Different perspectives of conflict shape conflict analysis

Differing overlapping worldviews of what constitutes violent conflict and peace, how to identify confict and what causes it can influence the focus and conclusions of conflict analysis and subsequent policy choices (Ballentine & Nitzschke, 2003). For example, some see conflict as an irrational dysfunction of the system, which can be addressed (e.g. Galtung, 1969: 170); others see it as a rational and inherent feature of unequal societies, often based on irreconcilable perceptions of difference (e.g. Berdal & Keen, 1997). The first perspective has led to the ‘pathologisation’ of post-conflict societies – a framing that contrasts ‘failed’ states and their ‘dysfunctional’ populations with ‘functional’ international ‘rescue’ interventions and actors (Hughes & Pupavac, 2005).

Some define conflict as a series of discrete, episodic events (e.g. coups, riots, bombings), measured by the number of deaths and conflict events. Others see violent conflict as a social continuity, resulting from longer-term processes that have established war as a form of institution where societal pressures legitimise and normalise conflict (e.g. Jabri, 1996: 22-3). In this view, analysis and knowledge of war is a ‘constitutive part of the world of meaning and practice’ (ibid.: 23).

Analysis can prioritise conflict causes, conflict dynamics or the outcomes of conflict (Woodward, 2007). Bias can also emerge by analysing conflict through a lens of what societies ought to become, rather than analysing the actual situation (Duffield, 1998).

There is a huge literature about what causes conflict, with important debates and theories around: political and institutional factors (including weak state institutions, elite power struggles and political exclusion, breakdown in social contract and corruption, identity politics); socioeconomic factors (including inequality, exclusion and marginalisation, absence or weakening of social cohesion, poverty); and resource and environmental factors (including greed, scarcity of natural resources, unjust resource exploitation) (Haider, 2014a: 6).

Cordell and Wolff (2009: 2, 25) summarise the vast literature on the causes of ethnic conflict. They note that the literature has two broad approaches: one is based on a rational choice approach (explaining ethnic conflict in terms of a security dilemma or economic opportunities); the other is based on psychological theories (explaining ethnic conflict in terms of people’s identities and perceptions of their place in society).

Many of the macro-level theories about conflict causes have been subject to substantial criticism and disproof in the academic literature. However, this is not reflected in policy/practitioner thinking, argues Woodward (2007: 52).

Since the end of the Cold War, analysts have highlighted the rise of new forms of violent conflict. Contemporary conflicts differ in their scope (internal rather than inter-state, subnational rather than national); combatants (more non-state actors – private armies, warlords, criminal gangs, organised communal groups and terrorist or guerrilla organisations – instead of governments, professional soldiers or conscripts); methods (increased use of terror and guerrilla actions and deliberate targeting of civilians instead of combat in conventional battlefields); and models of financing (external rather than internal) (Haider, 2014a: 19). The World Bank’s (2011) World Development Report highlights that international actors have not kept up with these changes, for example not taking into adequate consideration the repetitive and interlinked nature of conflict and new challenges such as organised crime, and by focusing programming on post-conflict recovery rather than conflict prevention (pp. 181-4). Mac Ginty (2013) argues that the conflict analysis toolkit approach prioritises certain worldviews, while appearing to be neutral.

How the concept of state failure undermined conflict analysis and the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands

Hameiri (2007) argues that the concept of state failure misconstrues conflict as an ahistorical phenomenon, resulting from the absence of a prototypical Weberian state rather than the actual social and political conditions prevailing in particular societies. He finds that its application to the Solomon Islands by the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands has undermined accurate analysis of the root causes of conflict in the Pacific Island state.By focusing on weak governance, political will and state capacity, it has obscured the structural forces that actually generate the conditions of conflict. ‘Without a more comprehensive understanding of the causes and dimensions of conflict in Solomon Islands than that encapsulated in the failed state concept, the long-term viability of the intervention and future political stability…remain uncertain’ (p.410).

