Research is critical to understanding and addressing the problems seen in fragile and conflict affected states (FCAS). The scale and impact of these problems is staggering: in 2016 about 1.8 billion people were living in fragile contexts but this is predicted to grow to 2.3 billion (28% of total world population) by 2030; poverty is also increasingly concentrated in fragile contexts – upwards of 820 million, or 60% of the world’s poorest, could be living in these contexts by 2030 (OECD, 2018: 7). While the majority of fragile countries are found in Sub-Saharan Africa (35), there are many in the Middle East and North Africa (9), Asia and Oceania (10) and Latin America and the Caribbean (4) (OECD, 2018: 7). Research is needed for effective policy-making, programme design, and monitoring and evaluation. As well as ensuring the vast sums being invested in FCAS (USD 46.7 billion) (Mallett, nd) are used properly, research is needed to prevent interventions having harmful impacts.
A number of challenges are faced when trying to carry out research in such contexts, notably: lack of data; poor quality of data; insecurity, making it difficult to access regions/local populations and conduct on-ground research; lack of research capacity among local partners; lack of trust on the part of research participants; fast changing environments; tendency of researchers not to understand the context; and polarisation leading to higher risk of bias. Development agencies can also fail to give it priority and invest adequate resources.
These challenges necessitate the use of diverse research techniques in fragile contexts. Conduct of large-scale household surveys can be difficult, but the World Bank’s Survey of well-being via instant and frequent tracking (SWIFT) offers a rapid, cost-effective poverty assessment tool. Perception surveys are increasingly being used in FCAS. They measure what respondents believe, think or feel and can be a relatively quick, cost-effective and extensive data gathering method. However, they also have limitations, key among which are the reliability of the data and representativeness of the sample. These can be mitigated by triangulation of data gathered from perception surveys with other non-survey and non-perception data.
Digital data collection refers to a diverse set of tools and methodologies: a) conventional data collection using digital technology to facilitate collection, sharing and analysis of data; b) select stakeholders or representatives integrated into a networked reporting system; c) crowdsourcing which relies on larger numbers of individuals or groups reporting information without any filter or exclusion; d) analysis of passively produced ‘big data’ that is generated as a by-product of activities.
The spread of mobile telephones in developing countries offers potential for these to be used more frequently in research for data collection. Analysis of two pilot projects using mobile phones for high frequency data collection in Tanzania and South Sudan, found that overall the experience was largely a success: data was collected on a wide range of topics in a manner that was cost effective, flexible (i.e. questions could be changed over time) and rapid. However, mobile surveys should not be considered as substitutes for household surveys but additions to these, and they are not the right platform for lengthy interviews.
High resolution satellite imagery is increasingly available at the global scale and contains an abundance of information about landscape features that can be used for research. In one study, daytime satellite images and night-time light intensities were used in five African countries – Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi and Rwanda – to extract information about cluster level economic well-being (consumption expenditure and asset wealth). In another study in rural western Kenya, remote satellite imagery was successfully used to predict household poverty levels. A third application of satellite imagery has been to assess disaster impact.
Monitoring and evaluation
Monitoring of incidents of violence can be carried out by reviewing press reports. The Uppsala Conflict Data Programme (UCDP) collates global data on organized (fatal) violence, drawing on news reports from diverse agencies (international and local) as well as other sources (e.g. NGOs, international organizations). There are important limitations to press monitoring, however, especially on accuracy of content.
Monitoring and evaluation in fragile contexts faces similar challenges to doing research: in addition the impact of donor activities on fragility and conflict is complex and often difficult to measure. Recommendations include using ‘good enough’ data, relying on diverse sources (NGOs, local and international companies, the military…), and supporting beneficiaries to monitor outputs and impact. Remote programming and monitoring can be carried out in contexts where development actors cannot operate but project implementation continues through local staff or partner organizations. Approaches to remote monitoring include use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), big data, third party monitoring and iterative beneficiary monitoring. Each have benefits for M&E but can also be problematic: technology, for example, can allow rapid monitoring, large-scale data collection and analysis, and bring about cost savings, but also carries the risk of introducing selection bias (through unequal access).
Research actors and partnerships
International development organizations are increasingly prioritizing working with fragile states, and have taken a range of approaches to conducting research. These include DFID, the World Bank, Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Knowledge Platform Security and Rule of Law (KPSRL). DFID’s recommendations for research include liaising with other UK government agencies, other development partners, using local sources such as civil society organizations, triangulating information, and carrying out media monitoring. Numerous research institutes support research on fragile contexts, e.g. the Berghof Foundation, United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Carnegie Corporation and HF Guggenheim Foundation.
There is an increasing trend for international research collaboration, and specifically for North-South research partnerships. As well as building local research capacity and thus overcoming the challenges of researching in fragile contexts, such collaboration is essential to address global impact issues such as climate change and migration. North-South research partnerships have many potential benefits: promoting mutual learning and knowledge exchange, capacity building, access to resources and expertise.
In practice these are often undermined by Northern dominance. Southern partners can end up merely collecting data for Northern research agendas; time and resource constraints in the North can mean there is little investment in Southern capacity building. Research outputs – international academic publications – are not necessarily the most relevant or useful for Southern research partners. In order to bring about equitable and effective partnerships measures such as joint research agendas, two-way capacity building and funding mechanisms which give Southern institutions more control are needed.
There are many positive examples of North-South research partnerships. These include the ReBUILD Consortium, Collaborative Adaptation Research in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) and USAID funded Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) programme.
The literature makes a number of recommendations for doing research in fragile contexts. It stresses the need to build local research capacity, including for monitoring and evaluation for programme results frameworks. Capacity building approaches include academic training for individuals, transnational partnerships between institutions, and setting up centres of excellence in the global South.
There is also stress on the need for innovative and customized approaches to research design and implementation, and for flexibility on the part of both funders and researchers. In researching conflicts, there is criticism of the search for objective facts and simplistic narratives which lend themselves to clear policy solutions. Researchers are urged to embrace ‘messy data’ because it more accurately reflects the complexity of the situation and needs to be acknowledged if peacebuilding programming is to be successful.
The literature stresses the importance of conducting ethical research. It highlights the potential (risks) in fragile contexts for international researchers to carry out practices/unethical behaviour that would be considered unacceptable in their home countries (the West) and that could cause harm. Examples include gaining easy access to victims or perpetrators of wartime violence, and making payments to access documents or secure other permissions. Data collection could be dominated by powerful groups, leading to bias and further marginalising vulnerable groups; such groups could also face a backlash when their views are shared. Digital data collection could be particularly affected by biases due to unequal access to technology. Increasingly, guidelines are being developed to promote ethical research in fragile contexts.