Some good news in evidence for peacebuilding

In 2014 when I was working at the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) we formed a joint initiative with the World Bank and Innovations for Poverty Action to conduct a scoping review on evidence for peacebuilding, which we called E4P. This work included a supply side analysis in the form of an evidence gap map and a demand side analysis combining a stakeholder survey, extensive stakeholder engagement, and a portfolio review that compiled and analyzed dozens of program documents. One primary and unsurprising finding from the evidence gap map was simply the dearth of good evidence about peacebuilding interventions. We only found 78 impact evaluations, and of those a notable number of studies were of psychosocial treatment programs for victims.

Five years later the landscape is changing. I summarize here two new evidence review projects related to peacebuilding. The first is a report from the Alliance for Peacebuilding called “Violence Reduction Subsector Review & Evidence Evaluation”. The second is a 3ie update and expansion of the E4P evidence gap map called “Building Peaceful Societies”.

Violence Reduction Subsector Review & Evidence Evaluation

The Alliance for Peacebuilding report, authored by Jessica Baumgardner-Zuzik and Emily Myers, synthesizes evidence from 22 cases looking specifically at the peacebuilding subsector of violence reduction. The authors define political violence and community violence to describe the scope of their review and then discuss measurement before presenting the case evidence for six theories of change grouped into three approach categories. The selection of cases for this evidence review roughly follows a systematic review methodology. The authors used a set of search terms to look for public documents on Google and Google Scholar and also sent out a request for evaluations through the Alliance for Peacebuilding networks. They used three explicit exclusion criteria to select the 22 cases – 15 publicly available and seven from submissions – included in the review.

The general conclusion of Baumgardner-Zuzik and Myers is that there is evidential support for programs and theories within the first and second approaches – increasing community capacity to resist and mitigate violence, and improving the community-government relationship.

Baumgardner-Zuzik and Myers narratively synthesize the evidence, and while not explicitly stated in the report, they appear to employ a realist synthesis approach in their mapping of the programs to underlying theories of change. In our 3ie E4P scoping paper, we found that many program documents for peacebuilding programs do not include detailed information about theories of change, which means that evaluators and evidence reviewers often need to use a realist approach and articulate the theories themselves.

The general conclusion of Baumgardner-Zuzik and Myers is that there is evidential support for programs and theories within the first and second approaches – increasing community capacity to resist and mitigate violence, and improving the community-government relationship. There is less evidential support for the third approach – fostering social cohesion. Perhaps the most strongly stated conclusion is for the first theory of change, which posits that mechanisms for peaceful resolution can help to reduce violent behavior. The authors conclude:

Significant evidence illustrates the causal inferences between peacebuilding programmatic activities, greater capacity to resolve conflicts, and the overall reduction in violence. However, these changes can only be attributed to a combination of activities, and not to the introduction of specific mechanisms for peaceful resolution of conflicts. (p. 19)

They promote a broader set of indicators used by some peacebuilding programs that measure social norms around violence and perceptions of security.
There are three things I really like about this report. First, the discussion of measurement; second, the focus on theories of change; and third, the recommendation for more research. In the discussion of measurement, the authors point out that the Sustainable Development Goal 16.1 and many in the peacebuilding field use indicators for incidence of violence to measure violence reduction. While these may seem obvious metrics, the authors argue that these indicators “miss the spectrum of ways violent conflict manifests itself outside of physical violence” (p. 6). They promote a broader set of indicators used by some peacebuilding programs that measure social norms around violence and perceptions of security. One example of such an indicator is “% of people who approve of the use of violence as a solution”.

As noted earlier, the evidence review in the report is organized according to six theories of change divided into three approaches. Table 1 provides an excellent overview of these theories including some associated indicator and common activities. By making clear activities and mechanisms associated with the theories, Baumgardner-Zuzik and Myers are able to match the included cases to those theories and synthesize the evidence. Table 1 will be useful to people who are designing programs.

This strong call for rigorous evaluations is encouraging.

One of the nine recommendations laid out in the report is the need for more research. This is a common recommendation in systematic reviews so may not be surprising. But the recommendation goes further to “acknowledge the need for additional, rigorous evaluations of the causal link between peacebuilding programming and a reduction in violent conflict.” For me this is great to see. Five years ago, when we were engaging with peacebuilding stakeholders for the E4P review, there was often resistance to the idea that we should conduct impact evaluations of peacebuilding programs. Some felt that any evaluation with a comparison group is unethical, but more often folks were skeptical that careful data collection and rigorous research is possible in these complex settings. This strong call for rigorous evaluations is encouraging.

The important thing is that evaluations shouldn’t be foregone just because it is too late to collect baseline data.
I have two small concerns about this report. The first is that the case documents are not cited in the report or listed in a bibliography. I searched the Alliance for Peacebuilding website to see if there is a white paper version with the references and couldn’t find one. The second is the recommendation for baseline data collection. It is usually true that baseline data enable better evaluation, but there are instances where baseline data collection, especially individual surveys, can distort the program. At the same time, it is sometimes possible for evaluations to measure change by comparing with and without groups instead of before and after.

Building Peaceful Societies

The second new evidence project is 3ie’s update and expansion of the evidence gap map, “Building Peaceful Societies”. I am honored to be a member of the Advisory Group for this project. The authors, Hannah Chirgwin, Ada Sonnenfeld and Birte Snilstveit, have completed the protocol for the map and expect to complete the map soon. In the protocol, they explain that they are using a “big tent” definition of peacebuilding (Scharbatke-Church, 2011) which includes a range of interventions that “aim to build and sustain peaceful societies” – a broader concept than just interventions directed specifically at the drivers of conflict and peace.

Their framework includes 39 intervention categories and 18 outcomes categories. Some examples of intervention categories included in this expanded framework that are not in the E4P framework are “gender equality and behavior change communication”, “conflict-focused early warning systems”, “academic catch-up”, “cash transfers”, “infrastructure development and reconstruction”, and “market development”. The six theories of change in the Alliance for Peacebuilding report are covered in the 3ie framework but not always one-to-one. One topic that the new map draws out is countering violent extremism. This has been an important but recent focus of some large donors, and we did not call it out specifically in the E4P map.

Although the final map is not public, the great news is that the search and screening have yielded a much larger set of impact evaluations than we found in 2014. While the new map will still have important gaps that need to be filled, it will provide those designing programs an easy way to access hundreds of rigorous evaluations related to building peaceful societies. Keep your eye out this summer for the final report.

In sum, there are two kinds of good news about evidence for peacebuilding. The first is simply that the call for evidence from rigorous evaluations tied to theories of change is louder, and the second is that there has been a tremendous growth in evidence in the last five years.

Photo credit: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

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