

5. Understand the helpdesk as a tool but not a silver bullet

Despite the benefits of the helpdesk model, its ability to deliver wholesale institutional change on conflict sensitivity must not be oversold. It is one of many useful tools that institutions and aid agencies can use to help them wrestle with the complex and often unpredictable ways that well-intentioned work can go awry when applied in conflict settings.

A good helpdesk offers a convenient and flexible source of expert advice but cannot deliver fundamental institutional or sector-wide change itself. This requires institutional buy-in at all levels and more long-standing, systematic and strategic forms of support, whether through experts accompanying a project’s learning and planning, regular trainings, sustained advocacy, or even permanent facilities that convene aid agencies and donors to discuss and promote conflict sensitive approaches in a given context. Helpdesks are not the whole solution, but one part of a necessary process to minimise the potentially harmful aspects of work in conflict settings.



Saferworld manages conflict sensitivity helpdesks for Sida with partners CDA Collaborative Learning, the Global Emergency Group, the Stockholm Policy Group and swisspeace, and manages the European Investment Bank with swisspeace. Saferworld also supports a similar framework for the Austrian Development Agency, managed by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute. If you want to find out more about our work, please reach out to the authors Alastair Carr or Tim Midgley.

Photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid/Flickr.