Interview on the Impact of COVID-19 on Peacebuilding Research with Research Fellow Rui Saraiva

August 28, 2020

COVID-19 is disrupting all aspects of society around the globe. Stoppage or limitation of assistance has reignited violence in some conflict areas, where the afflicted get more afflicted.

We spoke to Research Fellow Rui Saraiva on what the peacebuilding approach should look like in the coronavirus era, when business as usual is not an option.

Adaptive and comprehensive strategies to deal with emergent threats

-How do you find the impact of COVID-19 from the perspective of a researcher in the peacebuilding area?

As in any other sector, the impact of the global pandemic affected both peacebuilders and local communities breaking through cycles of violent conflict. In fact, some peace processes have been threatened and violence has been reignited in several locations. The economic impact of the crisis also has the potential to exacerbate existing tensions. Many people in conflict-affected areas have become more vulnerable as a result of the present situation. With so many challenges occurring today, whether they result from climate-related threats and natural disasters, infectious diseases or armed conflicts, this means that peacebuilders will have to develop adaptive and comprehensive strategies to deal with emergent threats and complex settings. Peacebuilding researchers are no exception. Their fundamental contribution to the effectiveness of peacebuilding programs on the ground will be enhanced by the same adaptive strategies applied to a research context.

Our current peacebuilding research project, “Contextualizing International Cooperation for Sustaining Peace: Adaptive Peacebuilding Pathways,” is due to end in March 2022. When the COVID-19 crisis emerged, we had to first reassess our initial research plan and objective, think on how to conduct fieldwork remotely, and find new ways to evaluate the research progress. We looked at the health experts’ opinions and we took into account the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic as a model, which gave us an indication that the COVID-19 outbreak will similarly last between 18 and 24 months. The UN Secretary General António Guterres also mentioned in a recent interview that “in the best of scenarios, the world won't be back to normal until two or three years from now.” Therefore, we assumed that remote field research was the unavoidable path and method to continue collecting data and evidence from our case studies. The next questions were, how do we continue our fieldwork without the ability to immerse ourselves in conflict-affected communities we are analyzing? What new digital opportunities and remote methods are available to deal with current restraints? We recognized that remote field research was, in fact, not new for peacebuilding researchers. In conflict-affected areas, technologies enabling remote data collection were already available because research is often impossible due to security reasons.

-What are the current difficulties and challenges in investigating coronavirus ravages and impacts in conflict-affected areas?

Many research institutions naturally responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with travel restrictions. This resulted in the immediate inability to continue research with direct human contact. In response, social scientists have been conducting remote research, e.g. interviews via video call, phone call, or online surveys. In our project, remote field research was possible because we were interviewing peacebuilding actors and their partners. This means that we are interviewing representatives of international organizations, national and local governments, civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, faith-based actors, etc. In general, our researchers, although not living in conflict-affected areas, are able to conduct their interviews remotely and that will allow us to conclude our research project on time. However, conducting fieldwork in fragile and violence-affected environments needs to be considered carefully and more so when we add the additional challenges brought by the COVID-19 outbreak. Fieldwork in these contexts can pose risks to both external and local researchers, as well as the populations affected by conflict. In general, peacebuilding researchers need to be prepared for the possibility of adverse events. The proper mindset of a peacebuilding researcher should combine both scientific rigour and the ability to adapt to local contexts. We need to be aware of the different forms of vulnerability that our interlocutors may be exposed to. The fact is that peacebuilding researchers often work in polarized settings that now are experiencing additional challenges with the coronavirus crisis. Therefore, research ethics and the principle of “do no harm” are fundamental tools to ensure that our work does not constitute and additional burden to those living in fragile contexts. It is also important to recognize that the reality of research in this field includes the interaction between researchers from both the global North and South. The field expertise rooted in local cultures and local complexities is fully dependent on the work of local experts and their feedback is fundamental for evidence-based research in peacebuilding.

Collaboration and partnerships are more important than ever

-Are there any implications, findings and cutting edge from the field survey methodologies in conflict-affected areas in the COVID-19 impact, with cases and examples?

