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 Peace 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).
But 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?