Annette Idler sees conflict as a dynamic and shifting phenomenon. From her extensive field work, she has given local officials and civilians tools to prepare for violence before it arrives in their villages.
By Michelle Nicholasen
This is the second of a two-part interview with Weatherhead Center Visiting Scholar Annette Idler about her work on conflict-ridden borderlands. Read part 1 on Epicenter.
Annette Idler’s career demonstrates the potential of scholarship to improve real-world problems. Drawing from her research on conflict in the Colombian border areas, she has developed methodologies that help communities in conflict-prone areas around the world cope with ever-shifting security conditions. To get to this point, however, Idler spent a long time in the field, conducting research for over a decade around the volatile border regions of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.
When she was a doctoral student in international development at the University of Oxford, Idler was drawn to areas of conflict because she believed that’s where suffering is greatest, and where she felt research efforts could help the most. Colombia’s borders with Ecuador and Venezuela made for the perfect crucible of insecurity. The geopolitical situation there was intense, and over a decade of field work, Idler witnessed a cascade of changes, including the constant reshuffling of violent nonstate actors and drug trafficking that forced people to constantly adapt to the security dynamics imposed by armed groups.
Idler worked inside these border areas during the volatile years of 2008–2018, conducting 606 interviews with all categories of stakeholders in the region, including ex-combatants, displaced people, military and police officials, and civil society leaders, as well as NGOs.
In her recent book, Borderland Battles: Violence, Crime, and Governance at the Edges of Colombia’s War, she synthesizes her findings into a phenomenon she calls the “border effect,” a confluence of factors that creates long-lasting insecurity, yet remains hidden to most on the outside. Geographically, the shared border areas of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela include hilly, desert-like, and jungle terrain, and are often difficult to reach. There’s a lack of infrastructure and roads, and there’s a lack of basic services such as health and education, cutting off the borderlands from the economic and political center of the country and its institutions. All of this makes for a “high opportunity environment” for illegal economies, Idler argues, because there are few state-sponsored institutions. Indeed, it’s often the case that government officials themselves have a stake in the illegal economies, resulting in low incentive for change.
Drawing on her deep knowledge of conflict patterns, Idler created two initiatives that combine research with innovation. CONPEACE helps state leaders and other stakeholders transition their military and other important groups in society from conflict actors to architects of peace; the Changing Character of Conflict Platform extends her research methodology to other regions around the world to track the dynamics of conflict. Recently, she received the Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Award from the University of Oxford for these initiatives. We asked Idler to explain how she leveraged her academic work to create real-world impact.
Q: Let’s start with CONPEACE. What is its mission?
A: CONPEACE is the program where we work on the transition from war to peace in Colombia and in the region. There are three pillars of our work: Research and analysis—that's data collection mostly based on field work in those marginalized regions.
The second pillar is civil society workshops that we run in marginalized regions, for example in Cúcuta and in Riohacha, at Colombia’s border with Venezuela. In these workshops, we bring together local community leaders from across different regions to share our conceptual frameworks and analytical tools and, based on this, encourage them to engage in dialogue around best practices. The participants benefit from our academic inputs and we benefit from their grounded insights that help us refine our research questions and findings.
The third pillar is cross-stakeholder forums. These are forums that we host in Colombia, and also at Oxford. Here we bring together four different stakeholder groups: government, international community, civil society from marginalized regions, and academia.
Q: How do the forums work?
A: In those forums we have a specified theme. For example, last February we hosted a forum in Bogotá at the Embassy of Canada, our main funder, about the double crisis at the Venezuelan–Colombian border. By double crisis I mean insecurity arising from continued conflict in Colombia plus the humanitarian emergency arising from the massive influx of Venezuelan migrants and refugees who escape political, social, and economic turmoil in their country. (And of course now it’s a triple crisis due to COVID outbreak.)
We put different stakeholders together and have them really think through the problem using the conceptual and analytical frameworks I developed. So, human rights defenders from marginalized regions are suddenly face-to-face with ministers, for example. And they have a dialogue that would not otherwise happen. I’ve had ambassadors tell me, “I never thought a human rights defender would have so much vision or express themselves so articulately.” And at the same time, community leaders would say they never expected the authorities to actually listen to them.
Q: It sounds like there have been huge divides among stakeholders. Is this just a geographic issue?
A: In Colombia, it’s long been the case that authorities in the capital, Bogotá, are far removed from what’s going on in the remote border areas that are the settings for insecurity and the revolving presence of armed nonstate actors. One of the most important parts of our work with CONPEACE is to bridge this gap between the center and the periphery. So, for example, at the events that we hosted with our partner, the UN Refugee Agency, in Bogotá, we had human rights defenders from marginalized border areas and senior government or military representatives come together. They've never talked to each other before and there’s much distrust. But we were able to bring those together to create a dialogue.
Q: Can you give examples of new practices that come out of your workshops and cross-stakeholder forums?