As travel restrictions continue and the world as we know it continues to change, research institutions have developed interim strategies that will enable the conclusion of pending research projects. This means that researchers are still not able to grasp what is the “new normal” in terms of field survey methodologies. However, the current context is forcing researchers to revisit and rethink knowledge creation. Therefore, collaborative work and partnerships are more important than ever. While many policymakers obviously turned their attention to domestic issues and the challenges brought by the pandemic, in general, social sciences researchers were able to continue their work internationally, without borders or restrictions, via digital methods. The current environment implies that researchers should try to work on similar issues but from a broader and long-term perspective, while practitioners are focused on solving immediate problems. The only way researchers are able to engage with the world right now is through all available digital field survey methodologies.

In the context of my remote field work in Mozambique, I have been using online interviews, which consist of a structured conversation with a question set, an interviewer, an interviewee and the technology used to conduct and/or record the interview. I also have been using asynchronous interviews by email, allowing both the interviewer and respondent to select suitable interview times. The time difference between Maputo and Tokyo is seven hours. Therefore, this method provides enough time to consider questions and responses and eliminates the need for transcription. App-based or social media-based methods are also very useful as most of the interviewees in Mozambique are able to use smartphone apps to get in touch with an interviewer. In addition, online surveys could be used to collect basic demographic information and ask open questions. Finally, I have noticed that focus group discussions are also possible during the pandemic, as long as we find an online or video-based venue. These digital methods will enable me to complete my research. However, researchers will have to think further, again in a collaborative way, in order to develop new, sustainable research-methods strategies in the post-pandemic world.

Seeking effective strategies to mediation and peacebuilding amid global health crises

-What are your perspectives on the plan of the current research project and future research plans?

Currently, our research project is engaged in two main research outputs. One of them is related with the topic of mediation and the other with peacebuilding. Both are actually interrelated, and they are studied the context of contemporary, complex, protracted and recurrent armed conflicts. On the mediation side, I am examining the adaptive nature of the recent mediation process in Mozambique that occurred from 2013 to 2019, while extracting the key factors and strategies that enabled the signature of a new peace agreement last year. I found that the adaptive elements of the mediation process were an essential component to address the complexity of the mediation setting. The increased effectiveness of the final stage of the mediation process resulted from the discreet and adaptive strategy of the process facilitation team, which accentuated the agency, interdependence and direct dialogue between both parties. In fact, the current global pandemic environment is also affecting international mediation efforts. Mediators have been facing international and domestic travel bans and airport closures. International and regional organizations have suspended or delayed diplomatic or mediation initiatives. Hopefully, the focus of our research on adaptive mediation will offer an additional resource to inform peacemakers on effective mediation strategies amid global health crises.

On the peacebuilding side, my research has been focused on the analysis of the implementation of the 2019 peace agreement in Mozambique. In fact, several key challenges remain to be addressed by local and international peacebuilders, e.g., the implementation of the new disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process and addressing the escalation of violent extremism in Cabo Delgado province. The reality of peacebuilding in Mozambique has changed abruptly since 2013 and it has become more complex in nature. Peacebuilding is a long-term project and not just a post-conflict endeavor. As an early result of my field research, I found that international nongovernmental organizations that have the ability to fully adapt, localize and contextualize their activities, they actually play a fundamental role to sustain effective, contextualized and people-centered pathways to peace, while focused on helping the most vulnerable and often operating on challenging grounds.

As building peace is becoming ever more complex, in the near future, I would like to focus my research on topics that explore the relationship between climate change, global health issues – like the current pandemic – and armed conflicts, violent extremism and political instability. This also relates with the growing numbers of internally displaced people and refugees in the world. I firmly believe that development agencies like JICA, together with its partners, have an important role to mitigate, prevent and effectively respond to the current complex crises. As a Portuguese and European Union citizen, the opportunity to work at JICA Ogata Research Institute offered me the privilege to continuously learn with researchers and practitioners in Japan, Asia and beyond, and discover innovative peace and development approaches that actually seek to be adaptive, contextualized and human-centered, and hold the potential to benefit those that are more vulnerable or left-behind. These are invaluable research experiences that I will certainly carry with me in my future research plans.

■ Profile
Completed a Ph.D. in International Public Policy, Osaka University, Japan. His academic positions include Visiting Researcher, Center for African Studies, Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique; Invited Professor, Department of International Relations and Public Administration, University of Minho, Portugal; Assistant Professor, Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, Lusíada University of Lisbon, Portugal; Research Assistant, Peace and Development Team, JICA Research Institute, Japan; Adjunct Lecturer, Faculty of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies, Hosei University, Japan; and Visiting Lecturer, Graduate School of International Development, Nagoya University, Japan. Has been in his current position since January 2019.