Balancing theories with real action

April 16, 2010

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As a first-year master’s candidate at The Fletcher School, I am surrounded by people passionate about human security, the development gap and seemingly interminable conflict that can spring from unaddressed root causes. My background in media exposed me to such issues only peripherally and left me craving a more in-depth practical glimpse at some of the most acute problems related to and their potential solutions.

Although my courses at Fletcher have been fantastic, I was eager to see how the theories might apply on the ground.

Late last fall, Jenny Vaughan recruited me for a writing-focused internship with the Conflict Management team at Mercy Corps Cambridge. Despite my heavy course load and myriad other commitments, I jumped at the opportunity. My internship has provided the next best thing to fieldwork; by giving me access to in-depth reports on Mercy Corps’ Africa conflict management programs, this experience has vastly increased my familiarity with conflict management program design, the basics of monitoring and evaluation, and the components of successful program implementation.

One of my tasks was to finalize a fact sheet about Mercy Corps’ peace-building programs in Africa. For many of these programs, I read the 50+-page quarterly and final program reports to glean key activities, stakeholders and achievements from which to write program summaries. The fact sheet strives to concisely — and without excessive jargon — present the Conflict Management team’s most compelling triumphs in Africa.

In reading each program report, I came across so many examples of success that it was difficult to choose just a few. The Conflict Management team — both domestically and in the field — does incredible work aimed at curtailing violent conflict in instable, fragile states. Mercy Corps as a whole sees transitional environments as opportunities for positive change, and the Conflict Management team emblematizes this approach with applied programs that seek to defuse “conflict traps” by giving people tools with which to break the cycle of violence.

As one of my academic concentrations at Fletcher is conflict resolution, it has been immensely gratifying to see theories applied to critical, very real situations on the ground. This semester I have studied diverse theories of what causes conflict and what can resolve it, which are evident in Mercy Corps’ Conflict Management programs. Recognizing conflict as multi-dimensional, the Conflict Management team takes a three-prong approach to peace-building:

  1. Promoting dialogue and rebuilding relationships,
  2. Addressing causes of conflict, and
  3. Actively measuring program impact and, in the broad policy debate, strongly advocating for the kinds of programs that really work.

Each of these components has a strong theoretical background. Beyond traditional concepts of mediation and inter-group dialogue, experts such as Herbert Kelman — a Professor of Social Ethics and former Director of the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution at Harvard University — have developed the problem-solving workshop as a way to bring together different groups in a safe atmosphere with a third party facilitator.

By partnering with local organizations that can help build trust within communities, Mercy Corps’ conflict management programs can help provide this facilitation function. Improved communication between conflicting groups can reduce misunderstandings, annunciate each group’s core needs and desires, and bridge different visions of the future by identifying common interests. In Somalia, for example, Mercy Corps has effectively developed regional Peace Committees and holds regular dialogue forums for conflicting parties to identify conflict issues and develop small community projects that can help alleviate the core causes of conflict.

This second dimension, the root causes of conflict, also has a strong link to theory and has been particularly illuminating for me in studying the ways to defuse conflict. John Burton — a professor at George Mason University and author of numerous books on conflict resolution — devised a theory of basic human needs, such as identity, security and dignity which, if unfulfilled or denied, can lead to conflict. Compounding the destruction and carnage caused by war, enduring conflict can erode traditional livelihoods, devastate natural resources and leave people of all ages without the means to feed their families or buy basic necessities.

The link between economic underdevelopment and conflict is growing ever more apparent and must be addressed by any program that seeks to reduce conflict.

In Uganda, Mercy Corps has worked with communities to launch joint livelihood projects that serve at least two distinct purposes. First, they empower individuals who may have lost their land, herds or other material possessions in the war, with a purpose and a way to earn an income. Second — and equally importantly — the projects unite conflicting groups toward achieving a common goal, which has had profound impact on inter-group harmony and optimism for a brighter future.

I urge everyone interested in conflict resolution — both from the theoretical and the practical perspective — to visit Mercy Corps’ Conflict Management Sector page for a more complete overview of its approach and diverse programs, of which the Africa component is only one part.