Methods to Inform Responsive, Community-Led Programming

Gedion Juma & Caroline Brazill

Created 01/13/2022


This blog is part of a series being developed by Pact on utilizing a Conflict Systems Approach. This blog series describes a core group of ‘good practices’ that Pact implemented in the Horn of Africa. The European Union Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF)-funded Regional Approaches for Sustainable Conflict Management and Integration (RASMI) and Selam Ekisil (SEEK) projects sought to prevent and mitigate the impact of local conflicts in selected areas of the Kenya-Ethiopia-Somalia cross-border region through the promotion of peacebuilding, conflict management, and conflict resolution capacities at the community and cross-border levels.

Over the course of three years, implementers advanced programs with objectives to improve social capital and cohesion among project beneficiaries; strengthen peace and security structures; and influence development actors to be more conflict sensitive. Pact applied these good practices to design programs that were more responsive and able to achieve better results. It is Pact’s hope that other members of the community of practice can apply, leverage and learn from these good practices.

A program that takes a conflict systems approach understands conflicts as living systems, acknowledging and leveraging dynamic interactions and connections among factors and actors and working to create positive feedback loops that produce desirable outcomes. Such an approach is built with a holistic interpretation of the interdependent and emergent nature of conflict and a recognition that conflict is often not defined by geographic or political boundaries. The conflict systems approach understands that cause and effect relationships in conflict situations are not linear, direct, or proportional, and it accounts for the relationships and issues that span across systems and subsystems. It expands from a purely systems-thinking approach by requiring project teams to develop targeted strategies for stakeholders in each conflict sub-system, defining sub-systems by their conflict drivers rather than their geographic boundary or conflict symptom, and tailoring sub-system intervention strategies to those conflict drivers and their particular stakeholders.

While a conflict systems approach seems like an obvious choice, working within and through living systems is not easy or straightforward. SEEK and RASMI built from the lessons learned from Pact’s previous Peace in Central Africa III (Peace III) project to apply a conflict systems approach.

Conflict Systems Approach in Practice

To operationalize a conflict systems approach, the SEEK and RASMI projects began by organizing the physical Kenya-Ethiopia-Somalia border areas into conceptual conflict zones with similar conflict drivers (such as access to water and grazing fields, cattle raiding, and violent extremism). These became the targeted conflict systems. Project staff then named each system according to the communities experiencing conflict as a consequence of those drivers; we found that there is power in naming, and by mapping conflict zones according to conflict   drivers rather than the geographic locations, the project was able to implement more targeted interventions alongside affected communities. 

For example, one system included the drivers of conflict between the Hammar and Gabbra communities, who have entered one another’s territories across the border for trade and grazing. Increasingly, those migrating across the border have overlooked the tradition of informing the community on the other side of their movements, which has led to misunderstandings, clashes, and resentments that trigger ‘tit-for-tat’ killings. Had the project named it by a geographic location, it would have been easy to forget the cross-border nature of the conflict and the other community stakeholders.

In total, the SEEK project identified four conflict systems and the RASMI project identified three. The teams then completed a systems mapping exercise to understand how conflict drivers perpetuated conflict symptoms. This enabled the two projects to tailor interventions to the unique needs of each conflict system. Designing interventions based on conflict drivers – and understanding them through systems thinking – provides a more sustainable approach than targeting conflict symptoms, which are often easier to perceive. Both projects then utilized applied political economy analyses (APEAs) to identify and engage strategic stakeholders, and Outcome Mapping to help design flexible, participatory, and community-led learning processes.

Through engaging in conflict systems mapping, the RASMI and SEEK teams also discovered that initial activity plans left out communities that could be potential spoilers of peace. These could be communities that are not main actors in the conflict, but whose actions exacerbate the conflict. For example, the Erbore and Borana communities generate mistrust between the Hammar community of Ethiopia and Gabbra of Kenya in the conflict system described above. The Erbore and Borana raid cattle from the Hammar and the Gabbra, and then pass with the stolen livestock though the territories of the other community by night so that when the footsteps of the raiders are traced, they lead to the other community that is then accused of cattle raiding. SEEK applied this insight by supporting dialogues organized by local government authorities to mitigate the confusion wrought by external actors.


The systems approach to conflict is designed to map and analyze non-linear, interdependent, and emergent dynamics; it is useful in designing and implementing cross-border peacebuilding programming because it more readily identifies the full extent of participation of critical actors and focuses on unpacking conflict drivers that perpetuate the symptoms of conflict. By clustering physical areas into conceptual zones according to relevant conflict drivers and documenting the motivations, relationships and consequences among interrelated zones, project teams can understand how potential target communities engage within and beyond their relevant geographies, and teams can use this information to meaningfully work with a range of local stakeholders. Knowledge of groups of conflict drivers and the relationships between them also enables project teams to develop more targeted strategies and thereby achieve more relevant, sustainable, and locally embedded results. Projects interested in replicating the conflict systems approach need to access or conduct regular context analyses to remain up to date with changing dynamics and to adapt project strategies and activities as needed.

Forthcoming topics in this blog series will include Applied Political Economy Analysis (APEA), Outcome Mapping (OM), and Peace Dividends.


Gedion Juma is a Monitoring and Evaluation Manager at Pact based in Nairobi, Kenya

Caroline Brazill is a Governance Officer at Pact based in Washington, DC.


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