Analysis Tools for Humanitarian Actors

Making Sense of Turbulent Contexts (MSTC)

Primary purpose
Conflict analysis and planning

Intended users
Initially designed for emergency response staff of international NGOs. It is also useful for staff involved in planning and design of development or advocacy programmes in countries experiencing instability.

Levels of application
Country and regional levels

Conceptual assumptions

1. “Turbulent Contexts”
Refers to what the humanitarian sector is calling Situations of Chronic Political Instability (SCPI).This term expands the notion of “complex humanitarian emergency” to reflect the long-term, cyclical and political nature of many of these contexts. It covers phenomena such as cyclical conflict, violence against civilians, political unrest, extreme polarisation of wealth, natural disasters over a number of years, population displacement, and the need for humanitarian assistance. The emphasis is on the chronic and political nature of these contexts.

2. MSTC Tools
These tools are based on recent research on the economy of war, but do not oppose “greed” and “grievance”. Rather, the methodology aims at capturing both the economic agendas in war and the social dynamics (e.g. around class, gender, identity, history, belief systems) leading to violence. The MSTC analysis uses specially designed, practical tools to peel away the political, economic and socio-historic layers of complex conflicts.

MSTC was designed to dovetail with the Do No Harm approach. It provides for detailed contextual information at the meso- and macro-level, on which Do No Harm can then build.

Main steps and suggested process
MSTC analysis provides five tools to answer the following key questions:

What phases has the context moved through? (Rapid Historical Phase Analysis)
What are the symptoms of instability? (Symptoms of Instability Analysis)
What kinds of actors are at play in the growing instability? (Actor Characteristics Analysis)
What struggles over resources and power have played a role in the growing instability? (Political Economy of Instability Analysis)
What resentment and stereotypes have played a role in the growing instability? (Inter-group Relationship Analysis)
There are two further tools, one to synthesise the analysis (SCPI Mapping) and the other to outline possible future scenarios (Scenario and Sensitivity Analysis).

Other tools are also available in the annex, including the iceberg method inspired by the UN Early Warning and Preventive Measures methodology (see Survey of conflict causes as explained in tool 10) that can be used to complement the ‘Symptoms of Instability Analysis’, in order to identify the structural causes that lie behind the immediate causes identified within the MSTC process.

Required resources
Variable, as modules can be combined in different ways.

Key lessons learnt so far include:

  • The need for flexibility in the choice of tools used
  • The need for sensitivity and confidentiality in the dissemination of findings
  • The usefulness of the tools for strategic planning in general
  • The need to consider simplifying the tools

Commentary on the tool
The tool is still in its infancy, and yet to be fully tested, but early indications are that it is very useful for conflict-sensitive programming (emergency or longer-term development) in areas where macro-level analysis has been neglected. It is also useful for the analysis of “clusters of countries,” i.e. regions, where causal factors are cross-border.

Available reports
World Vision International: Making Sense of Turbulent Contexts