Despite the growing awareness that local voices are critical to violence prevention and peacebuilding in conflict-affected countries, there is very little understanding of or guidance on how to engage conflict-affected community in interventions to protect civilians from deliberate violence. In 2011, Stimson’s Civilians in Conflict project developed Engaging Community Voices in Protection Strategies, a three-year initiative that seeks to protect civilians under threat by ensuring that conflict-affected communities are safely and effectively engaged in the development, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of external protection strategies. Through partnerships with civil society organizations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, the initiative has produced innovative publications to help protection actors understand how and why to engage communities in conflict environments, including:
- Reconciling Security Sector Reform and the Protection of Civilians in Peacekeeping Contexts
- ‘Will They Protect Us for the Next 10 Years?’ Challenges Faced by the UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan
- Perceptions of Security Among Internally Displaced Persons in Juba, South Sudan
- Perceptions of Security in Aweil North County, South Sudan
- Engaging Community Voices in Protection Strategies: Annexes on Lessons Learned
- Community Perceptions as a Priority in Protection and Peacekeeping
- Community Self-Protection Strategies: How Peacekeepers Can Help or Harm
The perceptions of conflict-affected communities are among the most important sources that peacekeeping operations and other external protection actors should consider when planning and conducting interventions to protect civilians from deliberate violence. Perceptions influence judgment, decision-making and action. They inform an individual’s decision to work with or against an external intervention that seeks to protect them. Consequently, understanding the perceptions of conflict-affected communities is a critical step in designing, implementing and monitoring effective protection strategies (see Community Perceptions as a Priority in Protection and Peacekeeping).
Perceptions also influence whether communities flee from or submit to violence, to denounce a perpetrator despite risk of retaliation, or to take justice into their own hands. Conflict-affected communities often understand the threats they face better than any outside intervener and may have developed self-protection strategies which peacekeepers can either support or undermine (see Community Self-Protection Strategies: How Peacekeepers Can Help or Harm).
Community engagement can not only improve the development and implementation of protection strategies, it can also improve other aspects of protection by peacekeeping operations. For example, ensuring that peacekeeping operations’ security sector reform initiatives are responding to the needs and perceptions of communities can help to reduce the tensions that sometimes arise between the security sector reform agenda and the protection of civilians agenda (see Reconciling Security Sector Reform and the Protection of Civilians in Peacekeeping Contexts).
The initiative works with civil society organizations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan to conduct focus groups, surveys, desk research and interviews to identify strategies that safely and effectively incorporate the voices of vulnerable communities in external actors’ decision-making regarding the populations they seek to protect. It focuses on UN peacekeeping operations as one of the primary international prevention and mitigation interventions. In recent years, the United Nations has made laudable attempts to improve its ability to protect, creating significant opportunities to improve its ability to save lives over the coming decade. According to new guidance, UN peacekeeping operations that are mandated to protect are expected to create comprehensive strategies to protect civilians that include the perspective and engagement of conflict-affected communities.
In 2012, the Civilians in Conflict project partnered with an international humanitarian and development NGO (INGO) in DRC to design and implement field research on perceptions of security. The research was implemented by a network of civil society organizations and comprised focus groups and interviews with over 1300 individuals in 32 conflict-affected communities across the three eastern provinces of the DRC. In 2013 and 2014, the Civilians in Conflict project partnered with the United Nations Association of DRC to work with local and national Congolese civil society organizations to find ways of improving how these organizations collected, analyzed and shared information about perceptions of security, in order to improve protection responses by the Congolese government and UN peacekeepers. In November 2014, 25 of these organizations collaborated on a joint focus group study of perceptions in communities across North and South Kivu.
In South Sudan, the Civilians in Conflict project has partnered with the Sudd Institute, an independent research organization that conducts and facilitates research and training to inform public policy and practice. The two organizations have collaborated on research, including a household survey in Aweil North County on the border with Sudan, to explore how national and international actors could effectively engage conflict-affected communities to prevent violence against civilians. Reports produced through the partnership include Perceptions of Security in Aweil North County, South Sudan, Perceptions of Security Among Internally Displaced Persons in Juba, South Sudan and ‘Will They Protect Us for the Next 10 Years?’ Challenges Faced by the UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan.
Photo credit: UN Photo/Basile Zoma