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Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID

Chapter 15.5 DRR, social crisis and conflict

Communities, local institutions and livelihoods

Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID

15.5.1 Communities

Community-based DRR has the potential to contribute to peace-building by engaging people to work together to address hazard threats that affect everyone. This is particularly valuable where trust between citizens, or between citizens and the state, has broken down. In some situations, DRR programming that focuses on politically neutral natural hazards, rather than encompassing all kinds of potential risk, may be the most pragmatic approach and entry point into a community. Nevertheless, agencies should not lose sight of fundamental issues of human rights, equality and social justice.

Where there are different communities, social, religious and ethnic groups in a particular location, with associated inter-group tensions, agencies should try to locate themselves and their interventions so that they can give support across group divides, without losing sight of the need to help the most vulnerable. Careful siting of local infrastructure and mitigation measures, such as tube wells, flood defences, rehabilitation of roads and strengthening bridges is one way of achieving this. Another approach is to hire local staff from the various communities: this ensures that their perspectives feed into the agency’s context awareness and also helps in securing acceptance of the project. However, such steps take time and require careful planning, which can be challenging when an agency is under pressure to produce results quickly.

The ability to programme effectively for DRR and conflict reduction is highly dependent on local communities and institutions. People are not passive in conflicts, just as they are not passive in other disasters. They are active in seeking their own physical and economic survival, and in peace-making. Community-based initiatives are an important part of DRR practice (see Chapter 6) and building community organisations and associations is valuable in DRR and conflict resolution alike. (This approach becomes very challenging where communities are themselves divided into factions and where neighbouring communities are hostile to one another.) An emphasis on inclusiveness and equality in discussion and planning is needed. The basic principles of making DRR approaches community-based and participatory apply here too. Getting this right can contribute to community cohesion. DRR interventions may be able to create a neutral space for rebuilding relations between communities and other institutions, stimulating joint work on a single issue.

Community-based methods are more likely to work well in places with a strong civil society, and where local organisational structures and capacity are in place. This is often not the case in places affected by displacement, insecurity, violence and high levels of dependence on external assistance. In some circumstances, agencies may have to focus on households until factions can be brought together, even though this is more costly in terms of time and resources. To avoid deepening community divisions, such household-focused interventions need to appear even-handed, benefiting families in different parts of the community.

15.5.2 Local institutions

Working with different levels of government is an important part of scaling up and sustaining risk and vulnerability reduction initiatives. It is also much more complicated where there is political tension or conflict because governments are not neutral actors in these situations. It may be necessary to find alternative partners for DRR activities, among NGOs and other local or even regional organisations.

Weak capacity in formal government means that customary and informal local institutions become more prominent and are often key partners in local-level DRR. Their roles in facilitating dialogue, resolving local issues and solving problems may often endure in periods of instability where more formal institutions are no longer functioning. Local institutions define and regulate many of the rules, traditions and values that govern people’s behaviour. It is important to understand how such institutions maintain social order, address local problems and conflicts, manage common resources such as water and control access to resources. Note that local patronage systems, in which elite groups favour their clients in resource allocation, increase inequality and vulnerability (see Case Study 15.3: Power relations, vulnerability and conflict).

Case Study 15.3 Power relations, vulnerability and conflict

An Afghan NGO, Co-operation for Humanitarian Assistance (CHA), worked with eight villages in Balkh Province, which is prone to drought and floods. All the villages used a 10km irrigation canal. In spring, floods damaged houses in upstream villages, but downstream villages depended on floodwater for irrigation. The upstream villages lobbied CHA for flood protection measures, but this was opposed by those downstream because it would deprive them of water.

CHA discovered that there were long-running tensions between the upstream and downstream villages over water. Under the Taliban, water had been allocated according to the amount of land held, but after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 local government was taken over by groups connected with the upstream villages, who changed the water distribution rules in their favour. This led to water gates along the canal being closed for several months each year. A prolonged drought in 2006–2007 put great pressure on the downstream villages and their livelihoods: as a result, some young men left the district and joined armed groups.

