Peace(building) and Empowerment

I was recently trying to recall my first association with the term ‘peace’. As someone educated in the West, it was unsurprising to find that my first understanding of ‘peace’ was related to the end of violent wars and several European cities where famous treaties were signed… Studying International Relations (IR) contributed very little to change this perception, although it was precisely during my undergraduate years that I first came in touch with Peace Studies/Research and the idea of ‘positive peace’.

I remember there was a special multidisciplinary course available at my university and I was one of the rare IR students attending. Other students were from Medicine, Economics, and all sorts of completely different courses from mine. It felt like a ‘vacation course’, as it was taken lightly by most, including our professor who, whilst very knowledgeable, didn’t really put much pressure on us to read and deliver. Now that I think about it, this whole setting clearly reflected the prevalent IR mind-set at the time: ‘serious’ IR had a strong ‘realist’ base, whereas anything that could refer to a better society and the need to pursue an ‘ideal’ of society and human relations was termed as ‘utopic’ and therefore not really ‘serious’. It was a depressing interpretation of Carr’s classic ‘Twenty Years of Crisis’.

In spite of all this, the course was just enough to open my mind to something different, something that was not even mentioned in our IR curriculum, where we in fact never discussed ‘peace’. 15 years later, my understanding of what ‘peace’ means has certainly changed, and I could quote here different interpretations, social cosmologies, typologies and gradations. Whilst this will certainly constitute part of future conversations in this blog, today I want to focus on what I perceive today as being a crucial aspect of ‘peace’ — empowerment.

The link between peace and empowerment may seem obvious to some of you. If we go back to the idea of structural violence, developed by Johan Galtung, there is no doubt that addressing power issues is a fundamental aspect in order to build positive peace. From this perspective, peace is not related exclusively to the absence of war (which is only one of the may expressions of direct violence), but oppression (structural violence) in its many different manifestations (and which may refer to the economic system, the state, governance, patriarchy… just to name a few).

But what does empowerment mean? In my PhD thesis, recently concluded, I refer to two approaches to empowerment. On the hand, we have the mainstream approach of empowerment, which is part of the discourse of most development agencies. This discourse was developed in the early 1990s, when certain agencies, in particular the UNDP adopted a concern with human development, which, in turn, entailed ‘capacity development’ and the ‘expansion of human freedoms’ — this latter idea popularised in particular thanks to the work of Nobel Winner economist Amartya Sen. Since the early 2000s, the World Bank has also become vocal about empowerment, having released many publications on the topic. An interesting aspect of the Bank’s publications is the effort to develop a comprehensive framework of empowerment, which focuses on empowerment as a variable dependent on the interplay between agency and the opportunity structure. Here agency is understood as related to the assets one has, the ability to make purposeful choices, whereas the opportunity structure refers to “aspects of the institutional context within which actors operate that influence their ability to transform agency into action”.[1] I would like to highlight the very loose understanding of ‘opportunity structure’ in this approach. Ultimately what the Bank emphasises is the domain of state institutions and the extent to which they respond to what is perceived as a Western ‘ideal’ modus operandi — that is, the formula ‘market + democracy’ (yes, market comes first).

Because of the rationale that underlies this kind of empowerment discourse, I labelled these approaches as ‘technical’, mostly because they leave implicit the idea that there is a formula that could (and should) be implemented in any state, and which would directly have positive empowering effects on people. In this regard, they related very well with the current dominant peacebuilding formula, which puts state institutional reform (statebuilding) as the main condition to sustainable peace.

Ironically, these technical approaches to empowerment are fairly recent and stand in sharp contrast to previous discourses of empowerment. In fact, at the opposite spectrum we have what I refer to as ‘emancipatory approaches to empowerment’. They stem from the 1970s and 1980s, when the word ‘empowerment’ became popular, and linked to emancipatory movements (e.g., women’s movement, black power). In this version, empowerment had a strong critical connotation and it aimed at questioning the deeper power structures that created disempowerment in the first place (e.g., patriarchy, the world economic system).

One of the intellectuals who influenced this radical connotation was the Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire and his work on adults’ literacy and the idea of ‘conscientisation’. According to Freire, conscientisation means being able to expand the boundaries of what one deems possible, distinguishing between the actual consciousness (the current state) and the potential consciousness of the self (what could be).[2] In this regard, empowerment is about emancipation — the overcoming of the condition of oppression, which implies the contestation of power as it currently stands.

How does this all relate to peace? Even if we have a minimalist approach to peace — as a state of ‘non-war’ — the question to be posed is ‘what has caused war (or any form of direct violence for that matter) in the first place?’ The common resumption of war after peace agreements have been signed is an indicator that, as long as power issues are not adequately addressed, direct violence most probably won’t cease. This means not only that peacebuilding processes need to engage with the ‘local’, but also that power distribution in its many forms (material, political, social, etc.) and in different levels (global, local, etc.) needs to be an explicit topic in the discussion table.

Current critical literature on peacebuilding has been vocal on the need to bring power issues to the surface. The discussion regarding local ownership in peacebuilding processes, hybridity and emancipatory forms of peace have helped us getting out of the box.[3] Focusing on empowerment is an additional way to think critically of peacebuilding and brings further space to think about how to address what has brought about violence in the first place, in particular by linking what appear to be ‘localised problems’ to global and systemic problems and by moving beyond the external/internal dichotomy that often prevails in the critical analysis of peacebuilding.

[1] Alsop, R., Bertelsen, M. F. and Holland, J. (2006) Empowerment in Practice. From Analysis to Implementation. Washington: The World Bank, pp. 9-44.

[2] Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books.

[3] See, for example: Donais, T. (2012), Peacebuilding and Local Ownership. Post-Conflict Consensus-Building. Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding. London: Routledge; Richmond, O. P. (2011). A Post-Liberal Peace. London, New York: Routledge; Mac Ginty, R. and Richmond, O. P. (2013) The Local Turn in Peace Building: a Critical Agenda for Peace. Third World Quarterly, 34 (5), 763-783.


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