How can we respond to the new divisions emerging in society? How can we address conflicts between neighbors in our communities?

A total of 18 people from seven non-profit organizations in Central and Eastern Europe came together in late September for a four-day inspirational meeting in Belgrade, Serbia. The meeting was part of our international program ViabilityNet 3.0 and gave the participants a chance to share experience from their community work in their respective countries.

At the core of the meeting was a multi-day workshop led by Aline Brachet, an expert practitioner in mediation and conflict sensitivity, an approach that analyzes conflict potential in projects. We looked at how this approach can be used in our program planning to reduce the potential for conflicts in the communities which we support.

Helen Lenda led a short interview with Aline Brachet.

Aline, can you give us an example of where the Conflict sensitivity approach 3 steps have worked successfully in a community setting?

Examples of non-conflict sensitive activities are thousands, and step by step, we hear about where the approach actually worked and made positive impacts. I always think of this personal experience I had at my kids’ school.

The school was welcoming more and more social and cultural diversity among the students and parents. After the 2015 attacks, dialogue became complicated even in small schools outside of Paris, and we wanted to make this diversity a strength, not a problem. We imagined celebrating an “Evening of the World Cultures”, where everyone could bring some food from where she/he comes from or likes to go, and musicians could play some diverse types of music as well. We sent the invitations and got a lot of positive answers. Yet, few responses were coming from parents born in the city. One morning I met a mother at the school and she said: “What you are doing for foreigners is amazing, it is important to include them. But it is a shame that there is nothing done for us, the people from here.”

She and others had not felt included in the “World Cultures”, as if the local culture was not a part of the world’s cultures! The name of our event was actually excluding half of the target, just because of some “cultural code” we had not anticipated.

After identifying this negative interaction between our activity and the context (actually polarized dynamic between “relatively wealthy natives” and “relatively less wealthy non-native”), we changed the name of the event into “Local and World Cultures” and adjusted the communication so that the event in itself helped gathering the two groups together, rather than pulling them apart.

In this case, the 3 steps are not an organizational process, it is more a spirit or habit of intervention. Once skilled and used to the approach, it is actually what works the best in any organisation, you do it without being aware of it!


What is the main principle behind the Conflict sensitivity approach?

The main principle is to acknowledge that whatever intervention you plan or make in a context becomes part of the context and influences its dynamics. You become part of the context, and are responsible for the interaction between your intervention and the context! And the context is moving, you need to adjust to some continuous change and potential impacts of the context on your intervention.


Can you briefly explain the 3 steps?

The first step is to understand the context. Not briefly but deeply, what is the history of conflict and peace? What drivers for peace and conflicts exist? What connects or divides groups and individuals (places, systems, symbols, experiences, values, etc.)? What changes are needed for a positive future? What groups are identified, which relationships between groups and interests do you want to impact in regard to the project or the change?, etc.

The second step is to analyse and optimize the impacts of your intervention on this context: what change is needed that your intervention can foster? What drivers do you want to impact? What details of the project may exacerbate tensions (distribution in favour of one group compared to the other? The effect on the local market – prices fall or increase because of the resources you bring? What message is perceived by the population when your team intervenes? Are they seen as respectful, fair? Do they represent one group more than another one? How is the localisation of the activity chosen, why this one and not the next village or neighbourhood? Does it have an impact on access, ownership?, etc. Is your project reinforcing a connector (something that gathers people from different groups together such as, often, a school or a market?) or is it reinforcing a divider (for instance a symbol that split people apart in the community)?

The third step is to build on the learning from the analysis! Once you’ve identified potential or existing negative interactions between the project and the context, keep in mind one thing: they are always options! Invite more people, change the location, diversify your team members, communicate more transparently, channel the money or resources differently (on-line?), etc. This third step is always spontaneous (we usually look for an alternative when something goes wrong, but in a polarized setting, it is sometimes difficult to question our action and behaviours… It therefore requires sustaining a culture of a « solution oriented team and partners » and to adapt the monitoring of the project. In a conflict sensitive approach, you monitor the intervention (with disaggregated indicators enabling assess to impacts on the different groups at stake), the context (to ensure you can anticipate changes and impacts on your project), the interactions (our step 2), and also unexpected effects (both positive and negative). The main objective of this monitoring effort is to inform the management of the project and allow for changes, which means to have the flexibility to do it! The donors and the organisation are involved in conflict sensitive project management.

How do you think the approach can be useful in the CEE context that you have learned about from the workshop participants?

What I learnt during the workshop is the somehow common but also very specific contexts of the different countries and within each country. Political challenges meet social, cultural, economic and sometimes environmental challenges that triggers complex dynamics. Community-based organisations and social movements often believe they are on the « right side » of the power table, doing good for the most vulnerable. The first benefit of the approach is to take a critical (and friendly) look at what we do and how, on the short or long term, we also can do harm. And if so, what does that mean in terms of our coalitions, organisation, way of working and change expectations?

The second interest is that this approach, quite demanding for the staff, is also full of hope for a positive future! There are always options to improve our impacts on the context or keep working peacefully despite the context.

Political and social diversity in Europe will increase in the upcoming years and decades, because the world is more and more interconnected and movement is increasing. Yet, diversity does not have to turn into polarization. Because of larger political narratives and local difficult experiences, polarization is part of the intervention context of the CEE network. The conflict sensitive approach is a way to carry this reality within organisations’ programmes and interventions and ensure the organizations won’t unconsciously exacerbate polarization (at least won’t do harm) and strengthen their program logics to tackle the root drivers of polarization (do good!).

Peace is a long-term process and the network participants can contribute to it, through small interventions and details. Let’s not miss them!