Some Elements of Conflict Analysis

Mary Anderson

President of CDA (Collaborative for Development Action), Inc.

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: Peace practitioners are very clear that they need to know a lot about the context in which they are working, in order to do good peace work. And they are quite clear that doing context analysis matters a lot. When we looked at the kind of context analysis that most people do, we found that it was, at best, partial. That is to say that most people looked at the context where there was a conflict going on — or a potential conflict — and asked themselves questions of the following sort: "What do we know how to do well, and could that be useful in this context?" They could almost always answer "yes." Sometimes, with good integrity, they could answer "no" and therefore not go into that situation, but almost always they could say, "Yes, that would make a contribution."

What we looked at, when we tried to figure out what else was missing, was all the different kinds of approaches people take to context analysis, like stakeholder analysis, or you have root causes analysis, or you have other kinds of analyses that people use. What we found was that not one of those showed that it had any better results than any other. Knowing more was always better than knowing less, but not any one of those turned out to be THE key to why good work always happened. We couldn't predict that better work would always happen with one kind of analysis and less effective work would happen with another kind of analysis. Then we turned the question around and we asked, "Are there some minimum things that people need to know? Does the work of people miss the mark when there are certain things that people don't know about the context?" When we looked systematically at all the efforts and all the people involved in this effort — and I should just say, inter alia, that there were over 300 peace agencies involved and well over 1000 people involved in this process, so it was a very broad spectrum of people, and there were lots and lots of people in their own local environments where there were conflicts, and then the international partners to that — but anyway, we looked at whether there was some minimum that, if it was missing, would make the work miss the mark. We found three questions that people regularly failed to ask that mattered a lot, because if they didn't have an answer to these questions then they would do a program, often, that simply didn't connect to what was going wrong. So here are the three questions.

The first one is, "What is the war or conflict not about?" This question has two elements to it. One, if you make an assumption that the conflict is about injustice, and therefore you work on human rights, and in fact it's about creed instead of injustice, then you are simply working on injustice. That is an important thing to work on — I know none of us would object to making the systems of the world more just — but it would not end that particular conflict if it is not being driven by some explicit injustice that you are working on. The second element is that if you don't know what it is not about, you miss the opportunities for working with places and events and structures in the society that are not in contention. Those are the things that allow people to stay connected to each other, and they provide a good base upon which to try to build the peace in the future. By not asking that question, you can just miss those and you can undermine them.

So they are two elements to the question of what the conflict is not about.

The second question is, "What needs to be stopped?" Again, we found a very pleasant bias on the part of all of us in the peace practice, regarding the philosophy that we tend to believe that we can build the happy alternative that is justice and truth and so on. And if we build it well enough, it will just overwhelm the bad things and everything will go happily forward. There is no evidence of that at all. If there are people in whose interest it is to continue conflict, then we can create alternative participatory systems and communities right and left, and we can train people in non-violent mediation right and left, and still the war will continue, because people have an interest in perpetuating it. So there has to be some hardheaded analysis of what needs to be stopped.

Then the third question is, "What are the international or regional dimensions of the conflict?" Again, peace practitioners tend to have a bias toward doing the work of conflict resolution, conflict management, or transformation in the location where the conflict is. Every war has regional or international dimensions to it. Sometimes, the most effective peace work would be outside the region instead of in the region where the actual conflict is occurring, or at least to ignore the regional or international dimensions might mean you might spend a lot of time getting people in one community to know and love each other, but something else continues to drive conflict from outside. So these three questions have to be considered.

Then, once you have considered and understand those minimally, plus everything else that is possible to know, because more assessment earlier always seems to be better, then — and this goes back to your earlier question about networking — then, we found, people can then plan a campaign that addresses those different elements that are driving the conflict in a certain way, where some people are doing part of the work and some people are doing other parts of the work, and then that can add up.

