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A ‘Force for Good’? – Introduction

Article by Tim Molesworth and Adam Hug

December 6, 2021

A ‘Force for Good’? – Introduction

The foreign policy of the United Kingdom (UK) is undergoing a period of evolution and adaptation, responding to: a changing geopolitical context; a different set of relationships with allies and partners due to Brexit; shifting priorities and resources due to the COVID pandemic; and institutional changes within Her Majesty’s Government (HMG). At the heart of this adaptation is the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which has provided a framework for thinking about how the UK engages overseas moving forward.[1] While providing a significant sense of direction, the Integrated Review does leave a lot of the operational detail to be worked out. This includes looking at how the UK engages with, and responds, to countries facing instability and war.


This essay collection looks to explore the implications of the Integrated Review, and the UK’s changing place in the world more broadly, for the ways the UK engages with and in fragile and conflict affected countries (FCACs). The term ‘fragile and conflict affected countries’ is used, for the purposes of this publication, to denote countries experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, violent conflict. While there are a number of different frameworks and indices available for assessing fragility and risk of conflict, each of which focus on different aspects of fragility leading to conflict, the term is used here more as a catch-all to think about the particular set of priorities, needs and challenges involved with working around, working in, or working on, conflict related issues in terms of the UK’s foreign policy engagement.[2]


The UK has established expertise engaging in FCACs on conflict related issues, but this engagement is shifting, as the nature of conflict evolves globally, as a response to Britain’s changing place in the world, and in response to institutional changes. This essay collection looks to explore this changing engagement further. It examines a number of the different ways in which the UK writ large, both at governmental level and more broadly, engages in FCACs, including: its strategic intent; how it works with UN peace structures; its peace-focused mediation and peacebuilding work; humanitarian and development assistance; private sector involvement; its work on gender in conflict; how the UK’s work on climate change interacts with peace and conflict; and the changing role of the military.


This introduction aims to set the scene by outlining some of the ways in which conflict has been evolving. It then looks at why the UK engages in FCACs – what it gains and what it gives through its involvement. It looks at the tools it has available to have an impact in FCACs, the challenge of trying to make a positive difference within the resource and strategic limitations placed on the UK.


Fragile and conflict affected countries in a changing world

Globally, the last decade has been a conflicted one, with historically high levels of conflict-related casualties and an increasing number of armed conflicts. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, the year 2018 saw a peak in the numbers of armed conflicts globally, 52, matched since 1946 only by a peak in the early 1990s when the Cold War settlement unravelled.[3] However, while there has been a rise in humanitarian ceasefires over that period, there has not been a corresponding rise in peace agreements (unlike in the early 1990s) – with the number of conflicts stabilising at a high level.


Worryingly, over the last five years there has been a growing internationalisation of internal conflicts.[4] This not only represents a greater number of conflicts within national borders in which external international actors are involved, but also how a wider range of international actors, both state and non-state, are involved – including regional actors. A greater number of international conflict actors significantly increases the complexities of conflict in FCACs, risks embedding international competition into national and local conflicts, and makes the job of promoting sustainable peace more difficult. Motivations for foreign intervention are informed by broader geopolitical considerations, ideological and economic interests, or based on an intent to disrupt. Foreign involvement may be direct, as in the case of Yemen or Syria, through proxies such as private security/mercenaries, in Libya or Mozambique for example, or by providing meaningful diplomatic, financial and material support to national conflict actors.


Many familiar drivers of conflict lay the heart of the problems in FCACs, including political, social and economic inequalities, non-inclusive governance, historic grievances and the legacies of past conflicts. The drivers of conflict in each country, and opportunities to transform that conflict towards sustainable peace, need to be considered in nuanced ways. However, a long-term trend is also the increasing significance of transnational dynamics to fragility and conflict. The direct impacts of climate change, including extreme weather events, are contributing to environmental, economic, humanitarian and social pressures in the most vulnerable countries, exacerbating conflict dynamics. Transnational crime, particularly around drugs and human trafficking, fuels conflict related economies and creates incentive for instability. Despite the efforts of the last 20 years, transnational terrorism and violent extremism remain an evolving threat, embedded within countries experiencing violent conflict, but also significant in countries under social and economic pressure. While having conflict effects within FCACs, none of these problems can be addressed solely at country level, requiring regional or global strategies and cooperation.


Why does, or should, the UK engage in promoting peace in FCACs?

