Learning lessons from conflict

What actually works when trying to mitigate the effect of conflict on civilians? How can external actors positively impact such situations in what is known as a ‘conflict sensitive’ fashion? What does ‘Do No Harm’ mean and is it naïve to believe that interventions in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria can improve the lot of conflict-affected citizens? Where do we draw the line between humanitarian, stabilisation and development programing? These are the questions we at ARK grapple with, as these are the kinds of environments we work in. There is much talk of ‘promoting resilience’ and ‘stabilisation programming’ but how often do we reflect on the evidence base for what works? Sadly, we hear less about ‘lessons learned’ these days (because they rarely are) and more about ‘lessons identified’. 

When I was sixteen the Berlin Wall came down and we were led to believe this would usher in a reduction in conflict, both hot and cold. By the age of 26 and having already spent time in Bosnia and witnessed the destructive power of the ethno-sectarian violence that engulfed the former Yugoslavia, it was off to Kosovo. Fast forward to today and I reflect on attempts at conflict mitigation, stabilisation, peacebuilding and various shades of military intervention from Afghanistan and Yemen to Syria and Somalia. Over that period I have worked as a diplomat, political advisor, UN war crimes investigator, NGO worker, consultant, stabilisation advisor and now the owner of a company that seeks to contribute positively in areas impacted by conflict, instability, violence and extremism. Over the next month or so I intend to share a series of reflections on work in this field in the hope that we can start to learn lessons, not just identify them. The themes I will focus on range from not confusing activity with strategy as well as our tendency to deal with symptoms not causes, to the need to truly understand a conflict before intervening (the subject of an earlier post) and the challenges of measuring and attributing the effect of programming, particularly when conducted remotely. Many others working in this field will have topics that interest them, such as the practicality of vetting beneficiaries, the challenging nature of donor budget cycles or trying to keep staff mentally and physically safe. Please chip in or get in touch directly.

Alistair Harris, CEO, ARK

Dom Spiers