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Apr 25, 2013 | Commentary

Steven A. Zyck recently completed a consulting project related to conflict in Yemen. The information contained in this post does not directly emerge from that assignment and is not covered by confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements.

Yemen is currently experiencing a number of intersecting security crises. These include long-standing tribal conflicts and decades-long battles over land and water that are believed to result in thousands of fatalities per year. Since 2004 the Houthi movement has carved out a large portion of the country’s far north. In the south, separationist movements seeking independence for this resource-rich part of the country have gone from popular to near universal. Extremist groups, particular al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have spread throughout much of the country and waged a powerful, well-financed year-long campaign against the nation’s military in 2011 and 2012. Yemen is likely one of the few countries in the world where al Qaeda has something akin to an army, not just isolated cells.

These security challenges are taking place amidst a National Dialogue process intended to help more than 500 leaders from diverse factions agree on what sort of a state they want in the future, grapple with future changes to the security sector, ponder the potential need for transitional justice and sort out the country’s most pressing challenges. Meanwhile, sectarian sentiment and violence — involving an overlapping conglomeration of sectarian, political and tribal dimensions — are on the rise.

The question thus arises: how might the international community analyze a context such as this, which includes long-standing and more recent conflicts that frequently intersect and overlap? How might such an analysis differentiate between the severity and timeliness of various conflicts, some of which appear acute, while others are perhaps more structural in nature, presenting a long-term threat to stability?

Having recently examined conflict in Yemen, it became particularly apparent to me that the international community presently lacks a ready-to-use, practical means of analyzing complex conflict situations with multiple and intersecting forms of violence and insecurity. Political-economy approaches and systems-of-systems analysis (SOSA) may provide one way forward — though these are far from adequate — but are not necessarily suitable for practitioners in non-government organizations (NGOs), donor agencies, multilateral organizations, and others who need a straightforward framework. While it may not be feasible to present what such a multi-conflict model might look like, there are two overarching lessons that emerged from my recent work in Yemen.

First, conflict analyses in multi-conflict situations require prioritization. This begins with prioritization of conflicts or sources of insecurity themselves. Attempting to analyze each and every conflict taking place in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan or even Mali all at once will likely produce some fascinating diagrams and models, but be of little use to policymakers and practitioners in the short or medium term. Instead, identify which conflicts pose the greatest risk or which appear to be escalating the fastest — either by using credible data on violence or perceptions of well-placed stakeholders — and focus on those. A second form of prioritization — among conflict drivers — is also required. While conflicts generally involve a myriad of underlying and surface-level drivers, they are not all created equal. Some are more powerful or evocative than others. Similarly, some drivers simply cannot be mitigated or tackled in a timely manner and thus may not be overly useful to emphasize. For a driver to be significant, particularly when examining ongoing conflicts, it must be: (a) particularly influential relative to other drivers and (b) resolvable/adjustable within a relative short period of time. Concluding that “we must reduce poverty and attain income equality to address the underlying causes of conflict” is a fine long-term strategy or academic position, but it is not clear how it will guide policies and programmes designed to mitigate violence in the coming one, two or ten years.

This brings me to the second lesson: focus on the psychological and emotive elements of technical conflict drivers. Consider, for instance, a relatively routine conflict driver such as unemployment. Here the “driver” may be unemployment, but it gains its significance by virtue of its emotional impact. In the case of young men, this may be a sense of frustration with perpetually having one’s move towards adulthood (e.g., marriage, owning a car, moving from home) thwarted. In the case of older men, it may have to do with feeling ashamed in front of one’s peers or anger at being unable to provide enough for one’s children. Such emotional elements can be tackled more readily than the underlying problem of unemployment — which would require billions of dollars, security, and private-sector leadership to address over the course of one or more decades. Interim stabilization measures, which Nat Colletta has written of, may however be able to tackle the emotional elements by providing young men with some sense of pride (e.g., in community service) or reducing adult men’s sense of shame by ensuring that their children have recreational opportunities in and out of school (e.g., athletics, theatre, etc.) so that they do not dwell on their financial woes. Such approaches are back doors to stability, and they may only last so long, but they are crucial in helping to prevent conflict escalation in the short and medium terms and they must be elucidated in the course of any conflict analysis.

These lessons, which emerged from a recent project in Yemen, may help to ensure that conflict analyses are more beneficial to policymakers and practitioners. They may, in particular, help analysts move away from the most common and regrettable form of conflict analysis: 50-page lists of drivers with little examination of how these drivers operate and why they are so influential in impelling violence.


Steven A. Zyck is an Associate at the Security Governance Group.