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Violence and development – what are the links?

December 2, 2011
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Why don’t we talk about violence more? That was the question posed to a bunch of Oxfamistas this week by Jenny Pearce, Professor of jenny pearcePeace Studies at Bradford University. Jenny’s my guru as well as a friend – back in 1982, fresh back from Latin America, I attended her course on the region’s politics and economics, which I subsequently took over teaching and turned into a book, Faces of Latin America, which is still going strong 20 years later.

At that time, she was the voice of the UK left (yep, we still had one then, sort of) on the wars in Central America and her book ‘Under the Eagle’ on US intervention in the region was their bible. She was an influential voice in support of the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador – peasant revolutionaries who had taken up arms against a particularly barbaric US-backed regime. She visited the FMLN’s ‘controlled zones’ and got bombed for her pains, and wrote it up in another book, Promised Land.

The U-turn in her thinking since then is pretty striking. She’s spent much of the intervening years working on violence with communities in numerous developing countries, combining academic research with development practice. Her conclusion is that violence, while occasionally justified, is never good. It closes down the space for participation.

The concept that jumped out from her talk (powerpoint here) was the way that chronic violence ‘diffuses and reproduces itself’. Like a disease released into a population, or a genie escaping from the bottle, the kind of organized, political violence that Jenny saw as legitimate in El Salvador in the 1980s has morphed into social violence, gangs and kidnapping, as generations brutalised by their own experience of violence have become perpetrators themselves. Today El Salvador has no war, but one of the highest homicide rates in the world, while little has changed in the lives of her peasant revolutionary friends (Jenny returned to visit them last year).

So these days, Jenny is more interested in how and why communities and societies take action to ‘desanction’ violence – whether at local level in peace-building in Colombia, or the global shifts in thinking on domestic violence or beating children – and tackle the mechanisms for its reproduction (social inequality, construction of masculinity, the ‘othering’ of minorities, states that encourage dispersed violence by supporting militia etc).

FMLN guerrillasBut the difficult bit for me is the link between conflict and violence. Paul Collier’s claim that ‘civil war is development in reverse‘ has been well challenged by people like Chris Kramer at SOAS, who wrote a book with the memorable title ‘Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing’. John Gaventa’s citizenship and particiption team at IDS studied a series of examples were social movements and ‘active citizenship’ brought about lasting change. He concluded that more often than not, their actions have to be ‘contentious’ – protest, struggle, and yes, the use of violence, are an important part of the repertoire. Signing petitions and voting is not always enough.

So here’s the conundrum – social change often requires conflict, but if that spills over into chronic violence, it will in turn close down the possibility of social change. Navigating that borderline between conflict and violence is one of the many dilemmas of development. Your thoughts?

8 comments

  1. I am not sure its such a u turn (I would say that, of course, but don’t see it quite like that), as I don’t take a totally purist view, rather look for steps for us to build the conditions for us to live without violence, thus enhancing participation for social change. Those conditions lead us to all the aspirations of the revolutionary peasants and for me are the basis of a renovated left which believes in democratic practice with moral agency and transforms the exercise of power and the way we treat each other. A ground up politics which works with confusion and complexity and recognises the dignity of the other. Very good to see this debate get going, lots and lots more to talk about, no easy answers, no instant solutions…

  2. Nice post Duncan. If you’re interested in the ways in which violence diffuses across contexts you might be interested in Ted Miguel’s paper on football. It’s more provocative for thought than anything else, but he does show that footballers from conflict-affected countries are more likely to incur red cards than footballers from stable countries, with the suggested causal mechanism of lower rule-enforcement systematicallyt throughout society.

    I like Chris Cramer’s work, too – he delivered a great lecture to our (sadly discontinued) class in SOAS on ‘economics imperialism’ – the creep of economics into other disciplines, set by Ben Fine. For me, though, the definitive voice on the occasional value of conflict and violence is Eric Hobsbawm – Revolutionaries contains a few thoughtful contributions on the topic.

    Frantz Fanon, of course, also wrote extensively on the need for violence as a catharsis as well as to stimulate change, in the The Wretched of the Earth.

  3. Fantasatic blog, Duncan. I find Charles Tilly’s works on the repertoires of popular movements and the cycles of democracy-building very compelling. In field work in Colombia, I have seen the painstakingly slow consolidation of neighborhood associations unravel in a heartbeat as armed groups intimidate or kill their leaders. For people on the ground, the ensuing disbanding of their groups is sometimes more unbearable than the violence itself –because these groups give them solidarity, voice, a future. Democracy building is a deliberate process of people connecting, and groups connecting, and their networks gathering strength, successes, and legitimacy. Unfortunately, this work is slow, and their unraveling instantaneous. But their spirit does not die. People claw their way back together. Leaders make a difference.
    Times are bleak in a lot of Central America these days, and in many parts of Colombia still. Transnational underground war and drug economies, and the land- and resource-grabbing lawlessness that surrounds this, are thriving. Unfortunately governments can’t or won’t crack this. So, I think we need to imagine stronger transnational peace and development networks that can do a better job of shielding and nurturing the peace and development groups on the ground. There are models where these forces are working already– communities of peace that extend protection to their surrounding fragile environments and resources. We just need to imagine it on a much grander scale.
    I also want to add that there is a brutal domestic side to the wider social violence that is also important to understanding its persistence and tremendous damage to the social fabric. My own work has shown that where woman find pathways past the violence, and contribute to recovery and development, it makes a great difference.

