Comment & analysis

An alternative approach to conflict analysis

11 June 2015 Tim Midgley

Participatory approaches are rarely used to inform national level conflict analysis. This is a missed opportunity, says Tim Midgley. Tools such as the Making Sense of Turbulent Contexts (MSTC) methodology – the subject of a new book published by World Vision in collaboration with Saferworld – can provide important insights that traditional analysis can miss. It can also help to improve ownership of the findings, making it more likely that they will be translated into action.

Most people within the international development community now accept that aid-funded projects, if poorly planned and managed, can inadvertently contribute to an increase in conflict. A critical factor in determining whether these projects are likely to contribute towards building peace or fuelling conflict is whether or not they have been designed and implemented based on a solid understanding of the factors that contribute to, or undermine, peace in that context. A conflict analysis is a tool that helps practitioners to identify and understand these dynamics in a particular context.

While local level conflict analyses are often led by local researchers and based on participatory approaches, national level analysis is typically conducted in a very different way. Most of the time, these analyses are led by international ‘experts’, who come from outside the context and base findings on a review of existing literature, interviews with key stakeholders and pre-existing knowledge. While this analysis can be of very high quality, and add great value to our understanding of conflict drivers, all too often it bypasses the wealth of knowledge held by local actors, and fails to capture or reflect the views of some of the most marginalised groups in that country. Consequently, much of the analysis that donors and INGOs use to inform their national level strategies is, at best incomplete, and at worst, misleading and dangerous.

MSTC is an alternative approach to conducting national level conflict analysis that seeks to overcome many of these challenges. It uses participatory tools to engage local actors – including local aid workers as well as a diverse mix of other civil society actors – as both the key sources of data as well as the primary analysts.

Benefits and challenges

Including individuals in developing analysis who will be responsible for implementing strategies that are informed by it can have several key benefits. First of all, it can help to ensure that recommendations are practical and realistic. Secondly, by significantly increasing the level of ownership over the findings, it is more likely that the analysis itself will be used to inform all stages of strategy development and implementation, rather than being left on a shelf to gather dust. Thirdly, by forcing busy aid workers to take time out of their day-to-day work to focus on national dynamics, participatory approaches can help them to understand how their actions can contribute to building peace, or indeed stoke conflict – which can be an empowering experience. Lastly, there is also evidence that by bringing together participants from across social, ethnic, political and geographical lines, participatory approaches can enrich the quality of the analysis, by providing a more diverse range of views and perspectives.

Of course, analysis generated by an MSTC is only as good as the participants present. Findings can be biased or skewed by the prejudices of participants (as can be the case with expert-led processes); and gaps in knowledge or experience can lead to important omissions or lack of nuance. Discussions around conflict are also inevitably sensitive, even more so when participants are derived from diverse backgrounds. So participant selection for this type of analysis needs to be carefully considered and findings triangulated against other sources of data. A balance also needs to be found between representing as many key actor groups as possible, and inhibiting the willingness of some participants to fully engage.

Potential for multi-agency use

One of the unique characteristics of the MSTC methodology, so far relatively under-used, is in its potential to act as a means of bringing multiple humanitarian and development agencies together to develop a shared understanding of conflict dynamics. Since 2012, World Vision has convened several of these ‘multi-agency workshops’, with some interesting results. In Kenya for example, 14 separate organisations, including INGOs, local civil society and UN agencies, came together to analyse conflict drivers in preparation for the 2013 elections. The analysis provided the basis for greatly improved coordination between agencies on the peacebuilding priorities identified, and allowed agencies to identify and collaboratively address key gaps in their programming.

While participatory approaches such as MSTC should not replace more traditional forms of expert-led conflict analysis, they are an important addition to the tool kit available to humanitarian and development actors working in countries impacted by conflict. Increasing the number of multi-agency workshops using the MSTC methodology could also provide an exciting and important tool for promoting more coordinated action by the NGO community in countries affected by conflict in the future.

Tim Midgley is senior conflict adviser at Saferworld. He is also a certified MSTC lead-facilitator and co-author of Making Sense of Turbulent Contexts: Local perspectives on large-scale conflict. You can find out more information about MSTC, and download a free copy of the book here.

“Including individuals in developing analysis who will be responsible for implementing strategies that are informed by it can have several key benefits.”

Tim Midgley