Peacebuilding at the Intersection with Development and Humanitarian Aid

Rebekah Korver

May, 2020



Peacebuilding, humanitarian aid, and international development are a trio of fields that overlap both methodologically and conceptually but may not work together in international communities. Even though there are significant advantages to processes and services provided to communities by working together, the cultures of these organizations as well as the funding requirements encourage independent work. The separation of these sectors causes an additional layer of division in conflict zones, as an opportunity to both offer more cohesive services and facilitate peace are lost through the lack of partnerships between these organizations. This paper will explore intersectional peacebuilding and reconciliation through engaging these three international players together, analyzing both the areas of overlap and the potential of working together for more seamless and robust peacebuilding.

Gaps in the Field

International peacebuilding is often conducted in a field already occupied by many other actors; rarely are peacebuilders the only international actors in a conflict. There may be the local community, national peacebuilders, international peacebuilders, humanitarian aid workers, development workers, local and national government actors, international government actors, and private sector players. All of these various groups have their own agendas and offer their own understandings of what peace and reconciliation would look like in this particular context. However, it is possible that a number of these groups may benefit greatly from collaboration with organizations in a different sector.

Development, humanitarian aid, and peacebuilding all work in conflict zones and all have over time solidified their own places within these communities. Humanitarian aid responds to crises with provisions for basic needs, such as healthcare, food, and shelter.[1] Development seeks to improve people’s lives, especially economically, and increase opportunities in communities.[2] Finally, peacebuilding offers tools for reconciling differences, reducing violence, and encouraging measures to prevent a return to conflict.[3] Given the overlapping focuses of these three fields, one community may be host at a given time to organizations and individuals working in all three areas. Yet proximity does not necessitate collaboration. These three fields have become entrenched in a mild turf war that is leaving gaps in services for the community and a weakening of the goals of each field.

The gaps between the work of these industries has been well documented and often spoken of, but little has been done to change the reality on the ground in communities suffering from these divisions. To start with the case of development and humanitarian aid, a common critique is that funding is isolated to either emergency funds (humanitarian aid) or poverty assistance (development) which requires organizations to choose between these types of work, leaving a muddled area between where humanitarian aid ends and development begins.[4] While organizations routinely draw distinctions between these kinds of work, individuals and communities do not move cleanly from needing aid to needing development resources, nor are the reasons for needing either service largely different. Both fields work in communities that, whether through identifiable incident or systemic limitations, find themselves unable to meet their needs. The blurring of the need for development or aid means that the division is artificially constructed by organizations for the sake of funding, leaving individuals caught in the middle without the services they need.

This gray zone between humanitarian aid and development is further complicated by the addition of peacebuilders. Given that some conflict resolution professionals espouse the theory that poverty is a predictor of conflict,[5] it can be difficult to distinguish a project on poverty done by development workers from a project on poverty done by peace workers. Jantzi and Jantzi went so far as to call the division between development and peacebuilding “an artificial dichotomy”, a constructed separation rather than an organic one.[6] While the workers themselves may feel there is a difference given the label they have placed on their work, to the communities these organizations are serving their work may all look similar. Distinguishing the work of these two professions can thus create a difference without a distinction, crowding the field with more international workers without substantive variation in the work that they are doing.

Benefits of Collaboration in Peacebuilding

The division between these spheres of international work are particularly troubling in a conflict setting, where collaboration would be highly beneficial to the communities in crisis. A more unified network of international players would potentially have an increased chance of aiding a peace process. Because humanitarian aid and development workers are often in a community for a more extended amount of time than international peacebuilders, these non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have the benefit of building trust among community members.[7] When the assistance they provide has been done well, humanitarian aid and development NGOs may be in a better position to bring community leaders together for peacebuilding than a new actor would be because they have already earned their place in the community through the practical work of providing services such as healthcare and job training. Peacebuilders coming into the community from the outside with the abstract goal of peace may face a harder time gaining the confidence of the community than those who have already been present for years providing aid.

Additionally, NGOs have in some cases already started to move outside their original mandates into providing a form of governance in the communities in which they work. As organizations adopt human rights monitoring as part of their work, they begin to serve as a kind of local government, in some cases fully substituting for government when it is absent due to political upheaval.[8] When partnered with trust gained through responsible assistance to the community, this position of authority is ideal for peacebuilding. It secures the confidence of the community in the process and provides the local knowledge necessary to make peacebuilding effective. Peacebuilders working with the existing network of development and humanitarian aid would benefit from both the reputation and position of these NGOs, smoothing the path to building peace through established relationships.  

