Skip to content

The Nexus of Peacebuilding, Development and Humanitarianism in Conflict Affected Contexts: A Respect for Boundaries


The post-Cold War era has seen an increase in peace keeping missions, and so called multilateral peace building initiatives. The same period has witnessed a significant increase in the number and size of humanitarian operations in conflict affected areas, as well as the number of organisations that deem themselves as humanitarian. However, this growth has not been accompanied by improvements or the necessary changes in approaches.

Peace-building, and peace keeping which often precedes it and forms a component of it, in the past focused on the role of a neutral and often multilateral force made up of soldiers from countries with no discernible stake in the outcome. This force would be tasked with observing and monitoring an existing ceasefire, with limited military means that could be applied in self-defence. Yet recently, peace keeping and peace building have taken on a more partisan role and functioned specially in conflicts characterised as ‘asymmetrical’ or in conflicts characterised as counterinsurgency or civil conflicts. In addition, the mandates have been extended to include strong focus on protection of civilians, as part of contemporary peacekeeping and peace-building.[1]

There are several instances in Africa that reflect this evolving role from merely monitoring and self-defence, to taking part, either in conflict or in more subtle ways placing the peace keeping and peace building firmly on one side of an internal conflict. In the DRC, the UN force MONUSCO are also mandated with undertaking military operations to neutralise armed groups, while in South Sudan the changing mandates of UNMISS and peace building UN bodies e.g. UNDP have included support for the State in areas of Security Sector Reform, establishing the rule of law and to a varying degree an emphasis on the role for protection of civilians (i.e. significantly expanding the self-defence aspect). In Somalia the process of peace building in areas under the control of the federal government, goes hand in hand with expanding that territory, through military means that are paid for and carried out by the same actors that support the peace building. [2]

In the same vein, the face and practice of humanitarian operations and humanitarianism have also changed. Humanitarianism and humanitarian aid, have grown into a massive system made up of a myriad of different international, national and local organisations. In 2015 the monetary value of humanitarian response amounted to $24.5B.[3] The changes in the scope of humanitarian operations have occurred in parallel with shifts in practices and a much more broadened interpretation of the core principles and functions of humanitarian aid.[4] As donors started to fund humanitarian aid in combination with development aid, the landscape, conduct and actions of humanitarian aid, has become entangled with inherently political intentions and agenda, euphemistically referred to as ‘State building’, ‘peace building’, ‘resilience’, ‘bridging the gap’, and ‘addressing root causes of conflict’.

There are three problems with these changes in humanitarian aid and how these have unfolded. Firstly, the intentions that inform the notion and desire of building peace and the s Wolrdtate, stems from a narrative of liberal democracy, sponsored by Western donors with a clear ideological and political objective. When humanitarian organisations finds themselves as part of a process whose ultimate aim and objective is an ideological endeavour and end point, pure humanitarian objectives cannot possibly take centre stage. Secondly, regardless of the ideological background that informs the agenda, when humanitarian action and agencies become the proponents of a process that aims to support a process favouring one particular party to a conflict, be that a State, community or individual in the name of building peace, a side has been chosen. Third is the trajectory that humanitarianism will now take, or in some cases has taken already. This trajectory diluting the principles by expanding the role and scope, seems increasingly irreversible.

The imperative of humanitarian action is to save lives and alleviate suffering, and the principles informing this action are those of impartiality, independence and neutrality. Impartiality is instantly undermined when humanitarian aid is given as part of a larger political process and no longer according to needs. The principle of independence is rendered null and void, when ‘he who pays the piper, picks the tune’, i.e. those in command of the funds in fact have the control to determine where means are allocated, or as more often seen, where they are not allocated. It is when humanitarian aid is given in the name of peace building, and no longer based on needs, that the aid becomes political and no longer strictly humanitarian.

In other words, the very essence of humanitarianism is hijacked. Neutrality becomes pertinent, especially as the majority of conflicts in Africa today are increasingly intra-state conflicts, as opposed to international conflicts of state on state.[5] So when humanitarian aid and international donors firmly positions themselves on the side of the State, the final principle of neutrality, is well lost in the process of well-meaning objectives. All of which will do more to damage principled humanitarian aid, than actually building peace.