A successful example of this is the Ban the Land Mines Campaign, which took personal experience of people who had a leg or an arm blown off by land mines, and highlighted that in a systematic way that became a kind of public information and awareness campaign. It addressed legislators internationally in countries. It addressed the corporations and producers of land mines. It addressed the media. It had people engaged in removing land mines from areas where they were buried in the soil and causing immediate danger to people, but also lifted up the whole attention to the process to the international sphere. So it concentrated in the areas where there was the problem, but it also concentrated in the areas way outside the problem — the international dimensions of the issue. As you can see, it built a momentum that actually moved things quite far forward. It did not ultimately get rid of every land mine in the world, but it certainly was a powerful campaign in terms of stopping one of the aggravations for conflict and one of the mechanisms for conflict in the world.

Q: That is a very interesting example of sort of an advocacy campaign — and maybe almost a fight against sort of the vestigial part of a raging conflict. Do the same lessons apply to conflict between groups of people fighting as we speak?

A: I think so, in the sense that they involve the same lessons. You need to look across the situation to see where different things are driving this process and where are there openings for moving in on that, and taking care of parts of it. And if you are taking care of a part of it that has to do with the immediate experience of warfare in a village somewhere, how are you making that part of your work, which is probably getting the people on different sides of the conflict to know each other and talk to each other and so on? How do you link that to the fact that something else somewhere else is driving this conflict, too, and that this is a manifestation of it, but not the cause of it, these people talking to each other. I should go on and then say that the one other thing that we learned and let's see if I can do this with words rather than pictures.

Q: Right. One thing that I wanted to tell you, are you about to talk about your little four-square diagram? Because we will have that up there.


More People

Key People

Individual /
Personal Level



Courtesy of Reflecting on Peace Practice, a project of
the Collaborative for Development Action

A: When we looked at the work, there is this huge variety of work around the world that is called peace work. It seemed impossible to see how to compare it for a long time, until suddenly we realized that there was a way of putting it on a simple map, a four-square matrix that would capture the approaches that really seemed universally to be used in peace work. Here's what they are: We found that agencies, in general, worked with two different strategies, two different approaches. One was the "more people" approach, which is based on a belief that you need to have mass movements and you need to get lots of people engaged in order to bring peace. The second approach was the "key people" approach, and these make the columns of the matrix. The key people approach is based on the assumption that you have to get those particular warlords together or you won't bring peace. Or you have to somehow get those particular boys of draft age or of fighting age removed from the conflict or you won't get peace. So you identify some key part of the process that needs to be addressed...

Q: Which doesn't just mean leaders, I had originally understood it to mean leaders.

A: Well, it's a lot of different kinds of key people. In fact, the key people strategy approach really needs to be unpacked a lot more then we have done it, in the sense that there are some negative key people, as in the warlords who are driving it, or the person who is making profit off the war. Then there are positive key people, which would have to do with those political leaders who can get the attention of the populations to bring people along and sign agreements that people will live up to. So you have that kind of leadership issue in the key people. You have some international key people and some local key people, obviously going back to my point about regional and international dimensions. You also have key people who might be, as I said — in the sense of fighting-age young men — might be just structurally key as an entry point to get something to happen. Then there is another category of key people, the entry point category, whom we best start with and if we start here, how can you move beyond that to the next sets of people...?

So you see what that means, sometimes you have to start with the easy-to-reach and try to keep pushing beyond the boundaries of that, and you have some key people because they are more inclined toward making peace then others are. We found that peace practitioners very often work with the easy-to-reach and then don't ever push beyond that. So you keep on having the same people who are already inclined to talk to each other coming again and again to the same things, when they are not going to the harder-to-reach parts of the populations, either among the more people or the key people. The easy-to-reach was the mistake that we have lots of people making.

So those are the two columns of the four-cell matrix. Then we found that people work at two essential levels. One is the individual personal level, based on the belief that bringing peace is a matter of changing hearts and minds and values, teaching new values, teaching a new culture of peace. They believe that is where the true resistance to peace comes from — people's minds and hearts and attitudes. Then the second level is at the socio-political level, where people say no, no it is not in people's minds and hearts; instead, you have to create institutions and structures in society that are out in the socio-political sphere in order to ensure that peace is achieved and maintained. So those are the rows of the four-cell matrix.

What we found was that when people work at the individual personal level and don't do anything to establish a linkage into the sociopolitical level, that their work can be good work, can make a big difference to the people who are engaged in it, it can make them happy, it can make them have deeper understanding and a more meaningful life, but it has no discernable effect on achieving peace or stopping conflict.