On Peacebuilding, Patience and the meaning of Accountability

            My colleague Laura Zanotti and I are completing work on a book for Kumarian Press entitled Community-Based NGOs, Peacebuilding and the Challenges of Post-Conflict Governance (2012). The volume examines the roles of three nongovernmental organizations in peacebuilding in as many difficult conflict scenarios in recent years. One of our cases explores the long-time inter-communal conflict amelioration efforts of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI) during and following the period of “the Troubles” in that nation. We recently presented a draft of the CFNI chapter in Athens, Greece at the annual international conference on politics and international affairs of the Athens Institute for Education and Research (ATINER).

            We argued at ATINER that while the Foundation’s leaders are very familiar with the leading theories of peacebuilding and indeed have collaborated actively with the European Union (EU) and other actors who have embraced those views in recent decades, the organization has not, in fact, adopted a “vision for peace,” nor have its leaders imagined they could set conditions that would change enduring socio-political and economic structures so as to ensure a “peaceful outcome” in the communities in which they have long worked. Instead, their decades of experience with the conflict in Northern Ireland have led Foundation leaders to a modesty about what they can do to “resolve” or “transform” that nation’s conflict, one that has led them to the view that only those engaged in conflicts can ultimately arbitrate their cessation or continuation. This stance entails a persistent and long-lived effort to provide opportunities for those involved in the country’s enduring social and economic conflicts to identify their understandings of the reasons for the differences, and to become aware of how “the others” engaged perceive those fissures and why.

            To address this goal, the Foundation has persistently sought to provide Northern Ireland’s traditionally disenfranchised and aggrieved populations opportunities to share their stories with others, particularly with others of opposing points of view. The goal in doing so was not to attain some sort of individual or community catharsis that thereafter would lead instantly to a new nation of cooperativeness, but instead to provide a continuous set of occasions, however tentative and humble in character, in which those engaged in conflict could articulate for themselves why it was “justified,” and whether and how conditions or perspectives might be changed to shift the ground so that such justifications could no longer persuade or engender violent action or reaction. Ultimately, the responsibility for the creation of such new or alternative community imaginaries in this scenario lay not with the would-be peacebuilder, in the guise of the Foundation or the EU or any other actor, but with citizens themselves, who were thus implicitly (and doggedly) charged with reflecting on their own assumptions and crafting new ways to envision community that did not involve violence. In short, the Foundation’s approach has both honored and recognized how deeply rooted many of the views held by citizens were, assumed they alone held the power to rethink the values and norms underpinning those perspectives and counseled patience and the provision of repeated opportunities for dialogue so as to allow key groups and individuals to reflect on their closely held views and to recast those in ways that moved away from continuing conflict.

            We were struck both by the appropriateness and sophistication of this approach to peacebuilding and by the difficulty of sustaining it amidst widespread impatience to secure “real social change” and to justify the assistance provided by the EU and others to address the nation’s needs. It is difficult not to conclude that the Foundation, in embracing perseverance, citizen responsibility for change and counseling restraint and forbearance in how quickly deeply ensconced community attitudes could be recast, has long been rowing its proverbial peace boat against the current. Why that is so illuminates some very typical and typically democratic assumptions that pervade peacebuilding efforts today. I here treat three of these very briefly, more by way of raising questions than of providing “answers” to the concerns raised.

            First, elected leaders in the nations (typically Western and Japan) providing “aid” in post- conflict scenarios are under enormous pressure to demonstrate the efficacy and especially the efficiency of their efforts. Opposition parties and would-be leaders are likely to raise persistent questions about why “those people” cannot get their act together and what “we can show” by way of real change for “our investment.” Metrics are likely to be short-term, be framed around rationalist assumptions that there is a “best way” to secure changes in prevailing community narratives and patterns of acculturation and to demand that these be employed expeditiously so as to secure conflict resolution and social change. Certainly, all of these pressures have long been at play in Northern Ireland. Notably, none conforms to the needs of the nation’s long-lived conflict.

            Second, given popular and media interest in resultse.g., no more visible or horrific events, such as bombings, from persisting enmities among groupsit is arguable whether government and NGO leaders can continue to garner political support over sufficient periods of time to permit the development of changed community narratives that hold the potential to address the endemic causes of conflict. Bluntly, can democratic populations today stay the course and persevere in attempts to ameliorate deep-set social conflicts? Evidence suggests doing so is increasingly difficult with populations whose interest in and knowledge of politics is increasingly thin, but whose demands for immediate realization of preferences are frequently far less modest.

            Finally, since democratic populations today can and often do demand that their leaders provide immediate “answers” to intractable dilemmas, it seems debatable whether those citizens can be persuaded that peacebuilding often requires social learning and that such a metric demands perseverance, patience and sustained opportunities for community-scale dialogue. It remains unclear whether western nation citizens today can accept that conflicts often do not have “an answer” that may be identified and implemented. In sum, it remains an open question whether today’s democratic electorates can tolerate ambiguity and recognize that true accountability may require social change and learning that may be difficult to attain. Experience in Northern Ireland teaches that just such patience and wisdom will be required, and repeatedly, if enduring social peace is to be achieved.