By: Lindsey Doyle
Cross-posted from the Peace and Collaborative Development Network article from September 13, 2017.
The Los Angeles Times recently featured a story about a Syrian theater troupe, Saraqeb Youth Group, that performs pop-up comedy shows for audiences of hundreds of Syrians. Founded in 2006, the Saraqeb Youth Group produces political satire plays reminiscent of the doll protests in Barnaul against Russian police in 2012. The group established makeshift schools when armed violence shut down places of learning and its members have no intention of leaving Syria despite on-going fighting.
While mainstream media may highlight these examples because of their novelty, there is growing awareness within the conflict management field that these types of activities are actually quite common in insecure environments, and play a key – yet unconventional – role in building peace.
In May 2017, more than 300 practitioners, policymakers, and civil society leaders from 47 countries convened at the 2017 Annual Forum on Peace and Development hosted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For the first time, the Forum showcased ten artist-peacebuilders from conflict-affected countries in a live, public performance to highlight the importance of creativity in peacebuilding.
Also precedent-setting was the Forum’s inclusion of a session on how the arts contribute to sustainable peace, sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Swedish Institute, and SIPRI. In this conversation, artists and donors alike voiced challenges they face in pitching, implementing, and evaluating arts-based peacebuilding – sometimes at odds with each other’s perspectives.
Expanding on this initial conversation, I see five main challenges that face proponents of creative approaches to peacebuilding:
1. Large-scale international development and conflict management agencies and organizations do not typically have in-house expertise on how to best engage with arts-based civil society, with some notable exceptions. Some conflict specialists lack the toolkit on how to engage the artistic community and use creative expression in their own work. This represents a skills gap and is the result of de-prioritization of emotive or indirect approaches to conflict management. It has not yet been seriously considered as a thematic area in which to invest human resources.
2. Terminology about conflict transformation/management between the artistic and political sectors differs, inhibiting the integration of tools. Misguided assumptions about the arts create a “blind spot” in which artistic expertise or tools are overlooked during policy or programmatic development processes that could otherwise be transformational. When arts-based approaches are framed as “strategic communications,” organizations don’t necessarily use best practices nor realize the full potential of artists to help reach peacebuilding goals.
3. There is no institutional “center of gravity” where best-in-class expertise, research, dialogue, programming, and policy-shaping on the role of the arts in conflict management can take place. Most efforts are dispersed across many different organizations, bureaucratic areas, and think tanks.
4. Within the community of people who already understand and apply arts-based approaches to conflicted areas, there are fissures. One of the fault lines is between those who think that the arts should be increasingly applied to state-led diplomacy and those who think that it is a “slippery slope” leading to the exportation of Western ideology and the superimposition of certain arts forms over localized forms. The reticence to apply the arts to diplomacy emanates from the valid concern that because art is a powerful vehicle for ideas, it can easily be misused and abused by state interests.
In addition, there is on-going debate about the feasibility and merit of measuring the impact of art in peacebuilding contexts, stemming from the fundamental differences between the arts and sciences. Some argue that arts-based interventions receive less financial support because of the dearth of scientific evidence about its effectiveness, given that data is part of bridging the communication gap. Others posit that the existing tools we have for measuring outcomes don’t fully capture the benefits of applying the arts to peacebuilding – that there is more to it than what meets the eye. While a middle ground is emerging, the debate is far from over.
5. Arts programming is still plagued by the same weaknesses of donor-driven grant-making that can limit its long-term economic viability. Like many programs, those based in the arts will be dependent on private donors and governments until they seek out ways to make their work profitable in its own right.
Without a new financial model, this kind of work will fall victim to the same challenge of achieving sustainability. Artists and organizations in conflict-affected countries will continue to compete for relatively small amounts of funding. This can generate a lack of coherence and cooperation among arts-based civil society organizations that is otherwise expected, and result in leaders in the arts continuing to struggle to support themselves financially despite their effective work.
So, how can we overcome these challenges?
Conflict management practitioners and institutions can:
Governments and civil society organizations in conflict-affected countries can:
Donors and grant-making organizations can:
In short, we have our work cut out for us, but with growing awareness, these changes in our field are possible. Soon examples like the Saraqeb Youth Group in Syria won’t be regarded as out of the ordinary, but rather, critical parts of making conflict-affected places more livable and secure.
If you are interested in learning more about the role of the arts in peacebuilding, check out the new online course developed by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy called Media and Arts for Peace.