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Analysing conflict

This section examines the main elements of conflict analysis. It sets out to identify:

5.1 Why conflict analysis is essential

The more mediators know and understand about the situations in which they are working, the less likely they are to make mistakes, and the more likely to assist stakeholders effectively.

A conflict analysis helps to:

Many methods and tools are available for analysing conflicts. No single set of procedures or practices works for all situations. Rather than a blueprint, this section presents guiding principles for what strategies and techniques are available, and what sort of information might be gathered.

5.1.1 Guiding principles

1. A conflict analysis must be based on a wide range of views about the sources of conflict. Conflicts are about perceptions and the meanings that people attribute to events, policies and institutions.

2. A conflict analysis helps stakeholders to reconsider their perspectives, which are often heavily influenced by emotions, misunderstandings, assumptions, suspicions and mistrust. In conflict situations, emotion can easily overwhelm logic and reason. It is therefore important to distinguish opinion from fact. Balancing emotions and reason (Fisher and Brown, 1988: 43 - 63) is an important aspect of conflict management, not because facts are more important than perceptions or feelings, but because stakeholders deal with them in different ways.

This transformation of perspective is vital in creating space for collaboration in conflict management. It is an integral step in moving away from rigid and inflexible positions towards exploring possible shared interests. This is an important outcome of analysis, which is determining what paths are open to negotiation and identifying common needs or goals that can be met through collaboration.

3. Conflict analysis must examine the broader development context (social, economic, political) and not just consider natural resource management concerns.

4. Any conflict analysis is only preliminary and must be refined and studied carefully as the process gets under way.

5. Conflict analysis is not an end in itself. It is part of the process of defining and learning about the issues (capacity building). For this learning process to happen, conflict analysis must be carried out in a participatory manner. Through exchanges of information it becomes more likely that people will focus on real problems in the negotiation process. However, people are likely to be cautious about revealing some types of information.

6. It is important to know what is worth knowing. The type and amount of information needed from conflict analysis varies from case to case. While it is often assumed that more information is better than less, not all information may be relevant, truthful or useful. In addition, perceived information needs are likely to be constrained by limited time, resources or expertise. When taking such limits into account, it is necessary to define what is meant by "sufficiently" detailed, accurate and reliable information. Data collection or analysis that goes beyond this is not necessary.

Box 5.1 summarizes the key questions that might be asked in conflict analysis.


What is the conflict about?

A conflict is often more complex than it seems. How do the participants frame the conflict? To what extent are their views alike, and how do they differ? How do others frame the conflict? What seem to be the immediate or proximate factors behind the conflict? Are there deeper livelihood, institutional, political or other structural factors behind the conflict? Trying to manage a conflict as a single, isolated event may be of little use if it is intertwined with wider problems or issues.

Who is involved in the conflict?

Effective consensus building depends on engaging all the stakeholder groups that are relevant to a conflict. It is therefore important to identify stakeholders accurately. Are there any groups who are not present but who have a direct or indirect role in the conflict, such as administrators, resource users from neighbouring communities or migratory populations (herders, farmers or labourers)?

What motivations or incentives exist for the parties to settle their conflict?

Trying to get people to settle their conflict through ACM or other means may be difficult if the parties do not feel or perceive a need to manage or resolve it. In addition, there may be economic, political, cultural or other incentives that influence the parties' willingness to engage in conflict management. Equally important is to find out whether there are people who would benefit from continuation of the conflict, or who would resist attempts to stop conflict (do some people have an interest in perpetuating the conflict?).

What conflict management strategies have been tried in the past?

It is very important to consider what strategies have already been tried to resolve the conflict. What were the results of these effort? What are the advantages or disadvantages or pursuing the same strategy or strategies for the present conflict?

5.2 Conflict analysis as a process

Conflict analysis comes in at various stages during the ACM process. Key questions are always who carries out the analysis, and for what purposes.

