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November 18, 2015
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I recently spent a day among conflict wonks (a thoroughly charming and unscary group) to discuss IDS’ research mitigating violenceprogramme 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.

Opposition supporters react during post election ethnic violence in NairobiAn 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. election violence in NigeriaPerhaps 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.

4 comments

  1. Hi Duncan, Thanks for keeping VOP on your mind! And hey, “Voices of the Anxious”?? Darn interesting idea. I think we’re all deeply anxious after last Friday and you’re on to something that is multidimensional and universal. And sure, I can imagine asking FGDs about what brings anxiety, but in this day and age we really need to understand more about what eases it. Am now working on GENNOVATE, a sort of “Voices of women and men farmers” with a great big wonderful gender team spread across the CGIAR centers — and clearly seeing there how much the psychosocial and normative dimensions shape capacities for inclusion and bettering our lives. And keeping anxiety and violence at bay. Warmest regards and thanks for the wonderful presentation of your upcoming book here in DC a few weeks ago. Patti

  2. You might be interested in the book The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (by Gary Haugen, published by OUP) if you haven’t read it yet. It looks specifically at violence — especially the daily violence you mention.

  3. Hi Duncan, during the Listening Project, which gathered the views of nearly 6,000 people in aid recipient countries, we heard some people express anxiety for sure, but more were discouraged and frustrated. Often this was directed at aid agencies for not taking the time to listen and to understand the context and the concerns of those they aimed to help and engage with. Government officials, civil society activists, business people, and community members were not happy with how decisions about what needed to be done in their countries and communities were too often made in Western capitals and aid agency meeting rooms. They wondered why those working in the same countries and communities often were working at cross purposes and why they couldn’t just talk to one another and connect better with what was being driven by the people themselves (similar to the Pakistan example you shared). People also described various types of violence and conflict they experienced, different types of corrupt practices, and ineffective institutions that were not well addressed by the many disjointed projects and efforts that were supposed to improve their lives. Your point about needing to take the time to listen and also to observe the feelings that people share is important–and getting people whose lives are most affected around the table when decisions are being made would help. There is much more on this in Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid. Dayna

  4. I do like the idea of ‘Voices of the Anxious’ (or Vulnerable?), and of GENNOVATE, which reminds me of discussions within Oxfam a couple years ago about how important such a project might be (especially as a complement to necessary but limited approaches to looking from the top down at what Government and Corporate policies might be most helpful for farmers and other agriculture workers).
    I like the idea of moving beyond elite political settlements, but does the ‘Social Contract’ approach provide the right underpinning? It is based on the State and the Citizen. How well does it function in a world where the clear boundaries between state, private sector and individual are becoming practically and legally blurred? And perhaps especially so in Development, where aid seeks increasingly to mobilise ‘blurry’ approaches like PPPs and private sector service delivery in places where there is little or no pre-existing social contract between citizens and a effective state. And yet more so in contexts affected by conflict and violence where – e.g. in Myanmar – clear boundaries between state, military, private sector, para-military, parallel non-state administration, etc might be almost non-existent. Is the ‘Social Contract’ concept adaptable enough to be applied with much more broadly and with enough flexibility; and to account for existing or new conditions that affect the traditional state-citizen focus?

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