Subject >> Conflict     

Conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships. Depending on how it is approached and managed, conflict can be either constructive or destructive. Conflict arises when people disagree over something perceived as important. We live in communities and families with people who may not see things as we do. Conflicts occur on a daily basis, sometimes as small disputes, sometimes as violent battles.

We each respond to conflicts based on our own particular personality and cultural background. People have different motivations, beliefs, values and goals. Two people can perceive and interpret the same situation very differently.
When aid workers address major emergencies, we find ourselves working with people from other places. They may be from another village or city in our own country – or from another continent. Two people may speak the same language, but when a disagreement arises, one may discover the other responds to the same situation very differently. The way others respond to conflict may confuse or offend us. Problems and conflicts are natural in our daily work, and the key is finding the right way to overcome them and continue working productively. One tool is to work to overcome our own perceptions and prejudices, so we can see the other person’s viewpoint.

To resolve a conflict, we must understand our own role and how we are seen by others. The most common forms of conflict resolution are negotiation, mediation, community conferencing, conflict transformation and peer mediation. Which approach is best depends on the nature of the conflict and the parties. Experts in conflict resolution offer sound advice – summarized below – about how to resolve disputes peacefully in ways that both sides find acceptable. Each conflict is different, and people will react in their own way to a situation. But with the desire to solve the problem and a deep understanding of the parties and the underlying causes of the dispute, you will usually be able to resolve conflicts before they become violent.


Capacity building

Capacity building is central to conflict resolution and transformation; it binds individuals, teams and organisations closer together and empowers them to find peaceful solutions to their own problems. Conflict resolution is closely linked to personal development.  Programme staff learn how discuss their problems and frustrations early with colleagues in a safe and respectful manner, thanks to capacity building measures.

Programme development

Sensitivity to potential conflicts is important throughout the programme cycle, to ensure that our work does not exacerbate existing tensions, whether between or within communities. Some projects, such as the reintegration of former child combatants, will also directly work on conflict. They should be viewed through a conflict-sensitive lens, where all perspectives within a community are taken into account, including those not directly benefiting from the project activities.

Conflict sensitivity is also a management approach, through which managers learn to effectively handle project staff conflicts and problems before they become severe. The overall guiding principle is to ‘Do No Harm’ when working with both communities and organisational staff.

Target groups

Affected population

Conflicts and disagreements often arise between the relief agencies and the affected population. These disagreements usually occur because the affected population have not been properly consulted or given the chance to participate in the relief and recovery efforts. For that reason, initial community mobilisation and sensitisation must occur before any assessments or programmes begin.

In most post-conflict societies, humanitarian organisations jump into providing services immediately without first assessing the true needs of those affected.  The end results can be counter-productive, wasting resources and needlessly prompting conflict. Conflicts can be averted by educating communities in detail about the relief efforts, extensively consulting with them before getting started, and being candid about what your organisation can and can not do based on funding limits and mandate.


Conflicts within an organisation or a team can be hugely disruptive and exhausting. They can create a tense and unhappy working environment for everybody in the team. In turn, this tension can spill over into programming, which can hurt both an organization’s reputation and its ability to do effective work, in the view of a potential donor. Disagreements can occur among peers, between staff and managers, and with local organisations or implementing partners.
Conflicts can often arise between similiar agencies and organisations working with the same affected population. There may be tension over access to funds, target beneficiaries, resources and logistics of relief supplies. Many conflicts are caused by different views about the best way to achieve humanitarian goals. Conflicts between relief organisations can disrupt effective implementation of relief programmes, and thus harm the very people we seek to assist. Disagreements can often be averted if organisations share information early and transparently about their work and mandate.


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Conflict is not a single event; it is progressive by nature.  Generally there are four phases of conflict.  In the first (latent) stage, conflict is hidden.  Over time, the conflict is brought to the surface.  This leads to the second phase, confrontation, which may be violent, non-violent, or both.  Through mutual recognition and the balance of power between the parties, the conflict moves to the third phase, negotiation.  If successful, negotiation leads to restructuring of the relationship – and the final stage of reconciliation.

Dynamics of conflict:

Conflict, like weeds in a garden, can sprawl in many directions if not handled properly.   There are seven dynamics in which this can occur are as follows:

  1. problem solving:  when the disputants share responsibility for the problem;
  2. personal attachment:  when the other person is viewed as the problem;
  3. issue proliferation:  when a single problem turns into several;
  4. gossip:   when the problem party is never talked with, but talked about;
  5. ‘eye for an eye’:  when people react by attacking each other;
  6. antagonism:  hostility, and;
  7. polarisation:  change in social organisation.


International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH), Training Manual, (1999):

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Conflicts occur for many reasons. Sometimes they are interpersonal – something about the behaviour, perception or attitude of the ‘other’ has created the disagreement. Conflicts may occur at work, or outside of work with a friend, neighbour or landlord.  Most of these conflicts are resolved without outside help. In some cases, however, an outsider is called in for help, to act either as a facilitator or as a mediator. Sometimes conflicts are about the task you are assigned to do:  whether it is the right work to be doing, and whether the assigned way to do it is the best way. This type of dispute – which will often involve the leader of the emergency team – can actually be productive and beneficial to the team if handled appropriately. Discussion about disagreements can lead to a solution better than the original plan. This is an example of conflict transformation.

Conflicts about power

Power is coveted and fought over. Power is exercised in decision-making:  when should a community receive what kind of aid? Power is wielded in distributing resources:  who should receive which materials and in what order? Possessions can confer power:  those with buildings, phones, computers and vehicles have power, as do those with water, weapons, food and electricity. Some use power judiciously, and others use it to exploit.

Marginalised people and communities are hit hardest by disasters, precisely because they lack access to resources. Emergencies often force many people together in one space (such as an Internally Displaced People camp), which can spur further conflicts. Displacement of communities and families can cause disempowerment and a change in roles. This in turn can cause additional tensions, as people move to new locations, altering power balances. In emergencies, little remains constant. Power dynamics are likely to change, sometimes rapidly, which can increase the risk of power being abused.
Power is a vital ingredient in any human problem. Often a conflict centers on the search for more of it, or a fear of losing it. But what are the real sources of power? How can empowerment help? How can people use power to their advantage? Power influences our lives continually.

Power expressed through relationships

Power does not exist in a vacuum, as an object or quantity. Power comes from relationships: parent to child, government to governed, citizen to fellow citizen, landowner to peasant, factory manager to worker. So in the state of emergencies, those privileged to run aid programmes must understand these dynamics well. The exercise of power can be passive as well as active: a parent may listen to a child’s plea for more freedom, but never respond. Or a government may receive petitions from its citizens, but simply ignore them. 
In emergencies, those who control aid resources have great power. This power is often a source of tension within communities, since it disrupts the previous power balance. It is critical that aid workers be aware of the power balances within a community and, particularly, the issue of power in the context of emergencies. In attempting to ‘do no harm’, it is critical to understand the impact of resource power (the power to control material resources) on the emergency situation to ensure it binds the community together, rather than tearing it apart. 

