I recently spent a day among conflict wonks (a thoroughly charming and unscary group) to discuss IDS’ research programme on Addressing and Mitigating Violence. There are piles of case studies and thematic papers on the website (here’s a collection of abstracts); this seminar was part of bringing them all together into some kind of overarching narrative.
The starting point for the programme was the World Development Report 2011 on ‘Conflict, Security, and Development’. WDRs are often highly influential, and this one is credited with moving the debate on from a focus on war, pacification, demobilization etc to consider repeat cycles of violence, the role of institutions, and the idea that violence goes much wider than episodes of armed conflict.
Since then there has been progress both on policies and responses, neatly captured in the recently agreed SDG 16 to ‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’.
In classic IDS fashion, the speakers stressed that violence is really complicated: different types of violence (gender-based, criminal, armed) interlink both with each other and with broader political processes. How people experience it is shaped by age, gender, poverty, ethnicity, religion. Local, national and global violence is all interwoven.
I was asked to be a ‘scavenger’ (interesting new job title) and feed back impressions at the end of the day. Here they are:
There were many parallels with the kinds of discussion I’ve been having with governance people (Doing Development Differently, Thinking and Working Politically). This included a rejection of best practice approaches in favour of helping different solutions and responses to emerge from different contexts.
An example from Pakistan’s Swat Valley: After the military kicked out the Taliban, the international community came in to support the formalization of the rule of law. But at same time, an entirely parallel process emerged, as local jirgas and the police and judicial system started renegotiating their relative roles, without any involvement of the internationals. In different parts of the Valley, this led to big differences between local institutions and lots of innovation, including on the involvement of women. The internationals were amazed by the flexibility and innovation on display. (Background to this research here)
One place where the discussion seemed an improvement on the governance debate is an explicit rejection of a purely ‘elite pact’ approach. The way different factions of the political and economic elite reach agreement (or fail to) is undoubtedly important, but in some corners of governance discussions, it seems to be the only thing anyone wants to talk about. One speaker characterized the 1990s as a time when civil society was the fad, ‘then we rethought and grabbed onto the next thing – elites and political settlements’. But she, along with many others, stressed the any lasting security means building the social contract between citizens and state, not just getting a quick fix between factions of the elite that stops the fighting, but then either reverts to conflict, or leaves poor people still exploring daily violence (as they have after many so-called peace settlements). At worst, the ‘peace’ becomes the peace of the graveyard, a mere absence of conflict, with none of Amartya Sen’s ‘freedoms to be and to do’.
This got me thinking about language (as I often do during these events). ‘Violence’ is more useful than ‘conflict’ in that it isn’t just an issue for states with conflict – Yemen, Libya and so on. We also see it in the US, or Mexico, India, or other advanced economies. But maybe we need to go even further – does ‘violence’ really capture the experience of poor people? I went back to the World Bank’s great Voices of the Poor study of the 1990s, which found that perhaps the most essential characteristic of living in poverty is uncertainty, anxiety and fear of what the future may bring. Perhaps the opposite of peace is not war, but anxiety. Could IDS, the Bank or someone else repeat that exercise, and produce a ‘Voices of the Anxious’ study for the 21st Century?
One implication is that we need a better mix of disciplines in the room – how can you understand anxiety and fearfulness without psychologists? Or hybrid institutions without anthropologists? And of course, a shift from outsiders to insiders, both outsider-insiders (middle class aid or research types from the capital who may not understand everything out in the villages, but have a better chance of doing so than foreigners), or (even better) insider-insiders from the affected communities.
Which brought us back to another IDS’ tradition – a focus on participation, and taking the time to understand what is going on. Crucial, but there were real doubts that such approaches might be incompatible with the rhythms and practices of today’s aid business and (particularly in the week after the Paris attacks) an increasing focus on security and counter-terrorism, rather than any broader concepts.