Over the first half of 2020, Catalystas’ founder Beatrice Maneshi provided support to Stichting PAX, a Dutch NGO working to protect civilians against acts of war, end armed violence, and build a just peace. Looking to adapt successful peacebuilding programs implemented by PAX in Bosnia, Beatrice conducted a scoping mission, baseline assessment, and program planning preparations to lay the foundation for PAX programming in Ninawa, Iraq. PAX commissioned the project to adapt their existing Theory of Change and programs around storytelling as a vehicle for transitional justice in the Iraqi context, aimed at supporting communities formerly occupied by ISIS. In the process of the project, Catalystas examined the current state of communication between and among the communities present, the existing relationships and mechanisms in place, and opportunities for potential future interventions.
What was meant to be a look at the means of storytelling and grievance resolution mechanisms in the communities of Zummar, Sinjar, Bashiqa, Tel Kaif, and Tal Afar turned into a great deal more.
Throughout the process of this project, Catalystas conducted:
A tailored training for two local organizations and six local peace committee leaders on the principles of ‘do no harm’ and interview and focus group discussion practices and administration;
The largest trauma assessment in the Ninawa Governorate to date, covering 295 unique perspectives across a diverse range of ages, genders, ethnoreligious affiliations, and displacement status;
The collection of over 480 unique perspectives through individual interviews and focus group discussions;
The gathering of one of the largest data sets to date on the Iraqi government’s (lack of) response or reparations to the communities in question;
An analysis of individualized means of self-expression based on each community in the study, aimed at developing context-sensitive avenues for facilitating community dialogues interwoven with MHPSS;
An assessment of the willingness of involved communities to open potential dialogues with ISIS-affiliated families across the region;
A mapping of (inter)communal perceptions of fear and conflict across study locations;
A geo-mapping of locations of emotional significance across all communities involved in the study (with a focus on the 2013-2019 period); and
A presentation of findings in a 130-page, six chapter report, featuring visualized data, input from medical experts, and recommendations for potential interventions tailored to each contextualized study location.
The onset of this project was fraught with difficulties. However, the challenges posed the perfect opportunity to conduct a trial run of adapted research approaches, now more crucial than ever as the need for Covid-sensitive project planning and implementation continues to grow. January 2020 saw clashes between Iranian and US military forces on Iraqi soil – the Iranian military bombed parts of the US military base in Erbil in response to the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, the highest-ranking Iranian Special Forces General, who had been traveling in Baghdad one week prior. The sudden destabilization of an already precarious situation in the region resulted in a one-month delay to the start of the research project. This delay allowed Beatrice to adapt the mission to overcome the second major hurdle: lack of access. As of November 2019, the Iraqi Government blocked all access to Ninawa for foreigners not registered with the Department of Non-Governmental Organizations (DNGO). Throughout the project duration and to this day, the DNGO is not accepting new organizations or individuals to its approved list. As neither Beatrice nor PAX – based in Erbil, but not yet registered in greater Iraq, including Ninawa – had already been approved by the DNGO, this presented a major challenge with regard to data collection and field visits.
Destabalization and Delay
Regional tension between the US and Iran often spills over into Iraq, where our team often has to find new, innovative, or alternative ways to conduct our humanitarian and development work.
In order to adapt the approach of the scoping mission, Beatrice and the Catalystas team hired two local Iraqi researchers from Ninawa. Following an assessment of research capacity and sensitivity to communities with experiences of trauma, Catalystas chose a female researcher with Yezidi heritage, and a male researcher with Arab heritage in order to complete the team and ensure access to as many communities as possible. With the combined insights of the new local researchers and lessons learned from our past experiences in Iraq, Beatrice designed and delivered a two-day rapid training to PAX’s local partner organizations as well as community representatives of the Local Peace Committees active in the locations of the study. The training covered the principles of ‘do no harm’, guidance on best practices for conducting interviews and focus groups, and provided insights and overviews of the questionnaires, surveys, and trauma assessments to be disseminated and collected during research.
(Beatrice providing a customized 2-day training to local partners)
Following the training, Beatrice worked directly with the local team as well as relevant partner staff to conduct a 21-day data collection period. Due to travel restrictions and DNGO requirements, Beatrice stayed in Erbil, where she triangulated and analyzed the data coming in from all of the team members in the field. Working together with the team, she undertook daily data compressions and adjusted collection methods as needed in order to ensure the highest quality of data capture possible across the diverse population contained in the study.
At the end of the data collection period in March, Beatrice returned to the Netherlands with a wealth of data from a wide variety of ethnoreligious perspectives across age and gender in each study location. Analyzing the data resulted in the generation of over 60 specific cross-cutting data points across each of the six locations in the study. In order to present this vast amount of data in a coherent and comprehensive way, the Catalystas team designed the final report with a breakdown of chapters by location, clear statistical analysis, and data visualizations for the most relevant points per location. Each chapter included an overall analysis and brief historical context, an examination of community leadership and existing bonds of trust, perceptions of trauma correlated to gender and age, storytelling and potential avenues for interventions through self-expression, and area-specific recommendations.
Throughout the course of this research, and in designing specific recommendations and potential future interventions for PAX, Catalystas focused on the major challenges and opportunities identified in the Ninawa Governorate when it comes to working with local communities in the post-ISIS context.
For any potential intervention in this region, there are a number of key challenges to keep in mind:
How to address the extensive levels of trauma – 4 out of 5 people screened positive for PTSD during this study;
Finding the right mechanisms of engagement to encourage and stimulate self-expression – over 50% of participants reported having difficulty expressing themselves;
How to support citizen demands and access to the Iraqi system of reparations and justice – just 12% of study participants had received any government assistance;
Identifying the right tools and mechanisms to help connect communities and amplify their voices on local, national, and international stages – our study found that 70% of participants utilize social media as a main means of accessing news and information; and
How to address the presence of multiple Armed Non-State Actors in the area.
This project and the baseline research involved has been presented to PAX as a first step towards developing their future interventions. It has also provided Catalystas with extensive insights into the current needs of communities in post-ISIS Ninawa, moving our research on countering violent extremism through a feminst lens another step forward by furthering our understanding of the essential roles that economics and mental health play in destabilized environments. Catalystas is dedicated to helping organizations cultivate a stable environment in Ninawa as well as other conflict-affected areas, and will continue to work towards countering the inertia of these endless cycles of violence set off by war and conflict.
For more on Catalystas Consulting’s work around the topics of countering violent extremism, transitional justice, and empowerment, check out our other online case studies and research projects in (post) conflict zones worldwide.
Scope of work:
1. Customized Capacity Development Training
Design of customized tools for: Do No Harm Policies, MHPSS and Trauma Assessment, Interview and Focus Focus Group Discussion Systems, Geo-Location Mapping, Data Collection, and OECD guidelines for Surveying.
Development of customized tools in English & Arabic
Creation of quantitative and qualitative data collection tools (questionnaires, guidelines for focus groups, checklists, etc.)
Organization of workshops
2. Situation Assessment + Baseline Assessment
Development of research methodologies
Designing a Plan of Action
Conducting interviews, FGDs, Geo-location mapping, MHPSS, and trauma assessment
Triangulation and interpretation of data
Visualization of data and findings
Drafting a final 150 page Situation Assessment + Baseline Report