Youth in peace building and the legacy of interventions

Dr Sukanya Podder

This post is based on Dr Podder’s article ‘The power in-between: youth’s subaltern agency and the post-conflict everyday‘ and book titled Youth in Conflict and Peacebuilding: Mobilization, Reintegration and Reconciliation. The latter connects with issues of youth agency and transformative capacity in post-conflict environments.

Over the past three decades we have seen the development of ever more sophisticated peace-support interventions by international organisations, bilateral donors and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). From Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia in the early post-Cold War years to the latest interventions in South Sudan and Libya, we have seen enormous energies and resources poured into peacebuilding. Given the huge resources invested over such a long time period, it is worth asking: what is the long-term legacy of these peacebuilding interventions, and how do we go about attempting to capture this legacy?

By peacebuilding legacy I mean the long-term impact of peacebuilding interventions. This takes us beyond project and programme monitoring and evaluation to instead develop methodologies that can assess the cumulative impact of peacebuilding interventions and their relationships with associated processes such as statebuilding and development. The nub of the problem is how to dis-aggregate and ‘measure’ the outcome (not immediate output) of peacebuilding interventions. This primarily involves assessing the extent to which peacebuilding staved off conflict recidivism, and also the extent to which it contributed to linked processes of inter-group civility, civil society development, smooth political transitions, and conflict-ameliorating forms of governance. These are long-term processes that are likely to outlast any peacebuilding programme or project. Moreover, it is difficult to identify – with precision – the factors that support or interrupt any peacebuilding objective. As a result, we need to develop research tools that can help us judge peacebuilding interventions over the longer-term.

The questions are particularly pertinent given the long-term nature of violent conflict, and how successive generations engage in conflict. It is also pertinent because the current suite of conflict analysis, and monitoring and evaluation, tools while well-suited to ‘snapshot research’, is less well-equipped to examine longer-term change. Although some longitudinal survey research has been in operation for many years in Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine, these are the exceptions. In most other conflict-affected locations, we are unsure of the longer-term impact of ameliorative interventions. Often, and for understandable reasons, attention is focused on exit strategies, quick impact projects, and passing responsibility to local actors. International attention rarely has the luxury of being able to look back, yet there is a widespread consensus that peacebuilding is, by necessity, a long-term endeavor.

In order to capture the temporal aspect of change, my new research project on ‘Programming for change: Peacebuilding legacies and Young People’s Attitudes to Peace in Sierra Leone and Macedonia’ funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust (2016-2018), looks at factors that break as well as perpetuate conflict across generations. It will engage with the change agents that matter in a particular context, and the organizational legacies that help us understand these dimensions from an ‘intervention’ perspective.

Two youth programmes run by the international NGO ‘Search for Common Ground’ (SFCG) in Macedonia and Sierra Leone will be considered. Both programmes have run for over a decade and enable us to study the longer-term effects. The Macedonia programme focuses on the inter-group dynamics of peacebuilding, while the Sierra Leone programme allows an exploration of shifts in inter-generational attitudes about the role of youth as peace builders. Both cases have regular follow up and consultations with programme participants, which makes access to research subjects’ possible. These cases help us to study two key issues in relation to youth and peacebuilding, education, and the role of media, namely radio. Further, they present geographic diversity, and enable observation of different types of conflicts and peacebuilding experiences. Both cases received a lot of attention in terms of peace building resources, and are now stable transitions. As a result the peacebuilding ‘industry’ has moved on to other more urgent hotspots, leaving historical aspects that enable a study on peace building legacies.

While trends from periodic evaluations by SFCG suggest a positive correlation between positive peacebuilding and young people’s capacity as change agents, the aim here is to, (1) capture the modes of transmission of peacebuilding norms and values between the two cases; (2) examine young people’s shifting beliefs and attitudes about peace over time as a result of programme participation, (3) analyse the mechanisms of peacebuilding across inter-group and inter-generational levels and (4) determine the broader effects and cumulative peacebuilding beyond project based monitoring and evaluation.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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