Lessons learnt on research for peaceful and inclusive change

Exclusion from decision-making, economic opportunity and access to basic services leads to inequalities that can be both a cause and effect of conflict.

A peacebuilding workshop in the Mindanao, Philippines. Credit: Conciliation Resources
A peacebuilding workshop in the Mindanao, Philippines. © Conciliation Resources

Exclusion from decision-making, economic opportunity and access to basic services leads to inequalities that can be both a cause and effect of conflict. The greatest risks arise in fragile and conflict-affected states, where institutional capacity and governance can be weak, state-society relations are often strained, and in the absence of effective paths to address grievances peacefully, such inequalities can give rise to violence and instability. How then can external partners support peacebuilding in societies divided along lines of race, religion, ethnicity or gender, and support efforts to meet the needs of all affected groups, especially the most marginalised?  

In 2017 three international peacebuilding organisations – Conciliation ResourcesSaferworld and International Alert – embarked on the Peace Research Partnership (PRP), a process of participatory research with partners and communities in conflict-affected areas around the world. The aim was to generate and share knowledge about how international actors, like INGOs and donors, can best support peaceful and inclusive change in conflict contexts. The research partnership was funded by the UK government.

Over the past four years, the PRP partners undertook research and analysis with civil society and community organisations in over 20 conflict-affected contexts. We focused on a range of research themes arising from our programming experience, including peace processes, economic development, gender norms, climate and security, and security and justice. For example, we looked at which groups have benefitted so far from Somalia’s federalisation process; at conflicts over land in Mali; and at how inclusion has been negotiated in peace and transition processes in countries such as Colombia, Nepal and Nigeria.

Our partners and programme staff shared the research findings with government officials, multilateral bodies and a range of other practitioner organisations. This helped inform programming and policy, from enriching specific country conflict analyses, to influencing UN approaches to gender inclusion and helping shape EU policy on armed groups. The research has also deepened our own understanding of the perspectives and concerns of conflict-affected communities, how to approach more equitable partnerships and research processes, and influenced our future priorities. As the PRP programme draws to an end, we reflect on what has been key to its achievements.

Practice-based research

The consortium shares a ‘practice-based approach’ to conflict research. Working with partners in conflict-affected areas and building on our own long-term programming experience helped to shape the research focus and approach to the needs and priorities of communities affected by conflict, while at the same time keeping it ‘policy-relevant’. Sharing and discussing the research findings with communities was an important way of ensuring it was not a solely extractive process. As a community-member in South Sudan commented: “You are the only ones who have come back to validate, [asking] ‘do you have something to add or change’. Many come, they collect [information] and promise – ‘we will share’ – but you see them never return.” 

In conflict-affected and politically sensitive contexts, how research is conducted can be just as important as the end product, so the PRP partners adopted a conflict-sensitive and gender-sensitive research approach throughout. This contributed to a research process that was not just a means to an end, but that also helped to foster confidence among divided communities.

Gender is centre stage

As well as undertaking gender-focused research in specific contexts, gender analysis informed all other areas of the programme. Drawing on community views and experiences, the aim was to better understand what sort of support can help nurture an environment for women’s meaningful participation in politics and in peace processes, and how women from marginalised groups, such as refugees, can be included. The research considered what gender inclusion looks like in different contexts, the critical roles that women peacebuilders are playing in challenging gender roles and norms, and what national and international partners can do to support this.

The research findings showed that gender inclusion must be adopted across multiple sectors – economic, political and social – and in all decision-making spaces to make the most impact. Inclusion will remain symbolic unless complemented by initiatives that promote changes in gender norms – the behaviours and standards that men and women are expected to conform to in a society. Case studies on diverse contexts such as Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria and Yemen explored how inequality, exclusion, gender-based violence, changes in gender dynamics and gender norms, including negative and violent masculinities, can drive conflict. Research in Ukraine revealed how gender norms have limited the ability of former combatants to access services that can help their reintegration into civilian life. Women combatants were often denied such services as their roles were questioned, undervalued or not recognised; while many men felt that seeking mental health support was shameful and didn’t fit the ‘heroic’ ideal painted of veterans. This has exacerbated resentment towards the state and opens up possibilities for the re-recruitment of former combatants to violent groups.

Working closely with partners, we tested and evaluated how to integrate gender into conflict analysis, research and peace programming. We documented the benefits of applying rigorous standards of gender sensitivity; for example, our research in northeast Nigeria revealed communities’ gendered attitudes towards the reintegration of former Boko Haram members – male members are viewed with more hostility and suspicion than women – which has shaped more tailored and effective policy and programming responses. We also learnt from the challenges of undertaking research in conflict settings, bringing together lessons and recommendations for gender mainstreaming in such contexts. Building on this evidence base, in 2020 we produced a facilitators’ guide, providing step-by-step guidance and tools to analyse and address the root causes of gendered violence in any context with the participation of the communities affected by conflict. The guide has been translated into Arabic, Burmese, French, Russian and Spanish, and shared with a range of international donors, peacebuilding practitioners and partner organisations in countries affected by conflict.

Peacebuilding and the pandemic

COVID-19 and its ongoing impacts have challenged peacebuilders around the world. In some contexts, state responses to the pandemic have been characterised by repression, discrimination, political manipulation and violence. There has been a rise in gender-based violence in many countries, with lockdowns and restrictions on movement exacerbating this ‘shadow pandemic’. In conflict-affected countries and communities, the implications of the pandemic may worsen existing grievances and divisions, fuelling instability and violence. However, in some cases where civil society has been the first responder to the crisis and is at the heart of the pandemic response, PRP research has revealed how it has played an important brokering role between communities and authorities – potentially laying foundations for longer-term confidence-building between citizens and the state.

Platform for knowledge sharing

A collaborative approach was fundamental to the PRP’s achievements, which involved the three consortium members, many and varied partners, and our wider networks. Periodic learning events brought together the project’s national and international researchers to share their experiences and knowledge, as well as the challenges they encountered. All those involved in the research process were given the opportunity to reflect on these issues in an open and self-critical manner; this served not just to enhance learning and the ultimate impacts of the project, but also to strengthen relations between the three peacebuilding organisations, our partners and others we collaborated with.

Connecting international policy with conflict-affected communities

The PRP programme sought to straddle what sometimes feels like a gulf between the policy concerns of international donors and the experiences of conflict-affected communities. Research findings developed in collaboration with partners and programme staff have informed guidance and recommendations for policymakers and practitioners through over 60 research reports, briefings, videos and podcasts. The participatory process and lessons learnt underscore the value of conflict research and analysis that is grounded in programming experience and community perspectives. In a world where division, conflict and insecurity are on the rise, the need for grounded evidence of what works to increase inclusion and accountability, and how the needs of all affected groups can be met, has never been greater.

Partner research

To read all the research produced as part of the project, visit the Saferworld website.

The materials produced as part of this project have been funded by UK aid from the UK government. However, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.