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Hitting two birds with one stone? Role of humanitarian response in peace-building processes

Over the years we have seen several humanitarian crises emanating from both man-made and natural causes. Humanitarian crises take different forms and specifically in sub-Saharan Africa, they are multidimensional and complex. Humanitarian crises could arise as a result of sudden natural disasters such as earthquake, on-going natural catastrophes like drought or man intentionally provoked situations like conflicts and wars.[1] We are also noticing a new trend of violent extremism and terrorism especially in the Horn of Africa countries requiring humanitarian response.

It is evident that there is a great deal that humanitarian actors can contribute towards curbing several factors that can result in a great loss of people and communities. Historical experience reveals the positive impact that immediate and timely support by humanitarian actors has towards conflict induced humanitarian needs and their impact in revitalizing societies affected.

Humanitarian actors responding to crises such as drought, flood and natural disasters tend to be more hands on and a bit freer as the political and other dimensions tend to be less salient. On the other hand, different actors adopt a more careful and at time ‘remote’ approach their responses to conflict driven humanitarian crisis. There are a number of situations in the Horn of Africa where humanitarian actions are being managed through remote mechanisms because of threats to the lives of expatriate staffs. This paper, therefore, focuses on humanitarian crisis resulting from conflicts and the role of humanitarian response towards peace-building.

Humanitarian crisis, assistance and peacebuilding

Humanitarian crises can be defined as a disastrous upheaval from a previous situation as a result of a single or a series of events causing threats to the wellbeing of a given society. It has different characteristics, amongst which are creating a number of victims and number of people whose lives are in danger and great distress coupled with institutionalised mechanisms of crisis management undergoing great difficulty or incapable of managing the situation.[2] Humanitarian assistance, broadly defined, seeks to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity in response to need and it is guided by the core principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence endorsed by the General Assembly.[3]

According to the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium, peace-building is a process that facilitates the establishment of durable peace and tries to prevent the recurrence of violence by addressing root causes and effects of conflict through reconciliation, institution building, and political as well as economic transformation.[4] However, the question remains which humanitarian interventions are adding value to the peace-building processes of a given country undergoing conflict/war. Unfortunately, this question becomes even more critical in the case of conflicts in the Horn of Africa, which exhibit a tendency to stretch on for years with horrendous loss in lives.

Traditional humanitarian response looks at different sector based support depending on the situation in the country and its needs. These include; providing food, shelter, water, healthcare services. education and so on. There are several United Nations agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations which are making an excellent contribution in delivering their humanitarian support and interventions to countries which are under humanitarian crisis as a result of conflict.

The impact of humanitarian action towards peacebuilding

Peace-building encompasses a non-linear blend of conflict prevention, political, security, humanitarian and development activities, tailored to the particular context.[5] The role of the international community in peace-building is to support the restoration or renewal of a social contract, and the return of stability, through supporting national capacities in different areas such as, safety and security, political processes, basic services, core government functions and economic revitalization[6]

The Principles of Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response Programmes outlines humanitarian aid “priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone” and “will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint”.[7] Any assistance that contravenes these principles cannot be said to be humanitarian.

Peace-building and humanitarian assistance are different in terms of their program design, time required to implement their programs and generally their flexibility. Humanitarian assistance has more flexibility than peace-building activities and processes. It is then up to the humanitarian actors to make use of this flexibility in developing a convergence with activities that can also contribute to peace-building. This is of course at the backdrop of maintaining their impartiality, and neutrality as humanitarian actors. Given these rules, there are opportunities where more effective humanitarian action can contribute to a more sustainable peace without compromising core principles of humanitarianism.

While trying to address questions relating to the value adds and/or nexus of humanitarian response towards peace building processes, it is important to note that often peace-building activities concentrate on local or structural efforts that foster or support those social, political and institutional structures and processes which strengthen the prospects for peaceful coexistence and decrease the likelihood of the outbreak, reoccurrence or continuation of violence.[8] Indirectly, it can be said that humanitarian assistance do support institutional structures and processes.

There are some organisations which do not leave the country in conflict in the aftermath of the conclusion of hostilities, but rather keep their programmatic operations going through focusing on creating resilience and favourable conditions for the society to rebuild itself. This will greatly benefit the peace-building process in the long run. It follows therefore that humanitarian assistance can create the space and build resilience that can be a starting point for peace-building operations and programs by taking into consideration conflict sensitive program design and ensuring that humanitarian activities do not impact the future longstanding peace of the community negatively. At the same time, it is imperative to point out that it would be impractical to think of building peace while people are still suffering from the direct impact of conflict.

Below is one specific sector based humanitarian response that child focused humanitarian agencies advocate and deliver during conflict that can ultimately make a positive impact on peace-building.