A recent report from the Overseas Development Institute, a proponent of many of the above mergers of humanitarian action and political processes, has in the same vein suggested that humanitarian organisations should in fact work closer with development partners; and that purely principled humanitarian action would be better left to a limited number of contexts and organisations.[6]

While development practitioners and scholars are imploring the notion of ‘ we can’t do one without the other’ on humanitarian aid, peace building encroaches on the realm of humanitarian aid, thus blurring the lines between all three distinct concepts under the hubris of collaboration, coordination, remaking humanitarian actions and peace building. Ultimately, this simply dilutes humanitarian action into everything and essentially nothing. Consequently, this undermines what humanitarianism seeks to achieve: the rights of the individual to receive assistance, medical care or food, purely based on the needs of the individual or the specific group.

The notion of the humanitarian imperative and the good intentions of saving lives, is an alluring one. Hence we have seen a high demand for the humanitarian ‘service’ and the obvious need for co-option of the term humanitarian operation. In the past, this have been illustrated both in the aim of political, military and developmental objectives. ‘Humanitarian interventions’ have been carried out, in the name of humanitarian imperatives of saving lives, yet with aim of regime change in Libya, Iraq and Yugoslavia’; ‘humanitarian operations’ have been part of the strategy of winning hearts and minds of civilian populations within an area seized through military operations and deemed safe and eligible of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, DRC and Mali.

There is nothing wrong per se, with either peace- or state-building. It is with the underlying intentions and motives in mind that the nexus of peace building and humanitarianism, must be closely examined.

Scrutiny is needed of the particular context or conflict environment in which humanitarian agencies operate and what motivates donors, international agencies, peace-making actors and militaries, when they invoke humanitarian imperatives and operations. The growing call for humanitarian agencies to be conflict sensitive, and take into account local, communal, national and regional dynamics, requires a deeper interrogation of what lies behind the services that are provided, as part of peace building, and what interests inform such actions. Most often these are not strictly related to the core objectives of humanitarianism, nor to the basic principles that such operations should require.

Nonetheless, the two phenomena are not mutually exclusive. However, it can only be a coexistence based on a thorough understanding of the roles, responsibilities and limitations of each in a given conflict environment. In fact, a respect of the boundaries will be what is best that everyone can contribute to one another and to those that they strive to assist. Humanitarian aid cannot build peace and peace building cannot save lives in an impartial manner during moments of emergency and conflict.

In his report ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit to be held in Istanbul this year, the Secretary General of the UN indicates that the practices of donors in terms of funding for development and humanitarian aid, may lead to fragmentation and develop incentives for these to work in isolation. In the words of the Secretary General, it requires different ways of working, in order to meet the need of 120 million people who are experiencing insufficient dividends of development and peace-building. Greater investments are needed to ensure that growing humanitarian needs are addressed and the vulnerability of people in the medium and long term are reduced, including greater attention to early warning, conflict prevention and peace-building.[7]

Yet as we have witnessed in South Sudan when the country broke into conflict in late 2013, the results of merging and lumping everything and everyone into a nexus of shared responsibility, comes at the detriment of the people who suffer the consequences of lack of development and poor peace-building.[8] [9] It is possible to invest in the future, which would entail development and peace-building, looking forward hoping for a return; but it is not permissible to ignore responding acutely when people’s lives are at stake, which is what humanitarian aid is about. It is deplorable to plan ahead for people in need, when not being able to assist them when their needs may be greatest.

By Jens Pedersen. Photo by Nicolas Postal © MSF, 2007.

This post originally appeared on the Life & Peace Institute website.


[1] Haysom and Pedersen, 2015: Robust Peacekeeping in Africa: The Challenge for Humanitarians.Humanitarian Practice Network, October 2015., 2015

[2] AMISOM, 2016: AMISOM Mandate:, 2016

[3] Global Humanitarian Assistance, 2015: Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2015., 2015

[4] Whittall, 2015: Is Humanitarian Action Independent From Political Interests?  International Journal on Human Rights, Issue 21, August 2015

[5]  Ferreira, R, 2010: Irregular war in African Conflicts; Scientia Militaria, South African Journal of Military Studies, vol. 38, no. 1

[6] Overseas Development Institute, 2016: Time to Let Go: A Three Point Proposal to Change the Humanitarian System.

[7] One humanity, shared responsibility: Report of the United Nations Secretary General for the World Humanitarian Summit. 31st January, 2016.

[8]MSF, 2015: South Sudan marks two years of conflict since fighting broke out in Juba. 15thDecember 1015:

[9] Cornish, S, 2014: Was South Sudan a Preventable Crisis? In Huffington Post, 18th July, 2014.

1 reply »

  1. Hi,
    I was looking for some takes regarding this topic and I found your article quite informative. It has given me a fresh perspective on the topic tackled. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The opinions and analysis contained in this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Médecins Sans Frontières.