Podcast RSS

Aid flows in when conflict erupts but could aid play a bigger role before conflict turns violent? We speak with Aimé Saba
from the University of Sydney’s Department of Peace and Conflict Studies about how aid operates in war zones,
why the example of Africa offers a case for increasing aid and whether conflict is necessary.



Aimé Saba has worked in the field of international development, humanitarian assistance, peacebuilding and peacekeeping for over 10 years. He recently returned to Sydney after serving as a civilian peacekeeper with the UN Mission in Liberia in Monrovia. He has also served on the Iraq desk of the Department of Political Affairs at the UN Secretariat HQ in New York and has worked for the Australian Government’s overseas aid program (AusAID) on humanitarian programs in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, North Korea, and the Philippines. Aimé is an accredited Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist and is currently part of the Australian Civilian Corps Cadre with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Learn more


First Nations people in Canada, Australia, US, are in conflict. But it's not a violent conflict, there are civil ways of resolving their demand, through public policy, through a number of reforms, through a number of compensations and reparations.

Can aid play a role at those initial stages of conflict, so it doesn't escalate? Do we often miss the mark?

We need to convince the global leaders of this fault, the moral political philosophical, the responsibility to increase the aid available.

Is conflict necessary? There is a period where people have had enough, people say, "This can't go on."

We are greedy. And that is what comes to the root of a lot of conflict.

Yes we've given something, but it's not enough. If we don't give, then we're going to face more consequences or disrupted states.

Welcome to Conversations in Development, a podcast about foreign aid, development and social change. I'm Olivia Rosenman and I'm here with Peter Mason, my co-host and the CEO of the international development agency, Cufa. Hi Peter.

Hi Olivia.

And in this episode, we're talking about conflict, development and the role of foreign aid. Our guest is Aime, who has over 10 years of experience working in international development, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and peace building. Aime, thank you so much for joining us on Conversations in Development.

Thank you very much for the invitation.

Aime, you've got considerable experience working with developing countries in conflict. You've recently returned to Australia from Liberia, where you served as a civilian peacekeeper with the UN mission there, you act on the Iraq desk at the UN secretary, at Department of Political Affairs. And you also spent time with AusAid working on humanitarian programs in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, North Korea and the Philippines. In your eyes, how does conflict and violence impact on development?

I would say it sort of disrupts harmonious social progress that you have in any society. So you should think of pretty much any country that has gone through a number of wars, because not all conflicts are violent. You tend to sort of hear many narratives from people who lived in that society, recalling or having certain forms of nostalgia of how life was before conflict. Yeah? Almost like regretting how did they come to sort of use violence in order to solve their disputes or disagreements on how to run an inclusive society for example.

Can I just ask?


You just said then that not all conflicts are violent, so can you give us a bit of an example of where there have been conflicts that haven't necessarily translated into violence or widespread violence?

Yeah. Well, the first ones I can give now that we are in Australia and I think we have so much ethical commitment to understanding conflict from our own sort of backyard. Conflict with indigenous populations, First Nations people in Canada, Australia, US, are in conflict with a set of communities, but it's not a violent conflict. There are civil ways of resolving their demand, through public policy, through a number of reforms, through a number of compensation and reparations, but there's also in ... Let's say Zambia, you'll have conflict that non-violence, where the terrain of contestation is pretty much in parliament.

Where ideas are being discussed and changes are being disagreed upon, but somehow consensus emerges out of different sort of views on how to structure that society.,/p>

I guess I asked that question because often I think in the Australian environment, we often conflate conflict with violence. And we often think that they go together and so it's interesting to understand that development plays a role in non-violent conflict as well violent conflict, because the news always gives us the violent conflict.


And so you don't realise that these also are playing out in emerging countries or emerging markets.

Yeah, yeah. We focus more on those major ruptures and disruptions, because those are the one that caught our attention and they cause more harm and have more devastating impact. But-

So then, can aid play a role then at those initial stages of conflict?

Oh, yes.