A. Heijmans et al., ‘A Grassroots Perspective on Risks Stemming from Disasters and Conflict’, Humanitarian Exchange, 44, 2009,

Where national and local government is weak, NGOs and other external actors sometimes have to bypass official institutions, but there is a risk that this will undermine them even further. Local institutional and capacity development should be a core part of DRR activities, in order to secure long-term and sustainable risk and conflict reduction.

15.5.3 Livelihoods

Livelihood support is likely to form an important part of DRR programmes in unstable settings. This may be to replace lost resources, such as tools, seeds and livestock, which have been destroyed or stolen. It could also create income and employment opportunities and thereby reduce economic and social stress, disputes over resources and the risk of violence. Such support should be broad-based, to match the wide range of livelihood strategies on which people rely. As insecurity increases, the focus of programming may shift from supporting systems and basic services to protecting household livelihoods, with an emphasis on physical assets. Conventional livelihoods frameworks have been adapted for use in conflict settings, to explain the range of factors and forces at work (see Figure 15.1).

Figure 15.1 Sustainable livelihoods framework in situations of conflict and political instability

ODI 2015

Sustainable livelihoods framework in situations of conflict and political instability

S. Collinson et al., Politically Informed Humanitarian Programming: Using a Political Economy Approach, Network Paper 41 (London: ODI, 2002),, p. 26.

Building or rebuilding local infrastructure such as roads, bridges, electricity supplies and water and sanitation services is likely to be a critical task in areas emerging from conflict. Local contractors should be hired for such work wherever possible. Inclusion of those who are or have been engaged in conflict in the repair and construction of infrastructure and other types of DRR intervention, such as early warning systems, encourages communities to work together to address common needs. In some cases it can encourage individuals away from violence by providing them with income-earning opportunities. Such approaches often target young men to prevent them from being drawn into criminality or violence because they cannot find work.

Case Study 15.4 DRR, livelihoods and peace-building

In parts of East Africa, persistent cattle raiding has caused acute tension and conflict between pastoralist groups. Herders have found it increasingly difficult to obtain access to grazing land and water sources, which often requires negotiations between different communities.

In 2006 Practical Action launched an initiative to mitigate the impacts of drought and animal disease amongst pastoralist groups living on either side of the Kenya–Uganda and Kenya–South Sudan borders. Twenty wells and four boreholes were sunk or rehabilitated, serving more than 30,000 pastoralists and their livestock. Because traditional institutions regulating land access were weak or no longer existed, two committees were formed and given training in conflict resolution and managing grazing land. In addition, 50 community animal health workers were trained to treat and prevent diseases. The training, which involved animal health workers from three countries, led to an improvement in communal relations, with members of one tribe able to treat others’ animals.

Relations between pastoralist groups improved as a result of these interventions. Cross-border peace meetings were held and trade across borders and between groups increased. There were also examples of stolen livestock being returned to their rightful owners. Herders from groups previously in dispute shared grazing areas and water for the first time in over a decade.

Building Resilience to Drought in the Karamoja Cluster of Eastern Africa (Nairobi: Practical Action, undated),

Projects that support the acquisition and strengthening of households’ livelihood assets to increase resilience to disasters – an effective approach in peaceful and stable settings – can sometimes have the opposite effect where there is conflict. Here, assets may become liabilities, increasing families’ vulnerability because other groups may target them: livestock and food crops are often stolen in conflicts, for example. In some circumstances it may make sense to provide less visible assets to support or rebuild disaster-affected livelihoods and stimulate local markets, such as cash or vouchers. This has been done effectively in emergencies including the long-running crisis in southern Somalia.+N. Majid, ‘Alternative Interventions in Insecure Environments: The Case of Cash in Southern Somalia’, Humanitarian Exchange, 37, 2007; D. Datta et al., ‘Mobile Phone-based Cash Transfers: Lessons from the Kenya Emergency Response’, Humanitarian Exchange, 40, 2008; C. Longley, S. Dunn and M. Brewin, ‘Monitoring Results of the Somalia Cash and Voucher Transfer Programme: Phase I’, Humanitarian Exchange, 2012,