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Doing research in conflict-affected areas: five lessons for peacebuilders

1 October 2018 Ilona Howard Doing research in conflict-affected areas: five lessons for peacebuilders

Conducting research to improve conflict prevention and peacebuilding programmes comes with its share of challenges. Ilona Howard, consortium manager for the Peace Research Partnership (PRP), outlines some of the ethical and practical challenges researchers face and what we can do to address them.

You’ve probably experienced this – you answer your phone and a pre-recorded voice asks for your views on a recent purchase or customer ‘interaction’.  If you decide to call them back, you may do so without ever knowing what will happen with the information you provide.

Now imagine you are living in a country in active conflict, somewhere like South Sudan, Yemen or Syria. It is unlikely anyone will be calling to get your views on their customer service, let alone about your safety and well-being. Your mind would be on more pressing concerns, like the security of your family, whether you can make it to the shops or market, and whether it is safe for your children to go to school.  This is assuming that schools are functioning and there is food available. 

The truth is that too often many people living in conflict don't get asked for their perspectives and ideas. And too often no-one is prepared to really listen. But in the same way that companies or businesses depend on feedback from their clients, listening to people about their experiences of insecurity and what could be done to make them feel safer is crucial for tailoring support to people in conflict-affected contexts to their own identified needs – not the ones we assume for them. For peacebuilding organisations, this means planning and conducting research that is of practical value in that we learn from it and improve support to those living through conflict.  The best research is valuable to participants as well as researchers. But how can we go about peacebuilding research in a way that is sensitive to the experiences people are living through and make it useful to those who participated in the research?

‘No research without action, no action without research’

The number of countries experiencing active conflict is on the rise, as is the number of armed groups (more have emerged in the last six years than in the previous 60). Those living in these areas experience increasing levels of violence: in the first 11 months of 2017, at least 15,399 civilians were killed by explosive weapons, which is an increase of 42 per cent compared with 2016.  

The stakes couldn’t be higher for people living in active conflict. It is vital that we seek out their perspectives and views on how to prevent and transform conflict and build peace in their communities.

Clearly, asking for feedback through pre-recorded messages is not a route we should ever go down when asking difficult questions. Our research needs to be sensitive and carefully considered in the way that we (usually external organisations and agencies) try to understand the context, the perspectives of people living through conflict, the power dynamics at play and crucially, the changes needed to make things better.

When we speak to participants, we need to be clear about the purpose of our research and involve a range of people in the planning and design to ensure it is relevant and useful to them. Once the research is done, we need to get better at going back to research participants to let them know the outcomes.  This type of research is known as practice or action research.

Practice-based research: what are the challenges and how can we address them?

There are many barriers to consider both for researchers and those participating in the research. From issues of access and security to difficult decisions of sample size and the ethical challenges of asking people to describe experiences that may be traumatic, personal or risky – there is no shortage of factors we need to take into account.  

Staff from Saferworld, International Alert and Conciliation Resources - three leading international peacebuilding organisations - spent time together earlier this year tackling some of these contentious but vital questions.  Some key themes emerged.

  1. Use the research process as a peacebuilding opportunity and not just a means to an end (the ‘end’ being the research paper that lands on someone’s desk or in our inboxes). We need to carefully consider our research methods, accountability and ethical frameworks to make sure we are getting the most out of opportunities to build trust and support peacebuilding efforts. 
  2. Put duty of care to research participants at the heart of what we do and make sure there are clear ethical and accountability standards in place. These should be shared and understood by the researchers and research participants. We are accountable to the people we are interviewing and need to keep this foremost in our minds in order to minimise any distress to those asking or answering the questions.
  3. Be balanced and responsible to donors and research participants. Accountability to donors who fund our research is undeniably important, but we need to balance this with responsibility to research participants. The push for results can lead to over-promising on the number of research products an organisation commits to. Short time-frames and limited budgets for participatory research worsen already difficult and time-sensitive work. This may mean reducing the number of research outputs to allow proper time for the research process and for meaningful participation.
  4. Be clear about the purpose of research and how it affects local people. It may be that the best decision is not to undertake the research at all, for example if there is ‘research fatigue’ among a population or if the research will be overly extractive – meaning that the research takes information without giving back to the communities. This blog contends that all research is extractive to a degree, so we should focus on minimising this as much as possible.
  5. Apply validity criteria to increase confidence in the process and in the final outputs of the research. A framework for action research used by the Institute of Development Studies, emphasises good relations, practical outcomes, scientific rigour, addressing significant problems and enduring consequence.  It provides a rubric against which we can measure the validity of practical research and allows us to check in at regular intervals to question areas such as research methods, partnership models and analysis. The criteria can help assess, for example, how many participants need to be interviewed for a piece of qualitative research to be considered valid and rigorous.

Putting people and change at the heart of research

Saferworld, International Alert and Conciliation Resources are collaborating through the Peace Research Partnership, to put people and positive change at the heart of practice research in conflict contexts around the world. We believe this approach is more likely to lead to ‘new’ and applicable knowledge – providing evidence that supports a reduction in violence through addressing the underlying drivers of conflict. It is grounded in our work with people living through conflict to provide immediate support and contribute to longer-term change and solutions. Learning as we go (including from those outside the peacebuilding sector such as academics) through challenging and interrogating our own assumptions and approaches is crucial to improve our own practice.  Through this learning approach we aim to provide more targeted support, and to enable and empower those living through conflict. 

Bridging divides

The value of practice research is that it shines a light on a problem and aims to be part of the solution – in this case to improve people’s safety and sense of security.  But this kind of research does not exist in isolation.  At times it pushes up against, at times overlaps with, and in other instances, reinforces and provides evidence for the conclusions emerging from academic research and policymaker’s agendas.  There is a divide between practice and academic research and it can feel at times that they inhabit different worlds in terms of timescales, funding, communication styles and what is driving the research. An interesting reflection on how this divide extends to data collection can be found here: The data divide: overcoming an increasing practitioner-academic gap.

Discussions within the Peace Research Partnership, and between the wider practitioner community, representatives from academia and the UK government are crucial to bridge the academic and practice research divide because both are needed.  Both are valuable tools that provide evidence of what fuels or minimises drivers of conflict so this knowledge can be fed back into decision-making and peace and stability can be built and sustained.   

As we look forward, we hope to continue to find spaces for shared reflection and honest debate about how best to conduct research that puts people and peaceful change at its heart.


Read and explore recently published research from the Peace Research Partnership on inclusion in peace processes, partnerships in peacebuilding, local perspectives on response to violence in north east Nigeria and how devolution in Kenya is affecting conflict dynamics.