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Open Access From Data to Knowledge: Understanding peace and conflict from afar (seminar series)

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This series begins with a set of questions which UN peacekeepers, aid workers, governments, researchers and conflict analysts are increasingly troubled by: how do we know what we know about fragile and conflict-affected regions and how far do our understandings reflect – and take account of – the views and perspectives of communities living in these regions? Bringing together leading scholars and partners in the worlds of policy and practice – including Save the Children, the UK Government (DFID and FCO), OECD and Somalia NGO Consortium (Somalia NGOC), Nairobi – the series will provide a critical and innovative set of fora for analysing how conflict knowledge is generated and disseminated – and with what implications for research and policy in the UK and abroad.

This exploration comes in the context of a growing focus by Western governments and organizations on working on, and in, fragile and conflict-affected regions. The UK Government – now legally committed to spending at least 0.7% of GNI on international development – has steadily re-focused its aid portfolio around fragile states since the later 2000s and these countries now absorb over one-third of the DFID budget. Similar trends are apparent among other Western aid donors and organizations as well as among NGOs and researchers whose funding is often tied to these bodies and their agendas. Along with the UN, the militaries of developing states are also increasingly involved in peacekeeping and statebuilding exercises in fragile regions and polities.

Alongside these developments, however, have emerged a number of issues which actively limit Western actors' ability to gain direct access to – and understandings of – communities living in fragile contexts. The growing number of UN and aid workers now being targeted by criminal and terrorist groups in conflict zones has led most Western organizations to introduce risk management procedures which ultimately reduce direct interaction between the 'international' and the 'local'. This includes the creation of heavily-fortified aid 'compounds' to house aid workers and their families, the collection of data from afar (via drones or other technologies, for example) and the remote management of projects. Thus DFID's Somalia Office (a Project Partner for the series) is based in neighbouring Kenya.

This culture of risk aversion has also steadily come to curtail the ability of Western researchers and NGOs to live and work in regions viewed as too remote or dangerous by insurance providers, ethics committees or managers. Thus these communities also increasingly rely on ever-distant chains of 'local' interlocutors and mediators to gather data or implement projects – in a Western political context where ensuring clear and measurable developmental results for all aid disbursed is paramount.

This series of research seminars will pose and engage with several key questions and concerns which emerge from these various paradoxes. Most prominently – what tools and methodologies can be used to collect conflict data remotely and to what extent can they replace or substitute more direct forms of information-gathering? To what extent can – or should – different social and cultural understandings be reflected in the collection and interpretation of 'local knowledge'? What role do local actors play in mediating or resisting the generation of knowledge on – and in – their communities? How is conflict 'data' transposed into conflict 'knowledge' and how far does Western policy and research on conflict regions take account of local perspectives?

The series engages with a prominent set of debates in contemporary policy-making circles and global scholarship across a range of disciplines, notably Politics, International Relations, Development Studies, Economics and Anthropology. The participation of early-career researchers and scholars from the developing world is a key focus of the series and enhances its strength and credibility.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: November 1, 2017

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