Abigail Watson – Shifting the Narrative
Author: Lucy Thompson
Abigail Watson is a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), contributing to the institute's work on peace and security. At GPPi, she is part of the core team for the Stabilization Lab project, exploring stabilization programs and policy. Before joining GPPi, Abi was a conflict and security policy coordinator at Saferworld. She also co-hosted the WarPod podcast. Today, we discuss Abigail’s journey into policy research, her work in conflict resolution, and the importance of representation in policymaking.
Photo credit: Abigail Watson
What was your inspiration that led you to your current role?
“I studied politics at the University of York, and during my degree I had the opportunity to study in the US for a term. I found there was quite a shift in the curriculum while in the US. The focus was much more on conflict, and it opened my eyes to this whole area of politics I felt we weren't really discussing in a practical way in the UK. During my studies in the US, I was learning alongside a lot of former practitioners, lawyers, and officials actually working within the contexts we were studying. This not only deepened my interest in conflict as an area to study, but also my interest in the policies that surrounded it.
“When I first started in this specific field, at Oxford Research Group, I was looking particularly at the shift post-Iraq and Afghanistan towards light footprint military interventions. I was in a group of researchers who were really worried about what drones represented, especially within a conflict context. What I found particularly interesting wasn't necessarily the technological side, but the way in which it was influencing how people were thinking about conflict.
“For example, drones typified a bigger effort to distance war from the public back in the UK. This then had an effect on how politicians described war to the public and parliaments. At the time, we partnered with researchers from countries that were facing the full brunt of conflict, and collaborated to reframe the language that academics and other experts were using to describe conflicts in these countries.
“I have also focused on thinking about ways we can improve our approach to conflict as the west. This led me to my role at GPPi, working on policies around stabilization. I enjoy thinking through policy challenges, and discussing realistic goals and ideas around how we can improve our approach to conflict affected contexts.”
What projects are you working on at the moment?
“As a research fellow for GPPi, I am currently working on a project called the Stabilization Lab, where we investigate and aim to understand different aspects of stabilization policy.
“One area I am working on is how to leverage local knowledge and understand the local context and to effectively shape strategic level decisions. This project aims to address this by: evaluating current local analysis models, disseminating learnings and best practices around designing, managing, and utilizing locally sourced knowledge.
“The second area that I research is digital threats to elections in Africa, focusing on how the electoral integrity and electoral violence might be threatened by things like disinformation, surveillance, and internet shutdowns. There has been quite a lot of work in this area but it has often focused on Europe and the US. There is much less understanding of what works and what doesn’t in addressing the spread of these threats on the continent. For example, there has been a lot of investment in fact-checking pages to correct false information shared in the lead up to elections. However, we don't understand whether that's actually working or whether, for instance, it's potentially giving airtime to this false information or making the election look even more unfair because it perpetuates this idea that the whole electoral debate was saturated with untrustworthy information. So at GPPi, we are looking at what policy responses have been successful against these digital threats.”
A lot of your research centers around ‘stabilization’. Can you explain the concept and how it affects peacebuilding?
“There is not one definitive definition for stabilization. But, I like this definition from my colleague Philipp Rotmann:
‘During a crisis, there is a breakdown of the political mechanisms through which competing claims to power are balanced, and disputed issues are negotiated between competing political actors. Stabilization seeks to return the situation from an urgent crisis to a “normal” level of fragility.’
However, this doesn’t mean it is a technical or short-term endeavor, another GPPi study on working with civil society in acute crisis (by Jakob Hensing, Melissa Li, Julia Friedrich, and Philipp Rotmann) noted that:
‘… “stabilization” [is] inextricably linked to finding a road toward sustainable peace, not to preserving the ruling system. In fact, effective stabilization often requires change that may bring the risk of violence. Such situations present donors with difficult ethical decisions, and arguably a particular responsibility to protect local civil society partners from harm.’”
The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, states ‘we spend far more time and resources responding to crises rather than preventing them. People are paying too high a price,’ and your research at the Stabilization Lab project very much supports this. What needs to change to ensure government bodies and policymakers can better anticipate and prevent disruptions?
“Yes, GPPi carried out a report titled Follow The Money, which looked at investment in conflict prevention. In the study, based on open source spending data between 2004 and 2019, they reviewed six crises and saw that since 2017, when world leaders pledged to increase spending on conflict prevention, there was no evidence of real change. In fact, prevention spending remains far below the UN and World Bank targets.
“There is also a lack of sustained and deep investment. In Germany, there is this term called ‘watering can policy,’ where lots of little investments are made in various countries. However, this is never enough to have a sustained impact. The largest donors across the globe, including Germany, usually invest less than €1 million a year in a single crisis-prone country. Yet humanitarian emergencies cost several times more than this. So these small investments just aren't going to achieve anything meaningful.