Conflicts between institutions

In emergencies, aid workers are often caught in the middle of disagreements between different organisations working within the same area. For instance, conflicts may appear when the local organisation has a different understanding of the needs-based intervention than the outside donor agency. Local organisations may also have concerns about the long-term consequences of the proposed projects: they may change the environment of the area or disrupt its social organisation. Aid recipients may not have been consulted and may not want or need the planned interventions. An outside agency may send a worker to a project and then learn the local agency has a different plan for the worker. 
There may also be institutional conflicts among non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the UN and the government. At times, there is competition to work in as many locations as possible, again to raise funds for their work. 
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (‘UN-OCHA’) is the usual international coordinating agency in emergencies, but the local government may not be happy with all the ‘foreign ideas’ and ‘intrusions’ into their ‘local’ affairs.  There may be disagreements between agencies and the host government on action plans.  Often we hear about competition for staff among local NGOs, the UN and international NGOs.  In the worst cases, outside agencies and INGOs ‘poach’ the trained staff from local NGOs, which often cannot pay them as much.
Whatever the source of conflict, the rule of ‘do no harm’ should be applied. Intervening agencies and organisations should be humble in their approaches to emergency situations to ensure they are not displacing indigenous processes that were already addressing the situation before outside help arrived.

Conflicts within the project

Emergencies are sudden, and sometimes catastrophic, events that require help from aid workers both within and outside the local community.  Bringing together people to form a team can be a challenging but hugely beneficial process.  People on the team may differ in their experience, education, personality, work styles, culture and gender.  In a short space of time, a diverse collection of individuals must become an efficient team, able to accomplish complex tasks under difficult circumstances.
Expect conflicts to occur.  They are only natural in such high-pressure circumstances, and the vast majority of problems can be overcome by working through them together. 
Be pro-active:  try to seek solution pathways before conflicts explode.  Don’t wait for the other side to be the first to act or address the situation.  If you are unable to understand what is causing the conflict, or if it is inappropriate for you to talk to the other side directly, seek the help of someone who can guide you. 
Not all conflict is negative.  Sometimes a conflict is necessary for two people to air their opinions and move forward in a relationship.  Conflict, managed correctly, can bring people together and increase trust between them.  Suppressing possibly confrontational issues can be just as negative and disruptive to working relationships as an open conflict.  Greater trust is fostered when you work through a conflict and find a positive, creative solution.

Conflicts among stakeholders

The rapidly-changing context of an emergency often leads to frustrations, anger, fear and despair.  People may voice negative emotions openly, which can fuel conflict.  Basic resources, such as food, shelter, water, access to sanitary facilities, safety, comfort, community and recognition are often in short supply.  Conflicts can arise from competition for resources, the need to ventilate feelings and unresolved issues from the past.  Often the poor are further marginalised because they lack basic needs, much less access to phones, transportation, and money.  
Open fighting – even rioting – can occur at the site of aid distribution.  This is particularly true if the distributing agency has not carefully surveyed the community to ensure that the people most in need are being served.  Aid can easily becoming politicised and hijacked in emergency situations, and we must ensure that aid is not manipulated for other ends.  It is also paramount that aid does not override indigenous structures, as this can create aid-dependency.

Conflicts about perception or misperception

Often disputes arise because of how a statement or action is perceived.  A well-intentioned message, for example, can be received very differently. This type of conflict can easily arise between an affected community and your organisation.  That is why informing the community about your organisation must take place before starting relief work.  In addition, people are less likely to misperceive your intentions if you are honest and open with them, and take the time to explain your point of view. 

Conflicts caused by abuse or sexual exploitation

It is an unfortunate reality that the powerful will sometimes exploit the vulnerability of marginalised people. Sadly, this is true not just of tyrannical leaders but of some aid workers and church personnel. People may offer sexual favours or other forms of payment in the hope they will receive aid, favourable support, security or protection. Some impoverished families are so desperate to survive that they offer themselves or their children in payment for food, transportation or shelter. In certain circumstances, families sell a child into slavery to feed the rest of the family or community. If you witness any of the above activities, you should report them to the head of the organisation involved, the host government or UNICEF.
In some of the above situations, there have been calls for mediation or negotiation to take place between survivor and perpetrator. This can be useful for some survivors, as it legitimises their situation and gives a voice to their fears and concerns. If this is the wish of the survivor and the perpetrator, the two should meet on neutral territory with an independent observer present. For other survivors, facing a perpetrator is a terrifying experience bringing back vivid memories of the abuse. The needs and wishes of the survivor should determine if, how or when mediation or negotiation occur. More often, the survivor is pressured to keep quiet about the injustice done to them, because the perpetrator is perceived to hold more power, legitimacy and authority. This can further alienate and delegitimise the survivor, which can increase the possibility that they will suffer from emotional and social problems. Whenever possible, this should be prevented.  

Domestic conflicts

Tensions and emotions run high in emergencies. Tragedies have occurred, and people may feel disoriented and frightened about what will happen next. Previous supportive relationships and bonds may have been lost, especially if people have been displaced and are living in difficult circumstances. It is very common, and natural, for people to lash out at those closest to them. Adults fight, parents argue, parents can hit children, children can become violent and disruptive, sex can become abusive and harsh words may be said that can leave deep wounds.
People who have been combatants and are returning to civilian life often have difficulties leaving the power – and the memories of violence – behind. Some have trouble sleeping; they replay their violent past in their dreams. 
Drinking or taking drugs can seem like temporary solutions, but violence can and often does return. Family members are often the innocent victims of these violent eruptions, especially if gender roles may have altered in the home because of the conflict.  When a person has been trained to use violence to achieve their ends, it can be difficult to stop when returning home.
Every effort should be used to minimise violence. If violence occurs most when alcohol is involved, try to stop or limit alcohol intake. If arguments erupt into violence, try to help the family find an alternative resolution mechanism or a mediator. If one person is the abuser, urge that person to take time out away from the family to calm down. 
Reintegration of a family member is a complex and delicate process. Before a former combatant is re-united with their family and community, there must be a form of psychoeducation to help the community understand what the returning family member has gone through. Returning family members also need to be made aware that power relations and gender roles in the family may have changed while they were away. Gender roles are not static in emergency and conflict situations. Unaware of this, a returning combatant may be keen to return to the (possibly dominant) role they previously played in family life. Family reconciliation and community acceptance of former combatants is a journey that can take a long time. It should not be forced on families or communities, but rather allowed to develop at the family’s own pace.
In most cases, people do not really want to hurt the people they love. They simply do not realise that alternative mechanisms exist. Aid workers should help families and communities find nonviolent alternatives for resolving conflict and, at a minimum, undertake some form of psycho-education for both parties.


Anderson, M., (Ed), (2007) Do No Harm Checklist:
The Inter Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings

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Conflict is inseparable from any team situation. Whether, we are local, national or international staff, it is essential that we are aware of potential conflicts within our teams and organisations. However, not all conflict is negative; it does have the potential to benefit individuals and a team. Line managers and team leaders need to think ahead and prepare to turn conflict (when it arises) into an advantage for the team. Properly handled, conflict strengthens the team and increases unity. The strategies outlined below are useful for identifying, preventing and resolving conflicts within our own teams and organisations. The content can also be applied to different contexts, for people who work in conflict based or complex emergencies.
Conflicts maybe as simple as a disagreement over a minor point like how to arrange the workshop, or may become a major cause of disunity with factions, grumbling, loss of temper, high words or even violence. Such conflicts disrupt our work and are very disadvantageous to relationships with the people we are trying to serve.