While the collaboration of organizations would be helpful in many ways, some scholars do caution against collapsing the fields of humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding into each other. Pugh highlights how peacebuilding security measures mixed with development can cause development activities to fail.[9] The addition of force placed onto development often causes the poverty alleviation work to falter through negative pressure. This can create a cyclical issue, as the breakdown of NGO projects can in turn further destabilize a region, which then requires more security measures. Yet this cycle may be broken through better collaboration, not less, to ensure that security is working for the good of the community including the development work being done there, rather than as a spoiler for the work of the NGOs.

An additional concern is over humanitarian aid becoming politicized like development or peacebuilding as this will make it harder for aid to reach areas of need.[10] Governments may deny aid into their countries if they feel that it is coming with political expectations. This means the loss of neutrality of aid may jeopardize access for individuals in crises. Franke reiterates this concern over politicized humanitarian aid, while acknowledging that neutrality is increasingly challenging the more extensive the aid offered.[11] If a small amount of aid is offered for a short amount of time, neutrality is easier. In cases where aid is long-term and widespread, neutrality is harder to achieve. This is an important point, as post-Cold War conflicts are increasingly intrastate conflicts,[12] making the neutral distribution of humanitarian aid both more important and more challenging as the combatants and victims are increasingly hard to tell apart. However, these are recommendations for maintaining independent identities as organizations, not for dismissing collaboration. This may also pose the question of whether neutrality ought to be the distinguishing characteristic of humanitarian aid, which is research beyond the scope of this paper.

Driving Factors in Organizational Divisions

Despite the reasons for collaboration, there are significant pressures against humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding working together. As mentioned earlier, ‘siloed’ funding is the key reason why these fields are often in contest instead of alliance. By dividing up funding streams by type of organization, it places limitations on organizations from expanding out to more blended or inclusive work. Labeling fundable activities as either peacebuilding, development, or aid necessitates that organizations define their projects by these terms, even if projects in different sectors would otherwise not be distinguishable from each other.[13] Additionally, moneys for the middle ground between aid and development are scarce and intersectional projects are difficult to garner support for because these projects do not meet the clean categories that have been prescribed. This format for funding also contributes to a competitive relationship between agencies even within each field, causing conflict internally between same-sector organizations as they compete for grant moneys.

Because organizations have had to define themselves by the set categories of donors, a firm isolation has developed between these fields. Humanitarian aid and development have come to believe that they are fundamentally doing different work and subsequently have created what Kay-Fowlow calls “two [cultural] solitudes” in international work: two isolated frameworks and perspectives on the international field that do not come together.[14] Aid NGOs grew out of natural disaster and war relief, making their culture centered around short term solutions to basic needs.[15] Development NGOs began in economic poverty alleviation, which created a culture of long term involvement in communities.[16] These cultural distinctions in their histories have been solidified in donor requirements. Since the funding is divided, the organizations believe they must still be substantially different in the work they do and the approach they take. If the organizations are substantially different, what reason would they have for talking to each other – or so goes the reasoning. The ‘cultural difference’ between NGOs perpetuates a divide between them that makes collaboration unlikely, if not dangerous to funding. Yet as humanitarian aid increasingly lingers in countries longer than the originally intended short-term assistance, the lines become blurred between aid and development.[17] However, since the money is ‘siloed’, it becomes important for humanitarian aid to dig deeper into their definition of difference from development or else risk losing funding. 

Finally, breakdowns in the overall models of peacebuilding, development, and aid are limiting their work individually and collectively. Increasingly, organizations are shifting to a business model and away from an assistance model, an idea cultivated from the reasoning that improving efficiency improves effectiveness.[18] NGOs are looking to the private sector for suggestions of how to run their organizations, adopting a desire for deliverables and return on investment. Delivery and branding are increasingly part of the work being done, adding a corporate sheen to the industry. These business principles cycle back into the sense of competition present among the NGOs, without improvement to the assistance they offer to communities. Viewing international assistance like a business can lead to poorly considered programs that prove the point that efficiency and cost-effectiveness do not inevitably lead to successful outcomes. Examples of this are humanitarian aid providing food packages containing ingredients that are inexpensive but not part of the diet of the people being served or offering programs that are ‘proven’ models without assessing the unique needs of the community.[19] Corporate thinking has shifted the models and goals of NGOs toward focusing more on money than on people, which makes working with other organizations for the good of the communities even harder.