5.2.1 Milestone A: Entry

During the entry phase, the conflict analysis that is carried out as part of the preliminary conflict assessment is a strategic instrument for the mediators to plan the way forward. It is carried out by the mediators internally.

5.2.2 Milestone B: Stakeholder engagement/participation

The conflict analysis during this step is different from the initial conflict assessment in that the mediators help the stakeholders to conduct their own analysis. The mediators seek to support and advance a process of self-examination and self-discovery among the conflict stakeholders. All stakeholders must be able to follow the process, understand the results and know how those results have been obtained. So the mediators' main task is to explain and visualize each step of the process and all interim results.

The conflict stakeholders reflect on their positions, interests and needs in comparison with those of other stakeholders. Depending on the circumstances, the mediators may conduct the conflict analysis as a joint multistakeholder event. When there are severe tensions, it may be done separately with the different stakeholder groups. However, at some point, the different stakeholders need to share their analyses in order to promote better understanding of each other's points of view.

The aim is for stakeholders to reach a common understanding of what the conflict is about, and what its meanings and implications are for each party. For different stakeholders this may involve broadening or narrowing the scope of issues to be negotiated.

Only when stakeholders fully understand the process will it enhance their capacity to solve their problems in future. Partial analysis can have negative consequences because it may only confirm preconceived assumptions, and hide as much as it reveals. On the other hand, too much concern to "get the analysis right" may get in the way of action.

5.3 Tools in conflict analysis

Conflict can be analysed with the help of a number of simple, practical and adaptable tools. Annex 2 explains these tools in depth and gives clear advice on how to use them in the field. The application of a tool is not an end in itself - tools are means or aids for carrying out conflict analysis. Tools are also not rigid processes - they are to be adapted according to the specific situation and requirements of the mediators.

When mediators carry out their preliminary conflict assessment (steps 1 to 3), tools:

When mediators guide stakeholders to analyse their conflict (step 4), the tools have the additional tasks of:

This requires that the tools be applied with the stakeholders, as a facilitation aid and not as a mental model in the head of the mediator alone (as is the case during the mediators' preliminary conflict assessment in steps 1 to 3).

However, there may be difficulties in applying tools in specific local settings. The following are some of the difficulties that can arise:

Table 5.1 lists some of the most useful conflict analysis tools.


Tool number




Root cause analysis

To help stakeholders examine the origins and underlying causes of conflict.


Issue analysis

To examine the issues that contribute to conflict and the specific issues that give rise to a specific conflict in more detail, focusing on five categories:

1) problems with information;
2) conflicting interests;
3) difficult relationships;
4) structural inequalities;
5) conflicting values.


Stakeholder identification and analysis

To identify and assess the dependency and power of different stakeholders in a conflict.


4Rs analysis (rights, responsibilities, returns, relationships)

To examine the rights, responsibilities and benefits of different stakeholders in relation to natural resources, as part of improving understanding of a conflict.

To examine the relationships among (or within) different stakeholder groups.


Conflict time line

To assist stakeholders in examining the history of a conflict and to improve their understanding of the sequence of events that led to the conflict.


Mapping conflict over resource use

To show geographically where land or resource use conflicts exist or may exist in the future.

To determine the primary issues of conflict.

The tools in Table 5.1 are described in detail in the field guide to conflict analysis in Annex 2. Tools 1 to 5 are core tools, which are a fundamental part of detailed conflict analysis. Tool 6 is a complementary tool, which is helpful, but does not necessarily have to be used in each conflict analysis.

5.4 Conflict issues and root cause analysis

Analysis of the causes of conflict begins with identifying and describing the conflict, its boundaries and interrelationships. These elements may include:

The individual elements of a conflict that should be explored depend on the context.

5.4.1 Exploring the origins of the conflict

Before making any conclusions about what is happening at present, it is important to consider how people interpret or frame a conflict's history. Much can be learned on all sides about the different interpretations of an event. Some degree of consensus may develop concerning certain events or their importance, but a unanimously accepted version of events may never emerge.

