Definitions and concepts

Conflict is the result of a disagreement between actors on the basis of perceived incompatible goals (Conflict Sensitivity Consortium, 2012: 2). Disagreements and conflicts are inevitable everyday occurrences – and their resolution can result in constructive change. Conflicts are often analysed at different levels – interpersonal, group/community and national – and in terms of how the levels interact with each other. They can turn into violent conflict when ‘there are inadequate channels for dialogue and disagreement’; when ‘dissenting voices and deeply held grievances cannot be heard and addressed’; and in environments of ‘instability, injustice and fear’ (Fisher et al., 2000: 6). Conflict prevention and resolution approaches aim to resolve conflicts through non-violent means.

Conflict analysis is a structured process of analysis to understand conflict, focusing on the conflict profile (history of conflict), the actors involved and their perspectives, the structural and proximate causes and the dynamics of how these elements interact (Conflict Sensitivity Consortium, 2012). A conflict analysis examines open conflict (conflict that is very visible and deep-rooted), surface conflict (visible but shallow or with no roots), and also latent conflict (below the surface with potential to emerge) (Fisher et al., 2000). The important distinction between a conflict analysis and a context analysis is that conflict analysis always addresses the relationship of the issue with conflict, instability and peace.

This Topic Guide looks at violent conflict at the national and community/group level, particularly armed conflict and political violence, rather than other forms of conflict (e.g. interpersonal conflict, criminal violence or structural/indirect violence), as this is the focus of the typical policy/practitioner conflict analysis. These concepts overlap. Political violence is the use of force by a group with a political purpose or motivation (ACLED, 2015). Armed conflict is ‘a contested incompatibility that concerns government and/or territory’ and involves ‘armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state’.

Conflict analysis as part of a conflict-sensitive approach

Conflict analysis tends to be discussed as part of conflict-sensitive approaches (in policy/practitioner literature), conflict resolution, conflict prevention and/or peacebuilding. While it can be used for all of these purposes, this topic guide focuses on the conflict analysis element (the method of analysis) rather than on general aspects of conflict (the subject) or on conflict sensitivity, conflict resolution, conflict prevention or peacebuilding (the operationalisation of the analysis). It is a companion paper to a number of the GSDRC Topic Guides, including those on Conflict Sensitivity and Conflict.

In practice, conflict sensitivity is often applied to specific activities, building on the core ‘Do No Harm’ principle and the dividers/connectors approach. Conflict analysis and political economy analysis (PEA) are analytical methods that can be used to guide conflict sensitivity. Because conflict takes many forms on a spectrum from ‘structural violence’ to conventional war, and often these forms are mixed together in the same overall conflict, conflict analysis tends to start from a comprehensive review of all different aspects of conflict before focusing down to what is relevant. Standalone conflict analysis reports can also be used more directly to guide overall policy. As development actors tend to handle these issues internally, there is no clear consensus on these distinctions.

Key concepts – structural and proximate causes of conflict

The structural causes of conflict (also called root causes or underlying causes) are long-term or systemic causes of violent conflict that have become built into the norms, structures and policies of a society. The proximate causes of conflict (also called immediate causes) are more recent causes that change more quickly, can accentuate structural causes and lead to an escalation of violent conflict.


The emergence of conflict analysis

There is a long and rich history of studies about the nature, origins and experiences of conflict. However, the systematic (or some call it ‘generic’) study of the causes of armed conflict and political violence, linked to conflict resolution, is a relatively recent development, emerging in the 1950s/60s (Tillett & French, 1999; Sandole et al., 2008). This area has grown rapidly as a response to, among other things, the huge financial and human costs of conflict, as well as policy interest (Tillet & French, 1999). This perspective has directed conflict analysis to be (Ramsbotham et al., 2011: 8):

  • Multilevel – looking at the intrapersonal (inner conflict), interpersonal, intergroup (families, neighbourhoods, affiliations), international, regional and global levels, and the complex interplays between them;
  • Multidisciplinary – drawing on psychology, anthropology, politics, sociology, history, law, economics, management, philosophy, religion, social work, etc.;
  • Multicultural – identifying conflict as a worldwide phenomenon and conflict resolution as a cooperative international enterprise;
  • Both analytical and normative – combining systematic analysis and interpretation of statistics with the aim of transforming violent conflict into non-violent political, economic and social processes;
  • Both theoretical and practical – with an interplay between theory and practice.