Recommendations for Collaboration

Given all the effects of siloed moneys, the first change to the system to allow easier collaboration would be to remove or loosen the categories of funding. If peacebuilding, development, and aid were allowed to share or blend grants for projects that served their communities best, this might inspire more creative thinking on the part of the agencies. The clear demarcations between organizations would be given permission to relax. Gaps between fields and duplicated services would be lessened through the expectation from the funders that organizations would work together. Activities would cease to be categorized by industry, e.g. a peacebuilding program or a development program, allowing for more nuanced understandings of community needs. Donors would also be encouraged to look more closely at what a community is asking for instead of simply endorsing development work in a developing country or peacebuilding in a conflict zone.

By removing the funding labels, organizations will be able to broaden their mandates to better serve communities. NGOs would be able to think beyond their narrow focuses to a more expansive view of community interests and what the NGO can provide. An example of this is the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), Turkey’s largest NGO, which has reframed its work as “humanitarian diplomacy” or peace mediation and advocacy in addition to their humanitarian aid.[20] They chose to look at humanitarian crises holistically and realized that they would be in the practice of providing aid for generations if they did not incorporate a measure of peacebuilding to their work. So they began to serve as a mediator and advocate for peace within the conflicts they were serving. While this is the full collapse of politicized peacebuilding into humanitarian aid which Ferris and Franke feared, IHH decided that they would rather risk this than to get in the business of drawn out humanitarian relief when the causes of the crisis could be diminished with mediation. More aid and development organizations being willing to broaden their missions to include peacebuilding has the potential to shift how conflicts and crises are approached to better serve communities in need.

Collaboration for peace would also be improved through shifting focus from results to what Smith calls “cumulative impact”.[21] The existing results-based system incentivized organizations to keep doing the same things: short-term projects with limited results. These results may be ‘good’ but may be mistaken as the whole of the organization’s goals. Smith argues that what peacebuilding and development suffer from is a lack of destination: individual projects and programs that do not make up a cohesive picture of what they are aiming toward. Tschirgi offers a similar critique, highlighting how international assistance has lost a clear strategy, focusing instead on short-term projects.[22] If organizations were to take a more long-term, wholistic view of their work, then the positive effects of collaboration may become clearer. Strategic planning might even make collaboration for peace necessary for the success of a significantly broader mission than simply the completion of the next project. The intersection of development, humanitarian aid, and peacebuilding could serve as a powerful nexus for more peaceful communities where the needs of those in crisis and poverty are met with an eye toward international players working themselves out of the picture, not just independently through to the next grant cycle.


Within the international assistance sector, collaboration is the exception rather than the rule. The effect of funding silos, business principles, and competition have worn deep divisions between peacebuilding, development, and humanitarian aid. Yet the benefits for communities if organizations were to work together are substantial enough to raise the question of whether the entire system should not be changed toward a broader, more wholistic view of what is valuable and possible. Continuing to focus on the deliverables of short-term projects sets organizations into a narrow mindset of considering only the results of their own work. Considering a more complete picture of the work of ever actor in the community would allow for a comprehensive understanding of what is being done and what may be possible for organizations to do to help communities deal with crises and conflicts. Yet this would require widespread shifts in funding and organizational cultures, changes that many are hesitant to make.

At the root of each project and mission is a theory of change, a way to understand how change is effected. In international assistance, theories of change, both implicit and explicit, drive the way organizations make decisions about their work and the projects that they will support. The existing theories of change create competition and division between these industries, as organizations are pressured to show their efficiency and differentiate themselves from other agencies for the sake of funding.[23] This drives theories of change to be centered around the individual efforts of individual agencies, reinforcing the divisions between organizations. If the theories of change were to be altered to something more inclusive of other actors within the communities, many of the forces dividing peacebuilding, development, and aid would be lessened and the effects would be felt in the communities served by these NGOs. In conflict settings, coming together to construct unified theories of change for a community would lessen the conflict between organizations and help to build better collaborative models for peace.[24] A collective theory of change created through the participation of all relevant players would create a network of agencies ready to work together for the benefit of the people they are serving. This might be a first step toward lessening the divisions and improving the work of peacebuilding, aid, and development.



Anderson, Mary B., Dayna Brown, and Isabella Jean. Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2012.

