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Understanding agency in civilian-armed group interactions

Briefing/policy papers

Written by Ashley Jackson, Florian Weigand, Theo Tindall

Image credit:Somalia. Marere. Militiaman. Image license:ICRC / Mayer, Till

An estimated 150 million people live in areas where non-state armed groups exercise some degree of control. Yet we know relatively little about how different people navigate life amid armed groups.

Within both the academic and policy literature on conflict, relations between civilians and armed groups have typically been thought of in terms of coercion, resistance, victimisation and violence. Civilians are rarely seen as having significant influence over armed actors, or over conflict dynamics more broadly.

That is starting to change. Increasing attention is being paid to civilian agency, both in the study of conflict and in humanitarian, development and peacebuilding-work. In particular, recent work on rebel governance and on civilian resistance has highlighted how civilians might shape the conduct of belligerents or counter armed group influence. Yet there is still a great deal that we don’t know about how different types of people, across contexts and circumstances, negotiate their survival amid the presence of armed groups.

This paper is the first in a broader project exploring civilian–armed group relations, and the implications for policy and programmatic interventions. Drawing on the existing literature, as well as consultations with researchers and practitioners, it summarises existing debates and proposes a way forward for thinking differently about civilian–armed group relations. The paper begins with a discussion of ‘civilians’ as a category and the kinds of options available to different civilians. It then looks at the factors that shape how they engage (or not) with armed groups.

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