There are a number of different reasons why the UK has historically engaged in promoting peace, building on its complex legacy of engagement around the world. The UK is a member of the UN Security Council, the fourth highest military spender, until recently the world’s fourth largest aid donor and a country possessing both an experienced diplomatic network and an internationally recognised cluster of peacebuilding expertise both in civil society and academia.[5] It has a long-standing desire to show leadership on the world stage, currently embodied in the Government’s concept of ‘Global Britain’. This stated desire for continued leadership has been somewhat tempered by a sense that policy in recent years has tended to take the form of firefighting and ad hoc responses to crisis, the UK public’s understandable fatigue towards further military engagement and the recent reductions in the aid budget. For much of the last two decades the UK’s involvement in FCACs has often been driven by its counter-terrorism objectives and an increasing interest in stemming the source of potential refugee and migrant flows. Beyond government, British business, notably but not exclusively in the extractive sector, retains economic interests in fragile and conflict affected countries around the world that both directly shape conflict dynamics and potentially influence the UK Government’s political interests in these countries.


When examining the Integrated Review for signs of the UK’s priorities in this field it is worth noting that while the term ‘peace’ is used generically, neither peacemaking or peacebuilding are mentioned explicitly. The primary section on ‘Conflict and instability’ falls within the framework of ‘Strengthening security and defence at home and overseas’, highlighting the security rather the development lens through which this agenda is often seen by Government. This framing is likely to lead to changes in the UK’s approach, such as narrowing the focus of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) to ‘the foundational link between stability, resilience and security, and work with governments and civil society in regions that are of greatest priority to the UK’. However, on a more values focused note the Integrated Review has committed the Government to acting as a ‘force for good’ in the world, with ‘conflict resolution’ identified a number of times as a part of this agenda.[6]


Engaging in FCACs poses significant challenges for the UK. Conflict dynamics are complex and murky, making it difficult to know what to do or with whom to engage; the positive, sustainable impacts of interventions cannot be guaranteed; interventions may inadvertently fuel conflict in unexpected ways; and significant operational challenges make it difficult to ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff and partners, while increasing costs. In certain country contexts today’s conflicts may have their origins in the UK’s colonial legacy or where more recently the UK (or its business interests) may be a party to a conflict (both directly or indirectly), complicating the scope for current and future engagement. Providing support to both governments and peoples in FCACs to transform conflicts and promote sustainable peace is challenging and complex work, that requires a level of policy integration that the UK Government aspires to but has not always achieved in the past.


This publication seeks to set out a number of reasons why the UK should persevere with engaging with FCACs. It is clear that there are a number of benefits of the UK doing so, both as a broader value given by the UK and as value to the UK.


The first is the importance of contributing to international peace and security. Where successful, investing in conflict prevention, conflict reduction and peacebuilding reduces uncertainty in the international peace and security landscape, reducing threats to the UK and to other states from instability, transnational terrorism and geopolitical competition, while strengthening international norms around governance, human rights and international relations.


Promoting peace in FCACs is important in terms of improving sustainable development outcomes for vulnerable people in FCACs. This is directly true for reducing conflict related deaths and development outcomes related to the UN Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions – of which the UK has been a champion.[7] However, it is also true of the other Sustainable Development Goals generally. Violent conflict has a staggering impact on development outcomes including gender, health, inequalities, poverty reduction, education and economic opportunity.[8] It has a huge macroeconomic cost for affected countries: on GDP; on infrastructure; and access to global markets.[9] For the UK as an actor continuing to be committed to the Sustainable Development Goals and reducing poverty, supporting governments and communities in FCACs to prevent or respond to conflict must be a priority.


UK engagement in FCACs also has direct benefits to its ability to act through ‘soft-power’. The UK has developed an important reputation for engaging constructively in FCACs, particularly through the former Department for International Development (DFID) and the CSSF which, together with other areas of aid assistance, has strengthened its moral weight and norm-shaping capacity relating to conflict within the international community. Engagement within FCACs provides UK with a ‘place at the table’ alongside other international actors when shaping the international response to conflicts, especially important when dealing with conflicts with geopolitical significance or of direct importance to UK security. Support to FCACs also facilitates relationships between the UK and the governments and communities within those countries, with the potential to bolster the UK’s reputation and encourage partnerships. These are important components of the UK’s ability to project its influence and support its interests globally.


