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Cutting through the Gordian Knot: Analysis of conflict and violence

Bernard Harborne's picture

Alexander cutting the Gordian KnotA young Palestinian participating in a violence prevention session during a recent World Bank Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience (GSURR) staff retreat, reminisced that not that long ago the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the only “hot-spot” in the Middle East. Now, the region is a complex mix of insurrection, armed conflict, political upheaval and displacement. Even for him, unbundling and explaining the drivers and implications of these dynamics can be overwhelming – and a full-time job.

Increasingly, development actors are asked to take on this task, yet many of the World Bank’s standard analytical approaches are not suitable for this kind of complexity. Meanwhile, academics including Ben Ramalingam (Aid on the Edge of Chaos), Thomas Carothers (Development Aid Confronts Politics) and Lant Pritchet (Escaping Capability Traps Through Problem-driven Adaptive Iteration) all highlight the dangers of external intervention in these “difficult operating environments” without sufficient understanding of the underlying context.

Ongoing work over the last few years in the Bank’s GSURR Global Practice, completed together with the Fragility Conflict and Violence (FCV) Group, has focused on in-depth analysis of why and how particular countries descend into conflict, the impact of violence, and the factors that can build resilience against these shocks. Some 25 of these “fragility assessments” have been completed and they are all part of an effort to strengthen the overall understanding of the “context complexity” in these countries.

However, in looking back at these fragility assessments, we realized that the deeper we dug, the more layers of complexity we came across. Conflict dynamics are inherently complex, and their explanation can be too verbose for busy decision-makers. On the other hand, simplifying or even disregarding them can often lead to wrong conclusions. Thus, the “Gordian knot” of conflict and fragility implies acknowledging its existence and looking for ways to untie it, rather than trying to simply cut through it too quickly.

Sub-Saharan AfricaOne simple, but powerful, way to unbundle such complexity is through visualization – a promising approach has been using geospatial analysis and maps. Maps are ideal for visualizing different layers of complexity to provide a picture of how diverse drivers of fragility overlap. Many drivers of conflict inherently have spatial dimensions, such as for example competition over land or resources, lagging regions, marginalization of ethnic or religious communities, concentration of displaced communities, and the movement of armed groups.

In conjunction with brief and concise narrative, maps can show some of the correlations between fragility drivers and conflict dynamics more effectively than a thousand words.

Russia GIS mapIncreasingly, our FCV maps have contributed to World Bank projects and papers, across all regions and themes. Issues range from urban violence in Honduras and Karachi, to illicit trafficking routes in West Africa, conflict density in Somalia and Kenya, and displacement in the Horn of Africa, Ukraine, and Yemen. In addition, these newly developed geospatial tools have been used to flag fragility and conflict issues for decision-makers in a concise and visually appealing way. Examples include briefings for high-level visits to the Sahel and the Horn of Africa; framing of discussions with the UN, EU and other external partners on the international crisis response in the CAR and Somalia; and informing an economic impact assessment of the Boko Haram crisis in the Lake Chad Basin.

Ebola recovery GIS mapAt the same time, tools for more permanent monitoring and just-in-time geospatial analysis of FCV data are being developed. These tools relate FCV data with other spatial information, such as socioeconomic, demographic, or health-related indicators, visualize dynamics over time and often reveal underlying patterns. A recent example was the response to the Ebola crisis in Africa. Map-based conflict analysis showed the relationship between conflict incidents and hotspots of Ebola as well as other social issues in a given geographic area and time period. Such analyses can help governments and other stakeholders better allocate scarce medical and other resources to where they are needed, just-in-time.

Fragility assessments and related tools, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), can also be used to strengthen collaboration across the World Bank Group as well as with partners. In fact, they serve as ideal platforms for joint analysis of data across sectors, from the micro (such as household poverty data) to the macro (such as economic growth to population displacement). With the help of GIS (and other tools ranging from ‘big data,’ ‘dynamic systems analysis,’ and satellite imagery) such information can be harnessed and mapped to help ‘untie the knot’ of conflict and violence in regions like the Middle East.

Perhaps we are only beginning to ‘untie the knot’ – but updated guidance on undertaking a Fragility Assessment and use of ‘conflict and governance filters’ in such countries as the Kyrgyz Republic and Nigeria, continue to improve our FCV approaches. These are now being complemented by a much better use of available data and visualization tools. So, while our young Palestinian colleague sees his region as getting more and more complex, we hope that these new tools will at least make it more understandable – and ultimately solvable.

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"Alexander Cutting The Gordian Knot" oil on Canvas by Fedele Fischetti via WikiGallery

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