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Guns not hurricanes: the role of local actors in protracted conflict

The current crisis in Yemen is a catastrophic example of the impact on affected communities when humanitarian actors are prevented from delivering assistance and protection, by the warring parties. People are struggling to get basic services across the country amid severe shortages of food, electricity and fuel. With the exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross, international aid agencies are being constantly denied access, and the humanitarian response is being largely negotiated by local responders.

As discussed in Chapter 5, international relief within insecure settings is increasingly difficult. Despite the presence of guiding principles and good practice for engagement between local and international actors in armed conflict, the changing nature and complexity of conflicts calls for a different, context specific approaches.

Chapter 6 looks at the difference contemporary conflict situations make to humanitarian work in terms of the range and scale of humanitarian needs, challenges to access and delivery of protection and assistance, and the diverse set of local and international aid agencies.

How have conflicts changed?

We are often told that the nature of conflict has changed, and that it is increasingly ‘complex.’ But what does this actually mean? For a start, the rise of violent non-sate actors and the prevalence of civil wars, as opposed to conflict between states, creates unpredictable conflict environments with constantly changing or indiscernible frontlines and alliances, fuelled by socio-political and ethno-religious fissures. These conflicts can go on for decades, amplifying the destruction of homes, buildings and other infrastructure, and indefinitely disrupting livelihoods and access to natural resources.

Additionally, non-state actors are not signatories to the Geneva Conventions, and although the laws of war still stand, there is an added complexity to negotiating issues of access and protection of civilians and non-combatants.

The humanitarian needs of affected communities are consequently also different. In addition to traditional assistance needs such as food, medicine, medical aid, shelter, and basic education, violence causes physical security threats calling for protection. The needs vary for different categories of people, including women, children, and the elderly, depending on their geographical location and ethno-religious identities. The scale and length of time for which humanitarian protection and assistance are required is often linked to the causes, duration and the dynamic of the conflict in question. For instance, in Central African Republic (CAR), in spite of a general need for protection and assistance, the scale is different for Muslins and Christians in different parts of the country.

How can we anticipate constantly emerging challenges and respond effectively?

Local and international humanitarian actors face possibilities and constraints in conflict contexts that require different capacities and skills to disaster events. Humanitarian actors need to be able to build relationships and a network of contacts across political, military, government and non-state actors. This means understanding, negotiating and navigating a complex web of relationships and alliances among conflict actors; identifying potential entry points; and initiating and maintaining contacts with relevant stakeholders. It also demands that humanitarian agencies anticipate and analyze identities and perceptions of humanitarian workers and agencies in conflict environments.

Managing intervention in conflict situations requires continuous context analysis of how humanitarian activities figure in the calculations of parties to the conflict and the implications for further engagement. There is a need to engage local actors in the reflection, review and adaptation of burgeoning frameworks such as the Safe Access Framework, Principles in Action case studies, Conflict Sensitivity, etc. if the aim is to develop capacity to meet the needs of vulnerable population.

In spite of the growing capacities of local response and relief actors, and debates about their operational relationship with traditional humanitarian agencies over the last decade, documentation of these relationships is limited. Some of the experiences noted by international aid agencies are restricted to internal lessons learnt, particularly in armed conflict where the principle of confidentiality is critical to maintaining effective dialogue among stakeholders. This indicates a need for further research about the comparative advantages of local and international actors and the role of intermediaries, and how to improve reach and impact.

How do we improve partnerships?

Emerging trends, which see the role of local relief actors increasing, and the inability of international aid agencies to reach those in need, have consequences for engagement between these actors. Chapter 6 concludes that regardless of the rhetoric used to describe the relationships between local and international actors, there remains a strong undercurrent of power imbalance. Whether it is described as engagement, partnership, cooperation, or collaboration, the reality of unequal power relations exists between international and local relief actors—between insiders versus outsiders of the formal humanitarian system, and the funders and grantors versus grantees.

Engagement is not just between local and international agencies, but also with the ever-expanding category of local actors. In the new contexts of armed conflict this can include charities, civil society groups, businesses, faith-based organizations, communities and diaspora bodies involved in providing protection and assistance. Protection and assistance delivered by these groups are not necessarily aligned with core humanitarian principles and in many settings a majority of local actors are new to the provision of assistance and protection. Flexible new frameworks must be mapped to ensure international agencies can adapt to coordinate with this broadening category of responders.

Conflict contexts are complex because of the intense political-military interests and calculations of warring parties, the resulting increased operational security risks toward all humanitarian organizations, complicated network of alliances and shifting loyalties of communities and the geopolitical interests of external actors.  In order to effectively navigate the complexities and challenges, there is a need for local and international aid agencies to gain stronger insights into conflict setting and warring parties through improved and continuous analysis. Identifying, aligning and tailoring operational procedures to the specifics of any context and being flexible in shifting and changing as the reality of the conflict changes enhance the prospect of better engagement between international and local actors.

Central African Republic: international actors and local perception and acceptance

Intercommunal violence in the CAR required the deployment of peacekeepers with a mandate to protect affected populations, some of whom were trapped in insecure enclaves.

The African Union’s International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) and the French support operation, Sangaris, were deployed in December 2013. But in general, civilians did not feel that either contributed greatly to their protection or responded adequately to attacks on civilians.

Peacekeepers found it difficult both to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and to intervene in densely populated urban areas.

The French were perceived by some as collaborating with the Christian militia after they were thought to have disarmed the Seleka to clear the ground for ‘anti-Balaka’ attacks in Bangui. Others felt that Sangaris had engaged with the Seleka to fight the anti-Balaka; or just that French troops were in CAR for political and economic reasons.

Chadian MISCA troops were seen as being very closely involved with the Seleka. While other contingents were viewed as more neutral, people still felt that they too were in CAR for political reasons.

Muslim communities in Bangui turned to the Seleka for protection following anti-Balaka attacks, and civilians were trained to fight by the Seleka. Initially Christians relied on the anti-balaka for protection, but these fighters turned violent against their own communities engaging in theft and forced taxation.

Peacekeeping forces did not address these negative perceptions fully, and MISCA and Sangaris alike should have engaged more systematically with civilians.

Also available in: French, Spanish, Arabic

World Disasters Report - Chapter 6