By: Lindsey Doyle
At Ambassador Rick Barton’s book launch at the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) for Peace Works, he was asked how to make the American public care about peacebuilding. Barton replied, saying:
Regardless of the rising death tolls to over 500,000 lives lost, the American public’s attention toward Syria has remained relatively low throughout the conflict. However, attention spiked at two key moments: when President Obama “drew a line in the sand” demanding during Congressional recess that representatives return to DC and work on this issue, and again when the photo of Alan Kurdi, Syrian child awash on the shore of Turkey went viral.
These sentiments were echoed at the 2018 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development hosted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
One civil society leader said, “We incorrectly assumed that if people have knowledge, they will care and act. This is no longer true. Words such as ‘genocide’ and ‘terror’ are now just throw-away terms.”
This effect is widespread.
A World Bank official who works on conflict issues cited the example of the former Indonesian president who lost the 2014 election in large part because he was supportive of peacebuilding.
“Public opinion and narrative are so critical,” he reflected, “it is more urgent now than ever.”
By the OECD’s count, come 2030, 80 percent of the world’s poor will live in 58 of the most so-called fragile environments in the world. It is clear that we will not address the magnitude of this problem if the only people caring about and working on these issues remains relatively small. Large-scale solutions will need to be less technocratic and more attractive to a wider base – a base of conflict management professionals and public constituencies.
Such solutions will be found in unlikely places – starting with stories.
The current dialogue around fragile states creates an opening for work that taps into emotion in effective, strategic ways. Larry Cooley, Jonathan Papoulidis, and others have highlighted that the overarching framework for addressing instability at scale must bolster social capital through “bonding, bridging, and linking.”
Cooley and Papoulidis argue that communities with low levels of cooperation need to “bond” internally to improve self-help and self-recovery approaches. Those communities then need to “bridge” to other communities where ties have broken down, in many cases as a result of violent conflict. Simultaneously, those communities need to “link” to institutions such as governments to repair the social contract. All three processes need to take place at the same time to avoid retrenching patronage networks, ineffective cooperation, and power asymmetries within an already “wicked problem.”
So, what do stories have to do with all this?
Stories generated by media and arts tools are adept at increasing social capital, shaping narratives, and driving public opinion in ways that technocratic solutions are not. These approaches should be “layered into” scaling processes in unstable environments – just like any other type of intervention – to supplement existing best practices.
At the aforementioned Stockholm Forum, a group of media and arts professionals who have dedicated their entire careers and even risked their lives to work on social change gathered together. They dialogued with policymakers and peacebuilding practitioners about how media and arts can change the way of doing business in the peace and development sectors.
Their responses speak to the current thinking around addressing fragility. Here are a few of the key takeaways from the session led by MAP, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, and the Swedish Embassy in Pretoria called, “Capturing Hearts and Minds,” presented in the framework of bonding, bridging, and linking:
Media and Arts in Bonding
The landscape of how people connect today is changing. Iyad Kallas, Program Director of Radio SouriaLi, knows this well. Radio SouriaLi is a digital radio station with 500,000 followers that originally served Syrians living inside Syria.
Today, with the refugee crisis, 40 percent of SouriaLi’s listeners are located inside Syria, 40 percent are Syrians who have been displaced to other countries, and another 20 percent are international audiences. Kallas describes his work with 27 staff located in 15 different countries as falling somewhere between news-making and storytelling.
The beauty of radio, he says, is that “you can be anonymous under an abusive regime or an armed group. You hear people breathing through the phone. You hear the fear in their voice.”
“Drama,” he says, “is great carrier to explain very complicated concepts related to citizenship and active participation in building your own future.”
Bonding is at work here – and at scale.
A desire to belong sits at the heart of why many individuals turn to violence through groups that provide such pathways. In a country where media and arts outlets were some of the first targets in 2012, SouriaLi is a neutral platform for a diverse range of Syrians to hear from one another, whether through segments on food, proverbs, jokes, local art, drama series, current events, music, and more – most importantly, to feel that they belong.
What plans are we making now to support expansive networks like these for when there are openings for bridging and linking, too?
Not only does drama explain, it also bonds people through solidarity and psycho-social support after traumatic experiences related to violence. This is perhaps the best-documented aspect of the role of arts in peacebuilding.
Not only are there proven approaches to healing and community-building that use art, dance, theatre, music, painting, and so on for improving psychological outcomes, there are now linkages between those psychological changes improving the prospects for peacebuilding, social cohesion, and reconciliation.
