Recently, I’ve been really interested in participatory research methods, and so I’ve been wanting to write about them here. Participatory methods are based on the idea that we should do research and generate knowledge with people rather on or about them.
On Monday I attended a talk at UNDP by representatives of the People’s Peacemaking Perspectives project and learned about participatory conflict assessment. The People’s Peacemaking Perspectives project, run from October 2010 to May of 2012, and funded by the European Commission consisted of 18 conflict analyses conducted jointly by Conciliation Resources (CR), Saferworld, and stakeholders around the world. The purpose of the project was to reflect the perspectives of those most closely affected by conflict, build the capacity of local actors to articulate their needs, and raise awareness among policy makers of the need for and legitimacy of local voices. The project produced 19 research briefs: one on each individual conflict (here and here), and one on the project itself.
Conflict assessment is one of my favorite research categories because it isn’t just about generating information (X correlates with Y. That is all.) Rather, it’s a tool directly intended to make the world a better, safer, more peaceful place. However, there are 2 pretty common problems with conflict assessment that can really undermine the peacebuilding intent.
1. This is the easy one: the folks with the resources to conduct and produce conflict assessments – from the field interviews to the lengthy report – are often not those experiencing the conflict in question. Furthermore, those living at the heart of what are often violent conflicts, and who may have the most stake in and best position for building peace, are sometimes not even included in the CA process. They often lack political and economic voice and have a hard time accessing (and being accessed by) those that do, including report writers.
2. And this is one CR and Saferworld put up, that I can’t believe I didn’t think of myself: Conflict analysis is an analysis of conflict. But it’s not an analysis of peace! So when we perform a conflict assessment, we talk about, dwell on, analyze, unravel, rearrange, and generally immerse ourselves in conflict. And then we know a lot about the conflict at hand. But really, what we want to know a lot about is how to build peace. So Dr. Teresa Dumasy from CR offered the exciting idea, which surfaced during the project, that we should be doing peacebuilding analyses instead. Conflict analysis too often falls short when it comes to know what to do next. Peacebuilding analyses could more directly generate ideas for action.
I asked Dr. Dumasy what a peacebuilding assessment would look like and she told me that since it’s such a new idea, its scope and methodologies haven’t been explored in the field. But the People’s Peacemaking Perspectives project did generate some key Lessons Learned. Below are some highlights; if I’ve piqued your interest, I’d encourage you to read the full reports. The work spans from West Africa to the Balkans to Pakistan to Timor Leste. (Latin America is curiously missing, but that’s another post for another day.)
Select Lessons Learned from the PPP:
(As understood by me, from the presentation take-away. Read more for greater specificity and depth.)
1. Levels of participation may vary. Generally, in “traditional” research, a population being studied answers interview questions or surveys, surrenders data, and that’s about it. A (usually Western-educated) researcher decides what to ask and what the answers mean. In participatory research, the population generating the data may also own the research agenda – what’s asked and why – the analysis – what it means and how it’s presented – and the resulting action or advocacy. There are good reasons for using both techniques (or some combination), especially when insiders to a violent conflict find it difficult to be objective and/or safe. But there’s a lot more traditional research out there than participatory research, so it’s worth investing in ways to make the whole process more accessible.
2. The process is as important as the product. Especially when analyzing peace and conflict, the activities involved in conducting research can have tremendous impacts on stakeholders and participants. The final report is important for communicating with policymakers, the media, international donors, and the like. But profound change can come about when people are asked to approach everyday challenges in a new way. Well facilitated CA can have this effect, and it shouldn’t be overlooked.
3. Peace is more than an afterthought. Recommendations tacked onto the end of a CA can be helpful, but they can also be incomplete and/or overly simplified. Instead of just focusing on the conflict, and then adding a few ideas about peace at the end, assessment projects can be designed to focus on peace all the way through. The PPP report includes ideas and approaches for designing research in participatory and peace-centric ways.