Possible underlying causes of conflict

Advantages of one group over another
International team members will nearly always be wealthier, have better access to healthcare and evacuation opportunities etc. This can cause rumbling, resentment and envy. Despite this perception, national staff members are the 'expert' in the situation and have many advantages attributed to this position. Team leaders should cultivate an attitude among staff members of a willingness to learn from each other without judgement. 
Cultural expectations, beliefs, and comfort zones will vary not only between nationals and internationals, but also between different 'Western groups'. These underlying, unseen factors can sneak into our work and cause conflicts between people for seemingly little reason. Such examples are: friction between people to whom punctuality is important and those who favour taking things more philosophically; or between those to whom relationship is paramount and those who favour being outspoken regardless. These differences are real; while it is hard not to judge, it is more effective to discuss the differences. Cultural differences in sexual expression can also be extreme. In some societies, there is a discussion as to whether it is okay to have sexual intercourse on the first date. In other societies, a woman holding an unrelated man's hand can destroy her prospects of marriage, or worse. 
Unrecognised prejudices may lead to perceived disrespect, thoughtless comments and resentments. Please see the article on 'Cross-cultural communication and conflict' for more information on this topic.

Pre-field preparation

It is helpful to stress the potential for conflict during the orientation of team members prior to deployment. If time allows, team members should practice conflict-management techniques and how to arrive at a win-win situation.
Assume everyone is doing her/ his best in the circumstances. Remember to check you own behaviour. Are you short tempered, tired, impatient, frustrated, unreasonable, demanding or rude? It an be useful to take short breaks to regain your composure.  Breathe, walk around, briefly change your environment (i.e., take a short break from the work environment - but don't slam the door on leaving!), have a drink of water etc. Think of each team member as an opportunity to learn more about her or his culture, and to use each conflict to learn about yourself. 

Listen carefully to the 'other side' and think analytically:

  • Is this a misunderstanding?
  • Is there a difference in style, method of working or communicating?
  • Is there a need to maintain honour and dignity?
  • Is there a difference in priorities?
  • Would it be helpful to have a mediator in the situation?

Remember what you have in common with the other party, your humanity, your aims and the project itself.
Conflicts have the potential to benefit a team. In a successfully handled conflict relationships, mutual understanding and respect increase. Members become aware and are able to cope with challenges. Conflict can promote beneficial change and adaptation. It enhances personal and psychological development.  Morale improves as the team overcomes conflict. It breaks the culture of silience. It can strengthen relations between previously disputing groups, individuals, religions etc., after the resolution. Unresolved conflict is a major source of stress and a waste of time.  It drains team energy that needs to be conserved for the work. Factions are created, productivity goes down, people fail to show up, and a sense of discouragement grows in the team. Creative energy is diverted and drained. Team members may actually leave, and it is harder to recruit others. This is not what the donors are paying for.

An important issue merits mediation - a respected, maybe older person, such as an elder of the host community. In many non-European/ non-North American cultures, conflicts are resolved indirectly, often with the preservation of dignity and the restoration of honour. If conflict is treated lightly, perhaps telling people to 'grow up', or to 'get over it', the conflict will be sent underground where it can cause more harm later. Wherever there are choices to be made, differences may provide challenges or opportunities.The differences may result in increased contention, or maybe used to improve understanding. In such a case supervisors, or respected mediators whether from 'outside' or 'inside' the organisation, can make a challenge into an opportunity. Roles taken on by the mediator include understanding each participant's perspective; setting ground rules for communication, coaching participants on effective interactive styles; equalising power; and helping participants plan for future interaction.   

If a mediator is not available to a team or organisation then team leaders and managers should encourage staff within their team to discuss their problems and frustrations with other team members as soon as possible. The storing up of anger can lead to further disputes and a negative working environment. Team leaders and managers should provide space within staff meetings and one-on-one discussions for team members to raise and discuss their problems, in a safe and respectful manner. The strong emotions and opinions attached to a conflict usually subside through people expressing their fears, problems and opinions.



The Act Institute, (1990), Team-building workbook and reference pack, ACT Co-ordinating office, Geneva, p. 17

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Every day, people throughout the world resolve conflicts with their neighbours, spouses, families and friends. Below are two different types of disputes involving material objects and marital disputes. A large proportion of disputes in emergency settings and in ‘normal’ settings involve material objects or disputes within the family home. Aid workers are likely to come across these disputes through their work with affected populations. While the nature of the disputes is very different, the processes to seek a successful resolution are similar. The questions at the end of this article are designed to help outside neutral parties understand more about a conflict and facilitate a successful resolution. 

Disputes over material objects

These conflicts involve one person losing something of financial or personal value. Someone may have bought something that did not function properly, or someone may have stolen an item from another. One neighbour may be occupying land claimed by another, violating sacred land or burial sites, or claiming ownership of livestock currently in someone else’s possession. These conflicts usually involve a determination of fault or responsibility and result in some form of restitution or payment. An acceptable mediator to both parties may listen to their points of view and help the parties reach a decision or solution.

Marital disputes

Marital disputes are very common and may be complex to address because the people involved are very close to each other emotionally and physically. This proximity can also increase the urgency of resolving the problem. What occurs within a family unit is usually considered private, and many communities choose to not become involved in this sphere. Discussing family problems openly can be regarded as insulting, embarrassing and alienating, and should be avoided in most situations. However, there are some processes that may help to bring about a resolution. The analytical questions below are designed to help to break down a dispute into manageable parts and thus begin the process of resolution.

Analytical questions

  • It is helpful to clarify who is involved in the dispute and who must agree on the resolution. Is it just the husband and wife, or are parents from other families involved? Are the children from the marriage involved in the dispute?  What about friends?
    Is this a problem of honour? Did one person do something to dishonour the other or the family? How can honour be restored without resorting to violence? Is there a role for community elders or religious leaders (such as imams) to restore honour and standing?
  • Is this a communication problem? Does one partner not listen to the other? Can they write letters or draw pictures to each other to explain what the issue is? 
  • If there is a sexual problem, sometimes a health practitioner, such as a midwife or a doctor, may be able to resolve the situation medically. On other occasions, the inability to perform sexually maybe the result of an underlying psychological reason resulting from problems in another part of life. In the Gambia, women often act as a mediator to help ensure that both persons receive a fair hearing. 
  • Can an intermediary talk to one person and then the other, to try to narrow their differences so that the conflicting parties can resolve the remaining issues themselves? (This is an example of conflict transformation.)
  • Can an intermediary aid the parties in finding alternative solutions to their problems?
  • Are people’s basic needs being met? Does everyone have food, shelter, clothing, access to healthcare and sanitation facilities, and the opportunity for education?
  • Is this a financial issue? If there is not enough money, can the parties find a solution together? Often, one person is blamed if there is not enough money, raising the stress level and narrowing the opportunities for seeking a solution.
  • If someone has violated another’s trust, the conflict may take a long time to be restored.
  • If possible, a counsellor or doctor should be contacted if there are mental health issues involved.
  • Is the conflict about power and who has the most power in a relationship? Can using a mediator help to create a better balance? Be careful here, though, to ‘do no harm’.