So it doesn't escalate to a violent conflict?

Oh yes.

Do we often miss the mark as development agencies, not actually identifying that conflict at that early stage and maybe ameliorating that through development initiatives, before it gets to a violent stage?

Yes, I mean there are many initiatives. Unfortunately they're not well funded. If a human rights activist wrote a report on the plight of the Rohingyas for example, in Rakhine state, in Myanmar in the 90's, many people wouldn't believe them. Yeah? So early warning reports, conflict analysis reports saying, "You were giving aid, but aid only stays in Myanmar. We need to think of people at the periphery, these people are being denied of basic rights." People wouldn't believe that person. Not only in the 90's, but even 10 years ago. In the early 2000, there were some courageous voices of people who warned that there was something there.

That the forms of discrimination against particular sections of the population in that area, who crossed borders because borders don't mean anything. And who are being told that they don't belong here, and when they go to the other side they are also told they don't belong there either. I'm talking about Bangladesh, Myanmar borders and margins. And so back to that question of international aid being capable of identifying early enough, so that it can also prevent. Well, we know that prevention costs less than humanitarian response.

Pardon me, if I could ask you. It's very clear what an aid response looks like, in a violent conflict situation. There's people are injured, infrastructure is damaged, it's about going in, helping the wounded, rebuilding, but what would an aid response or preventative aid to stop conflicts escalating to violence, what would that look like? What do those initiatives look like?

Really good question. Is we've always seen is that, we learn every day. Each new humanitarian crises around the world, teaches us new ways of looking at conflict. And whenever we reflect on what the international community should have done or could have done, there's always a number of new lessons. But to me, the most important thing is really the ability of workers themselves. So individuals, but of course individuals make organisations. The courage of organisations to report and say what they see, to me there's no one country, one society that does not have local NGOs and local actors who understand the drivers of those conflicts.

So any report that I read that does not show me that there's voices of the locals, tells me that there's something missing. Yeah? So to me the key is ways in which we build our abilities to build partnerships with those other individuals and organisations on the ground, whose voices need to be heard in the global North. We still have so much sort of needs to maintain that global North assisting or contributing to change in the global South.

Running an NGO, I realise that there is competing demands upon our funding. And so while it makes sense to actually look at conflict before it becomes violent, funding is always the issue. And so where do you put your funding? You put it into those zones that need it now, not need it in the future. Or need it to prevent violent conflict happening in the future. So how do we frame non-violent conflict, in a way to bring its priority up higher than perhaps the violent conflict? You know there's just only so much aid money out there and so it always gets put to where the emergency is, rather than preventing emergencies.

That's pretty much the major challenge that we continue to face. On the one hand we can understand that when you are about to assist people in need, attending to the situation in Syria, makes more sense than attending a situation in Nigeria where certain things are taking place that there hasn't been the sort of the humanitarian catastrophe that you have in Aleppo or Rakhine, yeah? And we can understand the demands, countries are not as generous as some people would have predicted in the 80's. That the aid envelope would go from 0.7 of the GDP, to 1%, yeah? Some countries have 1%, the UK is one of them. Norway and Sweden and Holland are there, So six countries so far.

And where is Australia?

Australia is somewhere like 12 if not 13, 14th if not 20th. So there's only 25 major OECD countries that are large aid donors. Australia continues to be okay-ish. Honestly we need to go back and convince the global leaders of these fault, through bodies such as a G8, or G20, or any other international sort of platform, to remind them that the global responsibility, the moral, political, philosophical, responsibility to increase the aid available. But back to the question of helping more on the prevention, because we understand the costs of prevention being lower, much lower than that of response, I imagine that the more organisations, the more actors moving into that space, they can sort of create some sort of a momentum and in the powerful sort of voice.

Imagine in Australia if in all the interveners, the major international interveners, went to the foreign minister and said, "We would like to have a platform or a mechanism through which all of us combined we can sort of come to you and tell you about particular sort of situation when something is about to happen."