Another aim in exploring the origins of a conflict is to analyse large, complex problems in terms of smaller conflict causes. These individual pieces can then be examined in more detail, and may indicate areas for action. The origins of the conflict may include a range of events, problems with relationships, poor policy support, tenure and common property rights, unclear management processes, clashes in values, etc.

The task of sorting out diverse interpretations of the origins of a conflict can be time-consuming and challenging. People are likely to identify many causes and provide different interpretations about the importance of each. In addition, the causes of conflicts about natural resources may be deeply embedded in other aspects of social, economic, cultural and political life.

Exploring the root causes and differentiating them from the contributing factors is a crucial step towards better understanding of the conflict. It also helps to clarify how to address the conflict most effectively, and how to determine whether the mediator can make a meaningful contribution to its management.

A major issue for mediators is their relationship to existing local conflict management processes. Should a mediator work with formal or informal judicial and administrative personnel? Or should he/she be largely independent? Of course, the answer depends on the situation, including the terms under which the mediator has been asked to operate. As noted in Sections 2 and 4, the mediator should gain an understanding of local conflict management processes, as well as the history of past conflict management efforts, through preliminary assessment/analysis.

For several reasons, these processes and efforts should be explored in more depth throughout the conflict assessment. First, it is important to cross-check whether stakeholders feel that existing institutions and processes may be able to accommodate their interests and needs. If this proves to be the case, it may be worthwhile for the mediators to promote the use of local institutions and to build the capacity of these as necessary. Where local institutions or personnel are lacking, the mediator may be able to arrange training or other assistance that overcomes such limitations. Finally, understanding what has and what has not worked in the past can help the mediator to learn from past mistakes and avoid pitfalls and problems.

Core tool 1: Root cause analysis

The root cause analysis helps to illuminate linkages among the different factors and causes that have triggered the conflict. It helps build simple cause - effect chains, which show the underlying dynamics of the conflict.

Core tool 2: Issue analysis

The issue analysis identifies and enumerates the core issues that contribute to a conflict, and provides a checklist for mediators to consider five different categories of such issues.

Complementary tool 6: Mapping

Developing a conflict time line may help to clarify the sequence of events and understand the different stages in a conflict's history. Mapping is always useful for an improved understanding of the spatial dimension and boundaries of a conflict.

5.4.2 Verifying perceptions, facts and information needs

Effective facilitation allows people to make explicit their knowledge of events, their assumptions and their suspicions about a conflict. Stakeholders rarely agree about a single framing of a conflict. Instead, they tend to have numerous interpretations of the original causes and contributing factors of conflict. Even within a single group, there can be different memories about facts, or the sequence and significance of events.

This reinforces the need to obtain and understand the range of local viewpoints about a conflict. The aim is to work through the different perspectives with all stakeholders, and eventually to identify:

5.4.3 Identifying linkages

Mapping the causes of conflict and their sequence can improve understanding of key links among what may appear to be isolated events. What first seems to be a local dispute may be fuelled by underlying inequalities or decisions made further away, without the knowledge of remote communities. Government policies towards indigenous peoples, long-standing tensions between customary and government tenure systems, national development goals and globalization may appear irrelevant to day-to-day management in remote areas, but these factors are often shown to have significant impact on local disputes.

Particularly for rural people, awareness of the linkages between the broader policy and legal setting and their own livelihoods can be very enlightening and vital to their empowerment.

Getting the right balance between helping people to make these connections and not overwhelming them can be a useful role for mediators. In this way, shared understanding and a common ground for local disputants can be created.

Complementary tool 5: Conflict time line

The conflict time line makes it possible to study the stages of a conflict, how specific events occurred and, possibly, which actions by which stakeholders caused these events.

