Designing, Monitoring, and Evaluating for Impact: Thoughts on Effective Peacebuilding in Nagorno-Karabakh
by Afa Alizada
As the high-level negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continue to stagnate and the cross-border skirmishes keep increasing in intensity and frequency, there is no better time for the peacebuilding community to reflect, reconsider, and revamp the peacebuilding programming in the region. While it is true that the increasing belligerence and the lack of progress at the official level render the peacebuilding work difficult on the ground, those engaged in cross-border people-to-people diplomacy and other track-II and track-II level peacebuilding initiatives need to maximize their impact and stay relevant through smart and reflective peacebuilding programming.
Numerous peacebuilding projects around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have been implemented since the mid-1990s. Funded by European and US governments as well as international organizations, projects ranging from fact-finding missions for entrepreneurs to improve tourism and other sectors in the Caucasus to joint trainings for Azerbaijani and Armenian journalists have sought to increase cross-border contact and cooperation. In more recent years, donors have channeled funding to initiatives involving youth in problem-solving workshops and conflict resolution training sessions. Given the restrictions on movement between Azerbaijan and Armenia, projects utilizing new media tools as well as more traditional forms of media such as filmmaking to establish contact and collaboration have also become increasingly popular.
However, these projects have been limited both in scope and reach. There are a couple of important external factors contributing to this limitation. First is the lack of adequate funding for these initiatives, which means short-lived projects with limited number of participants or beneficiaries. Although there is a growing recognition of the value of track-II and track-III initiatives and the positive impact it may have on reaching and/or implementing an agreement at the official level, the funding level remains low.
Another important factor is the difficulty moving across borders and reaching out to Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The security situation and restriction of movement of Azerbaijanis and Armenians to the “enemy” territories, has created a logistical nightmare for many such initiatives especially in finding a stable base for operations. As a result, implementers are limited to transporting the participants of the projects to neutral territories such as Georgia, thus adding to the implementation costs. This also hinders the visibility of the projects and creates a disconnect from the reality on the ground, which is often unaddressed once the participants return home.
Finally, one might argue that the governments in Baku and Yerevan have not shown sufficient political support to these initiatives. Civic engagement around conflict resolution still remains low in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Many continue to view the state as responsible for solving the conflict and act as the passive observer of the process. The lack of a ‘blessing’ or approval from the government officials, therefore, contributes to the perception that the people-to-people diplomacy and other grassroots-level peacebuilding initiatives are not legitimate avenues for conflict resolution. As a result, public at large is suspicious of peacebuilding initiatives and view them as externally-driven, which creates major obstacles for the implementers in reaching out and involving larger segments of the populations in their projects.
These external factors notwithstanding, there is some soul-searching and inward examination that needs to happen within the Nagorno-Karabakh peacebuilding community. This would involve a systematic and holistic evaluation of previous and ongoing projects and drawing lessons about what has and has not worked and why. This should then inform current and future programming so that even with limited resources and other external restrictions, these projects can create more a visible and sustainable impact in contributing the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Toward More Effective Peacebuilding
“Value added” approach to design: On multiple occasions, I have encountered skepticism expressed about the kind of peacebuilding initiatives around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict even among those who welcome such initiatives. “It is a great initiative and I commend the organizers for their effort, but there have already been initiative like this and it isn’t going to change anything or solve the conflict,” is the oft-repeated sentiment among the skeptics. Despite the pessimism, these kinds of statements should nevertheless encourage those in the peacebuilding community to ask some important questions before delving into another funding opportunity: “What will my project bring to the table? Will it build on similar existing projects or address the gaps of those projects?
Any effective project design should begin with this kind of questioning and an analysis of what has or has not worked and why and how to address the gaps in the previous or existing projects. This requires a mapping of the peacebuilding projects that have been implemented and systematically assessing across these projects, identifying similarities and differences in approaches as well as strengths and weaknesses. To date there has been no such systematic effort to evaluate programs (or one that has been published and available to public). This is problematic for several reasons. First, it leads to duplication of efforts and perhaps even to duplication of efforts that have not worked. Given the limited resources available for peacebuilding projects around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, without such knowledge implementers also miss out on the opportunity to scale up of their efforts and leverage their resources through partnerships and collaboration with other similar projects to make a visible impact. This speaks to a bigger issue of coordination among the peacebuilding community. There is a need to develop strong and lasting networks and alliances of NGOs and other civil society organizations involved in cross-border peacebuilding initiatives. By sharing the expertise, resources, best practices and lessons learned, these individual small initiatives will avoid duplication of effort, increase efficiency, and therefore make a more significant impact. A more recent example of this is The European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK), which is a partnership of European NGOs working on the Nagorno-Karabakh, pooling their resources and expertise to scale up peacebuilding projects. This partnership needs to expand to include more local actors and spearhead the kind of coordination and evaluation work detailed above.
