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How can we monitor the risk of violent conflict in fragile environments? The use of perception surveys

Catherine Defontaine's picture

Most conflicts take place in fragile low- and middle-income countries. Therefore, monitoring, measuring, and evaluating the risk of violent conflict in such environments poses a huge challenge, but is necessary to inform strategies and interventions. Can we monitor the risk of conflict, or is this an impossible task? What tools do we have at our disposal for doing so?

Data are key for decision making
The 2012 Global Monitoring Report recognized that, among other things, the “lack of timely and reliable statistics on the basis of which policies can be formulated” is a feature of fragile states. Data are key for decision making, while data scarcity can contribute to state fragility and impede fragile states’ capacity to provide basic services. The lack of baseline data makes it difficult to track progress and identify changes. Besides, even when available, data are often unreliable, of poor quality, not sufficiently disaggregated by geographic area or population group, and not regularly collected. Moreover, some data and information can be controversial, politicized, and unrepresentative of a group.
Perceptions matter
Measuring horizontal inequalities shows that perceptions matter and are not always related to the objective measurable reality. Perceptions are influenced by expectations and aspirations. Thus, it is crucial to understand how exclusion can transform into grievances, and then grow to constitute a risk of violence. Different tools exist for achieving this understanding, including perception surveys, mini surveys, focus groups, key informant interviews, and community maps. These help assess different perceptions of the same reality and evaluate changes in targeted communities to identify risks of violence.
The role of perception surveys
Perception surveys measure what interviewees believe, think, or feel at a particular moment. They provide timely information on respondents’ knowledge and awareness of their experience with service delivery, along with their opinions, beliefs, and expectations. Such surveys constitute a quick, cost-effective, and extensive data collection tool. To ensure they are high quality, key principles to bear in mind include:

  • triangulating perception survey data with other data from multiple sources
  • the survey’s timing
  • how questions are sequenced and phrased, and what words are used by the interviewer
  • in-country analysis to better understand the context
  • longitudinal panel surveys to measure how opinions change over time
  • designing survey instruments with local stakeholders to ensure representativeness
  • using pilot tests and quality control checks
Measuring perceptions can be very challenging
Perceptions can evolve rapidly over time. As such, perception surveys can be limited in terms of their representativeness. Collected data may be unreliable if respondents provide false information, either out of fear of reporting their true perceptions of the state or, on the contrary, as a way to buttress state legitimacy. This can especially be the case if questions are too general or ambiguous. Interpreting findings may be complex and requires a thorough understanding of the context. In addition, the way interviewers approach respondents can influence their answers and sometimes even exacerbate tensions.
Conflict sensitivity as a guiding principle

Conflict sensitivity is a paramount principle that must guide all engagements, including the design of monitoring systems and tools such as perception surveys.

It is important to treat respondents’ answers to questions about perceptions, identity, and religion with care and discretion; governments or other actors might use these answers to identify particular groups for security purposes, deny them their fundamental rights, or to support the implementation of exclusionary policies. Strong attention should be paid to protecting both the population interviewed and the people collecting the information. The good news is that specific methodology exists to overcome this challenge: for example, asking about a respondent’s region of origin rather than his or her identity, or changing how questions are formulated so people can respond indirectly to them.

Survey and data collection should also be designed with conflict sensitivity in mind. For example, the way information is collected and made public can contribute to increasing grievances. It is also necessary to consider who is conducting surveys and how respondents perceive the interviewers.

It is important to be transparent and communicate back the outcomes of surveys to relevant communities; doing so helps respondents avoid feeling that their grievances are not heard. However, disseminating survey results without sufficient contextual explanation can inadvertently reinforce certain perceptions and a sense of dissatisfaction.

Perception surveys are an important tool for better understanding grievances and horizontal inequalities, and thus monitoring the risk of violent conflict. However, we must bear in mind that if the process is not sufficiently conflict sensitive, it can fuel tensions in already fragile contexts.

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