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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Update from the Summer Peace Institute (SPI) --the times for a changin'

This is update 4 from SPI. As this will be too long for a facebook update, the CEDARS blog is a good place for it. Visit our FB page and take a peek at the first short updates when you want.

There's something personally challenging, almost disturbing--in a good way--in sitting with the diversity of folks who are in class with me. We're talking of folks facing conflict at the micro-level, in households for example through gender-based violence, all the way to communities and tribes in Afghanistan or Kenya, in relations of minorities with a State, all the way to State Conflicts influenced by and influencing inter-community violence. (In French we use the word "communautarisme" for the emergence of a sense of community which demands separation from and potentially violence for "the others".)

As I mentioned before, the relatively recent field of Peace-building uses similar tools and methods to what we use in community development. Not only that, but if you look across another discipline--organizational development and specifically the evolution toward soft systems or post-modern system approaches to organizational change -- you realize that we are all playing with a limited set of "ingredients" and mixing them through different processes, emphases, and ultimate goals to essentially allow human systems to engage in constructive, equitable and sustainable ways. Now, along the way, labels change because it is helpful to identify the difference between a Quiche Lorraine and a Spinach Pie, without having to read the whole recipe. This is probably why the field of Social Sciences has so many Theories and Methodologies, which require high levels of expertise to distinguish one from the other. Whether these distinctions amount to much is a debate for another day. But here's one "ingredient" that gets a rough treatment from most of us, and for which the Peace-building field may provide some interesting insights. That ingredient is time.

In a short book, which I already mentioned, Lisa Schirch discusses different time frames and the opportunities they create or allow pre-, per- and post-conflict. [If you want a timely and pragmatic sense of this reality, read her Sept. 2011 proposal for Afghanistan.] In a nutshell, it seems to me that all serious activists/practitioners and scholars of Peace-making live not just with a sense of urgency, but with a sense of respect for time, a recognition of the importance of timing. People engage in lifelong, life-changing journeys, working from the micro-level (can individuals talk to other individuals?) to the macro-level (can a policy like land rights or water access be changed to allow defusing a conflict?). But almost nowhere do you read or hear of instant sustainable change, even if once in a while a landmark is crossed (such as a law or a resolution).

In our world of development, health projects, food security, sustainable development, community development, on the other hand, we live in a world of projects: short projects, long projects, big projects, huge projects, but always projects opening, starting up, hitting bumps, correcting trajectories, hurrying to make up for initial start up delays [what a surprise!] before we need to start getting the last deliverables out, do the final evaluation and get out of Dodge. While we do see some shifts in languages from our traditional donors, this reflects so far more of a change in intentions (as in "we're serious about ownership and sustainability, yes we are."), but limited change in the reality of a world of projects (as in "after achieving 'transformational change' and impact in the first 3 years, the project will scale up and ensure sustainability in the next 2.") To which we reply, "Amen. For sure we will."

Maybe once more funding goes to the field of Peace-building, the same cognitive dissonance about time will affect it, but right now at least from my limited perspective, I have the sense that practitioners of Peace-building build with time, while we build as if time were an accidental constraint which we are ultimately going to overcome. This delusion is perhaps fed by the illusion that time is fungible for money. After all, it works for infrastructure projects. If a road will take a year to build normally, triple the money, hire night crews, pay overtime and you can get it made in 6 months. Why shouldn't it work for community processes?

The easy answer is, because that is not how human complex adaptive systems behave -- never have never will.

In the pursuit of sustainable development, we have learned how to cheat. After all we will monitor how many stakeholder meetings took place, whether minutes were taken, and what decisions were made. We can also get drugs delivered, checklists checked, and training implemented. The funding carrot will not be mentioned as the main reasons why stakeholders agreed -- for now -- to play along. We will report success. A lone sociology master student will come later and question why "it was not sustainable", but who will read that?

The Spinach Quiche of CEDARS (sorry, the Sustainability Framework) still offers a way to start putting the the project-cart behind the horse of pursuing a public good defined by "the community", or at least some of its key stakeholders. This is what is behind the processes of consultation, system and stakeholder mapping, visioning and scenario development. It's interesting that this has remained one of the most self-evident steps to local actors, and one of the hardest to implement by projects. It's somewhat validating to me to see that, in another field, where social capital, mutual negotiation and understanding, and collaboration are essential (but aren't these things essential to sustaining health outcomes for the poor?) these steps are front and center.

I hope they remain so, even as resources accrue to carry out the work. And I hope the global health world rediscovers this.[*]

Over and out --

[*] ps -- the fact that we, in the health sector, have hard metrics of success does not change the fact that when we talk about sustainable success, these metrics are insufficient predictors and social processes are central. This unedited blog entry is about those.