The challenge of moving from war to peace

One of the challenges in this set of unseen and unsung practices is how to make it visible and strengthen its advocacy without destroying its impact. Conflict transformation work not only deserves but needs a wider audience

Bridget Walker
21 December 2009

from War to Peace logo

There is substantial documentation on war and a body of theory about its causes and conduct, while, as is often said, this is not the case for peace.  Aside from the investment in war which completely outweighs resources for peace, there are several reasons why this may be so. Peacebuilding usually emerges from a crisis which requires immediate action and often prolonged intervention. Action rather than reflection is the priority. The lessons learned may be contested or remain anecdotal rather than systematically recorded and theorised.  A further compelling reason for a lack of theory on peace is that while war and violence are recognisable, the opposite is simply not the case. Peace remains an ongoing work in progress and while we can point to ‘pieces of peace’ in different places,  ‘peace writ large’ is much less easy to find. There have been two landmark world wars, but we are yet to experience world peace. 

This is what I understand Diana Francis to be calling for in her opening article. She points to the need for structural change, new ways of thinking and seeing and being, of consciously waging our conflicts creatively and non-violently. This is an ambitious project, particularly if you narrow in on the actual work of conflict transformation, how it is done, by whom and how it may be viewed by those from whom practitioners in the field seek support.

Conflict transformation is not a phrase in common usage and the concept is neither widely understood, nor an exact field of endeavour. It does not fit the ‘boxes’ of development and humanitarian assistance, which are the categories most familiar to government and the larger INGOs. It is complex, sensitive and long term. It involves intervening in social processes where there are many actors, in a rapidly changing and often highly charged environment over which we have limited control. The ultimate benefits are unlikely to be evident in the short term. Trustees of funding bodies, unfamiliar with this work and under pressure to demonstrate accountability for public money through showcasing clear and positive achievements, become sceptical when these seem not to be forthcoming. One body responded to a request as follows: There is some skepticism… not least from the trustees, as to the ultimate benefits that derive from this type of work. Yet this work requires steady support.

This scepticism can extend to the organisations carrying out this work. The bodies working with conflict may themselves not fit the usual categories. Networks, in particular, lack the familiar structure of lines of management and communication: the costs may appear to outweigh the benefits. Yet in the field of social development, networks have been shown to be particularly suited to bringing about change, operating as they can at many levels and with a range of actors. The primary focus for networks is not on rapid visible results but rather on building relationships, encouraging engagement, making connections, fostering learning, exchanging knowledge and experience and changing policy and practice. This involves many small, less visible processes, taking place, at many levels, with different players and extending over a period of time. Networks can provide space for experimentation and innovation. In the field of conflict transformation this also means room for risk taking and for being prepared to make mistakes.

These organisations and networks are generally relatively small, overextended and under-resourced. They are responsive, with a culture of activism; time for reflection and reporting may feel like a luxury in turbulent situations. The potential for mutual learning between practitioners in the field and a wider public may be further endangered by the fragility of these organizations. All too often, they feel themselves to be disempowered and therefore defensive. None of this helps them to make themselves accountable to the outside world. 

In the post 9/11 world, conflict has become popular with institutional donors and substantial funding has become available. But on closer examination it would appear that this is often targeted towards activities that can be seen as linked to an international security agenda. In the Middle East, for example, funding support that previously had few strings attached, now comes with explicit political conditions. For example, one institutional donor includes, in an annex to the funding contract, a list of what it regards as terrorist organisations. It is a condition of grants that recipient organisations, project beneficiaries and their families should not have links with these organisations. In addition, all those bodies receiving funds must receive clearance by the donor, a process which involves taking details not only of staff members but also their families. Thus official aid is part of the armoury of intelligence gathering for the ‘war against terror’. This view of the world cannot comprehend the concept of state terrorism, which is a concern to groups working for peace in many places. It also does not take account of the need to work with all actors, including the ‘spoilers’ at some stages and in some approaches to conflict transformation.

Conflict transformation needs support that is based on shared values and commitment, a long term view, readiness to be flexible, to be open to change, to innovation, to risk. There needs to be a relationship of mutual respect, to build trust and understanding. This is a challenge to the  ‘mindbinding’ of the dominant culture. Some of the most effective conflict transformation work has been unseen and unsung.  That has been part of its success – how do we scale up without falling into the danger of professionalizing the field and losing the necessary political edge? How do we obtain support which does not change the terms of engagement?  There is frustration and a fear that in the future support may dwindle to nothing.  This is why it is so important to create a larger audience to look at best practice and to help formulate and act on an urgent agenda for change. 


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