Beyond doing no harm: reducing conflict through food assistance

Over ten million people in Iraq—almost a third of the country’s total population—are in need of humanitarian assistance, with food assistance being the ongoing priority need. Local, regional, national and international actors are using a variety of strategies to provide food and other assistance. However, the means of delivering this food assistance—how, when, by whom and for whom—impacts conflict dynamics far beyond the contents of the package. Tools like Do No Harm (DNH) examine how assistance is conducted in order to identify the likely negative consequences that may occur beyond immediate food consumption, but strategies for revising and shaping interventions to produce positive social impacts are more limited. Providing long-term, predictable and consistent food assistance as well as involving both displaced and host communities in the intervention are two actions that can improve security and reinforce the existing social fabric in otherwise unstable environments. These are positive impacts of humanitarian interventions that go beyond improving food consumption.

The Do No Harm framework provides tools to analyze how an intervention positively and negatively impacts its context. Distributing assistance along sectarian lines, undermining existing support systems or giving power to a certain group or individuals over others are all actions that fuel conflict. Conversely, actions motivated by respect, accountability, fairness and transparency (RAFT) serve to mitigate conflict. One of the key principles of DNH is that no negative impact is inevitable: there are always options to revise and improve programming. At the practical level, DNH recommends minimizing potential negative impact of humanitarian interventions by minimizing dividers that fuel conflict and maximizing connectors that strengthen social cohesion.

One of the main dividers that increases conflict and fuels tension in food assistance is a lack of predictable and consistent delivery. When a family receives food from different groups, in different amounts, in different ways and at different times (or not at all), they cannot predict or plan their next week, let alone future months or years. In Iraq, families displaced by the Islamic State group rely on monthly food assistance, with the World Food Programme (WFP) providing substantial funding through many implementing partners. In April 2015, a delay in its funding pipeline resulted in a missed month for all WFP-funded food assistance across Iraq. Around 1.5 million individuals did not receive food that they were counting on, with little or no advance notice. As increasingly desperate families heard about non-WFP actors providing food assistance in other areas, this funding delay triggered secondary displacement, with families relocating in search of assistance to meet their basic needs. Irregular provision like this—especially delays or changes in regular distribution schedules and alterations of the amount or type of food provided—has direct negative consequences for conflict-affected people. In this case, relocations forced many internally displaced persons (IDPs) to leave behind previous assistance (such as winterized shelters or large items like refrigerators) and likely strained resources and exacerbated host community–IDP tensions at their new locations.

To go beyond simply avoiding negative effects and instead strengthen the existing social networks of support, interventions must proactively integrate both IDP and host communities. For example, one of MCC’s partners, Zahko Small Villages Project (ZSVP), has engaged host communities and IDPs by incorporating ongoing livelihoods projects for vulnerable host community members—kitchen gardens, beekeeping and other home-based income generation activities—with monthly food assistance for IDPs living in the same and nearby towns. Collaboration between the two groups has happened spontaneously, and ZSVP encourages equal treatment and interaction (rather than segregation according to status) by drawing on IDPs and host community members alike for involvement in project volunteering, project participant selection and information-gathering. Hosts in these and other towns frequently provide crucial supplemental assistance through their individual generosity—providing their new neighbors with vegetables from their gardens, shared refrigerator space, cash and other necessities—that goes unrecognized and undocumented. With only ten percent of Iraqi IDPs living in camps, host communities across the country have absorbed displaced families—usually an additional 30-50% of their original population—and may themselves be in need of assistance. Outside interventions should seek to mitigate the strain on small host communities like these without undermining their contributions.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for good interventions. However, some practical tools can be applied in many contexts, especially regarding food assistance. Beyond improving immediate food consumption without doing harm, food assistance has the capacity to decrease conflict and promote peace by prioritizing long-term and regular distributions while incorporating social cohesion into project implementation.

Kaitlin Heatwole is a program coordinator for MCC.

Learn more:

Anderson, Mary. Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace—Or War. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999.

Do No Harm Project. “The ‘Do No Harm’ Framework for Analyzing the Impact of Assistance on Conflict: A Handbook.” Cambridge, MA: Collaborative for Development Action, Inc., April 2004. Retrieved from

“Iraq: Multi-Cluster Needs Assessment of Internally Displaced Persons Outside Camps.” Geneva: REACH Initiative, October 2015. Retrieved from

“Key Principles in Do No Harm and Conflict Sensitivity.” Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2015. Retrieved from

1 thought on “Beyond doing no harm: reducing conflict through food assistance

  1. Dear Kaitlin,

    Thanks for an interesting post! CDA has a new website, and the resources you linked to can now be found at:, and here

    We hope that you continue to find inspiration in CDA’s lessons and tools!
    Jasmine Walovitch, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s