5.5 Identifying and analysing stakeholders

As a conflict becomes more clearly defined, the range of stakeholders in that conflict also becomes increasingly clear; as do the relationships of those stakeholders to the issues and to each other. In a process directed at collaborative natural resource management, an analysis of stakeholders will determine who should be involved in management of the conflict. Such an analysis should identify:

5.5.1 Who are the stakeholders?

Stakeholders can be identified as those individuals or groups who are affected by the outcome of a conflict, as well as those who influence that outcome. Stakeholders may share a collective identity (such as neighbourhood ties, kinship or membership of resource user groups) or a common characteristic (such as using the same resource or residing in the same general area).

Gaining recognition and agreement of which stakeholders are involved, and how legitimately they are involved, is essential to conflict management. Different stakeholders often hold different views about who has a legitimate stake, and whom it is most important to consider in managing a conflict. Building communication and trust among groups is a challenge for collaborative approaches to conflict management. It requires increased mutual recognition and respect for the interests, needs, motivations and roles of all stakeholders.

TRAINER'S NOTE: In classifying stakeholders, there is a risk that a group or subgroup will be viewed as having a common identity. For example, using labels such as "women" or "community" may hide the diverse and often contradictory interests within these groups. It is therefore often more useful and accurate to identify stakeholders around an issue, problem or goal.

5.5.2 Stakeholders and power

Distinguishing the relative power that each group has to influence the direction or resolution of a conflict is central to stakeholder analysis. Power can be defined as "the capacity to achieve outcomes" (Ramirez, 1999). This includes the ability to make or prevent change. Power can be derived from many sources. For example, a four-year-old child crying for a lollipop in a marketplace has neither control over resources nor physical strength. Nevertheless, he/she has enormous power to influence his/her parents' decision-making. This power comes from the child's ability to mobilize wider support for his/her case. The "lollipop example" illustrates that power can be gained from relationships with others.

Power can be derived from many sources, such as:

Reviewing marginal groups' sources of influence may indicate new ways of strengthening a limited but already existing power base. With whom are these marginal groups connected in the area and in the wider society? When working with opposing and more dominant groups, it may be useful to identify the limits of their power, or where their power becomes vulnerable. Actions to make power more equitable can be considered, but mediators should not advocate for one of the parties. This would risk losing the neutral status needed for mediation.

Collaboration operates on a model of power sharing. Stakeholders who have authorized each other to reach a decision eventually make decisions together. This does not mean that stronger parties must give up power, or that all resources are distributed equally. Underlying collaboration occurs when stakeholders have approved each other's legitimacy and power to define problems and propose solutions (Gray, 1989).

Major inequities are a deterrent to collaboration. Powerful groups often act unilaterally and refuse to negotiate or collaborate. They may also force weaker parties to "agree" to a decision. It is therefore useful to find out how much power and influence each stakeholder has, what kind of power it is and where it stems from.

Core tool 3: Stakeholder identification and analysis

The stakeholder identification and analysis helps identify and assess the power and influence of different stakeholders in a conflict.

5.5.3 Stakeholder relationships

Stakeholders have a number of different relationships that need to be considered in understanding natural resource conflicts. These include:

Stakeholder power and capacity are heavily influenced by both sets of relationships. Rights of access and control, and the benefits gained from resources, often define stakeholders' roles and power in relation to management. Similarly, alliances with other groups, networks and collective action can be important bargaining tools and means of reaching new and necessary institutional arrangements (Ramirez, 1999).

Core tool 4: 4Rs analysis (rights, responsibilities, returns and relationships)

The 4Rs analysis charts the rights, responsibilities and returns for all involved stakeholders in relation to resource use. Relationships among stakeholders can also be mapped in order to assess the degree to which they are positive or problematic. Positive interactions can indicate opportunities for building support and alliances that are useful in conflict management.

It can be very important to consider how these relationships have changed over time, and what is desired for the future. For example, examining the past and present rights of local resource users may show decreasing control over livelihoods that are based on natural resources. Similarly, outlining the past and present rights, responsibilities and benefits regarding management shows the causes of deteriorated relationships.

