How do we define conflict?

By Jeff Tyson 14 September 2015

Elizabeth Martin, director of the conflict and crisis practice at Chemonics, explains why defining conflict can be challenging in the development sector.

Conflict in the developing world can range from political civil war to gang violence and violent extremism to everyday crime, such as land grabbing or human trafficking. So how does the development community define conflict and conflict state?

Academics and data collectors tend to define conflict with numbers. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program and Peace Research Institute Oslo’s Armed Conflict Dataset defines minor conflicts as those having caused at least 25 deaths but less than 1,000 deaths per calendar year. And it defines major conflicts as those which resulted in more than 1,000 deaths in a calendar year.

But while numbers and definitions can be useful when establishing priorities or developing strategies in the field, often development practitioners have to be ready to encounter conflict in a variety of forms and contexts.

However, defining conflict can be a challenge in the development sector, according to Elizabeth Martin, director of the conflict and crisis practice at Chemonics.

“The impact of any level of violence has a negative trajectory, particularly on relationships and trust within a society,” Martin said.

Elizabeth Martin, director of the conflict and crisis practice at Chemonics, talks about ways the development community can think about countering violent extremism.

The conflict and crisis specialist said violent extremism is one such form of violence that might be countered by development assistance, but that it’s a “sticky issue” and something the development community is “actively trying to learn.”

While continuing to focus on traditionally defined political armed conflict, Martin and her team are also working to understand the “pull factors” that draw individuals to join extremist movements as well as the “push factors” in an individual’s environment that contribute to their decision to become an extremist.  

Conflict in Context is a monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Cordaid, Mercy Corps, OSCE and USAID. We’ll decode the challenges and highlight the opportunities countries face while in crisis and what the development community is doing to respond. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #ConflictinContext.

About the author

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Jeff Tyson@jtyson21

Jeff is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, DC, he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the United States, and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.

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