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Can an Oxford-UNSSC analytical tool prove a game changer for how we resolve conflicts?

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Secretary-General António Guterres has laid out a thorough vision for how the United Nations can better support countries to prevent the outbreak of crisis. High hopes are attached to this vision, and the United Nations is expected to play an even more critical role going forward.

As acknowledged by the 2016 Sustaining Peace Resolutions, this requires strengthened capacities to conduct structured conflict analysis. With the increase in violent conflicts over the last decade, there has emerged a fundamental shift in the nature of conflict - a multiplication of actors and non-state groups have replaced formal nation-states as the main participants in the violence. Present-day peacebuilding programming and policy interventions are complex, and need to be rooted in a deep understanding of conflict dynamics.

A critical partnership for enhanced conflict analysis

Recognizing this increase in complexity, and the broader need for more structured analysis into the causes and consequences of conflict, we at the United Nations System Staff College's (UNSSC) Peace and Security team initiated the "Analysing and Understanding Non-state Armed groups" learning curriculum aimed at building the analytical skills of individuals who work on analysing non-state armed groups. Since the first edition in 2015 in Geneva the curriculum has been rolled out seven times in different locations: Amman in 2016 and 2017, Nairobi in 2016 and 2018, Cairo in 2017, Geneva in 2019 and online in 2020 owing to the COVI-19 pandemic.

In line with this and other offerings, our team's goal has always been to develop and apply learning methodologies that combine cutting-edge thinking, academic research and the U.N's practical experience - a combination that has proven to be successful in enabling deep critical thinking and creative problem-solving.

This is why in 2015 we collaborated with the University of Oxford's Changing Character of War Centre on the interactive Changing Character of Conflict Tool (CCCT) which analyses changes in settings of organized violence. The tool has been critical to the "Analysing and Understanding Non-state Armed groups" curriculum, and has become a regular feature in UNSSC's peace and security training portfolio.

Unlike the myriad of comparable conflict analysis tools, the CCCT is underpinned by research that traces trends and directions of change across five key dimensions: the environments in which conflict is set, the actors involved, the methods used, the resources used to fuel conflict, and the impact it has on civilians. In practice the tool includes a cross-disciplinary approach that incorporates media, social sciences, art, archival research and data analytics. This provides a pivotal break with traditional approaches focussed narrowly on examining political and policy settings of conflict; a top-down perspective that risks ignoring the experiences of the people most affected by the violence.

Leveraging alternative data sources

Significantly, the CCCT uses historical data dating back to the fourteenth century. It incorporates an array of contemporary data sources like military doctrines, weapon registries, social media data, and audio-recordings to draw useful and timely insights into the nature of conflict. A combination of ethnographic fieldwork, expert interviews and statistical analysis of large cross-country trends, make it possible for it to account for diverse local and global voices, which can be used in tandem with the tool's tracking of longer-term trends. The CCCT's uniqueness is further enhanced by an ability to help its users facilitate the tracing of conflict over time, and to explicitly address dynamic change in past, current and future conflict.

One example of this is the tool's application to the violent conflict in north-east Nigeria, driven by the terror group Boko Haram since around 2002. The insurgency is among the most complex and lethal humanitarian crises of recent times, affecting at least 15 million people, predominantly women and children, spilling over into neighbouring countries, while also drawing billions of dollars in aid funds for relief operations. The interactive data visualizations present great insights that demonstrate how the conflict's actors, environments, resources and methods have evolved since 2009. A simple click on each of the dimensions on the left tells the story of how a conflict that at one point only consisted of Boko Haram and the Nigerian government, has today evolved to include a community-based group which has expanded to Lake Chad which borders Chad, Cameroon, and Niger.

conflict is a dynamic multi-actor phenomenon. The unit of analysis is aimed at helping users identify the main contested issue for each conflict. This approach is replicated when looking at other conflict zones but, importantly, emphasizes the unique conditions and character of each case.

New ways of working : Impact assessment

With data available for ten focus cases (Afghanistan-Pakistan Border Area ,Myanmar, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Philippines, Nigeria, Mexico, Horn of Africa, African Great Lakes and Colombia) the CCCT has been particularly relevant for enhancing the knowledge of UN staff working on/in the countries of the case studies involved. A number of them have stated its usefulness in their work - in this setting it enables improved analysis of change in various state, regional and global dynamics of armed conflict. UNSSC alumni working in Somalia have reported seeing a direct link between their work and the information provided by the tool.

The CCCT has already made an impact on the way the practitioners operate. Our participants have told us that training prompted them to include a more systematic political economy analysis of conflict areas -- particularly analysis of non-state actors. Some have shared the analytical approaches and tool with their management teams so they can be considered for engagement strategies. Notably the tool has allowed for more rounded information campaigns that include a fuller analysis of armed groups, informed by a textured understanding of the social, political, economic, and cultural contexts of the places where conflict is occurring.

Many believe conflict resolution is a slow, "long game", but the tool is a potential game changer, especially in the hands of decision makers, policy players, and the thousands of U.N. staff on the frontlines of tackling conflict. Present-day conflict dynamics demand new initiatives that are based on a holistic view of contributors to conflict.

We are particularly proud of our respective efforts over the last five years and continue to collaborate with Oxford to ensure that the CCCT remains policy-relevant and important for the work of the UN and other international organizations at an operational (field offices) and strategic (headquarters) level. We look forward to collaborating on a second phase which is set to take place in 2021.

Visit the UNSSC website to learn more about our Peace and Security Learning Portfolio.

The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.

AUTHOR SVENJA KORTH