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Experts studying conflict have pointed out that our style of communication is central to how we address conflict. The content and method of communication can vary greatly between cultures. How we express our feelings also differs across cultures and can lead to misunderstandings. Communication is how we engage with other people and build a relationship. The interpretation of another’s words or actions is vitally important and can often define the future of any relationship. Understanding the cultural prism the other person uses when communicating will ameliorate situations such as the following:
Example: A boy from Afghanistan has been acting inappropriately in a play area in a refugee camp. An aid worker takes the boy to one side and starts to tell him his behaviour is unfair to the other children. As the boy is being spoken to, he submits and looks down towards the floor as a sign of respect towards the adult. However, the aid worker tells the boy to “look at her, when she is speaking to him”, to ensure he understands what she is saying. Both parties in this engagement believe they are being polite towards the other and showing the utmost respect. However, they appear rude to the other person, because of their different cultural experiences.     
Stereotypically, Chinese people do not look at others directly in the eye, are very indirect in how they describe something and rarely display overt emotions. People from traditional Arabic societies often use metaphors to describe how they are feeling rather than doing so feelings directly. Italian people are stereotyped as being emotionally expressive and verbally direct. The Kru ethnic group in the Southeastern part of Liberia, are stereotyped as people who speak with power, or are loudly expressive, thus irritating others of different ethnic backgrounds. Though these stereotypes are not true for every Chinese, Arabic, Italian or Kru person, these are some general characteristics. Each culture, society and community has different common characteristics.
All humanitarian workers should be aware of their cultural prejudices about other communities. While we cannot ignore our perceptions, we can acknowledge them privately, and then attempt to overcome them.    

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People communicate their thoughts, ideas, knowledge and fears differently in conflict situations.  Managers and team members should know and understand these different styles of communication to avert conflicts over perceptions of someone’s actions or words. Team-building exercises before field deployment help people to get to know each other and understand how their colleagues communicate. Empathy for another viewpoint greatly aids in prevention and resolution of conflict. 
M.R. Hammer claims that people’s communication styles about conflict lie along two continuums. The first continuum is how we voice our disagreements. Do we give others clues about our views and describe them with stories and metaphors? This is an indirect style. At the opposite end of the continuum is the direct style, in which a speaker bluntly explains exactly what they disagree about. A direct speaker will often look a listener in the eye, while an indirect speaker might prefer to send a subtle message.
The second line described by Hammer is the expressiveness continuum. Some people are very extroverted and expressive with their emotions. They may show their emotions openly on their face or even communicate with their whole body how they feel. People at the opposite end of this continuum are very quiet, introverted people, or are not comfortable showing their emotions openly to others, especially to a group of unfamiliar people.
Communication styles
Discussion style
This type of person keeps their emotions controlled, but tries to speak clearly and accurately about their disagreements directly to the other person. They often use objective facts rather than opinions and feelings.
Accommodation style
These people also prefer to keep their emotions in control and to speak indirectly, using metaphors or other techniques to prevent a conflict from escalating and damaging the relationship.
Engagement style 
People in this group are more comfortable with feelings and express them more openly. They try to be direct about what their concerns are and are often passionate in their conversation.
Dynamic style
This type of person is expressive of emotions and distress about the conflict; however, they are not comfortable with talking directly about the content. This style uses a more associative argument structure and relies on mediators to deliver messages.
There is no ‘normal’ or ‘correct’ style of communication, it simply varies between people and cultures. Communication styles can vary between people from the same family or community, and between people of the same gender. As we work with people from different communities and countries, it can be expected that we will meet people whose communication styles may differ from our own. It is, therefore, important to clear up misunderstandings and misinterpretations early on in a relationship, and to be open to different styles of communication.


Hammer, M. R., (2005) The Inter-cultural Conflict Style Inventory: A conceptual framework and measure of intercultural conflict resolution approaches, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 29, pp675-695

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Conflicts, like the people in them, are unique. They exist in particular contexts that are the result of the merging of culture, events and history. There is no set template or correct method that will work in all situations. Sometimes, it requires many strategies to bring about a successful resolution. We hope you will find ideas here that will help you find solutions to conflicts before they turn violent.

Conflict handling mechanism

The conflict spectrum above makes several points. First, when dealing with a conflict, your goal should of course be to achieve a desirable result. To do so, the conflicting parties must be given time to air out their hurts, frustrations and disappointments to the other party. Create a space for mutual participation of all parties. Use of force is obviously undesirable. Perhaps less obviously, resort to the court system is often undesirable as well.     
Court proceedings can divide families and communities for long periods of time. The feelings of being dragged to court – whether by another individual, family, or organisation – leaves a lasting, bitter memory that can spill over to one’s children and colleagues. Adjudication processes do not encourage much participation. 
On the other hand, arbitration, which is often used traditionally, carries cultural values of cohesiveness of the family, community or organisation. Parties to a conflict often cooperate with the decision of arbitrators with little or no protest. The disadvantage of arbitration is that that the younger person is usually asked to apologise to the older person, regardless of the merits of the dispute. 
Negotiation (the midpoint of the spectrum) and reconciliation (to the far right) show that an increased level of participation is possible.  Negotiation and mediation open up the opportunities for deeper engagements and deeper resolutions of conflicts. 


Attitude is importantConflict

The attitudes and perceptions of conflicting parties are key to finding out how to resolve a conflict – and to whether a conflict will escalate or be resolved amicably.
The following are some general points to consider:
  • Respect the dignity of others.
  • Respect the custom(s) and culture(s) of others.
  • Avoid being demanding.
  • Try to understand rather than judge.
  • Use ‘I’ statements rather than accusatory ‘you’ statements.
  • Be patient with the process.
  • Be self-critical regarding your own mistakes.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help if needed.

It is easy to misinterpret or misperceive the intentions behind a person’s behaviour. In conflict situations, it is common for people to attribute the other side’s behaviour to personal and internal factors (such as their personality), and to attribute their own side’s behaviour to situational factors (such as a poor economy or a drought). This self-justifying viewpoint makes it easy to blame a problem on the opposite party without reflecting on one’s own actions. 

It is important to remember to take a step back when managing any conflict, and to try to perceive the problem from the other party’s viewpoint. In many conflicts, there is no one at fault, but simply a case of two groups perceiving the origins of a problem differently. A ‘time-out’ to encourage self-reflection can help keep the lid on hostilities.

Strategies to manage conflictsCultural variations in behaviour

Motivations, social orientations and cultural perspectives influence the way in which people construe others’ behaviour. Some cultures place a greater emphasis on the collective or community, whereas other cultures are more individualistic. And some societies stress the culture of honour and pride of one’s place within the community. A culture of honour often views male violence as an acceptable way of addressing threats to social reputation or economic position. It is also linked to acts of generosity:  one can be honour-bound to help as well as hurt. The Arabic term izzat has the same meaning. In managing any conflict, it is important to be attuned to the cultural values and motivations of both parties. A good solution cannot violate either side’s code of ethics or deeply-held values. While one should always be aware of human rights violations, failure to pay attention to cultural specifics can cause a conflict to erupt again.



Hogg, M. A., & Vaughan, G. M., (2002), Social Psychology 3rd Edition, Harlow: Pearson Prentice Hall, p610.
Anderson, M., (Ed), Do No Harm Checklist.
West Africa Peace-building Institute - WANEP - WAPI.

