Mamba Point, Monrovia – photograph by Teresa Dybeck of AOAV. Mamba Point, Monrovia – photograph by Teresa Dybeck of AOAV.

The Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development defines armed violence as: ‘the intentional use of illegitimate force (actual or threatened), with arms or explosives, against a person, group, community, or state, which undermines people-centred security, and/or sustainable development.’ Gathering reliable data on the incidence and impact of armed violence is critical to the development of effective reduction and prevention programmes. This blog describes how a wide range of local organisations in Liberia have come together to form the Liberia Armed Violence Observatory. The project was initiated by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) but over the next year, full ownership is expected to be transferred to the Liberian partners.

The Liberia Armed Violence Observatory (LAVO) is an independent institution that gathers, analyses and reports nationwide armed violence data in Liberia. It works collaboratively with government, domestic NGOs, academics, the media and international organisations. Key data providers include the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, the United Nations Police, and the Liberian National Police. By pooling information sources, the LAVO can identify gaps and duplications in official statistics.

According to statistics produced in 2012, the most common weapons used in Liberia are bladed weapons, followed by blunt objects, such as sticks or rocks. Firearms were only reported in 16.2% of cases, although, they contributed to 30% of the fatalities from armed violence. In other words, when firearms were used, there was a much higher chance that someone would be killed.

The vast majority of incidents recorded by the LAVO take place in the capital, Monrovia, where half of Liberia’s population reside (and where data collection capacity is much higher). The lack of economic opportunities in rural areas continues to cause large-scale migration, as people move to urban areas in search of employment. Persistent unemployment nationwide has resulted in the creation and growth of a sizeable underclass, generating significant risk factors for renewed armed violence. AOAV’s baseline survey of households in Monrovia, conducted in 2010, found that 60% of incidents happen in people’s homes.

Most perpetrators of crime are young men aged 20-29, whilst the trend is for victims to be older. According to LAVO data, theft is the most commonly reported outcome of armed violence incidents, indicating that economically driven crime is prevalent in Liberia.

The collection of accurate data in Liberia is not without its challenges. Armed violence incidents, especially in remote rural areas, often go unreported. Hence, official data may not be sufficient to gain a complete nationwide picture. The under-reporting of violence with regard to women is considered to be a particular problem. Medical institutions do not have separate categories for listing armed violence incidents, making data collection from these sources especially time consuming. Sharing data in certain situations can be sensitive in terms of security and/or political interests, so careful management is necessary to avoid creating tensions between stakeholders.

On the positive side, the use of existing data-sets and sources means that the LAVO is a relatively low cost project. By cross-matching individual data sources, the LAVO identifies where gaps and duplications exist. The involvement of civil society, international, and media organizations in the analysis helps to fill the gaps as they have supplementary armed violence information to share. Furthermore, the fact that key stakeholders meet to discuss and analyse these issues helps to develop commitment to tackling the armed violence problem in the round.

Starting to measure armed violence comprehensively is a stepping stone for developing reduction and prevention programmes. Although the LAVO is not an implementing institution per se, it can inform policy debate, identify problem areas and groups, and provide an insight into targeted strategies.

This article was also published on the Local First blog. Local First is an approach to international development that prioritises the views and leadership of people and organisations in the countries affected, over those of outsiders from the international community.