A: In the workshop in Cúcuta, together with a local university, we brought members of civil society together to share best practices for different areas on the border. After we set up the basic framework, the local university and the community leaders were able to host meetings themselves. From those collaborations, they have been able to reach further into other remote, violence-affected areas. And that has been replicated across the border. For example, they use WhatsApp groups to share information if an armed group is arriving in a village, or to coordinate to help Venezuelan female migrants, who often suffer sexual abuse and stigma when trying to cross the border into Colombia.
Another positive outcome is that people from the border with Ecuador, for example, have learned about the solutions at the Colombian–Venezuela border, and they've now applied those practices as well. It can be as simple as knowing through WhatsApp what's happening in a specific area, or establishing a dialogue with the local authorities, or working with private sector companies to implement agro-development projects that reduce people’s reliance on illicit economies.
Q: Do you give feedback to government authorities?
A: Through our stakeholder forums and our civil society workshops, we create evidence-based policy briefs and confidential reports that we've shared with Colombian officials. I also brief government officials and international organization staff on options to change their actions on the ground.
Q: With the Conflict Platform you’ve been working around the globe to track the dynamic character of armed conflict, and the increasing interconnectedness of violent nonstate groups. Can you describe the scope of that program?
A: In this program, we look at how dynamic change in armed conflict is relevant on the ground, especially how it affects people’s security. The platform promotes dialogue across different disciplines. For example, we bring together ethnographic field work with quantitative analysis, complexity science, visualization techniques, visual arts, and historical tracing back to the Thirty Years War.
We’ve developed the “changing character of conflict tool,” which is a framework for understanding and analyzing constantly changing conflict dynamics. We look at five dimensions of change: the actors involved, the methods, the resources, the environments, and the impact on civilians. We currently have ten focal cases across the world that we hope to expand to other cases in the future: Afghanistan–Pakistan, the African Great Lakes region, Colombia, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria/Iraq, and Ukraine.
Q: You have developed new interactive maps that track the movement of violent events and constellations of armed nonstate actors across time and over regions. How do they work?
A: We’ve created digital visualizations that show how conflict is moving across territory, how a conflict’s intensity is changing across time and space, and how conflict actors are networked. This is based on a methodology that uses “settings of organized violence” rather than the label of “armed conflict” as a dynamic unit of analysis to account for the fact that conflicts are constantly in flux, and not static phenomena. For example, we have one for the Horn of Africa, where you might think the conflict is in Somalia, but actually it's moving from Ethiopia via Somalia, and then to Kenya. And you can visualize, for example, the networks of actors involved and the way the conflict dynamics are changing over time.
These visualizations help us share our findings with other academics, practitioners, or the general public, who can learn about a specific conflict in a given time period they are interested in. But we also make visualization an integral element of the research process because it activates different cognitive pathways that help you analyze complex forms. In other words, the human brain is used to identifying visual patterns. Drawing on this capacity helps us understand complex phenomena such as changing conflict dynamics.
Q: Are you able to show where the conflict will move next and where the need will be greatest?
A: Yes, that is one important part of the project. Our goal is not to predict where the next conflict is going to happen; instead what we're trying to do is look at the direction and pace of change. For example, if it's likely that the conflict is going to be pushed from urban centers into rural peripheries. Or we can see, for example, factors like illicit supply chains. Changes in conflict dynamics are often driven by the logic of illicit flows—that is, resources. By looking at where the production side of drugs is, where the strategic transit nodes are, and how trafficking routes evolve, we can see where there’s likely to be more clashes between groups because they are fighting over who formed an illicit business deal with someone else, or who has control over a key trafficking node.
Q: How is the information used?
A: It allows practitioners to think through how to channel their resources and what could happen next, to anticipate the change. If we look at past interventions—for example in Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq—usually it's been reactive. Something is happening, and then the international community reacts to that conflict. We want to push the thinking toward a more preventative framework, where we can anticipate where the change is likely to happen and how it will impact people’s security.
Q: Who are the practitioners you train?
A: We collaborate with the UN System Staff College to train practitioners based in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Myanmar, for example, to help them understand the dynamic nature of conflict, in order to make better decisions in violent contexts where things change constantly and people often don’t know who’s in charge.
The practitioners are mainly UN officials who are based in those countries. Also, civil servants—we had Swiss civil servants and diplomats joining the course who are involved in mediation in Syria. There were also representatives of the African Union who wanted to learn more about their specific region. So, it's mainly representatives from international organizations and civil servants working on the ground in those conflict-affected areas.
Q: On a conceptual level, how does your understanding of the nature of conflict in Colombia transfer to a global stage?
A: Colombia is reflective of where the global security trends are going. Colombia is one case. But from that, we have learned so much, including how alliances shift in multiparty conflicts, how illicit flows determine changes in the conflict. And for people on the ground, transitions from war to peace only constitute a changing security landscape: oftentimes there are still threats, people are still scared and are exposed to high levels of uncertainty. What changes are the actors behind the violence and the form of insecurity that people experience.