So maybe if we move on now to talk more about the role of aid post violent conflict, how do foreign third parties come into countries where there has been a violent conflict? Where there have been war atrocities? Are there any conflicts there with the foreign third party coming in to do that?

We’re pretty much operating in an environment where unfortunately, state sovereignty continues to be one of the major obstacles to effective response to crises. There are so many conflicts where had early intervention, early response, been permitted to go in that country, you wouldn't have the amount of casualties and consequences that you have usually. So what I mean by that is, most of the time you know conflicts go on and on and so much destruction, so much exhaustion on the part of the belligerent. To the point where peacekeeping intervention comes in when the damage is so great, all you have is pretty much to keep the peace that is no longer there and to rebuild a shattered, completely shattered society because of state sovereignty, yeah?

Countries can only intervene when the host country itself is responsible for the violation, gross human rights violation. So the international community however powerful they are continue to be restricted. I mean, there's been a number of a new development including the new international law norm, of the responsibility to protect. Yeah? Which came in 2005 and pretty much says that, if states are unwilling or unable to protect their own citizens, the international community will move in. Yeah? In very sort of simplistic terms. That norm has been applied to ownership countries, in many countries there's been non application. There's been failure in the application of that principle, and that's where my PhD thesis is working.

You need enough time to build that culture of adoption of the norms, international norms. Unfortunately, we have state actors who can be suspicious of any norm that contains intervention because they consider intervention as occupation and therefore loss of sovereignty, and loss of independence. But of course they forget that being independent means interdependence, yeah? So there's no country that is independent, every country including the most powerful country, the US of America is interdependent. Depends on others, contributes to the development of others but also depends on others in order for it to flourish.

But when many of these smaller states that have just the flag, and a constitution that they don't follow and laws that need to be reformed, because they cause conflict, because they do not allow for the full enjoyment of all citizenship rights, to all citizens ... So you have that sort of a problem over sovereignty.

I want to play devil's advocate, a little bit here. As we know, there is a lot of fatigue in the donor sector. We've got Syria, we've had Iraq, we've had Afghanistan, it goes on and on and on. And I guess it becomes very difficult and you can speak to Africa I guess, more so we don't operate in Africa, so I can't speak to Africa. But there has been a lot of money poured in, we know that there is a lot of corrupt governments, people are fairly powerless in a lot of those countries.

And I guess the donor here in Australia says, "Well, just a minute. Haven't we put a lot of money into these countries and yet we constantly are seeing wars, conflict." When does that stop? Is this a good investment of our donor dollar or should we just see it play out and then go in after it's played out? And I know that it's very mercenary, but there is a point of which money doesn't seem to be solving that that conflict. So had we frame that, in terms of the Australian public?

Honestly, I have no answer. All I can sort of see is I'm going to quote Jeffrey Sachs, who is a strong proponent of this idea that, yes we've given something, but it's not enough. And if we don't give, then we're going to face more consequences of disrupted states. Yeah? So, these states in many ways ... Without going into primeval history of how these postcolonial, sort of nation states were formed, in many, many, many cases of these countries you've got only 50, 60 years of Independence.

Well, that may not excuse them for having really dysfunctional systems. The basic sort of systems of managing ministries, managing resources. We have Singapore and we have Mauritius, we have Rwanda for examples, we have a number of countries in Asia that have pretty much gone on to that trajectory. They are on the path towards modern systems that work, that are efficient, that are accountable to the people. But also accountable to the international standards.

So are you saying then, that what we should be doing is really supporting civil society? And if there is a corrupt government or a government that is not listening to its people, if we support civil society, that is the way to change those governments or change the government's behaviours?

I hadn't said that yet, but that was pretty much what I was going, yeah. Because to me its creative ways of working in these countries involves what one calls in large multi lecturism, there are ways of building solidarity and teaching. I mean ... Let me just give one example of one of my favourite academics in France called Bit Cambodia, calls the need to continue socialising these countries. And just like in your own family, kids. In order for you to demand to them, that they have to behave in a particular way, before doing that you do what Emile Durkheim sociologist would say.

