What do civilians do to survive conflict? This sounds like a fairly straightforward question, but it’s not. Until very recently, scholars of violence and practitioners of violence prevention saw civilians as entirely reactive parties that did little to shape the course of conflict. While there have been some major steps in recent years in understanding what decisions civilians make to survive and their role in influencing the course of conflicts, the field is still taking its first steps (if you’re interested in further reading let me know). The burgeoning consensus is that civilians are major players in shaping conflict, though academics and practitioners are only beginning to imagine the limits of civilian agency. If there is indeed significant work to be done, what might the future of civilian self-protection look like?
To be blunt, we’re pretty clueless about civilian self-protection. Few empirical accounts exist, and no work that I’ve come across directly ties empirical findings to broader theories of how civilians survive multiple types of conflict. Because of this major theoretical gap, Casey Barrs, the most prolific author on the idea of civilian self-protection, argues for a limited survival-approach that ignores the rights-based programs that characterize many NGOs’ work. For Barrs, whatever works, be it bribing combatants or fleeing at the first hint of conflict, should be encouraged and aided. Civilians are more likely to understand and thus react to conflict better, and NGO’s should allow them to become ‘owners’ of their own survival. In sum, we don’t know enough to prescribe strategies to civilians facing the prospect of mass atrocities. Trying for anything more than bare survival is not only presumptuous on our part, but also dangerous.
Lamentably, Barrs is right for the moment. If analysts do not really understand how civilians influence conflict, let alone how their actions during conflict determine both their lives and the condition of society post-conflict, average civilians are unlikely to think about these issues. Civilians are not expected to act with the broader conflict in mind, but there’s some potential that scholarship could permeate aid practices, which could perhaps diffuse a norm that sees civilian agency in conflict as extending beyond individual survival.
Could this imagined future become a reality? It is possible that we’ll reach a point where we have a strong understanding of conflict dynamics, have strong norms of civilian protection, and have institutions in place able to react quickly and decisively to conflict that it will be possible to imagine a wider conception of civilian self-protection? Could future civilian self-protection strategies be not only proactive but even emancipatory? And for me, perhaps the most exciting question is could civilian protection strategies be designed not only to save the civilians enacting them but to positively mitigate violence in the broader conflict system?
For now, these questions sound overly ambitious and hard to even conceptualize. For example, will civilians ever really feel secure enough to think beyond their immediate survival to their role in the broader conflict? There are some reasons to be hopeful. Complexity theory for one offers a medium through which we may be able to understand how conflict functions, and more specifically, civilians’ roles in it. Complexity theory imagines conflict as a complex system in which agents interact with many other agents in multiple ways, which are ultimately too complex for humans to understand. Randomness is inherent in the system. So complexity theory helps explain why conflicts develop in surprising ways, often beyond the comprehension of analysts. To read complexity theory as a accepting defeat in our attempt to understand conflict would be a mistake, however. Rather, while creating a framework for dealing with complexity, it also accepts that some developments in conflict are indeed beyond our ability to predict or explain. Some analysts are beginning to see conflict through a complexity-inspired lens.
Early warning technology is another reason to be optimistic. While the idea of early warning has existed for a long time, practitioners and scholars are starting to imagine how these systems can serve local communities rather than analysts far removed from the conflict. At the same time, many regional governmental organizations are in the process of implementing conflict early warning systems. This marriage of theory and institutionalization could one day provide many civilians with the ability to learn of conflict before it physically confronts them, and develop more proactive strategies.
I would like to be hopeful that this is all possible, but there are also some harsh realities that can’t be ignored. While I am very hopeful that complexity theory will offer a new and improved method for imagining the complexity of conflict, we can’t forget that complexity theory was designed to help us understand why we can’t understand certain systems. Yes, complexity theory is probably a step up, but there’s a limit to our analytic ability.
Another problem is how civilians will actually understand their role in determining conflict, and in turn, be able to make constructive changes to their behavior. It’s possible, but by no means for sure, that academic knowledge on how civilians act during conflict will imbue at-risk communities. However, civilians would then have to not only accept the validity of this theory, but also be in a place in which they could enact it. While it is simply difficult to imagine the confluence of developments in early warning technology, norms of civilian agency, and the dynamics of mass atrocities in the future, but it is also difficult to imagine with all these mitigating factors, civilians will act considerably differently in the future than they do now. This speaks to broader questions to how civilians have reacted to conflict over the course of history, but to my knowledge, civilians dealt with the Peloponnesian War in a similar way as Syrians do today. My vision puts significant stock in the power of globalized humanitarian discourse.
The last problem is that by the time techniques that expand upon current civilian protection practices are developed and implemented, it may be too late. As Jay Ulfelder writes, it looks as if global patterns of unrest will cause a short-term spike in mass atrocities, even if broader trends point to a slow reduction in the amount of worldwide conflict. If he’s right, then civilian protection infrastructure will likely appear only after the period in which it is most needed.
Predicting mass atrocities is hard enough, and so I realize that predicting civilian response in the distant future, which we in fact barely understand at present, is pretty much impossible. However, the prospect for an expanded view of civilian self-protection can at least function as something to strive for. I do think there’s hope because just in the last few years we’ve seen changes in how NGO’s think about self-protection. Both Casey Barrs and L2GP have written about the need for NGO’s to help civilians protect livelihoods (thus shaping the post-conflict environment), and in the relatively small prevention practitioner community, their words will soon have an impact. From where I stand, the future is exciting.