Fair and conflict-sensitive research in sustainability contexts

wordcloud on fairness

A core objective of CDE’s overall strategy is to conduct transformative research – research that aims to contribute to concrete sustainability transformations. CDE’s research takes place in a multitude of different contexts. These contexts strongly influence our research, our outputs, and our proposed sustainability solutions. Moreover, CDE is highly present in intercultural research settings and partly focuses on contexts in the Global South.

A given context may be experiencing violent conflict. Or it may be in a post-war situation. But even if conflicts are non-violent or not obvious, research contexts are often marked by colonial and postcolonial history. This may mean that injustices of the past persist in their currently manifested societal and relational consequences.

Independently of their respective history, the socio-political and socio-cultural configurations that characterize the contexts CDE works in are highly complex and unique: they may differ significantly from the assumptions, both explicit or implicit, on which a research endeavour is built. In addition, the research setting is likely to include a complex range of intercultural and interpersonal conflicts and challenges.

A need for constant reflection

Without high contextual awareness, conflict sensitivity, and high reflexivity on power imbalances, project designs, and one’s own cultural practices and norms, research may reproduce or even augment power differences and prejudices. It can thus unintentionally cause more harm than gain, where sustainability is concerned. This is why there is a need for constant reflection on our own actions and projects within a research context. CDE is therefore striving for the design of research projects to be as fair and sensitive to the context and (potential) conflicts as possible.

The term fair research used here encompasses the whole gradient of ethical challenges and potential conflicts ranging from the fair set-up of funding and ethical implementation of research projects (distribution of funds, agenda setting, collaboration with partners etc.), ethical challenges in the field (interaction with and protection of local staff, research participants etc.) to awareness of cultural and value differences. This has to be guided by the principle of leaving no one behind, especially not those with little power and voice, as well as by the minimum aim of “doing no harm” through research and interactions. CDE’s endeavour is closely linked to the currently much-discussed topic of decolonizing research and education.

CDE aims to promote fair, contextually aware, and conflict-sensitive transformative research through further building respective competences and structures within CDE, its collaborative network, as well as among other endeavours engaged in research for sustainable development such as students’ projects, teaching, policy engagement etc. In particular, CDE strives to support transformative literacy and leadership skills of researchers as change agents by strengthening their awareness, reflection, knowledge, and competences. It thereby seeks to foster a fair, contextually aware, and conflict-sensitive co-creation of knowledge and actions with partners in Switzerland and throughout the world.

Moreover, as a learning organisation, CDE constantly challenges itself – including its own change agency, transformative literacy, and reflective leadership – by reflecting and improving the fairness, contextual awareness, and conflict sensitivity of its own engagement for sustainable development.

Researchers reflect and challenge themselves in their role as change agents and knowledge brokers. They collaborate on fair, respectful, and equal terms in intercultural partnerships and strive to decolonize these relationships. They are contextually aware and conflict-sensitive when working in unfamiliar contexts and ensure that they and their research endeavours do no harm and contribute to conflict resolution. They engage in conflict-sensitive and fair co-creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Existing good practices – conceptual foundations, approaches, and tools

As basis for all activities, CDE developed a framework on fair, contextually aware, and conflict-sensitive research. This framework characterizes and links research endeavours and relevant situational aspects and risks, deriving the following key requirements: research should be fair in collaboration and partnerships; research should be adapted to the context it’s being carried out in; and research should be sensitive to conflicts and tensions.

conceptual framework for fair and conflict-sensitive research
Source: CDE, 2021

Further, CDE gathered and learned from already existing concepts, approaches, tools, and guidelines for research, education, intercultural collaboration, and stakeholder engagement. This collection is available to all CDE staff, partners in the regions and Switzerland, and beyond (PDF at the end).

Education and training

CDE promotes capacity building of students and researchers in conducting fair, contextually aware, and conflict-sensitive research. Special focus lies on interactions with partners in the regions and Switzerland and stakeholders in the field. At the very least, they do no harm and do not endanger themselves, their team, or their research participants when, for example, conducting field work, implementing intercultural research projects, or publishing research results. CDE offers courses to students at various levels and workshops and learning events to its staff.

Capitalization of experience in crisis management

CDE is active in various world regions, where political or societal conflicts are prevailing. CDE capitalized its own experience of dealing with major acute crisis. It continuously thrives for improving its risk preparedness and crisis management for supporting and protecting its staff, projects, and partners.

Institutional anchoring

Core competences in fair, contextually aware, and conflict-sensitive research are built and structurally anchored at CDE in order to provide respective support and training to CDE staff and students, its collaborative network and to transformative (and other) research endeavours in general.