Measuring Subnational Conflict to Achieve SDG16

A rural scene in Mindanao, Philippines.
A rural scene in Mindanao, Philippines.

By Cyrel San Gabriel

To address the societal roots of conflict, a separate measurement tool can help identify potential subnational conflict sensitivity in areas like Mindanao, Philippines.

The economic and political stability of a country can be measured by how peaceful it is as a whole. Subnational conflict, however, takes place in certain remote areas and is often overlooked by the development community’s peace filters and fragility assessments. But failing to adjust the peace lens to a subnational level may hamper efforts toward meeting Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG16) on achieving just, peaceful and inclusive societies. 

Implementing SDG16 calls for sustainable, inclusive peace so all parts of a country can reap the benefits of security and development. But how do development organizations measure peace and stability? ADB uses country performance assessments—harmonized with the World Bank’s country policy and institutional assessments—to guide its financing policy for fragile and conflict-affected developing member countries. They are based on four performance indicators:  economic management, structural policies, social inclusion, and public sector management. However, ADB’s operational experience in these countries demonstrates that fragility and conflict can still hide in the shadows and escape detection in country performance assessments.

Isolated pockets of conflict and fragility outside of the national capital or the main cities are often not given due attention in country-level assessments. Conflict and fragility in Afghanistan—which the Global Peace Index labels as one of the least peaceful countries in the world, and the Fragile States Index puts at the “high-alert” level—may be obvious because of the country’s low economic growth and high rates of poverty indicators; but subnational conflict in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, countries that have enjoyed steady economic growth and rapid development, are swept under the rug.

The OECD States of Fragility 2015 report offers a more comprehensive approach to assess fragility. However, the OECD’s fragility dimensions should be further adopted at a subnational level, using a measurement framework that focuses on conflict vulnerability. The following questions, derived from the OECD’s fragility dimensions, may serve as a general guide to develop an improved fragility assessment:

  1. Does violence trigger more violence or is it contained? 
  2. Does the justice system worsen or reduce conflict? Is there an informal justice system complementing the formal one?
  3. Are the policies and institutions effective, accountable, and inclusive enough to sustain peace?
  4. Are there policies in place to improve the local economy and create more jobs, so that citizens will engage in productive activities rather than in crime or violence?
  5. Are there formal and informal mechanisms available to mitigate social, economic, and environmental shocks and disasters?

In addition to the above, I am proposing another dimension that is often overlooked, and yet this could be the very root cause of all conflicts — a cultural and political dimension: how does the cultural and political behavior in a society affect peace or conflict?

For this sixth dimension, a separate measurement tool should be developed to identify potential conflict between state and citizens, conflict between political parties, conflict between ethnic groups, and other forms of conflict. For example, the conflict in Mindanao, Philippines is not only about conflict between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and other rebel groups. It also includes clashes between ethnic groups, among politicians, and other forms of conflict hidden from the public eye. A project in Mindanao, for example, has been stalled because of unforeseen political economy issues, and not due to the obvious security issues emanating from the armed conflict.

Existing country-level measurement tools can be customized to assess the conflict vulnerability of a subnational situation. For instance, a conflict vulnerability index, developed by the International Conflict Analysis and Transformation Research Group, analyzes a country’s vulnerability to conflict and focuses on potential conflict between the state and its citizenry. This index could be adjusted to include all forms of conflict in a subnational situation.

In the case of the Philippines, measuring subnational conflict in Mindanao could be a game-changer for development efforts in the country’s southern region, especially now that peace finally seems within reach after decades of violence and seemingly endless negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The Bangsamoro Basic Law, a comprehensive agreement that establishes a new political entity for certain Muslim-majority areas plagued by fighting and underdevelopment, has been endorsed by all sides; and although it has yet to be passed by parliament, it has already generated an influx of aid to Mindanao based on the promise of peace.

But we cannot pursue development out of enthusiasm alone, and now is the time for subnational conflict measurement to be scaled up and applied so its results can significantly inform policy and decision-making in subnational situations, where the nature of conflict is such that there is always more than meets the eye, and violence can return immediately if development is not handled properly.

To address this constant threat and prevent new development efforts from triggering further conflict, we must always assess the local context, and keep in mind that there is no single form of conflict. Conflict is an amalgam of economic, political, and cultural complexities of a society. Conflict is not a dimension of fragility per se, but in a vicious cycle, conflict begets fragility and fragility begets conflict. In a fragile situation, the government is unable to provide basic public services such as employment, justice, and security; and without these, a society can be vulnerable to conflict.

Conflict sensitivity at the subnational level should indeed play a major role in promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies; and Mindanao could be a test case for subnational conflict measurement. The OECD fragility model should therefore include subnational conflict and fragility into its framework that should be applied to all countries, whether or not they are in a fragile states list.

Subnational conflict or fragility measurement may require more resources, but it could be well worth the investment if costly mistakes are prevented at the onset because the decisions made are based on a specific, sound assessment of a fragile or conflict-affected situation.

This blog was first published in the OECD blog Institutions and Stability.