The moral and prestige cases for engagement may persuade different politicians of the importance of the cause but are unlikely to persuade the treasury, whose control of the purse strings (and at times the political narrative) is often decisive. Investing in reducing conflict and promoting peace has the potential for significant savings to treasury. Rt Hon. Andrew Mitchell’s essay in this collection quotes the maxim that if you do not invest in diplomacy you have to buy more ammunition, however the cost of conflict is not only measured in the direct costs to the UK of intervention but in managing the wider shocks to the global economy and the impact of instability on sensitive issues like refugees and migration.


Quite rightly, as a ‘force for good’, the UK shoulders a significant portion of the burden relating to the global humanitarian response. In 2019, the UK provided £1.5 billion towards humanitarian assistance, the vast majority to countries experiencing violent conflict or dealing with displacement due to violent conflict.[10] In 2021, the UN appealed globally for $35 billion USD to address humanitarian needs, again the vast majority of which are related to conflict.[11] Conflict prevention, conflict reduction and peacebuilding efforts cost a fraction of the amount needed for humanitarian response and have the potential to significantly reduce the humanitarian needs arising out of conflict.[12] This ‘invest to save’ approach to conflict work is only likely to become more relevant as climate change intensifies competition for access to resources including water and arable land in areas at risk of conflict. While it is often hard to prove a counterfactual, and most peacebuilding work is incremental and long-term, peacebuilders need to be able to cite successful examples of potential crises averted wherever possible to strengthen their case to government.


In terms of the wider economy also conflict prevention, conflict reduction and peacebuilding also have a direct impact on the sustainability of previous and concurrent UK investments in FCACs, both through aid assistance and the private sector. It does this by reducing risk and facilitating an enabling environment for the long-term institutional and economic support that can help FCACs achieve sustainable peace. Ultimately, however, the UK does and should support governments and communities in FCACs to work towards sustainable peace because it is the right thing to do, and because not doing something to mitigate or respond to conflict would be unthinkable. A UK which sees itself as a ‘force for good’, which advocates for an international system based on rules and norms, and which promotes ‘British values’, would not be able to stand by and shirk its moral responsibilities.


How does the UK engage in fragile and conflict affected countries?

The first question relating to UK engagement in FCACs is what can the UK meaningfully do? Firstly, it is necessary to stress that the UK as an actor, can only do so much. In few contexts will the UK be able to play a determinative role in addressing conflict on its own. To have an impact, the UK must consider the complementarity of its work within broader national and international efforts, improve the coordination and integration of its actions, and focus on partnerships with likeminded countries and groups in local and global civil society.


Nevertheless, the UK is able to deploy a relatively impressive (compared with many other states) range of capacities to have an impact on peace and conflict. Furthermore, after its withdrawal from the EU the UK has new tools that it is able to use independently to support its foreign policy objectives, albeit at the expense of being able to draw on the EU’s institutional weight, and new partnerships – notably with Canada – that can respond to emerging conflicts in more flexible ways.[13] While the UK’s capacities in each context are different, a common set of tools exists, including:


  • Diplomacy – At a bilateral level, the UK is able to leverage its broad diplomatic presence and relationships to influence and encourage governments and elites in FCACs to abide by international norms, though this is most effective where the UK has strong ties or relationships already in place. Perhaps more significantly, the UK has a strong convening power, both through its wide diplomatic engagement globally, its strong engagement in multilateral institutions, and through its permanent membership of the Security Council, which allows it to influence and shape international diplomatic responses to conflict situations. The UK’s role as a convening power has been shown in its ability to bring together development actors, both governmental and philanthropic, to coalesce around specific solutions, with the work of Gavi – the Vaccine Alliance being a prominent example. Using its role at the UN and membership of groupings, such as the Commonwealth, the UK has scope to further facilitate and support South-South dialogue and collaboration.


  • Sanctions –The UK’s Magnitsky-style personal sanctions (asset freezes and travel bans) on human rights abusers and those involved in corruption have begun to be gradually deployed since their first use in summer 2020.[14] As has been highlighted in previous FPC publications and elsewhere, these have the potential to make a significant contribution to the UK’s role as a ‘force for good’ in the world.[15] However, it has been made clear by peacebuilding practitioners involved in this project, that the potential use of sanctions in a conflict context is more contested, given the need to maintain lines of dialogue with potential parties to the conflict.[16] So these sanctions, and the threat of their use, are a tool that should be deployed but will need to be used selectively in a conflict context – when a stick may be needed to push a key actor to the negotiating table or into compliance with an agreement – with thought given to how such sanctions may be toggled on and off to incentivise cooperation in order to meet the UK’s peacebuilding objectives in a given context.