“When I worked at both Oxford Research Group and Saferworld, we looked at UK interventions and I became really interested in the narrative that military interventions got the job done, that it is the realistic solution. For instance, in the lead-up to the UK’s Integrated Review on national security and international policy in 2021, this narrative was very present in decisions over cuts to aid and bigger investment in defense spending. There is seemingly a tendency to over appreciate the impact that military interventions can have and underestimate the consequences. Whereas reversely, a tendency to underestimate the impact that non-military interventions can have and overestimate the consequences. In this sense, in the UK especially, we seem to have become numb to the huge figures we spend on military interventions, but quibble about the much smaller amounts spent on development.
“At Saferworld, we did a report on good case examples of stabilization. These tend to be hard to find because levels of investment often meant that they were small scale; for example, successful work in settling water disputes in Yemen were lost in large scale dynamics of the conflict.
“Building on Saferworld’s previous research in Kenya, we look at cases when people made progress to tackle complex conflicts in three other contexts: Colombia (2010–2016), Iraq (2006–2008), and Northern Ireland (1981–1998). In each case, we examine what worked, why it did, and with what caveats, to inform the approach of leaders and practitioners. We also outline five critical common elements for achieving sustainable peace:
Revisiting assumptions and renewing strategy with a focus on getting to peace
Adopting people-oriented and confidence-building security approaches
Pursuing dialogue, deal-making, and reconciliation across enemy lines
Addressing wider conflict drivers and making people a better offer
Supporting and enabling society to nourish peace efforts through bargaining and accountability
“More investment and research needs to be carried out to understand the drivers of conflict, so we can get ahead of the curve and not respond once conflict has already broken out through things like dialogue or bad governance.”
How was your experience co-hosting the Saferworld’s Warpod podcast? How do you come up with themes for episodes? How do you best navigate successful discussions around contemporary conflict?
“We started the podcast before the pandemic, and would do the odd episode, experimenting with a few different formats. It was only when the pandemic hit that we really ramped up the number of episodes that we were doing.
“Before the pandemic, we'd become a bit complacent. Being based in London, people often flew through the city, or we had big conferences and meetings where we were able to discuss and explore ideas. Opportunities to discuss ways in which our policies interacted with each other, or the chance to speak to someone in a way that gave a new light or a new angle around policy recommendations presented themselves quite regularly. But, when the pandemic hit, we no longer had those opportunities. We realized that we needed the podcast to assist in our own research. The podcast facilitated a need to have these conversations and acted as a bridge to assist us in improving our own understanding and knowledge within a global context.
“We recorded a few episodes, and I began to really enjoy it as it allowed for those personal and professional connections we were all missing; like the random call just to talk about research and think about the big picture in a conversational way. So many people reached out and said that they'd enjoyed the conversation because they were excited to hear about someone else's work. I think people also liked it because we were as excited about the person that we had on the podcast as they were.
“Often we would hear a talk by a person or read an article and then become really interested in the synergies between their work and ours. And so if we were going to have a conversation with them anyway, why not record it?”
In 2022, it was reported that women represented 19% of delegations in UN-led peace processes, down from 23% in 2020. Can you shed more light on the importance of women being present within peace and security debates, and what needs to change to ensure they are?
“It is important to have women involved in these conversations. Women and girls are often disproportionately impacted by conflict and have unique experiences, perspectives in conflict. Plenty of evidence shows that the inclusion of women reduces the impact of violence reoccurring.
“However, I think it is more important than just the output numbers on how many women have been involved in a peace dialogue. Were they given a meaningful voice, and were they to shape the conversation?
“As well as the fact that there are already not enough women involved in these processes and when they have been involved, it has been tokenistic and disempowering because the underlying systems haven't been addressed.
“I did a report at Saferworld on cases where stabilization efforts were more successful when women were involved. We looked at Colombia, the Northern Ireland peace process, and political efforts that accompanied the surge in Iraq. In each of these cases, women were fighting for a meaningful seat at the table and to be involved in shaping conflict resolution.
“In Northern Ireland and Colombia, we saw that eventually they did have more of a role in shaping the process, and because of that, the peace agreements were more progressive. They included issues around human rights, equality, and inclusion. Although the Iraq surge restored the possibility of nonviolent participation to Iraqi society and its politics, in other ways it failed to engage secular, less patriarchal elements of Iraq’s society and political spectrum.
“Germany has just joined the club of governments explicitly committing to a feminist foreign policy. My colleagues at GPPi are currently putting together a report on how peace building and stabilization works under a feminist lens.”
Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls and and United Nations Sustainable Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.