Whose knowledge counts for peacebuilding?

Whose knowledge counts for peacebuilding? @ESRCFestivalNI
by Eilish BOSCHERT for Shared Future News
8 November 2017

University of Ulster’s Emily Stanton presented her PhD research at the The Economic and Social Research Council’s fifteenth annual Festival of Social Science in Belfast. The lecture examined her findings on peacebuilding in Northern Ireland and who is qualified to assess and determine good practice.

Stepping in for Duncan Morrow, Grainne Kelly introduced Stanton and the panel: Katie Hanlon from the Ballynafeigh Community Development Association, Sean Pettis from Corrymeela, and Michael Boyd from the Irish Football Association. Each member of the panel was invited to reflect on Stanton’s findings as a local community practitioner.

Stanton began by offering the audience a fictionalised case study about the city of ‘Urbanville’, where hate crimes against the city’s Muslim population were on the rise; the community was divided because of the attacks and suffered episodic rioting as a result. Stanton then turned to the audience, asking who was best equipped to help the situation: a professor of peace studies, a trained mediator, or a local community organisation?

The vote for the local community organisation was unanimous; however, when asked about who should write about it, the vote was split as the audience remained uncertain.

As someone who has experience as both a practitioner and a researcher, Stanton wanted to further explore the intersection between theory and practice, specifically in the Northern Ireland context. Her research aimed to uncover what practitioners have learned about social change through their efforts toward peacebuilding.

By examining over 50 years of peace initiatives within grassroots efforts and civil society, interviewing 40 practitioners, and establishing 13 types of peacebuilding practice, Stanton uncovered two pervasive themes: context and trust/trustworthiness.

A complex understanding of the circumstances facing the community is integral to making change within that community, or as Stanton phrased it, “how to use the context to change the context”. Unfortunately, she explained that in the case of Northern Ireland, “the context was of pervasive and deep systemic distrust”.

Yet community practitioners have found ways to mitigate this distrust time and time again, not necessarily through theory or methodology, but through the Aristotelian idea of ‘Phronesis’ or practical knowledge. This knowledge is not academically driven, but rather based on personal experiences and understanding of one’s context. Trust was built through years of demonstrating qualities such as accountability, dependability, inclusivity, and transparency — ideas that cannot be learned or taught academically.

The current bureaucratisation of peace generates mistrust by creating short-term funding cycles that prevent the potential for reflection on practice. This leaves practitioners focused on the urgency and volatility of their situation and prevents them from disseminating their own practice research.

Members of the panel were invited to reflect on and discuss Stanton’s research, often musing in very personal ways. Pettis remarked that the community and voluntary sector consistently take huge risks to enact positive change, while the statutory sector then attempt to mainstream those changes, which results in a loss of the nuances and sacrifices of the processes.

While there are amazing collaborative projects between practitioners and academics, Pettis lamented the discord between the the community sector and public policy, stating that the government’s desire for a ‘top-down’ approach does not meet the needs of the people and ignores the nuances of practical peacebuilding.

Boyd empathised with this position, reflecting on the years of loyalty and relationship-building it required to build trust within his organisations. He stated that often community groups are conditioned to compete with one another — chasing grants and appeasing funders — which takes away from the community and prevents essential relationships from being formed.

Hanlon saw some pros to academic research, as it has helped shaped and change the way she understands her own community work, but asserted that “theory only works if it is useful on the ground”. It is nearly impossible not to get caught up in the struggle for three years of funding, but as Hanlon put it: “600 years of conflict cannot be solved in three”. So many noble efforts have been established, but sadly there is a lack of knowledge on how to sustain momentum and thrive.

Concluding the panel, Stanton asserted that any practitioner can be unreflective about their practice, but the current bureaucracy of peacebuilding does not help facilitate reflection or change. Theoretical conformity does not promote peace in conflicted societies — the way forward is through understanding and flexibility.

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