Rainwater harvesting … and conflict resolution

Ho-Won Jeong, editor, Conflict Intervention and Transformation: theory and practice, Rowman and Littlefield International, London / New York, 2019, pp. x and 211.

This book consists of eight substantial chapters: all are theoretically informed, thoroughly researched, clearly written and stimulating. This combination should mean that Conflict Intervention and Transformation succeeds in its aim of being useful to policy makers and practitioners alike.

Ho-Won Jeong, a senior editor of the International Journal of Peace Studies, has brought together an important collection of pieces which convey current thinking on best practice, and which explore crucial issues. His own prefatory chapter is a model of clear exposition, setting out careful distinctions and describing the different stages and dynamics of ‘intervention for conflict transformation’ in relation to society-level and international disputes. He argues the need for ‘system transformation’ where conflicts are ‘rooted in socioeconomic and political structures … repeated tensions need to be reframed as more than isolated incidents that occasionally surface and submerge’.

Setting out ‘conditions for a relationship change’ between the different parties to conflicts, he explores the issues shaping ‘attitudinal changes’; ways of ‘overcoming incompatibilities in goals’; and the importance of anticipating the challenges which there will be to attempts at transformation – most often from those who believe they have a stake in maintaining current structures of oppression and inequality.

Sara Hellmüller’s chapter stresses the need for alertness to local specificities and the subjective perspectives of people ‘on the ground’ when designing and delivering a mediation process to get beyond conflict and the conditions that generate conflict. These are principles which are often stated, but all too rarely acted on in ways which are truly inclusive. As she states, ‘peacebuilding is filled with buzzwords … concepts that are regularly referred to, but whose real value is diluted the more they are used’.

Siobhan Byrne and Allison McCulloch consider ‘feminist lessons for conflict transformation and power sharing’. They note that emerging proposals to move beyond the recent / current conflict in Syria often refer in positive terms to the experience of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, which is often seen as a model for post-conflict work in ethnically divided societies.

The authors offer an important critical corrective to this roseate view, stating that, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, such mistakes as ‘the systematic exclusion of women and a gender perspective … have created significant challenges for women’s inclusion in post-conflict political channels’. At a formal level, this negative lesson of the 1995 Dayton Accords has been recognised by the United Nations. Nevertheless, as consideration is given to the possibility of applying the lessons of peacebuilding from former Yugoslavia to a post-conflict Syria, there is insufficient real consideration being given to the ways that women’s voices and needs were side-lined in the 1990s, and subsequently.

Most chapters in this book draw on specific and concrete case studies. Siobhan McEvoy-Levy’s piece on ‘placemaking for peacebuilding’ is exemplary in this respect. One of the detailed pieces of work she highlights suggests the effectiveness of community gardens as a ‘shared space during armed conflict and in post-conflict situations’. Members of a Quaker organisation, the American Friends Service Committee, who have used gardening as a focus for positive work in Bosnia-Herzegovina, make a simple and useful point about their approach: ‘we never come and officially say “Today we will have a meeting about reconciliation at 10.00 or 11.00”. We only have meetings … about agriculture [;] we post a notice saying “today will be about composting or rainwater harvesting” … [people] know that everyone should come and participate. But, never meetings solely for reconciliation’.

McEvoy-Levy looks at ‘spatial interventions to build capacity for peace’ in Northern Ireland, noting that many of these have been ‘focussed on commercial regeneration, tourism and increasing urban transportation connections. Liberal economic placemaking, where the market is seen to be the answer to entrenched hostility, has promoted luxury housing development, upscale consumption spaces and rebranding Belfast as hip, friendly and cosmopolitan’. She asks why such initiatives have ‘progressed much more rapidly’ than ‘integrated schools, for example, or the creation of dedicated, extracurricular youth spaces’.

Critical recognition that a focus on post-conflict economic development does not address other important issues shapes a chapter by Geneviève Parent, co-written with Ho-Won Jeong. This notes that in many locations ‘postwar emotional wounds have often been left intact … the manipulation of perceptions and emotions towards former adversarial group members … serves the solidification of power by parochial political elites’.

In an important corrective to simplistic models of ‘contact theory’, the authors stress that ‘when conflict groups living in proximity see each other as a threat to one’s existence, geographical proximity is more likely to foster opposition, enmity and aggression than positive relations’. In this well-structured chapter, Parent’s fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina is used as a basis for discussing ‘how distrust, fear and other negative emotions can be intensified’ through the development of ‘in-group bias’. It also provides a detailed example of how, with appropriate approaches, ‘an opportunity to improve intergroup relations leads to developing positive emotions’. There is hope in the fact that such reconciliation processes can develop positive perceptions of ‘the other’ and build trust.

The longest chapter in the book addresses a most important and pressing issue. Nathan C Funk looks for ‘positive dynamics amid complex identity conflict’ in the counter position between Islam and ‘the West’. Funk explores ‘principles that might be applied to de-escalate Islamic-Western conflict, foster new narratives, and stimulate cooperative efforts to advance an inclusive, human security agenda’. As he states, ‘arguing merely for a reassertion of political liberalism or a return to the traditional conduct of international relations constitutes an inadequate response’ to current distances and antipathies. He urges the need to avoid ‘static, overgeneralised assertions about innate cultural differences’, and stresses the importance of improving intercultural relationships between ordinary people.

Review published July 2019