Learning from failure to improve peace education work

By ELTON SKENDAJ, Visiting Research Fellow, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame

Original post found in the Global Campaign for Peace Education Newsletter, February 2012 issue.

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I write this as a research fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame, where reflection and action in peace research are encouraged. In a review of current practices of peace education by US Institute of Peace, the writers celebrate the diversity of peace practice, but sound a note of caution that we need better evaluation of the strategies that work in peace education. In this spirit of reflection, I want to make a plea for learning from our failures and sharing information about when our strategies work and when they don’t. As peace educators, we often share information about what we consider successful outcomes of our efforts, and failures to achieve the peace we seek are used to justify the claim that more peace education activities are needed.

Why is it that, despite all resources spent in rebuilding post-war countries, we know so little about what kinds of interventions are effective, and under what conditions? Part of the reason why we do not know the conditions under which peace education interventions, such as dialogue, work is because both scholars and practitioners hold these values dearly, and therefore find it hard to test them. While necessary to sustain our work, the passion for peace education might make some of us less likely to test our actions. In addition, negative evaluation of the peace work might undermine future funding of the organizations being assessed. I will use an example from my own experience as a scholar practitioner to argue that failure is good for learning and should be welcomed by practitioners and donors alike in order to advance what we know.

Our knowledge of peacebuilding would increase if the implicit theories of change underlying our education strategies would be made explicit and tested on the ground. A theory or hypothesis of change gives the reasons and mechanisms (why and how) for the process that links a set of activities to the desired social goal. For example, the theory of change for facilitating dialogue between antagonistic groups is that people who dislike each other will recognize the humanity of the other and either transform their identity to become a more inclusive group, or engage in bargaining negotiations to resolve the conflict. The expectation for change is that the process of dialogue brings peace, an outcome that can be measured in various ways. The contact hypothesis underpins the expectation of positive change through dialogue. The premise of the contact hypothesis is that interpersonal contact among majority and minority groups reduces animosity and stereotypes, thereby contributing to improved inter-group relations. Yet, we know that dialogue sometimes fails to produce peaceful interactions or broader social peace. For instance, dialogue between antagonistic individuals may fail when one group presents itself as more powerful and arrogant than its interlocutor(s). Negative stereotypes can then be reinforced instead of transformed. Dialogue is also not a sufficient condition for peace, as evidenced in places like Bosnia that had high inter-ethnic dialogue, intermarriage and cooperation before the war. In addition, if dialogue is used during the violent stage of a conflict, its effectiveness is less likely than in the later post-war stage.

Let me illustrate the importance of making our theories of change explicit with a personal example from my work as a practitioner. Between 2002 and 2005, in collaboration with the Hague Appeal for Peace and the United Nations, I developed and implemented a peace and disarmament education project in Albania. Initially, I thought that building a culture of peace was the process through which to achieve peace and democratization goals. According to Jayantha Dhanapala, a culture of peace refers to “a set of values, attitudes, modes of behavior and ways of life that reject violence and prevent conflicts by tackling their root causes to solve problems through dialogue and negotiations among individuals, groups and nations.” Albania was emerging from a state collapse in 1997 during which 2000 people died as violence and disorder reined in most of the country. I assumed that as pupils and teachers learned and applied human rights protection and conflict resolution in their daily lives, they would change their values and be less likely to resort to violence. I occupied an “in-between” position, as I linked the international organizations with the local aspects of the peace education program. One particular incident taught me a lot about how I had to change my strategies in order to achieve the overall goal.

One of the project schools had both rural pupils and urban ones. After hearing from both pupils and teachers that the urban pupils and rural pupils did not often mix, I assumed that they needed to have intensively shared experiences to become friends. Hence, the project steering group decided to sponsor several sport events, debates and cultural activities that specifically would engage the rural and urban kids. A year into the project, I still heard occasional complaints that the rural kids still “stank.” During a visit to the dormitory where the village kids stayed, I noticed a terrible stench coming from all floors. Politely, I asked the dormitory director about the smell. She said that unfortunately, the rural kids had usually two pairs of clothes with them. Since their mountainous villages were far from the town, they went home at most every two weeks. The dormitory did not have a washing machine, and only some of the pupils washed their clothes by hand in the extremely cold water. Despite frequent requests from dormitory director, the municipality had refused the dormitory’s request to buy a washing machine. The next day, we, the project local coordinators, decided to buy a washing machine and some detergent for the dormitory. The causal mechanism for the divisions between the two groups was therefore material and related to structural conditions of extreme rural poverty. While my goal remained the same, improving the relationship between the rural and urban pupils, the strategy changed. Hence, looking only for motivation might not be the most productive research strategy for changing relationships. Instead, we should look at theories of change, social and economic factors and mechanisms, and rigorously think about how changes at the micro level contribute to the macro-level.

As a practitioner, I was worried initially about reporting failures or strategy changes in my project. What if the next year’s funding would not be received? The receipt of the second year of funding relied upon spending the full amount of the first year funding, so changing strategies and funding priorities in the middle of the project might not seem “professional.” As in many projects, the last two months of the fiscal year were jammed with activities and programs, in order to assure that the full amount had been spent. When I told the international project board in the peace education program about the washing machine, I was pleasantly surprised with their response. The international leaders of the project liked the learning from failure experience, and they encouraged me to write about it. Their openness to dialogue and communication reminded me of why I was attracted to peace education in the first place. And that is when I learned not to be afraid of admitting failure in my expectations, and to use the new knowledge to better achieve our goals in peace education.

Recommended Resource:
John Paul Lederach et al. 2007. Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Tool Kit. http://agnt.org/snv/PeacebuildingToolkit.pdf

Elton Skendaj is a visiting research fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He holds a Ph.D. in government from Cornell University. He was the National Coordinator for the joint project of the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs and the Hague Appeal for Peace referenced above. This two-year international pilot project on “Peace and Disarmament Education Initiatives to Disarm Children and Youth” identified and created venues for peace and disarmament education in Albania. Its best practices were replicated nationally and internationally. He is currently working on a book on the role of international actors in building effective state bureaucracies and democratic institutions in post-war societies. This editorial is an excerpt from a chapter on scholar practitioners to be published in an edited volume on post-conflict peacebuilding.

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