Conflict and social protection in the Horn of Africa

Published on 10 May 2023

Becky Carter

Research Officer

Conflict and political instability are major drivers of deprivation and displacement across the Horn of Africa. This is exemplified by the unfolding situation in Sudan, where humanitarian need is escalating rapidly as competing factions struggle violently for power. In a region with such high levels of poverty and vulnerability, where access to the essentials of life is compromised for many, a key policy response is social protection.

However, recent research by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) – funded through the Programme Partnership with Irish Aid – finds that little attention is being paid to how social protection functions in conflict-affected areas. Using case studies from Somalia, Sudan and Kenya (supplemented by insights from Ethiopia), alongside a broader investigation of the literature, we looked at the link between social protection and conflict, with a particular focus on the implications for donors. Our research is available in a synthesis working paper and three country reports.

Social protection and conflict sensitivity

In the Horn of Africa, the most common social protection intervention is ‘non-contributory social assistance’: regular transfers in food, cash or vouchers to help low-income or vulnerable households. This is often provided through large, state-run programmes financed wholly or in part by national taxation and by international donors. It is also delivered through the humanitarian system. Examples include the Sudan Family Support Programme and the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) in Ethiopia.

Our study explored the conflict sensitivity of these policies and programmes. Our work through the IDS-led Better Assistance in Crises (BASIC) Research programme also investigates how conflict interacts with social protection, in a range of protracted crisis settings. This is important because conflict adds to the complexity of any environment, and often restricts access to populations in need. It may also deepen vulnerability, and thus increase the need for social protection, due to violence or the fear of violence; damages to infrastructure, services and markets; or politicised and discriminatory decisions made by those in positions of authority. A further motivation for the research is that social protection has the capacity to respond to crises by widening coverage or increasing the level of benefit (called ‘shock-responsive social protection’). Until now, the focus has largely been on climate-related or socio-economic shocks, but could it also help us manage those associated with conflict?

Conflict sensitive or simply conflict reactive?

Conflict sensitivity is about understanding how our work interacts with the context in which we operate. It is often presented as a continuum: at minimum, we must avoid doing further harm. More ambitiously, we could try to design and deliver programmes so that they have a positive influence on conflict dynamics, possibly even transform them. We found examples of this positive link in Kenya, where a programme targeting young people in Nairobi’s informal settlements showed that even a modest income, received regularly, can have beneficial impacts on community security and safety as well as on young people’s confidence and social standing. Similarly, in Kenya’s northern drylands, the Hunger Safety Net Programme helped its clients obtain identity cards for the first time. These were needed to open bank accounts and receive payments, but in a region long misunderstood and neglected by the state, they might also be expected to reinforce a sense of citizenship and belonging.

However, these were isolated examples of active engagement with conflict dynamics. On the whole, our findings suggest that:

  • Most social protection policies and programmes pay little attention to conflict until circumstances force them to do so. There is also limited ongoing contact between those responsible for social protection, peace and security, and disaster risk management.
  • Where conflict is considered in social protection policy and programming, it tends to be in response to an outbreak of violence. There is little sustained focus on the issue, nor adequate appreciation that conflict has become a persistent and protracted condition in large parts of the region.
  • Social protection programmes do try to avoid harm, and in particular take steps to prevent grievances arising, but give very little thought to how they might contribute to peace.
  • There are experienced practitioners who are acutely aware of – and sensitive to – the conflict around them, but who may not attach a ‘conflict sensitivity’ label to this. Furthermore, this sensitivity has not yet found its way into most policy and programming frameworks.

How could the conflict sensitivity of social protection be strengthened?

At a strategic level, conflict sensitivity needs to be addressed more explicitly in policy and programme design. In a region like the Horn of Africa, this should also take into account the cross-border dimensions of much conflict. Conflict-affected environments are by nature complex and uncertain: this too needs to inform the way they are managed – for example, by creating regular opportunities for teams to reflect and adapt.

Operationally, conflict sensitivity requires adequate resources and attention given to stakeholder engagement, staff deployment and training, and accountability mechanisms centred on citizens’ rights and experiences. Digital technologies can help reach those who are displaced or in conflict areas but may also introduce new risks and vulnerabilities, for example concerning women’s unequal access to technology or political control over communication systems.

Recommendations for development partners

Our recommendations are structured around five common donor functions and suggest areas where development partners could focus their efforts to improve social protection design and delivery in conflict settings.

  • Convening: facilitate conversations on how social protection could have a positive impact on peace and conflict dynamics, bringing in as wide a range of opinion and experience as possible, particularly those of local actors. Encourage closer dialogue between those responsible for social protection, peace and security, and disaster risk management.
  • Capacity support: encourage and cultivate practices of ‘thinking and working politically’, both internally and with grantees and partners.
  • Knowledge management: as an emerging area of study, there is need for further field-based investigation of the interaction between social protection and conflict, including learning from existing grounded practice.
  • Policy dialogue: help develop a deeper understanding of conflict in each context that recognises the breadth of its drivers and dimensions, explores the potential role of national social protection systems to respond, and encourages more open discussion of exclusion and bias.
  • Funding: require grantees and partners to integrate conflict sensitivity in a more explicit and sustained way, but only after giving them the space and resources to reflect, learn, and adapt and to allocate sufficient staff capacity to this goal.

By working towards strengthening these areas, development partners could ensure that social protection does more than just avoid harm – that wherever possible it also makes a positive contribution to peace in fragile contexts, something which is more important than ever before given the region’s precarity.


Read the synthesis working paper to find out more.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

Related content


Conflict-Sensitive Social Protection: Somalia Country Report

23 May 2023


Conflict-Sensitive Social Protection: Sudan Country Report

1 December 2022