Book review — Peacebuilding, Conflict and Community Development (eds John Eversley et al)
by Rob FAIRMICHAEL
2 March 2023
The contribution of the community sector and community development to society can be analysed and even quantified, with some difficulty, but it is clear that a healthy civil society at all levels is part of maximising well-being. There are many questions arising about what should be done by communities and what should be done by the state, and the relationship between the two. In any case, the state may not have the financial resources, or even desire, to do much that is positive. Everything gets rather more complicated in divided societies and situations of conflict, especially as the state may be a big — or the largest — part of the problem for people at community level.
Work in the community can be constrained by authoritarian controls or by the level of conflict in violent societies. On the other hand, in very violent situations some aspects of community action and development may be the best or only possible arena of work when other more political or wider involvements are impossible. Addressing general human needs and issues arising from the conflict can be of vital societal importance; this was certainly the case in Northern Ireland during the Troubles — and it can be strongly argued that work at community level was an important factor in the level of violence not escalating further.
That is all where this book, Peacebuilding, Conflict and Community Development, comes in. It is a thorough work with nine case studies (and a chapter on “everyday peace”) sandwiched between chapters written by the editors, John Eversley, Sinéad Gormally, and Avila Kilmurray. It is a mixture of more academic and practical analysis and the case studies – Colombia, the Caucasus, Nigeria, Eastern Sri Lanka, Brazil, Nepal, Palestine, Northern Ireland, and Myanmar Rohingya — are very varied both geographically and what is covered. The book is not always easy reading but it repays a bit of concentration and packs in a lot — and their initial chapter, an introduction to the whole issue, is a very compact, competent and comprehensive summary which can be recommended as a primer on the topic.
It may be familiar to some activists but the editors give definitions of peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding (p. 7) along with many other terms and concepts. They have a table (p. 17) detailing community development interventions at different stages of conflict; this could be usefully compared with Emily Stanton’s outlining of peacemaking interventions that took place in the Belfast/Northern Ireland context. Some of the latter were at different levels though mainly “in the community”. The root transformation of conflict is, of course, dealt with (p. 9).
However, referring to Emily Stanton’s book, Theorising Civil Society Peacebuilding (2021) [reviewed by Shared Future News], the editors say that their book “illustrates the observation that knowledge of what to do may come from theoretical knowledge (also called propositional knowledge or episteme); practical knowledge of the art or craft of how to do things (techne); or practical knowledge from experience (sometimes called embodied or tacit knowledge or phronesis) which is often the same as indigenous knowledge…” (p. 211). Wisdom takes different forms.
The buzz phrase at the Belfast launch of the book was “everyday peacemaking” which is a phrase dealt with in the first chapter after the introduction. “Everyday peacemaking” can be positive, neutral, or manipulated by powerholders but the authors of the chapter say “Everyday peace is presented in the literature as the means by which ordinary individuals and groups navigate everyday life in deeply divided societies, in ways that first avoid or minimise both awkward situations and conflict triggers, and (only) then consider active steps to engage with the other… However, everyday peace can grow… to evolve into wider peace formation, and become a foundation upon which social cohesion can be (re)built…” (p. 26).
People living in Northern Ireland can be experts in everyday peace. I still frequently retell a story from twenty years ago about the skill of one person in avoiding a possibly awkward sectarian situation. I am deliberately not going into details here but I was in the company of a West Belfast Catholic atheist when we were speaking to a member of the Protestant community that we had just met whose political and social views we did not know. As the good West Belfast Catholic atheist would not tell a lie, about where an event took place, he deliberately used a rhetorical question which might have led the Protestant to believe that the venue was a neutral one rather than in a Catholic area, and might be less inclined to ask. It was done with the best intentions — to avoid awkwardness and possible ill feeling — but it was still a kind of deceit. The skill with which it was done left me gobsmacked, as someone from outside Northern Ireland though living there for a couple of decades at that stage.
The chapter on Northern Ireland by Monina O’Prey is a very comprehensive look at, and analysis of, community action and development through the Troubles and ends with a look at programme for dealing with communities with weak infrastructure. It also has some key learning points from the whole experience (p. 187). It is not referred to but it bears repeating that the British government insist on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (and succeeding resolutions) on the involvement of women in peacebuilding and peace processes, and awareness of their needs, to be at the forefront internationally in all instances — but not in its own backyard of Northern Ireland. This is of course is as ironic and exceptionalist as you can get.
We are also talking about what are likely to be long-term processes, and work at one stage coming to fruition sometime later through conscientised activists and capacity building. In writing about the work in Sri Lanka (p. 112) the authors of the chapter speak of how the women leaders during the war continue today: “It is those very same women who worked during the war that continue to maintain solidarities in the post-war context. NGOs have closed down. Funding has dried up. There is hardly any international presence in the east any more. It is those activist women leaders across Muslim and Tamil communities that have again taken on the role of articulating rights, justice and peace…” and dealing with crises. For human community infrastructure to remain when a funding circus moves on is a massive achievement.
The words “nonviolent” and “nonviolence” make occasional appearances in the book but it is all relevant to those concerned with building societies which not only seek to get beyond violence but move to inclusion and social justice. The issues concerned are complex, and the book’s contents deal with a range of different issues in a wide range of countries including the involvement of youth, women, dealing with state violence, human rights, even storytelling in the Palestinian context as a vehicle for community development. This all points to the importance of appropriate and imaginative interventions and the fact that one size only fits one situation and certainly not all. However, activists in any conflicted situation will find many resonances in the different areas of the world which are covered in the book.
The chapter on working on Myanmar Rohingya issues ends on a very upbeat note in what has been, and continues to be, a dire situation. A programme of relationship building between Rakhine and Rohingya villages actually led to the Rakhine villagers advocating on behalf of the Rohingya about regaining their access to education which was “a significant act of solidarity and highlights the important and transformational outcomes that can occur as a result of micro-solidarities and actions accumulating over time.” (p. 205) And that remarkable and upbeat note is a good point to end this review apart from stating that so-called “normal” societies can also have elements of the conflict and divisions covered in the many examples in this book. So, this work may repay reading for activists in a wide variety of societies, not just those which are labelled as conflicted — although the latter are estimated at up to a third of the world’s population (p. 2).
Rob FAIRMICHAEL is co-ordinator at INNATE — Irish Network for Non-violent Action Training and Education.
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