First tell them the norms and make sure that, that phase of socialisation of norms even in the family home you need first enough time. You cannot yell at a child who is 10 or 11, if for the last five six years since the child was four, you haven't been sort of reminding them. So that's the work of educating, reminding, and behaving according to what you want that child to do and-

So then building on that you mentioned Singapore and Asia in general, in terms of being able to make that leap into stable government. If you then think about that region I guess with Confucian values, so what you're saying is those values already existed. So it was easier for them to make that leap. Sorry I'm probably putting words into your mouth, but-

But it's good.

I'm trying to scratch underneath and think, "Well, there must have been something a little bit different about that, in that region. That allowed them to do that, which is missing or is not the case in other areas.

Yeah, no. Thank you Peter. Many people, many people are now pretty much seeing the importance of values. Values are driving change. I mean, collective values just like pretty much families. I like to give examples of family, because states and nation states are just the bigger form of a family, yeah? When you sit together and discuss how you want to run the affairs of that house, whether you're a flatmate and those rules that you put on the fridge. Remember to clean after yourself, remember to recycle, remember to do this, let's have a meeting, such and such as been coming home late and playing too much music, loud music during the week days.

And then people sort of reconvene and then say, "Yes, maybe we should or shouldn't do that." Can we ... If you're going to do it, please communicate and wherever. Honestly, take that and give it some sort of complexity and take it to the level of the state. Really it's the same thing. That those conversations in countries where you've had some sort of framework through which those conversations have taken place, you see rapid change. And I shouldn't talk so much about Rwanda, a country that I know as well. Which is next the country where I come from, Burundi. Rwanda is doing that. They've had so many years of that conversation on values, on identity reflecting on what happened to their conflict, yeah? This is 20 years.

But isn't that driven by the leadership though? That's a top down approach, because you've got an enlightened leader that's saying, "I need to open up space for this to occur." Which is not always the case in other countries necessarily and so it's got to be more grassroots, most driven by civil society, which in itself can create conflict because the leadership don't necessarily want that that voice to be heard. And that's where I guess aid organisations can play a role-

That's exactly it.

In empowering the grassroots civil societies to have that voice.

Yes, yeah. No you're right in some countries they'll go and draw from the history you mentioned Confucian values as an example. In others, it could be the Lee Kuan Yew, the president of Rwanda who is being sort of talked about as the African Lee Kuan Yew, is also responsible for that. Leadership is key and in many of those countries just like in many of the Western world, you will find those sort of countries that ... The way they emerge somehow in the distance of the past 100 years or 200 years, before sometimes just 40, 50 years.

I mean, many of the Western countries are very much advanced today, but only 60 years ago they were pretty much on the ground. And they needed particular sort of leaders. The goal of Churchill in the case of France and UK, but you have ... You do need a leader and even in the family you need a rank, you need a strong person to ... And he doesn't have to always be the father or the mother, it could be the firstborn in the family who pretty reminds people and says, "Look, let's have these conversations, let's look next door. Singapore did it, why can't we do it?" Type of conversation, yeah?

Now we will have to wrap up, but I might ask you both one final question. I think would be interesting to get your opinion based on your experience in Africa Aime, and then Peter in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. This other big global threat that we are faced with is climate change, and the way that will foster competition for resources and displace people on a big scale. I just wonder how much you think we as a global population and also the aid sector, is prepared for the conflicts that climate change will bring.

We cannot live the way we've been living, we cannot keep quiet on the forms of consumption that's how we see it. Cities need to be more sustainable and so I'm talking about sustainable development goals that are framework that can help. Not only governments but also communities, cities, villages, regions to work together and address target and indicators that are within this sort of big framework called the 2030 agenda. Which was a UN agenda, that was approved in 2015, and which succeeded the Millennium Development Goals. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, Sustainable Development Goals are for everyone.