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Mediation is a voluntary process designed to meet the needs of the disputing parties. Because it is voluntary, the process of setting up a mediation requires careful planning. This includes preparatory discussion about:
  • whether mediation is appropriate and desirable;
  • selection of the mediator(s);
  • an acceptable time and place for the joint meeting;
  • who should attend;
  • any special needs of the parties, such as what language will be used, whether there will be
  • interpreters, safety, and physical or mental limitations.
A mediator is a person who acts to communicate information from one person to another in a conflict. Mediators may have other primary roles within the community (such as an elder, a respected business person, a religious leader, or a wise neighbour). 
There are two forms of mediation:  direct and indirect.
In direct (formal) mediation the precise role of the mediator is usually defined. For example, a chief may determine which party is at fault, or a neutral third party may help keep a balance in the negotiation process. In indirect (informal mediation) the mediator’s role is less well defined and more modest, and may be as minimal as passing messages between the parties.
Mediation is a delicate process and both sides must agree on the mediator or facilitator for them to be effective. By agreeing to a mediator, the parties show they are willing to give up some of ther own power. Trust and an in-depth knowledge of conflict dynamics are required to build positive relationships between the mediator and conflicting parties. 

A good mediator is not necessarily neutral or impartial. In some cultures an insider-partial mediator and facilitator will obtain greater respect from the conflicting parties than an outsider-neutral person. This is most commonly witnessed in South American societies. Other societies prefer to rely on religious leaders or community leaders to act as mediators, both for their spiritual value and authority. It is not advisable to use religious leaders as mediators when the parties follow different religions, as this in itself can be a source of conflict. However the gender of the mediator may be important in certain traditional societies.
Be aware of the temptation for people to manipulate the mediator to become their advocate.

Attributes of a mediator:

Mediators can be male or female.  But in either case, they need a special set of qualities. 

Mediators need big ears to listen carefully to what the parties are saying, and clear eyes to read their body language. They need a hard head to give them the persistence needed to see the process through to a successful result. And they need a container in which to put their ego, as they strive to listen more, talk less, and focus on the problem rather than their own feelings. A mediator needs a big heart to empathise with each side while not committing firmly to either. And to allow the mediation to proceed efficiently, the mediator needs a big bladder – or at least, needs to avoid consuming beverages just before the mediation. Finally, the mediator’s body language should convey confidence: big feet firmly on the ground, no wavering.


Kraybill, R. S., Evans, R, A., & Evans, A. F., (2001), Peace Skills: A Manual for Community Mediators, San Francisco, CA.
Christian Health Association of Liberia (CHAL), Peace building training manual, (1995).
Barry Hart, J.N. Doe. & Sam Gbaydee Doe., (December 1993), Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Training Manual - A Handbook for trainers and trainees.

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Stage 1: Introduction (creating a safe and secure environment)Mediation 1

  • Greet, seat and introduce the participants.
    State goals, emphasising this is a voluntary process to aid parties in reaching a mutual agreement.
  • Describe the mediator’s role of helping the parties talk, and not judging or providing the answers.
  • Work with these goals one at a time with suggestions for resolution.
  • Gain commitment to the ground rules: no interrupting or finger pointing; maintain confidentiality and respect for each other.
  • Try to ascertain what people’s expectations and aims are from the meeting. Be modest and honest about what you feel can reasonably be achieved.

Mediation 2

Stage 2: Storytelling, offering understanding

  • Get A’s perspective on the situation and summarise it; identify hopes and concerns.
    Same for B. Listen for issues and try to identify common ground.

Stage 3: Problem solving, building ownership

Mediation 3

Clarify the issues. 
Identify common concerns, help the parties find common ground.
Work on one issue at a time; start with the issues easiest to resolve.

  • Maintain control by using a list of the issues and interviewing each party in turn.
    Identify each’s party’s communication style: direct and open, or shy and prone to using metaphors?   
    Move away from the parties’ demands and focus on their underlying interests.
    Generate options, inviting the parties to suggest ideas for resolution. Evaluate options together. Try to ensure that the options are responsive to the original objectives of the parties (see stage 1).
    Select options and plan implementation. Always look for opportunities to point out areas of commonality, over-arching goals and positive intentions; acknowledge hurt, anger and frustration; suggest that parties speak directly to one another (direct dialogue). This will help them build a positive relationship and restore trust,; and affirm constructive moves and highlight progress made.


Stage 4: Agreement and seeking sustainabilityMediation 4

  • Summarise agreements reached.
  • Ensure that specifics are addressed: who, what, when, where, and how.
  • Be realistic, clear and simple.
    Maintain balance in the parties’ responsibilities.
  • Make sure the agreement is just and consistent with the dignity of each party.
  • Agree on how to handle any further  problems that arise.
  • Ask the parties to state their intent to support the agreement.
  • Write out the agreement and have the parties sign it.

If alienation has been deep, let the parties speak to each other in ways that will help them let go of the past and begin to restore their relationship. This is the basis of reconciliation.
If there is no resolution, remind the parties of their confidentiality agreement, affirm the level of understanding reached and offer to meet again. Look for a positive end to a meeting, even if no concrete resolution is reached. Mediation requires the restoration of trust between conflicting parties and this can take time. Mediation is not a linear process, so expect setbacks as well as progress. Patience is required to reach a sustainable outcome.


Lederach, J. P., (1997), Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.
Kraybill, R. S., Evans, R, A., & Evans, A. F., (2001), Peace Skills: A Manual for Community Mediators, San Francisco, CA.

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The first casualty in any conflict is trust – and the second is the truth. Conflict transformation and reconciliation is about the rebuilding of relationships to regain trust. The author Boulding talks about ‘imagined futures’ and focusing on the positives, despite the conflict, so that people can envision a new type of relationship in the future. Conflict transformation involves communities dealing with conflicts as they arise, so that they can foster peace among themselves and deal with problems before they turn violent.
Conflict transformation addresses the wider social and political sources of a conflict and seeks to transform the negative energy of war into positive social and political change.  

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What is reconciliation?

Reconciliation is not in itself a universal concept. 
  • It can be an ideological device created to deal with past crimes and to help face the future.
  • Reconciliation can be a means to resolve conflict.
  • It can help provide justice for victims of violence.
  • It can help people come to terms with the experience of pain, facilitating the moral and political reconstruction of a shattered society or community.
Reconciliation includes some or all of the following: 
  • confessions,
  • repentance,
  • truth,
  • mercy,
  • justice, and
  • peace. 
A mixture of remembering and forgetting is required within reconciliation, so the past does not dominate the present and people can learn how to move forward positively.  

  • Know the conflict dynamics and parties involved.  Take time to research and understand their underlying interests, viewpoints, aims and fears.
  • Seek to understand the society the conflict is set in.  Do not presume that all people, especially women, agree with the local customs and cultures, even if they obey them.
  • Trust and the rebuilding of relationships is key – this can take years, even a generation. 
  • Sensitivity is vital – know your own role and that of your agency.  You may see yourself as neutral, but others may not.  Remember to ‘do no harm’.
  • In many contemporary conflicts, the different parties live side by side.  This proximity can complicate the management of a conflict and its reconciliation, or it can aid the process by forcing the two groups to overcome their differences constructively.
  • Conflict affects men, women and children in different ways.  The role of women is crucial to ensuring sustainable peace.  Make special efforts to seek their full participation in conflict mediation and transformation efforts.
  • Look for indigenous conflict resolution and local reconciliation practices and implementers of peace within a community.  Work with pre-existing community structures, such as youth and women’s groups.  Over-arching goals are a useful mechanism to bring parties closer together through cooperative action.
  • Timing is crucial.  Victim and perpetrator should not be forced to meet and reconcile until they are both ready.  In some societies (such as certain communities in Mozambique), reconciliation is a foreign concept.  People do not discuss past problems; instead, they choose to focus on the future.  Reconciliation should not be forced. 
  • Forgiveness is not always the right solution, and is not part of the culture in some societies.  Do not overemphasise it if it is not a good fit.  There are multiple ways of helping opposing parties reconcile, such as through narration, story-telling, theatre, exchange of gifts, dance, art and music.  Be creative.