  • Peacemaking and political settlements – The UK has not historically been an actor directly involved in mediation activities at a state level, however the Integrated Review commits the UK to place a greater emphasis on the UK’s role in mediation and ‘dispute resolution’.[17] The UK has clear assets that would assist it in this endeavour: its diplomatic network, soft power attractiveness, deep academic and civil society resources that can be drawn upon and a fine selection of stately homes available to host peace talks.[18] However, the UK is not a Norway, Switzerland or Kazakhstan and its ambitions to act as a mediator in the future may be complicated by colonial legacies and perceptions of its geopolitical interests. In many parts of the world it has been, and in some cases still remains, a significant figure in current events. In certain country contexts the UK may fall between two stools, too involved to be seen as a neutral arbiter but not powerful enough to enforce its will. However, the stated desire to play this role may be related to developing the UK’s ‘offer’ in the Indo-Pacific, where the previous withdrawal from East of Suez for the last half century may have dulled some of the rougher edges of the UK’s historic legacy in areas without a direct colonial past, as compared to the more active presence (with both benefits and drawbacks) in Africa and the Middle East in recent decades. Either way the UK does play important roles in support of international peace processes, particularly those led by the UN, where it is able to use its position as a P5 member to influence and shape outcomes at the Security Council level, while also providing diplomatic, technical and financial support for peace processes at an operational level.


  • Peacebuilding – Targeted support for institutions and communities to address the root causes of conflict and to build capacities for peace is an area in which the UK has significant expertise – both within FCDO and among the broader UK peacebuilding community of experts and NGOs. The UK’s CSSF has been a strategic source of funding for such activities, though it will be important to recognise the impact on the sector of their reduced ability to access substantial EU project funding.


  • Aid – The UK is a significant aid donor by any measure. This gives it significant influence in terms of its ability to engage with governments in countries receiving support, while also allowing it to target structural drivers of conflict, including poverty, governance and inequality. Perhaps equally significantly, the size of the UK’s aid contribution compared to other donors in many countries, gives it the ability to influence and lead the coordination and strategic prioritisation of international assistance. This has the potential to allow the UK to help shape the way international aid is delivered more broadly.[19]


  • Trade – The UK’s newly independent trade policy, in theory at least, enables it to incorporate the ideas of conflict sensitivity into its future agreements and strategy. However, it has been clear in the initial post-Brexit phase of negotiations that the need for speed in mirroring the provision of previous EU trade deals and desire to take new economic opportunities to show progress has taken precedence over using trade more strategically. In practice, however FCACs represent a very small portion of the UK’s foreign trade. As a result, the UK is rarely able to use trade policy to influence peace and conflict in FCACs directly. Nonetheless, where the UK has trading relationships with other states which may be involved in conflicts, it has the potential to apply conditions to trade to influence behaviour. As a result of the UK mirroring existing EU trade deals it now has trade deals with a number of FCACs either individually or as part of regional groupings that may be of potential relevance in future.[20] Even in circumstances where there would be limited scope to use trade relations for the purposes of leverage, a conflict sensitive approach to trade policy would see it be more responsive to human rights and conflict concerns (for example the UK was slow to amend its trade guidance for Myanmar even after the expulsion of the Rohingyas). However, the most obvious example of where the UK applies conditional trade relates to arms and military equipment, though the extent to which this has an impact has been called into question in relation to the conflict in Yemen.


  • Private sector – Trading with FCACs poses risks that many private sector actors are often reluctant to take. However, as addressed in more detail in the essay by Phil Bloomer, the UK also has a role to play in ensuring the relatively small group of its firms, often in the extractive sectors, that do operate in FCACs abide by international best practice including the Ruggie principles for business and human rights.


  • Military engagement – Depending on political will, the UK military can be deployed in a variety of ways with respect to FCACs, including provision of training to national partners, deployment as advisors, monitors or peacekeepers under the auspices of the UN, provision of technical and operational support, and deployment in direct combat roles.


These tools are separate and are often the responsibilities of different parts of HMG. The challenge is to bring them together to ensure that their deployment is strategic and complementary. For this, a key strength is the way HMG is able to draw on cross-government resources and tools such as the Joint Assessment of Conflict and Stability (JACS), to identify key drivers of conflict and target interventions by different areas of government. Cross-government approaches are never perfect, however, the need to enhance joint approaches to foreign policy, and by extension to dealing with conflict, is a key message of the Integrated Review.