In the 1990s, increasing evidence emerged of the negative impacts aid and development could have in conflict-affected situations (e.g. Uvin, 1998). Anderson’s (1999) Do No Harm project led the way for the field of systematic conflict analysis and conflict sensitivity programming, and the development of numerous toolkits. Bush (1998) developed the Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment (PCIA) tool, learning from environmental and gender impact assessments. A number of similar tools emerged shortly after, including for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) (Goodhand, et al., 2002) and by Fisher et al. (2000).

These conflict analysis toolkits have largely converged on a set of practical common concepts, questions and adaptable processes. While the thinking behind the tools comes from the interplay of theory and practice, they themselves do not include discussions about theory.

A huge number of these systematic conflict analyses have been carried out, with some published but many more confidential (Barakat & Waldman, 2013). By the mid- to late 2000s, the term ‘conflict sensitivity’ was being used extensively in the development field and agencies were increasingly aiming to mainstream conflict sensitivity, of which conflict analysis is a key element (Haider, 2014b).

The rationale for conflict analysis

The literature widely states that systematic conflict analyses are an important element underpinning policy and practice in conflict-affected countries. Conflict analysis aims to provide a comprehensive and easily accessible assessment of the issues and documentation for policymakers/practitioners who are newly working on a country/issue. For policymakers/practitioners who already have knowledge/experience of the context, it can offer an overarching/shared understanding and narrative on the situation. It also presents a model and process to facilitate more frequent and updated conflict analysis. When used in combination with programming decisions and a conflict-sensitive approach, it aims to improve the positive impacts and minimise the negative impacts of working in conflict-affected countries by ensuring practices are conflict-sensitive, and it can provide a baseline analysis to evaluate the impact interventions have had on the relevant aspects of the conflict (OECD, 2008; Sandole et al., 2008; CDA Collaborative, 2013).

Gender-sensitive conflict analysis identifies the gendered nature of the causes of conflict, the gendered impact of conflict and the gendered dimensions of peacebuilding (Anderlini, 2006). It can identify opportunities to reshape gender relations, particularly in the formative stages of state-building (Strachan & Haider, 2015).

CDA Collaborative (2013: 3), based on analysis of 26 case studies and 1,000+ consultations with practitioners, finds strong evidence that the ‘more practitioners know about the conflicts they are trying to address, the more likely they are to identify effective avenues for work, and the less likely they are to make mistakes’. However, it also reports mixed findings about whether and how a programme conducted conflict analysis and its actual effectiveness in achieving the above aims. ‘There were effective programs that did very little analysis, and less effective programs that did extensive analysis. Why? The evidence suggested one explanation: that even when practitioners do analysis, they often fail to link their program strategy to it’ (ibid.).

State of the evidence

This Topic Guide focuses on systematic approaches and tools developed for policy and practice. A large number of similar toolkits and manuals exist on how to understand conflict and carry out systematic conflict analysis. These are mainly published and written by northern non-governmental organisations (NGOs), donors, multilateral organisations and some by research institutes. Notably, guidance for carrying out gender-sensitive conflict analysis is not well developed (Strachan & Haider, 2015). A range of systemic conflict analyses are published online. However, given concerns about sensitivities and security and political relations, many are not published, and some toolkits do not make their methodologies publicly available. The toolkits often include reflective sections on what works, as well as illustrative case studies. However, there appears to be very little critical examination of the different approaches to, or the impact of, the toolkit conflict analysis approach. Moreover, the reflective or critical perspectives that exist do not tend to separate discussions about conflict analysis from broader discussions about conflict sensitivity.