Learning in context

Underpinning efforts to end conflict with sound evidence

By 17 March 2016

Last year, issues of violence and peace were incorporated into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is a clear departure from previous development frameworks, where any mention of security issues were omitted. The SDGs have stated explicitly that they aim to“significantly reduce all forms of violence and related deaths everywhere”.

Based on research with The Micro Level Analysis of Violent Conflict project (MICROCON), I can say this ambition shows significant progress, but there is still a long way to go. Development interventions have to be based on substantive evidence, and cannot be disconnected from political and institutional processes.

The fact that 193 countries have committed to achieving the SDGs, and achieving the specific targets within them, implies that action to make the goals into a reality will mean scrutinising, adapting and reforming many existing processes at the national and local level. Whether this becomes a reality or not is yet to be seen, but there is no doubt we are clearly at a juncture in development, and informing policy and practice with rigorous evidence should very much pave the way forward.

This discussion will be at the heart of the upcoming Impact Initiative ‘Lessons from a Decade’s Research on Poverty: Innovation, Engagement and Impact’ conference, where there will be much conversation on a decade of research and its influence on tackling poverty and improving development, and in turn, what the future holds.

Lessons from a decade of research on conflict

The need to understand what the future holds for development is nowhere more pressing than among the most vulnerable people, many affected by insecurity, violence and severe deprivation. Conflict now affects one-third of the world’s population. The economic security of these individuals and households is a major challenge for development interventions in conflict-affected countries. Once the conflict is over and humanitarian aid leaves, how do you feed people, secure livelihoods and improve markets and market access?

The MICROCON project illustrated the importance of long-term and in-depth research to truly understand the complexities of conflict. It showed in particular that while violent conflicts kill and destroy, they also lead to intense institutional change – which may in turn explain their persistence, impacts and duration. Institutional change results from the way in which armed groups operate, rule and fight, but also how they negotiate and interact with civilians and the state. Conflict-affected countries are not an operational vacuum, awaiting for the right intervention. Nor are they ungoverned, anarchic and unexplainable.

Much happens during a conflict, and what happens has profound impacts on the survival and security of ordinary people. It is also central to explaining why armed conflicts persist, why they may mutate into different forms of violence and criminality, and why sometimes peace prevails. Furthermore, because they shape the distribution of political power, these forms of institutional transformation determine also how development processes succeed or fail in reducing poverty and promoting economic stability.

Understanding the structures that arise in conflicted-affected countries

A common feature of conflict-affected countries is the breakdown of state functions, including its monopoly of violence and the ability to deliver public goods. The literature has described this breakdown as a form of ‘state collapse’ or ‘state failure’. However, the collapse of state institutions in countries affected by conflict is not necessarily accompanied by the collapse of order and governance.

New evidence suggests that non-state actors and the organisations they establish sometimes operate sophisticated structures of governance, promoting the rule of law in some form or other, and providing security, food and basic services. Despite the fact that these structures are often illegitimate or illegal, we should at the very least seek to understand them – and we need to do so in a systematic and rigorous way.

This is important because these forms of institutional transformation shape the effectiveness of interventions in countries affected by violent conflict, including the establishment of elections, the enforcement of property rights, the reform of justice and security structures, and the improvement of systems of food distribution, employment and social service provision.

Development interventions cannot therefore be de-coupled from institutional and political processes that emerge during violent conflict and persist once the conflict is over. This implies acknowledging that actors beyond the state shape levels of economic, social and physical vulnerability of the very same populations targeted by development interventions. This is an issue where development policy still needs to make significant progress.

It also illustrates a case where new evidence from research has challenged the way we think about a key development issue – what to do in areas affected by violent conflict. The upcoming ESRC-DFID Impact conference will hopefully stimulate further debate on several development issues that affect the lives of billions of people in many parts of the world.

This article was originally published on The Impact Initiative’s blog site.

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