Peacebuilding Manual/Understanding Conflict

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Understanding Conflict

Violence and war are two of the expressions of conflicts. However, all incidents of violence do not lead to intractable conflict and should, therefore, not be seen as sufficient reason for a serious conflict to break out and take root. The underlying factors that cause a conflict are usually in place long before the outbreak of violence and it is the escalation that turns a situation of peaceful competition into a destructive, deadly conflict.

Conflict prevention is often sufficient for preventing violent escalations from taking place. However, for conflict prevention to be effective, early warning indicators must be detected and addressed before violence becomes too destructive. Preventive measures employed at an early stage need to address the causes that lie at the root of the conflict. An escalation of violence is often preceded by a perceived incompatibility of interests between groups, asymmetric intergroup power relationships, as well as triggers that serve to mobilize or rally a group around its grievances. Similarly, de-escalation alone is often not sufficient for a conflict to end. For peace to become sustainable, peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction activities are often essential to address the underlying causes of a conflict long after the violence has ended and to prevent a conflict from re-erupting.

We recommend that peacebuilding actors acquire a basic understanding of the concepts, causes, impacts, processes and challenges of conflicts, conflict resolution and peacebuilding, especially at the community level, before applying the steps to peace elaborated in this Peacebuilding Manual. The Manual has been drafted in coherence with this recommendation.

Until we understand the causes of the conflict, who is involved, and the issues and dynamics of the conflict, our peacebuilding programming will not be effective. Understanding conflict analysis is therefore important as it provides a detailed picture of what is happening and helps us to determine what we could do in order to create more peaceful and just societies. A key task of conflict resolution, violence prevention, and all forms of peacebuilding is to help people identify unmet needs and create a process to develop peaceful ways of satisfying the needs and rights of all people involved in a conflict.

In 1956, Lewis Coser, a sociologist, defined social conflict as “a struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power and resources”. In 1981, Cristopher Mitchell referred to conflict as “any situation in which two or more social entities or ‘parties’ … perceive that they possess mutually incompatible goals.”

As per Galtung’s triangle (1969) of violence, the three main factors of conflict are: Direct violence, cultural violence and structural violence. Johan Galtung's triangle is an important clarifier of the interrelationships between external (context or conflict cause), psychological/perceptual (attitude) and behavioural elements (behaviour) in the driving dynamic of conflict.

As per Johan Galtung, there are the attitudes “A” (stereotypes, beliefs, other-images, suspicion, fear, hatred, offence, etc.) of conflicting parties, which tend to become more and more hostile towards each other as conflict escalates. Attitudes are very affected by behaviour “B” (aggression, oppression, discrimination, reaction, escalation, etc.) of the belligerents. Escalating degrees of violence make it more and more difficult to see the mutual benefit of ending a conflict. Furthermore, there is a contextual or structural conflict cause “C” (shortage of resources, unequal distribution of wealth, unequal access to services, etc.) as the key matter over which a conflict is waged. This is the objective reality to which the conflict relates and, without tackling that reality, changes in attitudes and behaviour will not be sustainable. However, in such a situation of goal incompatibility, conflict can begin at any of these points (ABC).

The interdependent and dynamic concept of Galtung’s ABC triangle can be used to think systematically about what would be needed to change the key driving forces of violent conflict. In order to finally reach some sort of settlement of the conflict, the parties must first change their attitudes and their perceptions of one another, tackle the violence itself in order to de-escalate the situation, change their behaviour, and work on the objective contextual or structural causes of the conflict to make a settlement sustainable.

In fact, conflict occurs when people experience tension in their relationships with others. People in conflict perceive that others are making it difficult or impossible to meet their needs. Conflict can be handled constructively or destructively. Violence is one way of handling conflict. Violence occurs when people become willing to do harm in an effort to meet their own needs. Conflict and violence happen at all levels of society:

  • Intrapersonal: Intrapersonal conflicts are debates that occur within us. They often involve questions related to moral decisions, use of resources, and personal goals.
  • Interpersonal: Interpersonal conflicts occur between two or more people.
  • Intra-group: Intra-group conflicts occur between people within the same group.
  • Inter-group: Inter-group conflicts occur between groups (communities, organizations, cultures, and nations).

Conflict also occurs when people seek to satisfy their own needs at the expense of others. Some people believe that they have the right to meet their own needs at the expense of others. This myth of “internalized superiority” and greed interact to create an excessive sense of need. Women and other oppressed groups sometimes feel a sense of “internalized inferiority”, a belief that they are inferior to others and that they must not seek to meet their own needs and rights.

The term “violence” includes both public and private forms of denying people their human needs. People often decide to engage in violence when they feel they have the right - and the power - to meet their own needs at the expense of the needs of others. Some people have an “internalized superiority” that gives them the sense that they are entitled to more than other people. Other people have an “internalized inferiority” that gives them the sense that they are entitled to less than other people. This “psychodynamic” of superiority and inferiority plays an important role in racism, classism, sexism and other forms of oppression.

