From data to knowledge: Understanding peace and conflict from afar (Jan 2016 - Jan 2018)

Lead G&S academic: Dr Jonathan Fisher

Academic partners:

  • Berit Bliesemann de Guevara/Aberystwyth University
  • Caroline Hughes/Bradford University
  • Roger Mac Ginty/University of Manchester
  • David Roberts/Loughborough University

Non-academic partners:

  • Juliano Fiori/Save the Children
  • Abdurahman Sharif/Somalia NGO Consortium

Funding: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)


This ESRC seminar series began 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 provided 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 came 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 - legally committed to spending at least 0.7% of GNI on international development - had steadily re-focused its aid portfolio around fragile states since the later 2000s and these countries now absorbed over one-third of the DFID budget. Similar trends were apparent among other Western aid donors and organizations as well as among NGOs and researchers whose funding was often tied to these bodies and their agendas. Along with the UN, the militaries of developing states were also increasingly involved in peacekeeping and statebuilding exercises in fragile regions and polities.

Alongside these developments, however, emerged a number of issues which actively limited Western actors' ability to gain direct access to - and understandings of - communities living in fragile contexts. The growing number of UN and aid workers being targeted by criminal and terrorist groups in conflict zones led most Western organizations to introduce risk management procedures which ultimately reduce direct interaction between the 'international' and the 'local'. This included 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 also steadily came 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 relied 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.

Project aims

This series of research seminars posed and engaged with several key questions and concerns which emerged 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 engaged 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 was a key focus of the series and enhanced its strength and credibility.

See ESRC Seminar Series (2016-2018) for further information on the series.

More information

For further information about this project please contact:Dr Jonathan Fisher.