Friday 21 December 2018

Peacebuilding: Time to think and act Human?

What is peacebuilding? That nearly all of you will give slightly (or significantly) different answers to that is part of what I perceive to be a wider problem. You could just as well ask ‘what is development’ with the same result. GDP, or rights? Jobs or voice? So in this brief thought piece I will restrict myself to a narrower question, which is one I believe needs to be addressed if we are to become more effective in understanding the causes of conflict, and acting to build long term and positive peace.

My argument here is that in the last ten years peacebuilding has largely benefited from a process of professionalisation. That’s a process we’ve witnessed among practitioners in the NGO sector, as much as in the donor agencies themselves, with cadres of professionals emerging in both. But my worry is that in that process we have erred too much on the side of analysing conflict through lenses of political science at the cost of wider perspectives, such as anthropology, in our quest to understand how and why humans behave the ways we do. And that makes us less effective.

When I first started in peacebuilding back in 2008 the wider development sector was heavily dominated by economists, and their metrics. So progress was seen in primarily economic terms and not those, say, of human rights, voice, struggles and the differentiated experiences of communities, women or marginalised groups. The economist mindset is still very much alive, and people like me regularly argue with their proponents, but we do generally have a more holistic approach now which is welcome. Yet in that process of widening the disciplines and perspectives we use, I fear the political scientist has become the new economist, largely without intending to be.

And that’s a problem, in my view, on a number of grounds. Political science offers us strong and useful methods of understanding conflict and wider society, usually through the prism of institutions. But as a discipline it is massively dominated by Northern and Western viewpoints which make assumptions which simply don’t hold in many of the societies in which they are applied. Within academia this has provoked a backlash in which writers from the global South, such as Chatterjee, and several Middle East scholars have written powerfully to illustrate just how the theories of Hobsbawm, Anderson, North and others simply don’t help us to grasp why people behave in the way they do in large parts of the world, in this case South Asia and the Middle East.

Traditional Northern political science essentially holds that powerful elites win and then retain power by seizing institutions, and then setting the rules of the game in their favour, in perpetuity. And there’s a large degree of truth in that. But it tends to dismiss the idea that humans are also emotional creatures with deep spiritual attachments to land, ideas, communities and belief systems (famously by Ben Anderson's "Imagined Communities" thesis) which in my view shape their behaviours as much as, if not more than, rebelling to take power. So when you’re trying to understand a conflict that might take an ethno-nationalist form, for example, where conflicting groups self identify by ethnicity, in my view this is as much about those human characteristics as it is about powerful elites. The point is we need to understand both, and act accordingly. A lot of Sue Unsworth's work, which shaped much of DFID's later thinking, also hinted at this, in order for the elite-community bargaining work which she held as central to success, to take place.

As we look across what is sadly a growing number of conflicts worldwide, where many take on that ethno-nationalist form, this in my view is a pressing issue for us as a sector to get right, and it lies in the analysis we use and the theories we develop on the basis of that analysis. More anthropology, more Southern based persepctives and more balance with the new dominant theme is needed. Essentially in my view we need to think more about humans as they are, and not as if they were robots, controlled principally by elites, even in their own minds and conceptions of the world around them. How we might do this, will be the subject of my next piece!

Until then, let me end by quoting Phil Vernon, a peacebuilder from whom I learned a great deal during my time at International Alert. Phil is both a peacebuilder and a poet, and this evocative peace captures a sight that will be familiar to peacebuilding practitioners across the globe:

I come each day to clean the marble plaque,

place flowers beneath Azadin’s face, and pray

he rests in peace. The eve of the attack,

he begged my blessing which I proudly gave –

a mother's leave to die.

Low sunlight bathes

the bridge, the road, the bracken-covered hills

in warmth and welcome; piebald peaks arrayed

Against the sky stand friendly guard.

War steals

our children but it spares them all the ills

of longer life, and us from saving them.

I sit in simple silence simply filled

with comfort by his being near.

She spends

her evenings at the bridge contentedly;

the sunlight dissolves gently in the sea.

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