References and further reading

Lederach, J. P., (1997), Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.
Boulding, E., (1991), ‘The Challenges of Imaging Peace in Wartime’, Futures 23 (5).
Becker, D., Weyermann B., (2006), ‘Sheet 4: Dealing with the Past’, Toolkit: Gender, Conflict Transformation and the Psychosocial Approach.  Bern: Swiss Development Co-operation:
Simon Fisher; Jawed Ludin; Steve Williams; Sue Williams; Richard Smith; Dekha Ibrahim Abdi; Working with Conflict, Skills and Strategies, (1989 and 2000).

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When building a bridge or planting an orchard, it is clear whether the goal has been achieved.  With work on peace and conflict, however, assessing impact is more complex, but equally vital.  The assessment includes two components:  the impact on peace and on violence. 
Peace impact
The term peace impact means fostering sustainable structures and processes that strengthen the prospects of peaceful co-existence and reduce the likelihood of an outbreak (or continuation) of violent conflict. 
Violent impact 
The term violent impact includes all social, economic and political effects that increase the likelihood that conflict will become violent. 
Peace and violent impact assessments are useful tools to assist development and humanitarian organisations in analysing situations of actual or potential conflict, identifying strategic opportunities for violence prevention, and monitoring the impact of their activities.  An impact assessment can capture the essence of a situation at a particular moment in time.
But, since conflict is highly dynamic, it is important to monitor the change over time, both for programme planning and implementation.  For sustainability of a project, the standard for success should be set, whenever possible, by the beneficiaries.  In that way, their own standards are used to judge impact, and and they are more likely to understand and own the result.

Key indicators

The following indicators will need to be adapted to the particular context in which you are working:
  • Are communities able to effectively deal with problems before they become violent?  Can previously conflicting parties live in a symbiotic relationship?  This can only be measured by a visible absence of disputes.
  • Do returning combatants feel more confident in using alternative mechanisms other than violence to achieve their ends?  Have they been accepted and integrated back into their communities and families?
  • Are communities able to accept change positively?  For example, would an increase in women’s rights and empowerment cause problems domestically, or with community and religious elders?
  • Has trust been restored within a society or organisation?  Are connections being made between groups?  (This can be observed, for example, if previously opposing sides’ children are free to play and go to school together, if women are talking and helping each other when they collect water from the well and if people can be seen working co-operatively and trading among each other).
  • Are there self-help groups forming within and between communities (such as women working together to care for families and children’s play groups)?
  • Is there communication between tribal, ethnic, and political groups?  Does this extend to co-operation on mutually agreed projects?
  • Is the project running smoothly?  Can the team absorb new members and new methods of working without conflict?


Anderson, M., (Ed), (2007), Do No Harm Checklist:
Fisher, S. (Eds.), (2000), Working with Conflict: Skills and Strategy for Action, Zed Books.

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Relief work cannot succeed without cooperation among all its actors. Below is a checklist of groups that we should be co-operating, consulting and partnering with.
  • team members;
  • local partners and international specialists donors;
  • NGOs serving the same area or the same population;
  • local government and relief operations
  • local populations and emergency survivors; and
  • national level co-ordinators

Cooperation must be nurtured at all levels. There are many opportunities for conflict in emergency operations, both within and across organisations. Conflict can be avoided by agencies ensuring they have good relationships with others working in the same situation and sector. Co-operation and transparency with other humanitarian groups can greatly reduce the chance that disputes will erupt. 

  • Work hard to integrate with your local partner. Good relations with local partners is vital not only for the short run, but long-term effects. The climate for future relationships is often established early in a process. Local ownership should be established early so that programmes can be sustainable for the future.
  • Take the lead in reaching out to potential partners. Invite them for coffee, lunch or dinner away from the workplace; or warmly accept their invitation.
  • Participate, when possible, in activities of the local partner, such as in social and spiritual activities. Introduce yourself to the local congregation at the church, mosque or other religious gatherings.
  • Model cooperation. As early as possible, work with the local partner (and local authorities) on an agreement for acommon mission. 
  • Encourage local leadership and try to learn the local leadership structure. Make a list of people to contact. It is crucial to establish good contacts with the local authorities connected with the project.
  • Support other programmes and build complementary services or programmes.
  • Learn which conflict resolution tools work in this society. This will take time, and you will need a local guide.
  • Learn about the local society, culture and religion. Develop a strategy with your local partner about handling different perceptions. Poor trainers or ill-prepared trainers can actually slow a community’s recovery. It is good to exchange local knowledge with more experienced workers and local people.
  • In designing training, pay attention to the culturally specific aspects of an emergency and their effect on this community. Emergencies do not affect all communities in the same way. Returning to a community a year later, to see people’s perceptions of your work, can be a powerful monitoring tool.
Building up confidence and trust can help to mitigate conflict. Try to be a neutral mediator. Find strategies for good communication and be open to receiveng hospitality. Let people know that you are interested in them and their work. Be transparent in service delivery, management, decision-making and accounting. Avoid favours and priority treatment for some staff over others. This will foster resentment and fuel rumours. For example, invite a group out to lunch rather than just one person.

Share resources and knowledge. Be open to learning new ideas and methods of working. It helps if you have a flexible mindset at the beginning. Sharing knowledge is always appreciated if done gracefully. If you say you will do something, stick to your word and follow it through. Do not promise anything that you cannot deliver.
In Muslim and Hindu countries, males should not spend time with women alone or even as a pair in public. It harms the woman and leads to suspicions and conclusions that a Westernised male is unaware of.


Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, Action Sheet 1.1: ‘Establish coordination of inter-sectoral mental health and psychosocial support’, Geneva, (September 2007), pp33 – 37

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Structure can be described as the inner order that in a concrete or an abstract way can construct an entity out of its parts. 
A carefully arranged structure can reduce some of the chaos, frustration and conflicts associated with emergency response work, but flexibility is also very important. A leader who mindlessly follows a structure, even when it is not working, is a liability. A clear leadership structure with defined roles and responsibilities is important for the smooth running of a team. Team members need to know who their line manager is, and which manager or leader to approach with a specific problem. For example, personal issues, in the first instance, may be discussed with the pastoral care team and Human Resources department, rather than the Project Co-ordinator who covers the operational side of the emergency response.
A team leader’s position can be described as that of a ‘mirror-role’, where they help team members to see themselves through the eyes of the team leader. Leaders should reflect back and provide feedback on what they see within the team. Leaders are responsible for team building, assignments, organisation and staff-care. Obviously a team leader should also have strong leadership, management and conflict resolution skills.

