01 July 2011

Violent Conflict and Incomplete Control

Yesterday I spent the day at a conference hosted by IDS on the Micro Analysis of Violent Conflict, organised by an EC supported research consortium, MICROCON.

The Director of MICROCON, IDS Fellow Patricia Justino, kicked things off by pointing out that the starting point in 2006 was that (a) most work on violence and conflict is at the state level, (b) we knew very little about the impacts of conflict and violence on ordinary people and (c) very little about how people can and cannot "navigate" (a term introduced by Philip Verwimp, one of the co-Directors of MICROCON) their ways through it--ways, which if uncovered, will provide important clues and cues to policy formulation in this area.

Some reflections

1. MICROCON has made a very conscious effort to collect data, sharing it as widely as possible. As Chris Cramer, one of the participants, said, if truth is the first casualty of war then evidence is one of the key battlegrounds--in other words, data can help shed light on dynamic, chaotic and uncertain contexts. Tilman Bruck (DIW in Germany) and Gary Milante (World Bank and an author of the latest WDR) spoke about how we can be more systematic about collecting data in conflict areas, using panels and more standard definitions of key variables.

2. The people focus is simple, but powerful. It helps delve into the household (do conflict and violence affect intrahousehold power dynamics in predictable ways? Do regular empirical observations --e.g. greater resources in the hands of women empowers them--hold when conflict is the shock?). It also helps us understand how institutions (in terms of norms, rules of the game and organisations) can lead to and be born from violent conflict (e.g. the importance of restoring health and education services---even if not focused on the poorest--is a way of signalling that normality is returning and hope invested in a peaceful solution is less likely to be squandered).

3. Incomplete control. We heard about Stathis Kalyvas' incomplete control hypothesis of when political actors use violence. When they have complete control (hence the Clash picture) they don't need to use violence and when they have no control violence is counterproductive as they have no information to make the violence selective.

4. Conflict can turn things upside down. Like in some parallel universe, university degrees are good things in peacetime but in conflict they can be a signal to help target elites.

5. Policy priorities. We heard from the policy-oriented participants how difficult it is to prioritise and sequence interventions in conflict affected and post-conflict settings, because everything seems to need addressing. The conclusion seemed to be "it's almost more important to prioritise something than what is that is prioritised". In the nutrition area, I highlighted how the presence of violence and conflict (and their apparently unpredictable distribution of impacts) made it even more important to protect the first 1000 days of an infants life, regardless of whether they are malnourished or not.

This is an exciting area. While I suspect the "impact of conflict" evidence is well on its way to being filled, the gap that is now yawning is the "impact of conflict prevention and mitigation interventions". That would build on the work of MICROCON version 1 and would be a good focus for MICROCON version 2.


Anonymous said...

Hi Lawrence,
Thanks for this post. The meeting sounds like it was interesting. In in terms of the "impacts of conflict prevention" my take is that there has been an army of practitioners working on this for several years. Recently,I gave feedback on the logical framework of the UN Peacebuilding Fund. Not any easy endeavour. Surfacing evidence for any kind of prevention intervention - be it preventing transmission of the HIV virus (and the multiple ripple effects that such prevention can have) or prevention of violent conflict is always hard to "sell" somehow. This despite the fact that we've all been raised on the "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" myth. The question that interests me is what contribution can research make/not make in solving development problems in violent contexts which quickly become "research poor" as knowledge infrastructure is destroyed. With the destruction of indigenous research capacities comes research from outside - often, someone else's less than grounded idea of what is needed to "fix the problem". This question - how can we get better at tracing the impact of research in and on violently divided societies is the focus of research we are currently supporting with International Conflict Research (INCORE) in Northern Ireland.

Colleen Duggan
Evaluation Unit, IDRC

Lawrence Haddad said...

Colleen, thanks for this post. Agree that prevention of anything is frustratingly diffiult to sell. I really like the sound of what you are doing with INCORE---any publications or links? Best, Lawrence

Patricia Justino said...

Assessing the impact of conflict prevention is an impossible task because we will never be able to observe the counterfactual – would a civil war have started or reignited if a certain intervention had not been put in place? We will never know. But perhaps we can revise what we mean by conflict prevention. Concepts like conflict prevention, peacebuilding and statebuilding are used widely these days but I wonder how any people question their meaning. If by conflict prevention we are referring to more tangible issues like creating employment alternatives to young people outside militarised structures, decreasing local tensions around the access to and the management of common resources and public good distribution, or decreasing levels of discrimination by educating young children then perhaps we can start making progress in assessing (and, dare I say, measuring) the impact of conflict prevention measures. The sequencing of policy implementation, the rolling out of interventions and staying with and assessing interventions across (long periods of) time are also important tools. This is not easy and takes a very long time, often beyond any research grant or policy intervention timeline. It also means creating and supporting long lasting partnerships in areas of conflict – not a trivial task. We are exploring some of these issues in MICROCON and in follow-up projects. Any further ideas, suggestions and comments are most welcome.

Patricia Justino
Director, MICROCON
Institute of Development Studies