Few of the tools at the UK’s disposal in FCACs are coercive in nature, the (rare) combat deployment of troops, sanctions and, possibly, the use of UK supported UN Security Council resolutions being the exceptions. This highlights the importance of soft power to the UK’s ability to address conflict. Indeed, the UK is well known for its soft-power, from the attractiveness of its cultural assets to the good will generated by its aid spending – with positive perceptions globally – and the Integrated Review states the ambition for the UK to leverage this as a ‘soft-power superpower’.[21] The challenge, however, is that soft-power depends largely on perception. For the UK, using its soft-power necessitates consistently matching language around British values and being a ‘force for good’ with its actions and behaviour.


To be at its most effective with the resources it has the Government needs to find ways to further build conflict expertise within its ranks. The merger of the FCO and DFID has blended two quite different organisational cultures. While some of the benefits of the merger have been addressed elsewhere, the rotation system of postings and roles inherited from the FCO risks limiting the build-up of institutional knowledge on conflict-related issues and country contexts.[22] Part of the response could include bringing in more specialist expertise from the peacebuilding sector into government, building on the existing secondment systems for senior academics and opening up recruitment channels. The FCDO, Cabinet Office and other relevant departments could take further steps to improve ongoing coordination and information sharing with external experts through improved ongoing stakeholder engagement, reducing reliance on ad hoc and informal consultation with existing partners.


As part of efforts to improve integration across government more work can be done to improve coordination and cohesion between the analysts and policy setting departments and those responsible for project implementation and day-to-day work on country ‘desks’ work. The UK’s recent reliance on delivering aid spending through multilaterals may have improved coordination with other international partners, though perhaps at the expense of integration within, and local partnership building by, HMG. More needs to be done, through enhancing embassy and FCDO operational capacity, to find ways for the UK to support smaller, local peace actors rather than relying on multilaterals or large private consultancies. Building embassy and wider FCDO project management capacity may also enable local programming to become more responsive to evolving local situations and the learning developed through ongoing project delivery. In the wake of the release of the Integrated Review there may be scope to provide more settled priority setting and guidance to the CSSF, tackling a concern raised by experts that the funds priorities have regularly shifted despite conflict resolution work benefiting from a sustained focus.[23] Wherever possible efforts must be made to enable longer project timelines for peacebuilding work rather than short-term fixes hemmed in by the yearly budget cycle.


The UK could also make a substantive difference to improving the conditions in fragile and conflict affected countries by more firmly addressing the role of the UK and its Overseas Territories as facilitators of international corruption, with a property market and financial sector that operate as a piggy bank for the kleptocratic elites of many FCACs. Tackling this corruption can help limit capital flight and address some of the endemic drivers of conflict, while giving the UK greater credibility when attempting to pursue anti-corruption measures at a project level.


Where the UK engages

The Integrated Review has sought to reset the ‘areas of greatest priority for the UK’, which it defined as being the Indo-Pacific and European Neighbourhood, with other regions of historic UK focus such as the Middle East and Africa (beyond parts of East Africa and strategic players like Nigeria) being downgraded in priority for engagement beyond the trade policy and other economic ties. If this approach is applied in practice it would have a serious and potentially damaging impact on a number of FCACs across the world.


However, going more with the grain of the Integrated Review, as set out in the recent FPC and Westminster Foundation for Democracy report ‘Global Britain for an open world?’, there is a case for a focus on working on improving conditions in major regional players whether that is in terms of democracy (as in that previous report) or peacebuilding.[24] The importance of placing the UK’s engagement in individual FCACs in wider regional context should not be understated. For example were Nigeria’s descent into multiple conflicts to be left unchecked, it would not only remove an important presence from regional and UN peacekeeping forces but would send potentially destabilising shockwaves across West Africa.[25] However where dynamics in FCACs have wider transnational and regional considerations, it seems unlikely that the UK can limit itself to engaging in a few key strategic countries.


Furthermore, as set out below and in other contributions to this essay collection, conflict sensitivity is a wider concept than simply where the UK invests government resources in peacebuilding or anything else. Applying the principles of conflict sensitivity in an integrated and cohesive way to all actions originating in the UK would make a difference, even in conflict contexts that the UK is pulling away from.


What should the UK be trying to achieve in FCACs?

The moral responsibility to, and benefits of, engaging in FCACs may be clear, as may be the tools available to do so. What is less clear is the question of what the UK should be specifically trying to achieve in its engagement in FCACs.


