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Somaliland: measuring local peacebuilding progress

Abdifatah Tahir describes efforts of the Observatory of Conflict and Violence Prevention in Hargeisa, Somaliland, to track peacebuilding progress in Somalia and in particular to gather local perspectives on the effectiveness of public service provision as it relates to peacebuilding.

The Observatory of Conflict and Violence Prevention

The Observatory of Conflict and Violence Prevention is an independent non-profit organisation that tracks peacebuilding progress in Somaliland, Puntland and South Central Somalia. Based at the University of Hargeisa, Somaliland, the Observatory measures the degree to which peace is durable at the local level and how peacebuilding policies can be embedded in statebuilding processes. This article discusses primarily the activities of the Observatory in Somaliland.

Gathering local perceptions of peacebuilding progress

The work of the Observatory to track peacebuilding progress falls into two basic strands: documenting violent conflict; and gathering people’s perceptions of the effectiveness of public service provision, specifically as it relates to peacebuilding.

Public perceptions are particularly important for the legitimacy of peacebuilding processes as they help measure the level of local confidence in public services that many peacebuilding programmes are trying to improve. Information is gathered according to four progress indicators relating to service providers: conflict, governance, security and justice. By using providers as the indicator the data can capture people’s perceptions of not only state agencies but also key non-state actors, such as elders, religious leaders and the business community.

The research helps strengthen peace and statebuilding processes as the data inform state and non-state actors’ efforts to respond to existing or potential tensions before they reach crisis. Local perceptions of performance are important to inform government policy at both local and national levels. Non-governmental development agencies can also use the data to help design more conflict-sensitive programming, as well as to identify and collaborate with local innovation and expertise to maximise impact for beneficiaries.

The Observatory uses combined research methods, namely key informant interviews, focus group discussions and questionnaire-based interviews. The aim is to capture issues and problems in a given area from a range of perspectives. First, selected participants such as elders, religious leaders and government officials are identified and interviewed. Focus group discussions then involve representative groups such as women, youth and businesses. Finally, personal interviews are gathered using questionnaires from a minimum of 80 representative households selected according to relevant criteria such as clan, age and geography.

Challenges to local data collection: the subjectivity conundrum

Tracking progress in peacebuilding and statebuilding poses a number of difficulties in Somaliland. Security is a problem in some areas. A pervasive challenge relates to local sensitivities, and more specifically to perceptions of partiality among the data collectors who may be seen as advocating particular political entities or favouring particular political orientations. This can compromise the quality of the research and analysis.

In post-conflict contexts where state and non-state institutions are fragile, the Observatory, like many other similar organisations, must walk a delicate path and be highly conscious of sensitive ways to engage in issues that are potentially politically volatile and could have serious negative implications for the research. In such environments what is said is less important than who is saying it. Policymakers can dismiss or ignore important issues simply because they dislike who is raising them.

In Somaliland this mentality has been incrementally built into the institutional culture over the past twenty years. And because the Observatory deals explicitly with subjectivity – focusing on people’s perceptions – data-gathering on key issues like governance, justice, security and conflict must be acutely sensitive to issues of clan identity or political orientation. Affiliation (or perception of it) can skew people’s views towards the performance of service delivery. Information provided may be biased through opposition to the government or support for it. To mitigate this, the Observatory uses guidelines by which data collectors take great care to gather data from all quarters or divides in a given area.

Survey fatigue is a major challenge for data collection in Somaliland as people tire of frequent and repetitive non-governmental organisation (NGO) assessment visits. This is a big problem – for public perception surveys especially – as local public attitudes towards NGOs conducting the surveys affect both the quality and quantity of data. People might not be interested in giving information, or they might tell you what they think you want to hear. The Observatory tries to moderate this by mixing staff from the centre with local employees in order to collect reliable data.

Over time, focus groups also tend to attract the same people or groups and the same faces appear at discussions on every field visit, resulting in information that does not necessarily reflect the broader views of residents. Again, using local staff with detailed local knowledge helps to widen participation. 

Lessons learned from the Observatory

Several positive lessons can be learned from the Observatory. First is the importance of local ownership and involvement in data collection. How data is used is the priority for the Observatory, and we work hard to ensure community ownership of data gathering, analysis and dissemination, and that outputs of research are fed back to the community to inform local planning.

Second, conflict sensitivity and neutrality are central to our work. This is so important that recommendations are often generalised in order to minimise unintended negative consequences of the information we provide. For instance, recommending the installation of wells to prevent communities from fighting over scarce water could lead to renewed fighting over environmental degradation. This could lead to the Observatory being accused of partiality. Decision-makers can use the Observatory’s generic recommendations to resolve problems through further consultation on the available information. The Observatory’s involvement is limited to a more abstract level of problem identification – such as the need to resolve certain issues and the potential repercussions of ignoring them – without publicly identifying specific places or actors.

Third, context specificity in relation to political issues is key. The Observatory weighs options carefully. We consider whether it is viable to engage policymakers formally on specific issues, or whether it is best to warn them informally about pending problems. The line between formal and informal is delicate but crucial, and often underestimated, when working in politically sensitive post-conflict contexts where institutions have to be nurtured through a subtle blend of carefully calculated measures, formal enquiries and informal suggestions.

The Observatory identifies problems that could negatively affect peacebuilding and provides information relevant for planning conflict-sensitive development. Our work to collect and analyse local data helps to anticipate problems and identify and engage relevant political and communal actors to resolve problems. Locally-led research is key to delivering the right information at the right time and for the right reasons.