Source: Hameiri (2007)


Lack of understanding of conflict in peacebuilding and state-building

Reflection among aid actors after the devastating 1994 Rwandan genocide led to realisation that humanitarian and development actors had contributed to increased tensions and the worsening of the conflict. Aid interventions have since been understood to become part of the context – and, in conflict settings, to become part of the conflict. This acknowledgement that aid is not neutral also led to recognition that donors need to consider the inadvertent side-effects of programming on conflict. Conflict sensitivity emerged as a concept and tool to help aid actors understand the unintended consequences of aid and to act to minimise harm and achieve positive outcomes. Although conflict sensitivity originated in the humanitarian field, it has since been applied in a wide range of development, peacebuilding and state-building contexts. Conflict analysis is part of a conflict-sensitive approach. (Haider, 2014b).

The engagement of external actors in peacebuilding and state-building processes has expanded significantly since the end of the Cold War and has become a central focus of peace operations. The literature contains many examples of when peacebuilding and state-building reforms have not achieved their goals, or have led to unintended consequences. There are a number of overlapping explanations for this. Some attribute it to international actors’ ‘insufficient knowledge and analysis of the intrinsic tensions and contradictions of externally-assisted state-building’ (e.g. the promotion of ‘universal values’ as a remedy for ‘local problems’; and outside interventions being used to foster self-government) (Paris & Sisk, 2007: 1, 4). Others highlight the weaknesses of the core assumptions underpinning peacebuilding and state-building approaches (e.g. that economic growth eventually leads to a reduction in violent conflict; that violence is a direct consequence of weak state capacity; and that poverty and underdevelopment are major sources of conflict) (Parks et al., 2013: 11). Others argue that the toolkits produce the ‘illusion of a replicable and predictable environment’, and a mechanical understanding of the impact of aid (Duffield, 2001: 263), when situations are far more complex (Ramalingam, Jones, Reba & Young, 2009; Herbert, 2014).

The expanding remit of conflict analysis

Since the 1990s, the remit of bilateral aid and development work has expanded in line with the expanding international development agenda, moving from a predominant focus on aid and poverty to also include peacebuilding and state-building, fragile states, stabilisation and, more recently, radicalisation and extremism. While many multilateral organisations have traditionally focused on conflict and state reconstruction (e.g. UN, World Bank), this is a more recent trend in bilateral donors’ approaches.

Conflict analysis toolkits have been developed to reflect these integrated approaches. This broader view allows the analysis to cover more aspects of conflict causation and drivers of state fragility, to take better account of potential and actual diplomatic and military interventions on the part of international organisations and to provide a shared understanding across departments (Barakat & Waldman, 2013).

This shift of interests and competencies has altered the fundamental purpose of conflict analyses (which has moved from improving the effectiveness of aid and stability in poorer countries to improving the security of the West) and also the systems for conflict analyses. Increased collaboration and joined-up approaches across government departments (also called a ‘whole-of-government’ approach) have led to changes in institutions – with, for example, the creation of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq. There have also been changes to the analytical tools – such as DFID’s replacement of its 2002 Strategic Conflict Assessment tool with the cross-governmental Joint Analysis of Conflict and Stability (first developed around 2012).

Some criticise the merging of agendas as the ‘radicalisation of development’ with the objective of the ‘liberal peace’, seeking to ‘transform the dysfunctional and war-affected societies’ into ‘cooperative, representative and, especially, stable entities’ (Duffield, 2001: 11). However, others welcome this shift, noting that external actors are not neutral and that the previous tools were out of date with the ‘securitisation’ of conflict that occurred after 11 September 2001. They argue that conflict analysis tools too ‘narrowly geared toward development actors’ are out of date with recent scholarly work and lessons from practice emphasising the importance of joint analyses and integrated action across actors in conflict situations (development, foreign policy, military, humanitarian, trade) (Barakat & Waldman, 2013).

Conflict-insensitive aid fuelling conflict in Nepal

Aid was allocated to more accessible areas in Nepal, which limited benefits for the most conflict-affected regions and for the poorest. In addition, aid programmes that focused on capacity-building and awareness-raising benefited mainly elite groups, with little advantage for the most excluded. Programmes calling for community contributions placed an undue burden on women and the most poor – and were resented. All of this had the effect of exacerbating patterns of exclusion – a key driver of the conflict.

Source: Vaux (2002).