The Integrated Review speaks to a need to be ‘politically smart’ with the UK’s efforts at addressing conflict. This language speaks to the Elite Bargains and Political Deals work of the UK Stabilisation Unit, which acknowledges the need to ensure that efforts to advance peace in FCACs take into account the role and interests of elites in those countries who may be able to determine the success or failure of peace agreements.[26] It explicitly recognises that there may be a need for trade-offs between the need to secure political settlements and structural efforts to address longer-term drivers of conflict. The latter, it suggests, should be done later, and incrementally, in order not to undermine elite based peace deals. There is value to this perspective, recognising the central role politics plays in identifying mutual interests and achieving peace, and it encourages stronger theories of change linking efforts to address conflict and promote peace with political realities. As a number of expert contributors to this project’s fact-finding workshops identified, averting bad outcomes can be an important place to start before considering questions about how to actively make progress.


There is concern, though, that the shift to ‘politically smart’ engagement will, in practice, come to represent an exclusive preference for short-term stability over the need for longer-term structural transformation of conflict, and that ‘elite bargains’ demonstrates a potential willingness to tolerate, or even support, national partners in FCACs who act in ways contrary to the UK’s values over the longer-term. This could practically serve to embed conflict-driving elites further in society, while at best ignoring and at worst exacerbating structural drivers of conflict. A shift to a more cynical approach to engaging with FCACs would also do damage to the UK’s reputation as a values-based actor and undermine its credentials as a ‘force for good’. This is not compatible with its ambition to be a ‘soft-power superpower’.


Some of the essays in the collection highlight this potential tension between the goals of ending immediate conflict and ensuring stability and the more expansive and comprehensive goals of peacemaking (resolving violent conflict) and peacebuilding (transforming its root causes and drivers). Rt Hon. Andrew Mitchell MP emphasises the importance of stabilisation and the reduction or ending of active conflict as an immediate and more achievable first step, on which more cohesive approaches may build in time. While Dr Alexander Ramsbotham and Dr Teresa Dumasy make the case that addressing deeper drivers of violence, such including the participation of habitually excluded groups, like young people or women, has also been shown to make peace processes more effective and sustainable.


Particularly where the causes of conflict are situated at the grassroots within communities, track two dialogue and work on resolving issues of local friction can make a crucial difference in preventing and resolving conflict, both active and potential. However, where the conflict drivers are primarily political (or they have become so) then while community-led peace-building efforts may help reduce flashpoints and provide opportunities for dialogue they can be easily unmoored by political trends and forces far beyond their control. This is where the UK’s diplomatic presence and reasonable political heft can be of greater relevance. The challenge for the UK and like-minded partners in each context is to find the right balance between values and deliverability, ensuring that pragmatism does not devolve into cynical short-termism and that desired outcomes can be realised in practice.


The Government will need to take hard decisions over what course of action and set of priorities are appropriate for the particular context. It is important, then, to ensure that a politically smart approach to engaging in FCACs is also guided by the UK’s stated values. That does not mean that the UK should not be prepared to make difficult trade-offs when working in conflict, but that such efforts are properly coupled with bottom-up approaches to peace and sequenced with longer-term efforts to address structural drivers of conflict.


The importance of conflict sensitivity

The complexities of conflicts pose a particular challenge for international actors engaging in FCACs. Activities by international actors affect drivers of conflict, empower stakeholders and change the relationships between them. This may happen in unexpected and unintended ways, including potentially worsening conflict. Aid projects may provide more resources to one community than another, triggering inter-communal tensions. Access for humanitarian assistance may be controlled by conflict actors, who can instrumentalise it for political reasons. Aid resources may be stolen or redirected and used by armed groups to support conflict. However, this is not just applicable to aid activities. It is just as important to think through the cascading impacts of all forms of engagement in FCACs, including policy priorities, diplomatic statements and of trade and private sector engagement.


‘Conflict sensitivity’ is an approach to delivering international assistance in a way that recognises and responds to the potential of those activities to impact, and be impacted by, peace and conflict. Specifically, a conflict sensitive approach seeks to: 1) manage the impact conflict has on the ability to undertake activities; 2) minimise the ways in which activities could worsen conflict; and 3) maximise the ways in which aid activities could contribute to sustainable peace. Conflict sensitivity promotes the efficiency, impact and sustainability of international activities, by seeking to maximise the potential for positive results while reducing direct negative impacts.