Hierarchical social structures rank people according to their worth. Those at the top of hierarchies often feel a sense of superiority and meet their own needs at the expense of others lower on the hierarchy. Those higher on the hierarchy have more “power over” and control over the lives of those below them on the hierarchy.

Understanding and analysing Conflict and Violence

Dimensions of Conflict

  • Material Issues and Resources: When there is conflict, people often talk about specific issues or resources. There may be a sense of competition between people over particular issues or resources;
  • Relational: When there is conflict, people feel tension in their relationships with others. There may be power struggles or miscommunication in the relationships between people;
  • Cultural (incl. Identity, and Perceptions). When there is conflict, people often see the world differently. The experiences, cultures, religions, sense of identity, perceptions, and beliefs of each individual or group help shape how the person or group feels and acts in the conflict

Human Needs and Rights. All humans are of equal value and have innate human needs and human rights. Conflict and violence result from a perception that human needs have not been met or that human rights have been violated. A key task of conflict resolution, violence prevention, and all forms of peacebuilding is to help people identify unmet needs and create a process to develop new ways of satisfying the human needs of all people involved in a conflict.

Identifying Expressions of Conflict and Roots of Conflict. The roots of a conflict include unmet needs fostered by poverty, lack of democratic structures, and threats to cultural identity. The expression of conflict may increase violent crime, riots, or civil war. Any efforts to stop the expression of conflict without addressing the roots of the conflict will not lead to lasting change.

Mapping Conflict and Violence. Peacebuilders determine the roles they can play in conflicts through analysis. Peacebuilders need a clear understanding of the nature and dynamics of any conflict before deciding what roles they want to play in any type of intervention. Because conflicts are dynamic, conflict analysis must be an ongoing task. Sometimes one person’s or group’s story about the causes of conflict is widely accepted. Such storytelling is often done about conflict to ensure that different stories about the causes of conflict demonstrate success and alternative ways of resolving them. There are different kinds of violence:

  1. Structural violence is a term that describes the deaths and disabilities resulting from systems, institutions, or policies that meet some people’s human needs and human rights at the expense of others. In structural violence, people use direct or indirect violence sanctioned by a state or religious authority to discriminate against or hurt a group of people. Self-destruction, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide are all ways that some people cope with structural violence.
  2. Secondary violence seeks to expose the violence and injustice of structural or “originating” violence and increase the awareness and sympathy for the unmet needs of the victims of originating violence.
  3. Inter-Personal and Community Violence - at the interpersonal and community levels, some people respond to the sense of injustice brought about by structural violence and seek to regain a sense of power by releasing their anger on people in their families and communities. Family violence, sexual abuse and rape, gang violence, youth violence, and all forms of interpersonal crime are examples of secondary forms of violence.
  4. Inter and Intra-State Violence - at the state and international levels, organized rebel and guerrilla movements seek to overthrow the existing state structure and replace it.

Dynamics of Conflict and Violence

  • Conflicts are not static- they change over time. As they evolve, they take on new characteristics. Conflicts move through different phases and transform into violent expressions over time.
  • Conflicts often begin between two people. At first, these two people argue over a particular issue, such as land, office space, or a goat in the marketplace. As conflict escalates, each person identifies other conflict issues and the number of problems increases. People often start to see each other as the problem. They may seek a third person's advice on handling the conflict or try to get other people on their side to support them. Each person may choose to punish their opponent in a cycle of vengeance in the pattern of an ‘eye for an eye’ or “2 lives for 1 life.” In the worst cases, whole communities or organizations are split and polarized as each person is forced to "take a side" in the conflict. This progression of conflict can be imagined to be like a mountain or a camel's back. Conflicts pass through a stage where tensions are growing, but not obvious. This is often called the "pre-crisis" stage. As more people and issues are involved in the conflict, the conflict climbs up the mountain or camel's back. The height of the crisis is the top of the hump. When people become exhausted from the conflict or a way is found of addressing the problems that caused the conflict, the conflict de-escalates.
  • There are three stages to reach a peak of violence: (i) Confrontation when the conflict has become more open, and occasional fighting or low levels of violence may break out between the sides. Relationships between the sides may become very strained; (ii) Crisis when the tension and/or violence are most intense. In a large-scale conflict this is a period of war, when people on all sides are being killed. Normal communication between the sides decreases; (iii) Outcome when the crisis eventually leads to an outcome (e.g. one side might defeat the other, or a ceasefire might be called in the case of a war). People might agree to go to the “peace table” and enter into peacebuilding processes that address unmet needs of all groups. In the midst of confrontation, crisis, and outcome stages of conflict, women have a different set of needs. They may need a safe place to take their families, or they may need to feel a sense of participation in decisions being made to determine how the war will end.