They are for both the developing countries and the developed countries because environmental challenges are not only a preserve of the developing world, we know that. And forms of inequalities, structural inequalities are more sort of shocking in the global South but they're also starting to be much more visible and creating a number of problems in societies in the global market. So all those principles need new generation of thinking, young people who would be living in this world in 50 years’ time need to also have these conversations. And unfortunately they're not having these conversations, not always.

Not all of them because of a number of issues, including the way a lot of our educational systems in plural currently are, yeah? So we need some sort of transformations in the curriculum, but also in you know having that conversation. And this is I think where this radio program can also play a role, people are not having enough conversations on those and somehow everyone can play a role.

Look, I always struggle with this because on the one hand, we talk about collaboration and the sustainable development goals is a great example of global collaboration around the limited resources that we all share. But on the other hand, we've got this narrative of aid for trade. So we've got competition. So we're setting up an environment that sets us up to compete against each other but overarching that, we're saying, "No, we need to collaborate because we've got limited resources." And I always struggle to work out, how do we make those two agendas fit together? And I don't have an answer, but I always struggle because they're running in parallel.

We know that DFAT and many other nations are looking at ensuring that their aid budget is beneficial to the trade relationships. But at the same time, we're also having those conversations about how do we collaborate to solve some of the environmental issues, some of the overpopulation issues ... A whole range of different issues. And I don't know that they necessarily fit together.

And if there was another World War Three, which was different from the other wars. The World War Three that was based on the natural resources for example. But globally trade related Third World War, yeah? Then maybe everyone would sit together and will say, "We need to find sustainable solutions to drivers of conflict, within and between countries.

Is conflict necessary? Because I often think it brings people to the table. There is a lot of pain and a lot of bloodshed, but there is a period where people have had enough. People say, "This can't go on." It's almost like a catharsis, where you get to a point where it does bring everyone to the table. I know it's probably a bit contentious, but is conflict necessary?

That's what people say, yes.


Many people say, "Yes, it can be." Ideally we don't want it to get to that point, but conflict is an opportunity for people to reflect and we design division of power. So is between two individuals, if you have a conflict then you build a new tomorrow.

So you're almost saying it's a natural process if you like?


A natural human process.

Yes, but it's also ... If you should take that sort of to the extent that reasoning, you also need to sort of emphasise on the ability of individuals or human beings, to solve and prevent conflicts that looked like they were going to be inevitable moments of causing chaos. So as much as we can emphasise on the opportunities of conflict, we also need to think of the level of sophistication that human beings collectively in all societies have, of predicting and saying, "If we don't do something on this particular issue, we're going to conflict."

The problem at the base of all of these ... And it makes me think of a quote from 'The Handmaid's Tale' where this male later in the household says ... And he's reflecting on the way that the society now works with his woman who is essentially his fertility slave. He says to her, "Well, better doesn't ever mean better for everyone." Is that not a base problem and actually there's some human problem, that we are greedy in that we often do want more than someone else. And we're not prepared to share and that is what comes to the root of a lot of conflicts, because people are not getting the same resources, or opportunities, or rights as other people. And the people at the top or the people on the other side aren't willing to give it to them.


Yeah, yeah.

But in saying that though, going through that process of conflict gets people to realise where the water level is. What can I have and what is reasonable to have? And I know ... It's a horrible thing to say, but it is probably necessary for everyone then to understand where they sit within their resource allocation if you like.

That's a good place to wrap up. Aime, thank you very much for joining us.

Yeah, thank you. Thank you for the invitation.

You're welcome. Peter.

Thank you.

Conversations in Development is produced by me Olivia Rosenman, with music by studio Gary. The podcast is brought to you by Cufa. Cufa is an International Development Agency, whose work creates infinite value alleviating poverty, reaching more than four million people across the Asia Pacific. To learn more about Cufa's work and for more information on our guests, visit ConversationsInDevelopment.com.au, and for more Conversations in Development, make sure you subscribe to the podcast to catch all our episodes.