While a perfect world would see international activities able to mitigate any risks that they contribute to conflict. In reality, conflict sensitivity recognises that most situations in which an international actor such as the UK engages carries the risks of doing some kind of harm, while not engaging also leads to harms. These situations require thinking through the trade-offs and the proportionality of those risks to the benefits of activities.


The UK has been a thought leader in conflict sensitivity within international aid. Funding from the UK helped pioneer conflict sensitivity tools in the 2000s and early 2010s.[27] Project proposals under the CSSF are formally reviewed for conflict sensitivity. The UK also supports a conflict sensitivity facility in South Sudan, and more recently in the Republic of Sudan and Afghanistan, which provide conflict analysis and support to donors and implementers to manage conflict sensitivity considerations. Yet conflict sensitivity does remain largely considered at a development project level within aid activities and is rarely considered in a structured way in relation to other activities or at a higher policy level, even within the UK.


Thinking through the conflict sensitivity of UK engagement in FCACs

Conflict sensitivity is an essential tool for thinking about how the UK engages in FCACs – not just for aid projects, but as a framework for considering the broader consequences of all types of UK activities. However, the Integrated Review does not mention conflict sensitivity once. If the Review’s goal of increasing the integration of the UK’s international approach is to be achieved, more thought needs to be given to how the broader consequences of UK activities on peace and conflict might be mainstreamed across UK foreign policy engagement in FCACs.


The Peaceful Change initiative has developed a tool for thinking about conflict sensitive decision-making which can shed some light on how such structured thinking could be applied. The tool involves running key decisions about activities through four ‘tests’ or questions as part of a due diligence framework for conflict sensitivity. If the decision to be taken passes each of these tests, then that decision could be considered to be conflict sensitive. Conflict sensitivity harms may still occur as a result of the decision, or new opportunities to contribute to peace emerge and the decision maker has the responsibility to respond to these appropriately, but in the meantime they can act in the confidence that they have duly considered conflict sensitivity considerations.


The tool is relevant for conflict sensitivity at all levels, from those making policy decisions, to those making day-to-day decisions about activities. It is also relevant for all types of engagement, not just aid activities but extending to diplomatic statements, trade, private sector involvement or military activities. It is also not intended to be a burdensome process, though the more significant the decision, the more effort one ought to spend thinking about conflict sensitivity. Rather it is about providing a structured framework that can inform the way international actors like the UK engage in FCACs.


The four tests are:

  1. The objectives test: Are the objectives of the activity relevant, timely and appropriate?

The first test seeks to interrogate the explicit and implicit objectives of the activity. Is the proposed activity something needed within the FCAC? Is it the right time to undertake that activity? Is the activity appropriate – does it adhere to UK ‘values’ or find the right balance between short-term elite bargains and longer-term conflict transformation?


  1. The harm-minimisation test: Have all reasonable measures been undertaken to identify and reduce the ways in which the activity could cause harm?

The second test looks at the various ways in which the activity could cause harm and worsen conflict. This could include things such as exposing partners and beneficiaries to greater risks; empowering actors involved in conflict; inequalities in the beneficiaries or activities; or provision of tangible or intangible support to actors involved in conflict. It then asks the decision maker to consider ways to minimise those risks and develop plans for responding to them if they do occur.


  1. The benefit-maximisation test: Have all reasonable measures been undertaken to identify and leverage opportunities to contribute to peace through the activity?

The third test is the flipside of the second. Are there ways in which the activity could be undertaken that can contribute to peace, even if that is not its primary objective? Small changes to the way activities can be delivered or the choice of stakeholders involved can help bridge divisions between conflict groups, address structural drivers of conflict or increase the cost of engaging in conflict.


  1. The proportionality test: Are the harms identified in test 2 proportional to the benefits identified in tests 1 and 3?

The final test asks the decision maker to consider whether they feel that the risk of potential harms caused by the activity are balanced by the potential benefits. There is no formal equation that can be used to work this out, but the process of considering it directly – particularly within a team – allows for the critical reflection needed for a sense of due diligence.


Answering these tests is not necessarily easy. They are likely to surface differing perspectives between officials and between different parts of government. This is their strength; they are intended to ensure that critical thinking and a sense of challenge is structured into the way decisions are taken, ensuring that the decision, when it is taken, has considered its broader conflict sensitivity impacts as much as possible. Ultimately, adopting a structured approach to considering the conflict sensitivity of the whole gamut of its engagement in FCACs, is essential for a state like the UK, with a stated ambition to be a ‘force for good’ and a ‘soft-power superpower’. While the framework above may not be the perfect solution to addressing that, it highlights some of the key questions and considerations that need to be embedded within decision-making across government.