Media and Arts in Bridging
South African playwright and winner of numerous national and international awards, Mike van Graan, spoke to the challenges of building bridges between different segments of post-apartheid society. He ran the One City, Many Cultures Festival in the City of Cape Town in the late 1990s as a way to bring together divided religious and racial groups.
A Jewish man, a Muslim woman, and even one of the main vigilante groups (which was the subject of the play) that attended the festival all had similar reactions: they felt that their views were reflected in a humanized way, and they felt motivated to socialize with people who they previously perceived as too different.
Van Graan points out that the show “put things on the stage that showed people that they are all driven by the same things. On a very basic level, this provided a basis for them to talk to each other.”
Later, Van Graan created the production of Brothers in Blood. This play ran from 1999 and continues today, effectively capturing the nuances of how to bring people together who may have unequal amounts of power. Van Graan’s work bridges without creating a “false equivalence.” He doesn’t write off large-scale harm inflicted upon one group of people under the banner of unifying a post-conflict country, but rather, bridges while taking power dynamics into account.
This is why context-specific, “trusted messengers” who have access to specific contexts are critical to making any bridging process actually work.
Trusted messengers like Van Graan with a lifetime repertoire of over 30 plays about South African society were the ones called in to help to level the playing field of South Africa’s cultural policy in the 1990s – one vehicle of many to help ensure continuity of any political settlement.
Today, while political, economic, environmental, and social challenges in South Africa are still present, it is culturally and artistically vibrant, making it more resilient to shocks and stress than it otherwise would have been.
Media and Arts in Linking
Lastly, in linking, media and arts practitioners generate the necessary tension between the state and the citizenry to help grow responsive, legitimate institutions. They both poke and prod authority – holding them accountable in different ways – as well as their fellow members of civil society to uphold their end of the social contract bargain.
On the side of exposing state abuse and weakness, three examples illustrate the point:
Hani Abbas, award-winning Syrian cartoonist and member of Cartooning for Peace, draws images about the Syrian regime and consequences of the war that drive at the heart. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Patrick Chappatte, who draws for The New York Times describes Abbas’ work saying, “Cartoons are shortcuts – shortcuts that convey meaning quickly.”
“It’s like a slap in the face.”
A renowned South Africa journalist pointed to how complex social issues, such as human trafficking, need to be put into simple terms for elected officials to action on them. On current human trafficking of women and girls in South Africa’s cities, the journalist sees it as her role to “embarrass the authorities to get them to act when they won’t do their constitutional duty.”
Before becoming Sweden’s first Cultural Attaché to South Africa last year, Hedda Sjögren put over 2,000 decision makers, such as NATO generals, warlords, and many others, in over 40 countries on stage in front of large audiences to portray female human rights defenders through tours of SEVEN the Play, most recently performed at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva with the support of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
Sjögren highlights the importance of being “witnessed by their constituency.”
This play has resulted in concrete policy changes that demonstrate governmental responsiveness, dialogue, and progress on gender equality and women’s rights with its citizens.
Sjögren adds that art, if done well, “holds decision makers to account emotionally, not just to the facts.” This is sometimes exactly what is needed to shift power dynamics.
In the area of motivating personal civic duty, one example stands out:
A representative from Search for Common Ground shared the example of the reality television show, “The President,” that aired in Palestine in 2013. The show followed 24 young Palestinians as they explored how to run for office. As a result of this show, 94 percent of young people said it resonated, 70 percent felt they could make an impact, and after one year in 2015, 6 of the 24 participants had committed to running for office when democratic elections reopened. When political apathy pervaded, popularized artistic processes were able to reignite a sense of engagement.
Media and arts, then, serve as a segue to democracy during transitional times. They push abusive governments and groups for recourse, but also make the invisible visible when freedoms of expression are restricted by force.
Kallas of Radio SouriaLi concluded, “We don’t sit in silence in the face of human rights violations. We will look for solutions while we await the rule of law to help protect freedom of expression.”
Whether we’re looking to motivate and support the American public, Indonesian electorate, the Syrian diaspora, or our own community of peace and security experts to act collectively, we must work to integrate creative, emotionally-poignant approaches into our quest for stable, productive, inclusive societies.
All individuals mentioned in this article gave consent for their names to appear.
Lindsey Doyle is the Co-founder of MAP – Media and Arts for Peace: www.mediaartspeace.com Follow her on Twitter @Lindsey_Doyle_