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Turning Novelty into Necessity: The Arts in Peacebuilding

PCDN Global

September 13, 2017

By: Lindsey Doyle

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 of this year, 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 exceptionsSome 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:

  • Connect with artists to improve in-country conflict analysis and establish trust with local counterparts. When conflict management and development interventions fall short, institutions often point to a lack of cultural sensitivity that stunted their impact. Peacebuilding efforts can fail when external peacebuilders remain disconnected from the local population. Artists can serve as prime educators for third parties initiating contact with a country, province, or community to help inform them of what is culturally relevant. Engaging with artistic products prior to and during a scoping mission can very efficiently provide a country team coming from a Western-based institution with a better understanding of conflict dynamics, as well as information on how they can work with existing artistic networks and platforms to build programs and increase their collective impact.

Information gathered through engagement with the arts may also provide insights into the “silent majority” of people, rather than simply the political elite, which is often the first point of in-country contact. Showing respect for a different community’s cultural and artistic (and sporting) practices is a quick way for outsiders to build trusting relationships that will become important in the design and implementation of a program. Finally, rather than communicating through Western languages, artistic practices that do not depend on written communication are useful tools to overcome language barriers, and reach people who are illiterate or have impediments to verbal communication.

  • Create a seat at the table for artists. The discussion about the role of artists in reducing violent conflict can be situated within the on-going discourse about the need for a more diverse set of civil society actors to be involved in peacebuilding. Research has established that peace processes that involve that civil society, even from outside of the negotiating table, have a much higher likelihood of reaching and adhering to an agreement. Political transitions are the exact time to be engaging artistic networks to glean their insights, expression, contacts, and guidance, particularly in regards to the many ways in which artists contribute to post-conflict justice, reconciliation, and reconstruction.
  • Provide low-cost, arts-based emergency education. Similar to educational programs such as UNICEF’s “School in a Box” and “Recreation Kit,” arts-based practices that require little infrastructure and supplies may be capable of filling the need for emergency education in resource-poor communities, allowing children to take back their childhood at a critical moment. Roving participatory theater groups in conflict-affected areas, such as those run by Search for Common Ground, could be scaled to meet the widespread need for emergency education.
  • Apply existing techniques to increase physical movement of survivors of non-lethal attacks. In post-conflict countries, there is often a disproportionate number of amputees and individuals showing physical signs of victimization. Existing approaches for introducing group movement among people with special needs, such as AXIS Dance Company, can be applied to support people whose mobility has been affected by violence.
  • Broaden the scope of cultural diplomacy. Many of the arts-related programs that receive support from donor governments often take the form of short-term, visiting performances with minimal impact on civilian security. State-sponsored cultural diplomacy is often designed to be unidirectional, rather than two-way exchanges of artists that see each other on equal footing to examine topics such as security, politics, health, education, and so on.

In this context, visiting artists are viewed as external to the problem sets that affect their own countries and are not challenged to think about how their art could improve local conditions. Performance tours of this kind are merely one type of engagement among many that are possible. The toolbox for strategic arts-based approaches to conflict is much more expansive and understands artists as agents of change within that environment.


Governments and civil society organizations in conflict-affected countries can:

  • Use the arts to efficiently communicate the gains of a negotiated settlement. Following the signing of a peace accord, there is often confusion about the implications of the agreement and information gaps between capital cities and the rural or outlying areas where access to information may be limited.

In contrast to site visits or meetings with officials, models of roving theater and tours put on by musicians and dance companies can inform the way that the implications of a negotiated settlement are communicated to the public. They can serve as a feedback mechanism for citizens to express grievances with the outcome through role play, role reversal, and post-performance discussions -- a possible early warning function and means of quelling fears and debunking myths about what the agreement is and is not. The Child Soldier Handbook for Security Sector Actors recommends that mobile theater performances and skits can serve as tools to even prevent the recruitment of child soldiers and to educate combatants about forthcoming disarmament processes.

  • Take advantage of the social bonding generated by artistic practices while conducting disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, and rehabilitation (DDRR). So far, the conflict resolution field has only applied performing arts-based approaches to the last two “R's” in DDRR – reintegration and rehabilitation. Much of this work is based on research that movement contributes to social bonding. Beyond this, because armed groups frequently use synchronized physical movement and song to mobilize and motivate combatants, one could see the possibility of repurposing it to support demobilization -- a time when ex-combatants have needs of non-war-based comradery, sense of belonging, and self-efficacy. Scholarship should work to better understand the possible role of the performing arts as an unlikely tool to contribute to the demobilization of armed groups within existing DDRR structures.  


Academia can:

  • Establish a credible research agenda. As we continue to debate the optimal ways to communicate the gains generated by arts-based work, using a combination of qualitative and quantitative (mixed) methods can answer some of the more pressing questions. Scholarship on arts-based peacebuilding needs to make its way into a more diverse set of academic journals, conferences, and conversations.
  • Improve monitoring and evaluation processes for arts-based work. Start measuring what conflict practitioners and policymakers care about. Work with organizations already doing arts-based work to develop relevant theories of change. To do so, draw lessons from evaluating the arts in the education sector.


Donors and grant-making organizations can:

  • Take a chance on the “unconventional.” Before dismissing arts-based approaches as peripheral, look into existing studies on the effectiveness of arts-based approaches, understand their scope and limits. Consider how problems that we encounter with implementation in insecure environments might be solved by creative, rather than critical, thinking. Provide pilot funding for projects within the context of support for civil society.


Artists can:

  • Create a community of practice and build in-house expertise on how to engage with the policy and donor communities. Several practitioners and scholars have identified the need for better connectivity among artists working in the area of peacebuilding. This community of practice should connect with larger communities of practice, such as the conflict management field more broadly to ensure that another silo is not created and then dismissed. It should include liaisons and communicators versed in both art and politics that can bridge the gaps between the sectors.
  • Look to social entrepreneurship for a business plan. Artists have historically created amazing works on very small budgets, in part due to the limits imposed by underfunding; however, the scale of work necessary to bridge the gap between the grassroots arts community and the broader political sector in conflict-affected contexts will require much more. Social entrepreneurship frequently depends on hybrid models that combine for-profit and non-profit activities, price-discrimination for clients who are more financially capable, and a diverse set of services that meets the needs of clients or beneficiaries. The arts in peacebuilding need a business model that does not depend solely upon grants that are already scarce. 


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


Lindsey Doyle has worked on U.S. foreign policy toward conflict-affected countries, and on youth and community development overseas. She holds a BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and an MS in Peace and Conflict Research from Uppsala University where she was a Rotary Peace Fellow. 

Follow her on Twitter @Lindsey_Doyle_


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