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Qualitative data as a tool for conflict sensitivity: lessons from Burundi

DME for Peace
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Author, Copyright Holder: Ella Duncan

From 1993 to 2006, an estimated 300,000 Burundians lost their lives to civil war and violent conflict. Reconciliation and rebuilding processes have been arduous, and in 2015 protests, violence, and an attempted coup d’état accompanied the contested electoral process due to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s nomination for a third term in office.

Peace and development programming throughout Burundi is therefore vital to many communities. The significant role of international aid in Burundi combined with the nation’s recent volatility brings renewed relevance to the already crucial practice of conflict sensitivity. New research into the effects of the 2015 election’s crisis on peacebuilding programming holds lessons on the power of qualitative data collection to inform conflict sensitive practice.

But First… What is Conflict Sensitivity?

“Conflict sensitivity is the ability of an organization engaged in any kind of intervention to understand the conflict dynamics in the context in which it operates, particularly with respect to inter-group relations; understand the interactions between their interventions and the conflict dynamics in the context; and act upon these understandings in order to minimize unintended negative impacts and maximize positive impacts of their interventions as related to the conflict.” (USAID Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation).

Though often put together, conflict sensitivity is distinct from peacebuilding and from Do No Harm in that, “conflict-sensitive principles must be applied to various types of programming i.e., humanitarian assistance, development and even peacebuilding —they do not stand on their own. Peacebuilding programs (as well as development and humanitarian assistance), can and do stand alone” (CDA Collaborative Learning), and Do No Harm is a specific approach to conflict sensitivity.

How is Qualitative Data Used to Support Conflict Sensitive Practice in Burundi?

The unrest surrounding the 2015 elections put a sudden halt to many peace and development programs in Burundi. One such program was focused on encouraging women to become actively involved in the 2015 elections as voters and candidates. Researchers were recently able to return to the project’s communities to follow up with participants for the final evaluation. The subsequent discussions with participant groups provided valuable, detailed insight into how the project both affected and was affected by the electoral crisis.

The focus groups found that the participants were overall receptive to, and positively changed by, their engagement with the project activities. However, the data also revealed a need for more follow up programming and support to the women who were elected. Some of the women felt they had been abandoned by the program after the 2015 crisis, and that they were being set up for failure in a delicate political context with repercussions for their personal safety. The program’s interruption by the conflict affected not only the efficiency of the programming, but the levels of trust and perceived safety of some of the participants. Gathering these kinds of lessons is crucial to conflict sensitivity; of course it is not enough to only gather lessons, they must be acted upon to adapt and improve programs.

But why does this require qualitative data? Many tools that seek to understand violent conflict are focused on quantitative reporting. They capture incidents of violence, numbers of displaced peoples, etc. But turning those numbers into meaningful responses requires an understanding of the why: Why is there in increase in violence? Why are people choosing to leave their homes? This is why DME for Peace advocates a mixed methods approach to data collection. Qualitative data is specifically useful in capturing the nuance of contextual challenges, and offers us the opportunity to gather information that we do not know to ask for. This pursuit of unknown unknowns is important to conflict sensitivity, as it fills gaps in our understanding and allow us as practitioners to be more thoughtful and relevant in our reflections and activities.

Conflict sensitivity demands that monitoring and evaluation be used not only to reflect on whether a project’s goals were reached, but also to examine what were the unintended consequences of a project (both good and bad!) and think through how similar programs may use those lessons. Conflict sensitivity shouldn’t wait until an evaluation though, the whole life of a project should include monitoring and feedback loops that continuously check and improve understanding of a context, and include mechanisms to respond to changes.

When monitoring a context, there is a need to distinguish among recommended changes between steering, making a course correction, or changing the direction all together.

  • Steering is a small correction made by an observation from the people that were there. For example project staff leading a workshop and seeing that organizing activities in order A-B-C works better than organizing them in order B-C-A.

  • Course adjustments are reflections made in a group meeting setting that recognize, something isn’t quite working, maybe we should try this a different way.

  • Changing direction means that you see that a project approach is not working and needs to be completely rethought.

  • Qualitative data does not hold the answer to being conflict sensitive, but it can provide signposts of where to examine more closely, and how to orient decisions for future actions whether they be for follow-on programming or more immediate recalibration of activities.

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