Education in emergencies as a catalyst for building peace  

Education is a fundamental and instrumental right for all children in the realization of other basic rights for all children. This right has been argued by humanitarian actors to be a right that need to be protected and full filled in all situations including both normal/peaceful time and conflict situations. At the moment there are millions of children denied access to primary education because of armed conflicts.[9] Schools are being attacked in different African countries as a normal part of war. In spite of several different laws and international instruments[10] that expressly prohibits the targeting and use of education facilities by belligerents in conflict, the principle is honoured more in the breach. Due to these kinds of worrying reasons, it can be safely said that humanitarian crises and particularly armed conflicts are posing a huge humanitarian, development and social challenge demanding urgent actions and interventions for the protection of education facilities from attack. Over the long term it is obvious that keeping children and youth in school contributes to peace process and the reduction of conflicts in a given country. Most importantly, education is a critical means to rehabilitate children and young people who have experienced war in their lives. It is only when we have rehabilitated society that we can safely say that we are achieving peace and prospect for a sustainable reconstruction of a given country.

Different humanitarian organisations are trying to contribute through their relief and development programs in conflict affected zones towards peace building processes. For example World Vision International has been responding to some of the dire needs of children affected by the conflict in South Sudan. Specifically, the organisation reached the most vulnerable children affected by armed conflict in the past years with psychosocial support services in different program areas. United Nations has also been keen in making sure that schools are reopened within the possible period of time after the outbreak of an armed conflict. UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund, formerly United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund)  has adopted a rapid education response to the initial phase of emergencies that focuses on getting schools or learning environments reopened, getting children back to school, and revitalizing the collapsing infrastructure of the educational system.[11] In addition to these organisations, there is an International Network for Education in Emergencies with sole purpose of securing education from attacks and ensure that children are kept in school despite conflicts as a lifesaving intervention. [12] These organisations and networks have been successfully advocating to keep children in school in the middle of conflict as a means to ensure children are protected from massive violations to their life and to their physical abuse. A closer examination of these kinds of humanitarian response’s and their short run and long run effects can make a great contribution towards peace-building in South Sudan and other conflict affected countries.


Humanitarian crisis by its nature requires a fast and timely response and hence humanitarian actors do not have the luxury to examine the causes of conflict nor their larger political ramifications. The timeliness of such responses often result in a quick and not really well thought response by humanitarian actors that would sometimes result in adverse effects on peace-building. Similarly, some argue that humanitarian assistance is at risk of becoming an instrument of war – at the local level through the manipulation of aid resources by warlords, at the global level through its instrumentalisation for partisan political interests.[13]

Humanitarian actors have a critical role in peace-building, just how critical depending on the local capacity for recovery and the local legacy of war-related hostility: the lower the local capacity and the higher the residual war-related hostility, the greater the commitment required from the international community.[14] What matters most is that outside peacebuilders recognise not only what they can do but what they cannot; looking at the strategies and mechanisms of delivering programs and humanitarian responses during and after war is critical.

The lives lost due to war/conflict and through terrorist attacks are the people who could contribute positively to the development of a given country. Hence, it is imperative to have a system in place which could rebuild societies in distress from the on-going war or its recurring effects with a view of achieving long lasting peace.  Without humanitarian response to the dire situation of the people in a given conflict affected country, the cause of conflict/war cannot be addressed. It is time to abandon the notion that peace-building and humanitarianism cannot collaborate and deliver a better result for African societies.

Martha Bedane Guraro is a passionate advocate for children rights with an LLB from Haramaya University and LLM on Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from University of Pretoria Center for Human Rights. Martha has been working as a Child Rights Advocacy Advisor with Save the Children International Africa Union Liaison Office for three years and half and assumed the role of Africa Union Policy Advisor for World Vision International starting from 2016. She may be reached at


[1] The psychosocial impact of humanitarian crises: a better understanding for better interventions: Action contre la Faim. ( ) p. 8

[2] Josse, E., Dubois, V. 2009. Interventions humanitaires en santé mentale dans les violences de

masse (1st edition) Bruxelles : Groupe De Boeck.

[3] A/RES/46/182 and A/RES/58/114


[5] OCHA Occasional Policy Briefing Series, Brief No 7: Peacebuilding and Linkages with Humanitarian Action : Key emerging trends and challenges

[6] Report of the Secretary-General on Peacebuilding in the immediate aftermath of conflict: (11 June 2009) General Assembly 63rd Session (A/63/881-S/2009/304), para. 17.

[7] The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief

[8] Jonathan, Goodhand, 2002. Aiding violence or building peace? The role of international aid in Afghanistan Third World Quarterly, Vol 23, No 5, pp 837–859, 2002 : Carfax publishing Taylor & Francis Group

[9] UNESCO & Education for All. Policy Paper 22/factsheet 31. 2015. A growing number of children and adolescents are out of school as aid fails to meet the mark.

[10] Oslo Declaration on Safe Schools and the 2010 UNGA Resolution A65L.58 “The right to education in emergency situations”.

[11] UNICEF (2006) Education in emergencies toolkit: Emergency Policy and Rationale doe education in Emergencies p 24 :


[13] Conflict-sensitive approaches to development, humanitarian assistance and peace building:

tools for peace and conflict impact assessment p.7

[14] Lecture by Gareth Evans, President of International Crisis Group and former Australian Foreign Minister, Canadian Institute of International Affairs: Rebuilding Societies in Crisis: Before and After War: 8 Oct 2003. 75th Anniversary Lecture Series, Toronto


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