Probing assumptions: Peacebuilding projects are built on certain assumptions about how an activity or intervention will contribute to peace. These assumptions are referred to as theories of change. Whether explicitly stated or assumed in the design stage, these theories of change determine the activities of the peacebuilding interventions. Activities such as bringing Armenian and Azerbaijani youth in dialogues or problem solving workshops or providing conflict resolution trainings to professionals or media trainings to journalists rely on a series of “if…then” assumptions: If human contact is established among Armenians and Azerbaijanis –>then understanding of the “other” will increase –>then willingness to resolve the conflict through peaceful means will increase (or a variation thereof). No matter how or whether explicitly stated, the underlying assumption is usually that the intervention will lead to a change in attitudes and actions on an individual level and trickle out to influence others in the community or trickle up to influence key decision makers. Interethnic dialogues have indeed had tremendous impact on the participants at an individual level. However, often the unquestioned assumption is that the personal transformation achieved and relationships built at an individual level through these dialogues and workshops do not necessarily equal to transformation at a societal level. One of the main reasons is the “re-entry problem” or the lack of support and confidence participants feel about sharing their transformation experience once they return home for the fear of being labeled a “traitor” by their community members. Clearly articulating the theories of change and probing the assumptions underlying the planned activities from the outset, therefore, can help the implementer anticipate issues like the re-entry problem and build in follow-up activities to address those issues. This kind of long-term thinking about the impact of the interventions or thinking beyond just the trainings and individual activities can help contribute to more effective peacebuilding.
Monitoring and Evaluation: Monitoring and evaluating a project against the set targets is important for effective implementation of any peacebuilding project as it allows the implementers to see if they are achieving the project goals and adjust their intervention if needed. However, that is not the only benefit of monitoring and evaluation. Showing evidence especially in the peacebuilding context is important for building confidence in and acceptance of these activities, thus garnering support from a variety of stakeholders including the public, donors, and perhaps even the Azerbaijani and Armenian governments. It is also important for the purposes of generating data and evidence that can help identify what types of interventions work best, which can inform future interventions. Generating evidence in the peacebuilding context is a challenge. After all, peacebuilding projects work to change people’s attitudes and behaviors, which are not easy to measure. Another challenge with monitoring, evaluating, and drawing best practices from the peacebuilding projects around the Nagorno-Karabakh is the events-based nature of the interventions. Many of these activities are organized around workshops and training sessions that last somewhere from a few days to perhaps several weeks. The scope and length of the projects in itself can create a difficulty in generating enough data to draw any formative conclusions. Finally, monitoring and evaluation of a project requires additional sources. This is where the donors can play an important role. They need to designate funds specifically for monitoring and evaluation and make it a requirement for the projects as a way to encourage more reflective (and effective) peacebuilding and ensure that their funds are actually making an impact.
The challenges facing the peacebuilding community within the Nagorno-Karabakh context are numerous. However, there are tools and guidelines that have been developed, applied and tested in other conflict contexts that can also be applied in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict context to propel the peacebuilding initiatives forward. By identifying and incorporating the lessons learned from other similar projects as well as probing the assumptions underlying the planned activities, the implementers can create a more visible and sustainable impact in contributing the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
 See Mammadova J. “Key Chain”. Caucasus Edition. May 1, 2010. http://caucasusedition.net/analysis/who-is-from-nagorno-karabakh; Yusifli E. “Dialogue and Future”. Caucasus Edition. August 1, 2010. http://caucasusedition.net/lates-from-the-region/blog/dialogue-and-future/
 For further information on this topic, please refer to “Has Peacebuilding Made a Difference in
Kosovo? A Study of the Effectiveness of Peacebuilding in Preventing Violence: Lessons Learned from the March 2004 Riots in Kosovo. CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. July 2006. http://www.cdainc.com/cdawww/pdf/book/cdapeacebuildingreportkosovo_Pdf4.pdf
 See Alizada A. “‘Outcast’ or The Problem of Re-entry”. Caucasus Edition. June 15, 2010. http://caucasusedition.net/lates-from-the-region/blog/%E2%80%98outcast%E2%80%99-or-the-problem-of-re-entry/
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