Tim Molesworth is the Senior Advisor for Conflict Sensitivity and Peace Technology at the Peaceful Change initiative, a UK based peacebuilding NGO. He has 11 years’ experience working with the UN and NGOs in contexts such as Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya on strategic approaches to peacebuilding and conflict sensitivity.


Adam Hug became the Director of the Foreign Policy Centre in November 2017, overseeing the FPC’s operations and strategic direction. He had previously been the Policy Director at the Foreign Policy Centre from 2008-2017. His research focuses on human rights and governance issues particularly in the former Soviet Union. He also writes on UK foreign policy and EU issues. He studied Geography at the University of Edinburgh as an undergraduate and Development Studies with Special Reference to Central Asia as a post-grad.


[1] Cabinet Office, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,, March 2021,

[2] See for example: the Fragile States Index,; the OECD iLibrary, States of Fragility 2020,; the 2021 Global Peace Index, Overall GPI Score,; and the World Bank, Brief: Classification of Fragile and Conflict-Affected Situations,

[3] Therése Pettersson, Stina Högbladh, Magnus Öberg, Organized violence, 1989–2018 and peace agreements, Journal of Peace Research, June 2019,

[4] Júlia Palik, Siri Aas Rustad & Fredrik Methi, Conflict Trends: A Global Overview, 1946–2019, PRIO, 2020,

[5] OECD, Official Development Assistance (ODA), ODA 2020 preliminary data,

[6] Cabinet Office, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,, March 2021,

[7] The Global Goals for Sustainable Development, 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions,

[8] United Nations and World Bank. 2018. Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict. Washington, DC: World Bank, pp25-33.

[9] Institute for Economics & Peace, Economic Value of Peace 2021: Measuring the global economic impact
of violence and conflict, January 2021,; UN and World Bank, Op. cit., pp33.

[10] FCDO, Statistics on International Development: Final Aid Spend 2019, September 2020,

[11] UNOCHA, Global Humanitarian Needs Overview 2021,; In 2015, 97 per cent of humanitarian assistance targeted complex emergencies, “a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict…’. See: UNOCHA. 2016. World Humanitarian Data and Trends 2016. New York: UNOCHA.

[12] United Nations and World Bank. 2018. Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict. Washington, DC: World Bank.

[13] For example of the UK-Canada partnership operating in response to a conflict see: FCDO and The Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, Nagorno-Karabakh: UK and Canada joint statement in response to continued military clashes,, October 2020,

[14] FCO and The Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, UK announces first sanctions under new global human rights regime,, July 2020,

[15] FPC, Finding Britain’s role in a changing world programme,

[16] Through involvement in the private roundtables that preceded this publication.

[17] Dispute resolution: as part of a more effective and focused approach to addressing conflict and instability through prevention’.

[18] Albeit one that has been impacted by the pressure of cuts to foreign service personnel, the tendency for other parts of Whitehall to cease control of parts of the machinery and more recently be the impact of aid cuts.

[19] The impacts of the UK’s cuts in aid spending in 2020 due to COVID-19, which saw an approximately 60 per cent reduction in real terms from the previous year, are yet to be seen. Also yet to be seen is the degree to which aid spending will recover post-COVID, though the Government has indicated a return to 0.7 per cent GDP spending on aid ‘as soon as possible’.

[20] Department for International Trade, UK trade agreements with non-EU countries,, January 2020,

[21] The UK consistently rates highly in soft-power indices, such as the Global Soft Power Index (3rd in 2021), see:; or the Soft Power 30 (2nd in 2021), see:

[22] Both the challenges and opportunities were addressed in: Protecting the UK’s ability to defend its values, FPC, September 2020,

[23] Raised at the expert workshops conducted as part of this project.

[24] Edited by Adam Hug and Devin O’Shaughnessy, Global Britain for an open world?, FPC, October 2021,

[25] Abuja and Enugu, How kidnappers, zealots and rebels are making Nigeria ungovernable, The Economist, October 2021,

[26] Stabilisation Unit, Elite Bargains and Political Deals,, June 2018,

[27] See, for example, Conflict Sensitivity Consortium, How to guide to conflict sensitivity, February 2012,

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