Conflict analysis and analysis of violent extremism

As an emerging issue on the development agenda, radicalisation and violent extremism (VE) has not been explicitly incorporated into conflict analysis tools or discussions, but, where relevant, it will emerge through analysis of the conflict actors, causes and dynamics. The increased interest in radicalisation and VE by development actors is an extension of the securitisation agenda. The challenge is to get away from a purely security analysis to see how political, economic, social and psychological factors underpin extremism and whether and how aid and development could address these issues.

A GSDRC Topic Guide on CVE explains that ‘many research disciplines are seeking to explain terrorist or violent extremist behaviour and to provide the frameworks to analyse what the phenomenon entails and what drives it’ (Schomerus et al., 2017). However, the knowledge base is extremely limited by a lack of empirical data, coupled with the complexity, multifaceted and contradictory nature of the issues. Research on countering VE (CVE) programming tends to be driven by intelligence or military interests. CVE is under pressure to be measured and to show success—and many have grappled with how this might be done, with at least one standalone toolkit being developed for the purpose (e.g. the toolkit by (Van Hemert et al., 2014).


Politics is central, yet toolkits are technocratic

While there is a consensus that more in-depth, context-specific analysis is needed when working in conflict-affected countries, there is also pressure for succinct, easily accessible reports, or else busy policymakers will not read them (Duffield, 2001: 263). This demand has fuelled the growth of conflict analysis toolkits and manuals.

These are designed to be adapted to the context, but do provide a standardised set of analytical terms and questions for analysis – arguably making for an efficient, transparent and replicable process and product. Yet this approach is not without limitation, and the ‘ongoing tension’ between those arguing for particularity and those arguing for policy-relevant generalisations has divided the policy community (Woodward, 2007: 46).

Ultimately, violent conflict is about politics, power, contestation between actors and the (re)shaping of institutions for the benefit of some (and at the expense of others). Some argue the toolkits are technocratic and disguise the political nature of conflict and conflict resolution. Mac Ginty (2013) notes that the ‘technocratic turn’ in peacebuilding has occurred through 1) the standardisation of the analysis of conflict through toolkits; 2) development of the ‘bureaucratic infrastructure and material culture’ of peacebuilding; and 3) the emergence of select peacebuilding institutions and professionals that dominate thinking and approaches. He argues that the conflict analysis toolkits support technocracy through their specialised and standardised vocabulary (e.g. structural and proximate causes of conflict); their standardised epistemology (what knowledge is, and how to collect, organise and disseminate it); and their framing of conflicts based on Western assumptions that often exclude local approaches and knowledge.

This can lead to bias or inaccurate analysis, or analysis that does not resonate with local understandings; for example, ‘conflict analyses with an in-built focus on technocracy (the breakdown of the state, poor governance, the lack of mechanisms to ensure the fair distribution of resources, etc.) are likely to recommend peace support interventions that focus on technocracy’ (Mac Ginty, 2013). The author of the PCIA criticises the growth of conflict analysis tools, arguing they reflect the ‘mechanistic Northern-led quest for mainstreamable products’ (Bush, 2003: 39) and donor-led conflict analyses often do not adequately identify the role of the development actors themselves and the political context of the development industry.

Local understanding and legitimacy

The drive to measure, monitor and compare peace and conflict across countries and cultures has led to the development of a number of indicators and databases. Some conflict analysis tools focus more at the local level, with space for local staff participation (e.g. the 1999 Do No Harm approach and the 2000 Responding to Conflict tool); others take a broader approach focusing on strategic levels (e.g. 2002 DFID tool (Goodhand, et al., 2002)).

Mac Ginty (2013) argues that many of the approaches to measure peace favoured by international actors are ‘deficient’, with either too broad or too narrow a level of analysis. And the aggregated statistical format often means their representation of conflicts is ‘meaningless’ to local communities. Mac Ginty (2013) instead proposes what he calls ‘indicators +’, which are locally generated indicators, based on the everyday life of the community, and could be generated through participatory conflict transformation exercises. This reflects a wider shift of interest towards ‘the local’ dimensions of peace and peacebuilding, the increased assertiveness of local actors and loss of confidence in international peace support actors (Mac Ginty & Richmond, 2013: 763).