5.5.4 Considering gender

Effective participatory natural resource management requires the equitable collaboration of men and women. It is therefore crucial to consider gender and the issues that arise from the different roles, responsibilities and relationships of women and men. Gender roles within a society affect equity, wealth, power and well-being. Different roles for women and men affect who:

The dimensions of gender inequality vary among households and cultural groups. The issue of women's land rights has received increased attention in recent years, and several countries have implemented legislation establishing gender equality with respect to access to natural resources and land. Related reforms in marriage and inheritance laws have been slower to implement, however, and overall only limited gains for women have been achieved. In many areas, decision-making about land and natural resources, including the management of conflicts, is still handled almost exclusively by men.

Conflicts within community-based natural resource management often arise from imbalances in gender roles, relationships or processes. Rural women are usually at greater disadvantage than men, as they commonly have:

Changing roles: Gender roles and relationships are dynamic and changing. Changes can occur suddenly, in response to war, famine and natural catastrophe, or gradually over time. Change can be perceived as an opportunity or a threat by both women and men, and can be a source of conflict (Fisher et al., 2000). Conflicts can also arise from forceful actions that men and women take to address imbalances in roles or processes that affect women's lives. Such conflicts can be highly visible, particularly when they involve different generations, for example, when educated youth openly challenges traditional roles. Commonly, however, conflict remains latent as women examine their responses to it, often using a range of indirect strategies. Although not always openly visible, women's difficulty in expressing their disagreement can steadily erode or undermine the sustainability and effectiveness of natural resource management initiatives.

Section summary

Section 5 has outlined the importance of conflict analysis and how it is carried out in different steps of the process map. Conflict analysis is an important start to stakeholder engagement (Section 6). For this to happen, the mediator needs to guide the different stakeholders in a process of self-reflection and self-discovery. The mediator's role is to help the stakeholders to conduct their own analysis. Only when all stakeholders have understood the results and gained new insights can the process lead to more engagement and, ultimately, to agreement.

Conflict analysis is an essential ingredient in many steps of the process map. During the entry phase, conflict analysis is carried out internally by the mediators as a strategic instrument for planning their way forward. During stakeholder engagement, it serves as a tool for enhancing conflict stakeholders' self-reflection and self-discovery.

Conflict analysis helps identify places for action. As the individual causes are better understood, the stakeholders' perceptions of events can be explored and further information needs identified. Ultimately, parties to conflict can better identify which contributing causes are most significant, which require immediate action, and which need to be addressed in the longer term.

Conflict analysis can be assisted by a number of simple, practical and adaptable tools and techniques. Annex 2 explains these tools in depth, and gives clear advice on how to use them in the field. The tools are not rigid processes and can be adapted to the specific requirements of the mediators.

Analysis of the causes of conflict begins with identifying and describing the conflict, its boundaries and interrelationships. These elements may include the origins, levels and issues of conflict, the history and chronology of events, geographical and time-related relationships, interrelationships with other conflicts, and the prioritizing of areas for action.

Root cause analysis helps to explore the origins of a conflict and breaks down large, complex problems into smaller causes of conflict. These individual pieces can then be examined in more detail, and can suggest places for action.

Conflict analysis identifies and involves the stakeholders. Making clear which stakeholders are affected by a conflict and which influence the outcome is essential. Another essential task in conflict analysis is helping stakeholders to examine and understand their and others' interests and expectations, relative power and responses to conflict. This includes analysing their interactions and relationships, and the ways in which they can work together to manage conflict.

Clarifying the different groups' relative power to influence the direction or resolution of a conflict is central to stakeholder analysis. Reviewing the sources of influence may indicate new ways of strengthening a limited but already existing power base. At the same time, it may be useful to identify the limits of power of opposing or dominant groups, or where their power becomes vulnerable. This helps when considering actions that could make power relations more evenly balanced.

Effective community-based natural resource management cannot be realized without the equitable collaboration of both men and women. The need to consider gender and issues that arise from the different roles, responsibilities and relationships of women and men is crucial. Gender roles within a society affect major issues of equity, wealth, power and well-being.

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