What’s trending in work on governance and conflict?

Published on 4 April 2017

Robin Luckham

Emeritus Fellow

Gauthier Marchais

Research Fellow

Conflict is a governance issue. At a recent IDS meeting, researchers reflected on major changes in research, analysis and policy around the governance-conflict interface in recent years. Four key trends were identified, each offering new possibilities for understanding and ultimately reducing violent conflict.

Conflict and security has come in from the cold

It is easy to forget that violent conflict and security used to be shunned as too political by the major multilateral and bilateral development agencies. It was also neglected or treated as a largely exogenous disturbance to normal development by the majority of development analysts (IDS work on disarmament and development was an honourable exception; see Luckham, 1985; Ramphal, 1985; Jolly, 2011). The slow progress of conflict and security into the development mainstream over the two decades since the end of the Cold War culminated in the World Bank’s flagship World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security and Development. More recently, as part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, Sustainable Development Goal 16 focuses on “peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development” and makes violence reduction its central concern. The World Bank’s World Development Repot 2017: Governance and the Law returns to the same set of concerns in its chapter on ‘Governance for Security’.

At the core of all three of these international policy initiatives is essentially a governance agenda, concerned variously with citizen security; the social contract; the rule of law and access to justice; political settlements; institution-building; elite bargains; and inclusive political coalitions. There is still some way to go towards changing the predominant framing of conflict as a failure of governance, rather than as an integral part of governance itself. Yet the shift in mainstream development research, policy and practice from doing work in and around conflict and insecurity, to work on conflict and its governance dimensions, is significant. The next step should be to explicitly recognise that violence takes multiple forms (Luckham, 2017), many intimately connected to peace and security. Some forms of governance can be violent, and conversely violence too can generate social order and governance. Furthermore, ‘peaceful’ social and political orders in certain countries or segments of a society can be intimately tied to violent orders in others. In this way, IDS could make significant contributions to a more nuanced understanding of the real politics of the governance-violence interface.

‘Beyond Blowback’ – The new geopolitics and transnational dimensions of conflict and violence

Recent academic and policy debates on conflict and development have overwhelmingly focused on national level causes and effects of armed conflict – poverty, state failure, natural resources, etc. – which has tended to obscure the transnational and geopolitical factors at play. This concern is not a new one, and links to an established literature on ‘new’, ‘post-modern’ or ‘internationally networked’ forms of warfare and violence. Researchers should, however, tread carefully, as this agenda is fast acquiring a harder political and policy edge through increased concern (a) with terrorism, extremism and transnational or internationally networked violence, and (b) with the transnational flow of refugees from the violence and repression tearing apart entire national societies in countries like Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and Syria. These tend too often to be framed within narrow securitizing lenses, which distort or filter out both the interlinked political and development crises lying at the heart of many conflicts and the wider geopolitics of engagement with the developing world.

It may be time to revive an earlier tradition of IDS analysis of work on the ways Northern military and security engagement (military interventions, support for coups, arms transfers, security assistance, mercenaries, etc.) exacerbated conflicts in the developing South (Luckham, 1977). There is also a story to be told about the global economic drivers of bad governance, instability and violence, including the political economy of resource extraction; the privatization of security; international crime and the trade in drugs and other ‘illicit’ commodities (see Schultze-Kraft, 2013, 2014). Finally, it is important to consider and critically explore the relationship between these different scales of violence: often, seemingly transnational violence is, in practice, inextricably linked to fundamentally local dynamics and drivers (see Lind, Mutahi and Oosterom, 2017; Dowd and Drury, 2017; Lind and Dowd, 2015).

Governance beyond or outside the state – including its intimate relationship to day-to-day violence and non-state security at the margins

In the last two decades, a new body of research based on close range ethnographies or novel data collection methods has considerably enriched our understanding of how social and political order emerges and is transformed in armed conflict. IDS has been at the forefront of this research through the MICROCON programme led by Patricia Justino; through research and analysis on violence at insurgent margins (Lind and Luckham, 2017); as well as through current projects on taxation at the margins of the state and governance by non-state armed factions in Sierra Leone and DRC, funded by the International Centre for Taxation and Development.

Furthermore, departing from state-centred conceptions of political order and security, the hybrid or ‘security in the vernacular’ paradigm developed by Robin Luckham is central to IDS’s strategic focus on building inclusive and secure societies, emphasising how security in its multiple forms is negotiated beyond or outside the state. Recent research has shown the magnitude and pervasiveness of interpersonal (often gender-based) violence. But, the linkages between such forms of violence and violence conceived as political are yet to be drawn out more clearly (McGee, 2017; Gupte, 2017; Huff, 2017; Oosterom, 2017). These conceptual and methodological advances are key to understanding governance in post-conflict settings, but also governance in regions where dynamics of violence are entrenched and cyclical (Lind and Luckham, 2017). As yet, they are not sufficiently incorporated in governance analysis and programmes in fragile and conflict-affected states.

Methodological innovations and the data revolution

 Changes to the collection and analysis of conflict data – on both localised micro-level and large-scale comparative projects – are transforming the way we understand and explain violent conflict. Disaggregated data sourced from social media accounts, news reports, local networks and respondents, among others, are providing new insights into the dynamics of violent conflict, its evolution and diffusion over time and space (see Dowd and Drury, 2017), and opportunities and entry-points for conflict transformation and peacebuilding. In light of the impetus of Sustainable Development Goal 16 to measure and monitor the effects of violent conflict, innovative new data strategies are paving the way for new insights and understandings.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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