Team buildingTeam building

  • To build security in the group by helping members learn to know each other.
  • To reduce the likelihood of conflicts between team members.
  • To build a common awareness of the goal and the methods of reaching them.
There are several components to team-building. Some components will always be present across teams, whereas other components are specific to a particular emergency and affected community. The formation of a team will depend on the requirements for a specific mission; however, all missions contain a team-building component. Some example questions that all team leaders should ask are:
  • Who are the people that will form the group?
  • What are the necessary preparations?
  • What resources are needed for the mission and for the team?
During the team development process the members go through different stages. Firstly,there is the forming stage, where the team coes together. This is folloe by the storming stage, where there may be conflicts and challenges to the initial arrangement. The third stage is the norming stage where a new working formula is crafted. Negotiations are necessary during this stage. The final stage is performig where the team begins to deliver. Some of these stages occur prior to and during a mission. 

Pre-mission teambuilding preparations

Teambuilding should be performed with all the teams before the beginning of the mission. Team-building can be done close to the emergency-affected area. This is time well-spent, although it must be compared with other tasks that need to be performed. Give staff members team-building tools (see the further reading section below) to save time when the actual operation starts; focus on the specific group and their tasks. The pre-mission team-building can be performed in one or two days and, ideally, should include a lot of laughter, which helps to defuse anxiety.
Prior to a mission each team member should be honest about apprehensions, reservations and motivations regarding the work (fears of the unknown, being forced to do the work because it is part of the job, seeking career opportunity etc.,) as well, being aware of personal limits and respecting them. Encouraging team members to write a journal promotes 'self-honesty'. Discussing simple fears (spiders, snakes, the dark etc.,) strengths, weaknesses and hopes in small groups with a facilitator, promotes 'honesty within the team'.
All team members should have an initial plan of activities before going to the area, though it may be revised according to the context or situation in the field.
Discuss the following issues
  • Common ways of addressing each other.
  • When and how to apologise.
  • How to dress appropriatey to prevent embarrassment and to avoid offending each other.
  • Knowledge of different religions and cultural behaviour.

A lack of understanding about these issues can cause conflicts. These issues must be presented in a culturally sensitive way to avoid offending or embarrassing any member of the group.

  • A common knowledge within the team of the: values, aims, objectives, mandates and approaches of the mission.
  • A sense of confidence and security within the team (where everyone knows each others strengths, weaknesses and gifts).
  • Knowledge about the other team members’ specific skills, roles and areas of work.
  • Common rules: Dress codes, how to address each other, how to resolve problems, lines of accountability – financial and people management.
  • Specific preparations for the mission.

The individual members of the team are key ingredients for the success of any mission. It is important that the members have made adequate efforts to prepare themselves physically, psychologically and emotionally before embarking on a mission in an emergency situation. The same preparation is needed even for members who are from the affected communities.  

During a mission

All team members (national and international) are responsible for their own health and welfare. It may be useful to remember the “three p’s” to help bring structure, order, and to mitigate against work-related conflict in what is often a chaotic environment in an emergency:
  • Planning.
  • Prioritising.
  • Pausing.
Team buildingDuring a mission each team member should be aware that fear is a normal reaction that others share, although they do not always speak about it. Fear(s) often decrease(s) if they are talked about with other team members. Many fears will disappear once they have been confronted.
Be aware of the different reactions she/ he could feel towards the emergency situation or the habits of the community. Do not expect gratitude from the community. In some faiths, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, service to others is seen as Karma and, therefore, it is motivated by self-interest. Compassion, and respect for people of a lower standing and sanctity of life, are not necessarily characteristics of non-Western or Western communities. Filth, insect life, poor sanitation facilities, attitudes towards women and children etc., may be more of a shock than the actual disaster or conflict. An emergency setting may not seem fertile ground to communicate with laughter, but it always helps. Non-native community members will be found interesting and hilarious anyway. Learn to be laughed at.
Take into account personal feelings towards the affected population and the disaster situation, be they positive or negative (such as feeling sorry or frustrated with the affected population). Extremes of expressed emotion, either over-sympathy (sentimentalisation) or displays of temper are of no help to the team, your work, or the affected population. Be aware that most of your reactions will be rooted in the prejudices of your own culture.


Team-building is not a quick-fix but an on-going process. Consider these ways of continuing teambuilding and maintaining the team:
  • Conduct daily team meetings. Not all meetings have to be work related some could be social e.g., mid-morning refreshments.
  • Share information about the situation in the area and relevant project updates.
  • Discuss who is doing what. All team members should be encouraged to contribute something verbally.
  • Remind members of the common goal on a regular basis.
  • Encourage shared social activities on a regular basis.
  • Care for each other through regular follow-ups during working hours and during time off (stress management).
A mission will run more smoothly, efficiently and, hence, effectively, if there is order and structure to the working week. 
Below are some examples of ‘organised work’:
Daily/weekly/monthly meetings to discuss:
  • The development of the situation and the community
  • Information sharing
  • Who is doing what?
  • Logistics
  • Don’t neglect to put matters of conflict on the table. A resolved ‘conflict’ is much healthier within the working environment than a buried issue/ conflict, which inevitably resurfaces as a larger problem later on. 

The team leader should also ensure that all staff (local and international) receive the following:

  • Working schedule appropriate to their position, skills and experience.
  • Time off.
  • Recreational activities to guard against stress reactions, burnout and decreased efficiency.
  • Some privacy (both in living quarters and within the work environment if possible).

Characteristics of a winning team

This is a set of people who:

  • Are psychologically aware of one another-emotional intelligence; reading of body language and empathising.
  • Share and contribute to a common goal, objective or purpose.
  • Are disciplined and recognise team’s leadership.
  • Have mutual and reciprocal trust and confidence in one another.
  • Have willingness to co-operate and sacrifice self-interest in favour of team goals.
  • Exhibit complementary strengths, identify and reward strengths.
  • Are joined by a network of relevant communication.
  • Play down their vanities and egos for the sake of team spirit and team-work.
  • Share and own team success and failure as one/ a single unit.
  • Appreciate each other as equals and partners.
  • Demonstrate enthusiasm/ passion.

Bringing the team to a close

At some stage during the emergency response, team members will leave in accordance with their contracts, and the project may close, or be absorbed by new teams working on longer-term development projects. It is crucial that teams are bought to an official close, as soon as possible after a project's completion. Relevant organisational and donor- related reports should be written and the equipment, tools and materials handed over to the community or the 'new team'. A half-day workshop with all team members present is a useful way to close the mission, as it provides people with the opportunity to ask questions, to receive thanks in person and to say goodbye to other team members, who often have become friends.
It is important that all team members leave a mission knowing
  • The value and importance of their work.
  • That they are appreciated.
  • That their stresses and difficulties are understood and provided for.
  • Who they can approach should they suffer from mission related problems (flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, reintegration problems etc.,) on their return home.


Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, Action sheet 4.4: ‘Prevent and manage problems in mental health and psychosocial well-being among staff and volunteers’, Geneva, September 2007, pp87-92
Handbook on psychosocial assessment of children and communities in emergencies, (2005), UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Office and Regional Emergency Psychosocial Support Network, p24

Further reading and 'toolkit'

The Act Institute, (1990), Teambuilding workbook and reference pack, ACT Co-ordinating office, Geneva, p21

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Aid neither causes nor ends conflicts. Still, it can have important effects on inter-group relations and on the course of inter-group conflict.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, a number of international and local NGOs collaborated through the Local Capacities for Peace Project (LCPP) to study how aid in conflict settings interacts with the conflict itself. It was already clear that aid is often used and misused in conflicts to pursue political and military advantage. Through the LCCP, however, it was possible to identify clear patterns about how aid and conflict interact. These lessons are reported in Mary Anderson’s book, Do No Harm: How Aid Supports Peace – or War.

Applying 'do no harm'

Experience shows it is possible and useful to apply ‘do no harm’ in conflict-prone, active conflict and post-conflict situations.
The ‘do no harm’ awareness aims to
  • identify the ways in which humanitarian or development assistance can be provided in a conflict setting so that, rather than worsening the conflict, it helps local people disengage from fighting and develop systems for settling problems;
  • find practical ways that humanitarian assistance can ease tensions and promote peace, through supporting local initiatives, capacities and actions. It also seeks to influence policy changes towards these objectives.
Working with the 'do no harm' awarenessenables us to identify programming options when things are going badly. In fact, many aid workers admit they were long aware of negative impacts of their programmes, but thought they were unavoidable. ‘Do no harm’ gives us a tool to find better ways – programming options – to provide aid.
It also prompts us to recognise, much sooner, the ways in which aid can exacerbate conflicts. A heightend awareness of inter-group relations at project sites enables us to consciously help people come together. Applying the 'do no harm' methdology reveals interconnections between programming decisions: where to work, with whom, how to set the criteria for aid recipients, who to hire locally, how to hire them, and how to relate to local authorities and provides a common reference point for considering the impacts of our assistance on conflict. It also brings a new cohesiveness to staff interactions and to our work with local counterparts.
Experience shows that the record of humanitarian and development aid in conflict situations is mixed. Even when such assistance is effective in meeting its stated objectives of saving lives, or contributing to people’s abilities to sustain independent economic production, it can inadvertently fuel the conflict. A ‘do no harm’ analysis aims to discover how to provide aid to achieve a better overall outcome. It should, therefore, form the basis of any planning and assessment phases.

A framework for analysis

How can the realities of conflict be factored into programme design so that humanitarian and development aid achieves its intended goals and, at the same time, encourages local people to engage in peace-building rather than war-making?
‘Do no harm’ provides a framework for analysing how the ways the following issues can affect conflict:
  • who to work with, who to work for,
  • who to hire,
  • who to work through (partners),
  • which goods and services to provide (and how much), how to deliver aid,how to work with local authorities without legitimising their control or violence.

A tool for mapping

The analytical framework provides a tool for mapping the interactions of aid and conflict and can be used to plan, monitor and evaluate both humanitarian and development assistance programmes. 
The framework is not prescriptive. It is a descriptive tool that
  • identifies the types of information that experience shows to be important for understanding how aid affects conflict. 
  • organises these categories in a visual layout that highlights their actual and potential relationships.
  • helps to predict the impacts of different programming decisions. 

References and further reading

Anderson, M., (2007), Do No Harm Workbook, Collaborative Learning Projects, Cambridge, USA: 
Anderson, M., (1995), ‘Options for Aid in Conflict: Lessons from Field Experience’, Do No Harm Checklist:  

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The following discussion exercises are designed to be used by field workers and trainers during workshops and training sessions with community members and local partners. The questions can also be used to assess how a community resolves conflicts, and whether this has changed as a result of the emergency.

How would your community resolve the following conflicts?

Example 1 
Two people are arguing. One bought a piece of land from the other. When he went to the land to build a house, a neighbour claimed he owned some of the land and showed an official document to prove it. The buyer went back to the seller to ask for money back for the part of the land that belonged to the neighbour. The seller refused, saying they had agreed on the price and the deal was closed.
Example 2
A husband and wife are arguing. The wife would like to get a job to pay for their children, a boy and a girl, to go to a private school. The husband says he is the head of the house and will decide about things relating to money. If she gets a job, she must bring the money to him, and he will decide how it is used. He agrees the boy should go to private school, but not the daughter. For her, the local school is good enough.
Example 3
Rudin works as a technician for a large firm. He works in a team of seven people who prepare material for shipping. On the team are four women and two other men. The people come from three different countries. One of the men on the team feels Rudin works too slowly and is not doing his share of the work. He laughs with the other team members about Rudin and talks about him in nasty ways. When Rudin has tried to talk about this problem, the rest of the team seems to be against him. It is a very uncomfortable situation for him to work in; he is constantly made fun of and criticised. He does not know what to do.

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The discussion exercise below is designed to be used when carrying out detailed assessments with a community. It is particularly useful during the demobilisation and reintegration phases, when there is often a need for mediation between a community and former rebels. The questions can help sensitise and raise the awareness of community members to the effects of proliferation of weapons on individuals, families and communities. The discussion exercises can also be used in a peace-building workshop or training with community members, especially with men and boys.

Small arms and light weapons?

Trauma, unemployment, alcoholism and brutalisation from armed conflict heighten family tensions and can increase the incidence of domestic violence. The severity of violence can be exacerbated by the ready availability of small arms, which are perceived differently by men, women, boys and girls. While men may feel that the possession of arms gives them a sense of security, women may regard them as a threatening presence within their homes. The presence of small weapons within the home can also directly affect the methods and type of play that children exhibit, with small boys for example emulating gunfire exchanges. Bearing a weapon, in some societies can further contribute to the culturally accepted concept of masculinity, which young boys learn from the community’s adult males.
In a region of West Africa, elderly women reported that rape by young boys was particularly humiliating and traumatising as traditionally elders were held in high regard. Such expressions of violence against women were contrary to local values and traditions, and often initiated a cycle of revenge. The combination of the breakdown in the traditional value system and the rising tide of small arms and light weapons seemed to explain these developments. For women, arms proliferation can mean an increased risk of sexual and domestic violence. The close proximity of arms bearers can cause women to suffer from intimidation and repeated traumatisation. Within some societies, it may be possible to encourage men to surrender weapons in exchange for food. However, we must be careful when disarming civilians, as the original demand for small arms may have been fuelled by social unrest and instability. Positive economic and social incentives can be effective in encouraging women, men, girls and boys to surrender their weapons in favour of an alternative livelihood. Women could help in the participation of a weapons collection programme, which would enable them to feel as though they contributed to the decline of small arms within a community.
The questions below may be useful for field workers in guiding a focus group discussion with community members.
  • are weapons linked to an increase in sexual violence within your community?
  • who has access to weapons?
  • as a woman, what do you feel about the growth of weapons within your community?
  • as a man, what do you feel about the growth of weapons within your community?
  • as a male, do you have access to a weapon? 
  • as a woman, do you feel safe if your husband/ partner keeps a weapon at home?
  • as a man, do you feel safe if your wife or partner keeps a weapon at home?
  • do light weapons make you and your family feel more secure?
  • do you let the children see the weapons? how do they react?
  • are weapons culturally acceptable with your community?
  • how can women, men, boys and girls within your community be persuaded to surrender their arms? 
  • what would they like in return?


Addressing the Needs of Women Affected by Armed Conflict, ICRC Guidance Document, March 2004, p23.