Blin, Arnaud. “Armed Groups and Intra-State Conflicts: The Dawn of a New Era?” International Review of the Red Cross; Cambridge 93, no. 882 (June 2011): 287–310.

Collier, Paul. “Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and Their Implications for Policy.” In Leashing the Dogs of War, edited by Chester Crocker, Fen Olser Hampson, and Pamela Aall, 197–216. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007.

Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen. “Humanitarianism, Displacement, and the Politics of Nothing in Postwar Georgia.” Slavic Review 73, no. 2 (2014): 287–306.

Ferris, Elizabeth. “Addressing the Gap between Relief and Development.” Brookings (blog), November 30, 1AD.

Franke, Volker. “The Peacebuilding Dilemma: Civil-Military Cooperation in Stability Operations,” n.d., 21.

Irrera, Daniela. “Civil Society and Humanitarian Action: NGOs’ Roles in Peace Support Operations.” Perspectives: Review of Central European Affairs; Prague 19, no. 1 (2011): 85-106,121.

Jantzi, Terrence L., and Vernon E. Jantzi. “Development Paradigms and Peacebuilding Theories of Change: Analysing Embedded Assumptions in Development and Peacebuilding.” Journal of Peacebuilding & Development 5, no. 1 (January 2009): 65–80.

Kay-Fowlow, Meagan. “Closing the Gap Between Humanitarian and Development Aid.” InDepth News, February 28, 2012.

Milante, Gary, Jaeyeon Lee, and Lucienne Heyworth. “Forum Policy Brief, No. 9.” Stockholm Forum on Security & Development, May 2016.

Pugh, Michael. “Why a Merger of Peacebuilding and Development Would Reform Rather than Transform War-Torn Societies.” RUSI Journal: Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies; London 151, no. 4 (August 2006): 28–31.

Smith, Dan. “The Far Horizons of Peacebuilding - and the Near.” OpenDemocracy, 2012.

Snodderly, Dan, ed. Peace Terms: Glossary of Terms for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. United States Institute of Peace, 2011.

Tabak, Hüsrev. “Broadening the Nongovernmental Humanitarian Mission: The IHH and Mediation.” Insight Turkey; Ankara 17, no. 3 (Summer 2015): 193–215.

Tschirgi, Necla. “Post-Conflict Peacebuilding Revisited: Achievements, Limitations, Challenges.” WSP International/IPA Peacebuilding Forum Conference, 2004.


[1] Snodderly, Peace Terms: Glossary of Terms for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, 27.

[2] Snodderly, 18.

[3] Snodderly, 40.

[4] Ferris, “Addressing the Gap between Relief and Development.”

[5] Collier, “Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and Their Implications for Policy,” 216.

[6] Jantzi and Jantzi, “Development Paradigms and Peacebuilding Theories of Change,” 65.

[7] Irrera, “Civil Society and Humanitarian Action,” 102.

[8] Franke, “The Peacebuilding Dilemma: Civil-Military Cooperation in Stability Operations,” 9.

[9] Pugh, “Why a Merger of Peacebuilding and Development Would Reform Rather than Transform War-Torn Societies,” 30.

[10] Ferris, “Addressing the Gap between Relief and Development.”

[11] Franke, “The Peacebuilding Dilemma: Civil-Military Cooperation in Stability Operations,” 19.

[12] Blin, “Armed Groups and Intra-State Conflicts,” 293.

[13] Milante, Lee, and Heyworth, “Forum Policy Brief, No. 9,” 1.

[14] Kay-Fowlow, “Closing the Gap Between Humanitarian and Development Aid.”

[15] Snodderly, Peace Terms: Glossary of Terms for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, 27.

[16] Snodderly, 18.

[17] Kay-Fowlow, “Closing the Gap Between Humanitarian and Development Aid.”

[18] Anderson, Brown, and Jean, Time to Listen, 35.

[19] Dunn, “Humanitarianism, Displacement, and the Politics of Nothing in Postwar Georgia,” 293.

[20] Tabak, “Broadening the Nongovernmental Humanitarian Mission,” 200.

[21] Smith, “The Far Horizons of Peacebuilding - and the Near.”

[22] Tschirgi, “Post-Conflict Peacebuilding Revisited: Achievements, Limitations, Challenges,” 16.

[23] Anderson, Brown, and Jean, Time to Listen, 46.

[24] Jantzi and Jantzi, “Development Paradigms and Peacebuilding Theories of Change,” 77.