Understanding violent conflicts from the point of view of individuals, families and communities

Understanding the interactions associated with violent conflict is a major analytical challenge with profound implications for policy making. Research in this area to date has focused largely on macro, institutional factors, such as the conduct of the state at national and international levels, paying little attention to important dynamics at the micro level, such as how ordinary people make a living under conditions of violent conflict, or decide to engage in violence. The five-year research project, MICROCON, is working to address this deficit.

Using an innovative multidisciplinary approach, the MICROCON project set out in 2007 to deepen our understanding of individual and group interactions leading to and resulting from violent mass conflicts. Four years into their ambitious undertaking - which looks at multiple hot spots around the globe - the researchers have made significant progress toward their goal. The consortium’s findings should go a long way towards helping the European Union and other international bodies develop more informed policies aimed at preventing, managing, transforming and resolving violent conflicts.

Remarkably broad in scope, the MICROCON project has been analysing data relating to the conflict cycle in over 40 countries. Some of these are European countries classified as “experiencing serious social tensions and/or violent conflicts that will impact on the security of EU citizens”. Included in this group are not only states that have suffered serious conflagrations in the past couple of decades (e.g. in the Western Balkans), but also EU Member States (Belgium, Bulgaria, France, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain and the United Kingdom) where the integration of Muslim populations and of refugees is both an area of cooperation and of contestation.

A second important set of states under examination are classified as “conflict-prone countries in neighbouring regions where Europe has strategic economic and political interests”. There are eight of these examined by MICROCON: Georgia, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Morocco, Palestine and Syria (a list worth noting). Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, MICROCON is analysing a group of 21 countries that have either experienced forms of conflict or managed to contain collective violence. Most of these are poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and grimly inform our understanding of micro level violent conflicts. They also provide further evidence that civil wars have become the most common form of violent conflict in the world.

Because civil war is the prevalent form of armed conflict today, it occupies the heart of many of MICROCON’s most thought-provoking analyses. An example is found in the working paper War and Poverty1, authored by Patricia Justino, the project’s coordinator. Pointing out that civil war has been recognised as a key perpetuator of poverty in many parts of the world, Dr Justino insists that we need a “better estimation of the effects of civil wars on individual and household poverty”. This, it is suggested, “will contribute towards more realistic post-conflict social policies to reduce poverty and increase economic resilience amongst those living with violence”. MICROCON observes that the poorer a household is at the beginning of the conflict, the more likely it is to participate in and support an armed group. That is one of many important links the project identifies between “individual and household economic strategies and institutional processes during warfare”. It is suggested that these links are crucial not only to understanding the relationship between war and poverty, but also to the “design of policies to break the war-poverty cycle”.

Insights that could be valuable to the European policy community have been produced on the operational level as well. In a section dealing with ‘Conflict in the European Neighbourhood’, the researchers argue that the EU needs to shift away from generic schemes of Europeanization in conflict regions.

In order to make this shift, they assert, partnership with local civil society organisations is crucial, as they often have greater understanding, legitimacy and stake in conflict transformation, and can aid inter-communal group formation, mobilisation, communication and empowerment. While indicating that much work remains to be done in this respect, MICROCON praises the European Commission’s decision to establish what is known as the Peace-building Partnership (PbP)2 within the Instrument for Stability. The Partnership, which channels support to non-governmental organisations that specialise in peace-building, is hailed as an important milestone.

Now moving into its final phase, MICROCON is producing a considerable volume of analytical material that could prove useful to policy makers in many contexts. For example, statistical research on the conflict in Darfur demonstrates the key role that consistent humanitarian funding plays in saving the lives of displaced civilians, and the tragic consequences of shortfalls in funding. In Burundi, detailed information on thousands of households collected in 1998 and 2008 yields a detailed picture of how people make a living during wartime, how the experience of violence changes people’s propensity to invest and take risks, and the role that livelihood constraints play in people’s decision to engage in violence.

Such a wealth of information can help in the formulation of policies to reduce incentives to become violent, aid the wellbeing of civilians during conflict, and to effectively target assistance to help them rebuild their livelihoods after conflict.

Much of this analysis can be accessed through the project’s website – see: http://www.microconflict.eu/publications/publications.html Some of the findings offered there are likely to be echoed in the 2011 World Development Report, a World Bank publication to which MICROCON researchers are making a number of contributions.


1 See: http://www.microconflict.eu/publications/RWP32_PJ.pdf

2 See: http://eeas.europa.eu/ifs/pbp_en.htm

MICROCON - A Micro-Level Analysis of Violent Conflict (duration: 1/1/2007 – 31/12/2011) is a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.

See: http://www.microconflict.eu

Contact: Patricia Justino, P.Justino@ids.ac.uk; John Spall, J.Spall@ids.ac.uk