  4. Duncan and Jenny,

    Great to hear your perspective on FMLN and El Slavador. Oxfam America is working in Chalatenango the heart of the FMLN movement through CCR which emerged after the the revolution and is doing positive work in the villages there. Working through CCR and Caritas OA has organized close to 7,000 women into Saving for Change Groups which have become a force for women’s empowerment and over the years the emergence of women’s leadership in the region. We are doing the same work with women in the indigenous regions of Guatemala in Baja and Alto Verapaz and Solola. We have increased evidence that organized women who now have a voice and economic clout are becoming an increasing force for change especially at the household, village and muncipal level.

    Thanks for this posting,

    Jeff
    Jeffrey Ashe
    Director of Community Finance
    Oxfam America

  5. Thanks Duncan for this post and for introducing us to Jenny Pearce. I’m eager to dig into this a bit more.

    I’ve been wondering how Oxfam, as a rights-based organization, could do as little was we do on this issues of violence, conflict, peace building. Surely if you could plot rights violations on a map, the reddest spots in the world would be those with ongoing or chronic conflict. Before colleagues jump on me, I should clarify that we do – of course have programming in conflict zones, do some peacebuilding (usually through partners or allies), etc. It’s just that our program is not as robust as I would imagine it should be.

    Your post notes that when formalized violence (wars, insurgencies subsides, informal violence sustains. I’m sure that’s true although I suspect there’s a lot of variance that would be worth exploring and understanding.

    I think this area is a big gap at every level – and the fact that “civil” violence and social pathologies are sequelae to “formal violence” is an argument to push up the priority of preventing – with justice – the latter.

  6. Thanks for these reflections. Useful for thinking (an under-utilised human cpacity here in Zimbabwe) about ways out of the entrenched war mentality – and the dangers of a revenge ethos. Also challenging to the nonviolence sector, as in my Nonviolent Action for social Change (in Zimb) – with our engagements with ‘war vterans’ and youth militia members and ex-members; and the Nonviolent Peaceforce (globally)…
    and hi Jenny, long time since LAB days……..

  7. Interesting from both sides – but while there is the feeling that violence begats violence, history in an area also continues for some time afterwards.

    Any country in which violence has led to change will continue with that violence, initially subversive but eventually out in the open as the kettle boils.

    I think that this is what Jenny is trying to avoid when you talk about a U-Turn (a fair comment initially as the lady herself said) and let’s hope that all people realise it eventually.

  8. (please post this one instead of the one I just submitted!)

    I lived in El Salvador from 1991-2001 and return to see my Salvadoran family (by marriage) and friends every year or so. It’s painful to see how violence in El Salvador has changed and shifted over the years from “violence with a cause” to mindless crime and violence that impacts anyone, everywhere, and especially young people. I often hear when I’m ‘back home’ in El Salvador that people don’t want to improve their standard of living because then they will stand out and become targets of violence.

    I’ve heard colleagues tell of people not wanting to participate in small loan projects because they worried that if they went to sell their cow (or whatever) at the market, everyone would know, and they feared being assaulted on the way home. Staff have also been assaulted and the violence makes some communities impossible to work in. In one community, teachers were being targeted on public transportation and sexually assaulted. Bus drivers were being assassinated last time I was there as a message to those that refused to pay tariffs to gangs to enter certain neighborhoods (colonias). Some people cite the high levels of migration as a reason for the continued violence, as many young people grow up without their parents, and may feel abandoned. Gender violence and violence against children is an issue, and structural violence and heavy handed policies also play(ed) a part.

    Another huge issue is the corrupted justice system that fails to objectively and fairly pursue and process high level organized and/or white collar crime and at another level, there is fear that reporting crime will lead to retaliation. Impunity has been a huge problem for a long time.

    I think in hindsight it’s easy to say the movement to change the situation in the 80s/90s should not have gone down the road of armed rebellion, but with everything that was going on in the 80s and the brutal disregard for mass peaceful protest or political engagement by the population, it was difficult to consider any options other than rebellion. When the other options run out, violence seems to be the only thing left. It’s sad and frustrating though now, to see that people are not much better off after years of peaceful political then violent armed and then more peaceful political struggle (amidst a totally different type of violence). There is more freedom of speech and press now and a more transparent political process, but many feel that the country is not much better now than before the war.

    One thing I always found interesting (anecdotally) also was that communities that had organized as part of the FMLN during the war were much more able to organize and implement programs and projects post-war because they worked through local community structures that had arisen during the war and were less shy than those communities that had not been involved with the FMLN. Those communities that were controlled by the army were less willing to meet, to speak out, to state their opinions and to identify what they wanted to change in their communities.

    The situation feels quite hopeless at one level – where do you even start at ending the violence? I hope somehow Salvadorans can figure it out.

    There is an interesting study by FESPAD that looks at violence in El Salvador and the broader elements that need addressing in order to begin to put an end to it. (in Spanish)

    http://www.fespad.org.sv/presentan-propuesta-de-politica-publica-integral-para-prevenir-la-violencia-juvenil

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