Visualising conflict dynamicsConflict analysis is a structured process of analysis to understand conflict. It focuses on the conflict profile, the actors involved and their perspectives, the causes of conflict, and the dynamics of how these elements interact (Conflict Sensitivity Consortium, 2012).

A huge amount of literature analyses conflict. This topic guide focuses specifically on the systematic approaches and tools for conflict analysis developed for policy and practice. It draws on reflective sections in conflict analysis toolkits, and where available on policy, practitioner and academic texts that critique the toolkits. This type of conflict analysis tends to be discussed as part of conflict-sensitive approaches, conflict resolution, conflict prevention and/or peacebuilding.

This topic guide looks at the conflict analysis element (the analysis) rather than conflict (the subject) or conflict sensitivity, conflict resolution, conflict prevention or peacebuilding (the use of the analysis).

Conflict analysis toolkits aim to help policymakers and practitioners develop a comprehensive and accessible analysis of the key conflict issues, a shared understanding and narrative of the situation and a process for updating the analysis.

Conflict analyses often inform a conflict-sensitive approach – to improve the positive impacts and minimise the negative impacts of working in conflict-affected countries – and provide a baseline to help evaluate interventions’ impact (OECD, 2008; Sandole et al., 2008; CDA Collaborative, 2013). Gender-sensitive conflict analysis identifies the gendered nature of conflict, the gendered impacts of conflict and the gendered dimensions of peacebuilding (Anderlini, 2006).

Important conceptual challenges in using conflict analysis toolkits include the following:

worldviews iconDiffering overlapping worldviews of what constitutes and causes violent conflict and peace influence the focus and conclusions of conflict analysis and subsequent policy choices. Some argue that the toolkit approach prioritises certain worldviews, while being positioned as neutral (e.g. Mac Ginty, 2013).

target iconMany peacebuilding and state-building approaches miss their goals, or lead to unintended consequences, despite international actors’ increasing awareness of the need for conflict sensitivity. Understanding and working in, on or around conflict is complex. The toolkits aim to improve understanding of the context. But some critique the standardised approaches of analysis as creating the ‘illusion of a replicable and predictable environment’ (Duffield, 2001, p. 263).

scopeUnderstanding conflict requires analysis of issues broader than development. The scope of conflict analysis toolkits has expanded in recent years in line with the 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. Some criticise the merging of agendas as the ‘radicalisation of development’ with the objective of ‘liberal peace’ (Duffield, 2001, p.11). Others note that external actors are not neutral and the previous tools were out of date, emphasising the importance of joint analyses and integrated action across actors in conflict situations (development, foreign policy, military, humanitarian, trade) (Barakat & Waldman, 2013).

actors iconUnderstanding the politics and processes of mobilisation is critical to understanding violent conflict. Ultimately, violent conflict is about politics, power, contestation between actors and the (re)shaping of institutions for the benefit of some (at the expense of others). People and groups do not randomly fight each other, even if stark inequalities or other grievances prevail in a society; rather, they need to be mobilised.

checklist iconSome argue toolkits support a technocratic analysis of conflict, which can disguise the political nature of conflict and conflict resolution, or can lead to analysis that is biased, inaccurate or does not resonate with local understandings (Mac Ginty, 2013). Yet the toolkit approach is important in consolidating a large amount of information in a succinct and accessible report. An ‘ongoing tension’ divides the policy community between those arguing for particularity and those arguing for policy-relevant generalisations (Woodward, 2007).

box iconConflict analysis by international actors can be meaningless to local communities. The drive to measure, monitor and compare peace and conflict across countries and cultures has led to the development of indicators and databases that some argue are not relevant to, or representative of, local views (Mac Ginty, 2013).

Many toolkits and manuals provide guidance on how to conduct conflict analysis. These largely converge on a set of common concepts, a menu of questions to guide research and easy-to-use methodologies. However, guidance on gender-sensitive conflict analysis is not well developed. The conflict analysis toolkits are designed to be illustrative and adapted according to the country context, the commissioning agent and the purpose of the study.

Core analytical elements

The core analytical terms used in conflict analysis are conflict profile, actors, causes and dynamics. Guiding questions to explore these terms are set out below.

Profile: What is the context that shapes conflict? Is there a history of conflict? What political, economic, social and environmental institutions and structures have shaped conflict?
Actors:  Who are the actors that influence conflict? Who are the main actors? What are their interests, concerns, goals, hopes, fears, strategies, positions, preferences, worldviews, expectations and motivations? What power do they have? What are their incentives and disincentives? What capacities do they have? What are the relationships among actors?
Causes:  What causes conflict? What are the structural and proximate causes of conflict?
Dynamics: What are the current conflict dynamics / trends? What are the current conflict trends? Which factors of the conflict profile, actors and causes reinforce or undermine each other? What triggers conflict? What scenarios can be developed?

Principles and lessons

The literature explores a number of common principles, lessons and practical challenges in using conflict analysis toolkits, it advises to reflect on: the needs and capacities of the commissioning agent; the purpose of the analysis; the audience, focus and level of analysis; the schedule and timing constraints; the process for incorporating ongoing research; the available information, evidence gaps and data constraints; the conflict analysis team composition; the available research capacity and resources; research and policy ethics; participants for primary research; potential explicit and implicit biases; and linking conflict analysis with practice. Key findings include the following:

ongoing iconConflict analysis needs to be dynamic and ongoing to refine and update the analysis to changing situations and to support consistent monitoring. Ongoing analysis focuses on the most critical/relevant issues or questions; tends to start with strong foundational knowledge of the conflict; and tends to generate short, regular, often informal outputs/updates, rather than stand-alone reports. The World Vision (2015) conflict analysis tool recommends setting up a dedicated context monitoring team.

Related work on Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) suggests focusing ongoing political analysis on 1) understanding interests: what makes people tick? And 2) understanding change: what space and capacity do people have to effect change? (Hudson et al., 2016, p.1).

perspectives iconUnderstanding different perceptions and potential biases is central to understanding conflict. Conflict analysis should consider the experience of conflict from a variety of perspectives, and critically examine the rigour, accuracy and potential biases (explicit or implicit) of information sources. The inclusion of gender perspectives can highlight the gendered nature of the causes and impacts of conflict, providing a deeper understanding of the structural issues that peacebuilding needs to address.

integration iconConflict analysis that is integrated into strategic and policy processes is more likely to influence policy and practice. Yet, when policy/political priorities frame the focus of analysis, there is a risk that the analysis overemphasises donor priorities, rather than the priorities of local communities, or the country as a whole, or priorities for securing peace. To tackle these challenges, conflict analysis approaches typically draw on and commission a range of information sources – both independent from, and embedded in, policy processes.