The challenge facing peacebuilders is not how to eradicate conflict, but how to mitigate, manage and transform it so as to reduce its negative effects on people’s relationships and prospects for development.
By Roselyn Mungai
“Conflict should not be regarded as an isolated event that can be resolved or managed, but as an integral part of society’s on-going evolution and development.” – Principles of Conflict Transformation
Conflict is a part of human existence, and will continue to occur as long as human beings are interacting with each other, because more often than not they will have incompatible goals. The challenge for peace workers is, therefore, not how to eradicate conflict, but how to mitigate, manage and transform it so as to reduce its negative effects on people’s relationships and their economic development. Peacebuilding efforts must have long-term plans, because impact is seen at the transformational level. It takes years to transform peoples thinking and interactions and sustain improved interaction. When we look at peacebuilding initiatives as events, we fail. These events – for example, the signing of peace pacts, the completion of a peace run, or sports competition between two groups, peace meetings, etc. – are all activities geared towards conflict transformation. The outputs must be viewed as such and celebrated, but that must not be the end of peacebuilding practice. The seeds have been sown by the work that went ahead of these activities, the activity itself being a manifestation that people want to begin talking and changing. This means that conciliatory gestures and confidence building measures must be scaled-up.
Lets look at this from a non-practitioner perspective. The media, for example, will often report that in spite of peace efforts and tons of money poured into peace processes, residents of a certain area continue to be in conflict with each other. This is a very simplistic view aimed at casting doubt on meaningful peace work. Such a statement does not look at how the dynamics have changed as a result of these efforts; how the actors have shifted. Indeed, sometimes it is a completely different set of actors in conflict. The statement does not account for who is now doing peace work. For example, international organisations are now less involved in peace work as a result of the growth of local capacity. This is change. It means that the community is now better able to manage its own conflict. The goal was never to eradicate conflict in the community all together.
There are some practical examples. Before the violent elections of 2007, peacebuilding and conflict transformation work was not big on the agenda in Kenya’s Kisumu Nyanza province. This is because communities lived in relative co-existence, or so we all thought. This must be what scholars call negative peace, because something must have been very wrong with the structure of the community in Nyanza. This was greatly sharpened by the outcome of the 2007 general elections, where communities turned against each other in violent conflict not witnessed before in this area.
Peacebuilding work was therefore scaled up. ACT for example, implemented a peacebuilding initiative, funded by Pact and USAID, to support the development of local capacities to mend these relationships and strengthen the structures upon which people interacted. ACT worked with local organisations – YWCA, GADECE and AT Famica – to facilitate the establishment of community representative structures, such as youth groups, advisory councils, peace committees and community policing groups, building civil society’s voice, imparting peacebuilding and conflict transformation skills and generally bridging the gap between government and community.
Fast-forward to four years later and the uptake of peacebuilding as an on-going venture is high. There are good stories to tell, including how youth groups have converted potentially violent occurrences into opportunities for peace, how people from one ethnic group have engaged in conciliatory gestures and confidence building measures with those of other ethnic groups and have begun undertaking joint economic activities, thereby solidifying peace.
The challenge now, four years later, is that everyone – donors included – assume that the work has been done and that there is no need to focus on Nyanza because it is not a hot spot. This view ignores the fact that peace needs to be watered like a growing seedling. That water comes in the form of expert facilitation of processes, good will from external sources, celebrations of peace thorough cultural events, on-going conflict analysis and management, and support for confidence building measures. The view that Nyanza is no longer a “ hot spot” goes against the spirit of the statement that “conflict should not be regarded as an isolated event that can be resolved or managed, but as an integral part of society’s on-going evolution and development”
In another part of Kenya – the Upper Eastern province in Isiolo district – conflict is an on-going phenomena. Driven by climatic changes, the movement of animals, the ownership and control of resources, inter-ethnic relations and politics, the cycle of conflict is never ending; making Isiolo synonymous with conflict, both structural and violent. Very recently, there has been discussion in many quarters questioning the utility of all the resources that have been dedicated to peacebuilding in Isiolo. This is because – to the naked eye – conflict has spiraled. There is an assumption that peace practitioners have been addressing the wrong issues, or have based their practice on wrong analysis. I, however, disagree. I like to look at all the baby steps in the peacebuilding journey and celebrate them. I look at the extent to which the dynamics of conflict have changed and argue from that perspective.
Could it be that community A and Community B are relating better, but that now Community A and Community C have developed issues? Could it be that the introduction of extremely competitive politics has been the game changer? Could it be that resources for peace and resources for conflict have been mixed-up and we no longer can separate the wheat from the chaff? It all lies in the analysis. Are we doing solid analysis? Analysis is continuous, and it must be followed immediately by action, based on the findings and full consideration of all the variables. And with this analysis comes heightened action. If we continue to view peacebuilding as a one off activity, we will continue to reap sub-optimal results.