That's why I have been doing field work in Myanmar. That's another multiparty conflict where the illicit economy is important. During field work in remote border areas of Myanmar earlier this year, I learned how local communities experience changes in the conflict situation—for example, from ongoing conflict to a ceasefire. Similar to what marginalized communities in Colombia told me after the peace deal was signed there, community members explained how the ceasefire undermined their perceived sense of security because it destabilized the previously existing order. Another case is the African Great Lakes region, which is also a multiparty conflict where the illicit trade of minerals is important.
Q: To what extent do you find a proliferation of violent nonstate actors in other regions?
A: With insights from Colombia, I can also better understand what's happening in the Middle East, where many conflict hubs are linked together through different flows of people, ideas, weapons, or drugs. I can apply the concept of nonstate order with various patterns of behavior among violent nonstate groups developed through the Colombian case to make sense of what's going on in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, where again, many groups are involved in this convergence of armed conflict and organized crime. And in that sense, Colombia is a good starting case because it has around ten to twenty different groups involved. Whereas in the African Great Lakes regions, it's around seventy different groups. In Libya, it's around 100; in Syria, according to the Carter Center, there are 7,000 different groups involved (or that claim to be different groups). So that means we can learn a lot from Colombia for dealing with those other conflict hubs across the world by looking at it through the lens of nonstate order and of how those different groups then relate to each other.
Ultimately, it's important to understand all those marginalized communities in those areas, because that's something that happens across the globe where communities are exposed to not just a government fighting against one single group, but against many different groups.
Q: You speak about the trend toward transnational conflict, where the parties in question don’t necessarily respect traditional borders. Why has it become easier to ignore borders?
A: We traditionally thought about interstate war and then intrastate war. But if we look at the security trends right now, what we see is that conflict is increasingly transnational. It spills across borders and it includes both the traditional conflict actors and the criminal actors. Conflict actors and conflicts themselves are also increasingly interconnected. Globalization has expanded communication technologies and infrastructures and increased the speed at which information can be shared internationally. Groups can find recruits via social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. These technologies also facilitate dynamic links among different types of groups. Organized crime groups, for example, subcontract computer hackers; terrorists engage in spot sales with arms traffickers; human smugglers work together with militias; or rebel groups cooperate with drug cartels. In a way, Colombia is still an “easy” case because the number of different groups involved and the extent to which the conflict spills across its borders is still much more limited than in cases such as the conflict in and around Syria. This relatively “manageable” complexity makes it easier to trace processes and identify causal mechanisms and relationships, and then test whether they hold in other contexts.
Q: It must be rewarding to see that your work is effecting change.
A: It’s a lot of work, and sometimes risky, but it is very gratifying to see that the academic work has had an impact on the ground. What's important for me is to show that we need to think a step ahead. We need to anticipate, rather than react to, different types of insecurity, if we want to reduce suffering, and if we want to understand where the dynamics of violence are going internationally.
—Michelle Nicholasen, Editor and Content Producer, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs
Annette Idler is a Visiting Scholar at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She is also the director of studies at the Changing Character of War Centre, senior research fellow at Pembroke College, and at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. She is principal investigator of The Changing Character of Conflict Platform and of the CONPEACE Programme at Oxford. She has conducted extensive fieldwork in war-torn and crisis-affected borderlands, including in and on Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Myanmar, and Kenya (on Somalia) analyzing people-centered security dynamics.
CONPEACE and the Conflict Platform have received generous support by the British, Canadian, and Colombian governments, UK Research Councils, the UK Global Challenges Research, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Oxford-Berlin Partnership, the Fritz-Thyssen Foundation, and a private donor.
- “Welcome to the Vigil for Peace – Finally peace! No more War.” This was the message on a banner by the FARC-EP’s Western Bloc that Idler saw during a field trip to rural Tumaco, a municipality in southern Colombia in November 2016, after Colombians rejected the peace deal in a plebiscite in October 2016. Shortly afterward, Colombia would pass the revised version of the peace deal through Congress, and in early 2017, the FARC would begin to demobilize. While the FARC-EP used such messaging to present themselves as protectors with a narrative of peace in (until then) rebel-held territory, a similar state-led message was absent in these remote regions. Credit: Annette Idler
- Screenshot of the conflict events over time in the Horn of Africa. Credit: The Changing Character of Conflict Platform
- Screenshot of a network of conflict actors relevant to the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. Credit: The Changing Character of Conflict Platform
- Lashio, Northern Shan State, Myanmar. Credit: Annette Idler
Focus group in Northern Shan State, Myanmar, 2020. Idler meets with women whose sons or brothers were recruited by the armed groups, and many of them have not been seen again. Credit: Courtesy of Annette Idler