Communicating Local Needs and Priorities: Q&A with Pamina Firchow

Posted by on Sep 8, 2019 in News | No Comments

Earlier this year, Everyday Peace Indicators Principal Investigator and CEO Pamina Firchow spoke with IPI about the EPI methodology and her book, Reclaiming Everyday Peace: Local Voices in Measurement and Evaluation After War. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

What are the Everyday Peace Indicators? Why did you create them? 

Everyday Peace Indicators (EPI) is a methodology created to help bridge the divide between everyday people and national and international elites. I co-created the methodology of EPI in collaboration with Professor Roger Mac Ginty from Durham University because we shared concerns about the ineffectiveness of top-down international peacebuilding interventions.  

Our idea was to create a mechanism that communicates local needs and priorities more effectively to decision-makers. EPI is meant to concretely inform both practitioners and researchers interested in working in conflict-affected contexts about these needs and priorities.  

We took this approach because of the critiques around peacebuilding, prevention, and sustaining peace  that point out that approaches at measurement in particular often do not adequately address the reality of people at a grassroots level. Since the indicators are generated by the people who experience “peace,” “reconciliation,” or “justice,” they can be analyzed to say something about how communities understand these concepts, what changes they expect to see, and how to measure progress. By having indicators generated by communities, interventions can be better designed and implemented to effectively meet the needs of and generate changed want by the communities themselves.  

Your book, Reclaiming Everyday Peace: Local Voices in Measurement and Evaluation After War, was published in 2018. The two cases examined in the book are those of Uganda and Colombia. Can you share some of the main takeaways and their implications?  

Reclaiming Everyday Peace uses the EPI methodology to make claims about peacebuilding effectiveness at the local level using quasi-experimental, matched-case studies of villages in Uganda and Colombia. I compared villages in Uganda and Colombia that had as similar as possible demographics, histories of violence and displacement, religious and ethnic composition, but vastly different levels of external intervention after violent events. Villages were matched for their similarities in everything but the amount of intervention with the goal of matching villages that little to no intervention with villages that received enormous amounts of external interventions – resulting in their reputation among the international community as “laboratories of peace.” 

The findings show that there are disparities between what localities need after war and the interventions external actors prioritize in their peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts. I found that conflict-affected communities with large amounts of assistance in infrastructure and development require more interventions pertaining to social cohesion and community social relations than those with little to no assistance. In other words, relationship-building efforts are fundamental for building peace and must accompany any other form of assistance after war. For example, in the village of Atiak in Northern Uganda, a major road to Juba was paved bringing with it many economic opportunities. However, the villagers have struggled to take advantage of these opportunities and instead have turned to some of the more unsavory alternatives that were also brought to the village by the road, such as easy access to alcohol and drugs. The lack of support to deal with the psychological consequences of the displacement and war, as well as a fractured community without a strong social network, have contributed to an inability for many locals to take advantage of the many resources that have been made available to this village.   

What this tells us is that without a significant investment in the social dimensions of peacebuilding work—like dialogue, conflict resolution, memorialization, and trauma healing—broader interventions including reconstruction or governance and security sector reform will not be effective at establishing  durable and sustainable peace.  

The findings of the book have major implications for how we measure peace conceptually, as well as how we measure peacebuilding effectiveness on a project level. It demonstrates the importance of including localities in the generation of statistics and numbers and not just treating people as data sources. And it stresses the critical importance of the social dimensions of peacebuilding interventions, which are often forgotten or sidelined in the rush to “reconstruct” or “stabilize.” 

You distinguish between “big-P” and “small-p” peacebuilding. What are examples where small-p peacebuilding has worked and can be built upon?  

In my work as a peacebuilder, as well as my observations as a scholar, I have identified a stark distinction in how different actors actually define and understand the concept of “peacebuilding.” Of course, the conceptual confusion surrounding peacebuilding by multiple actors is something that many scholars have identified and written about. However, I have observed that there are two primary understandings of the concept of peacebuilding.  

The first are those that understand peacebuilding as primarily international interventions, including statebuilding, security, and development work, in countries immediately recovering from conflict. This  is what I call “big-P Peacebuilding” and is generally understood as peacebuilding by large international organizations such as the UN.  

The second are those that understand peacebuilding as primarily local—at the village or neighborhood level—and relational work that attends to the social fabric of communities affected by war. This is what I call “small-p peacebuilding” and is typically  understood as peacebuilding by local and international peacebuilding NGOs.  

This distinction is useful and necessary to make since those who study and talk about “big-P Peacebuilding” are often discussing something much broader and top-down than those who are focused on the local, inter-relational “small-p peacebuilding”. These different understandings of the same concept can speak past each other and drown each other out or, worse, not communicate with each other at all. This also makes studying and measuring peacebuilding challenging, since there is no common, cross-sector understanding of what exactly is included in efforts to build peace.  

In the conclusion of your book, you mention that changes to peacebuilding intervention aren’t easy given the political economy of peacebuilding. How can funding be shifted to be more aligned with local needs?  

We can help by using tools such as Everyday Peace Indicators to facilitate communication and influence policy priorities, as well as to advocate on behalf of everyday citizens.  But donors and other international groups should not only rely on local civil society groups to understand and access local contexts; they should find ways to directly communicate and build relationships with communities. This could be done by partnering with villages or neighborhoods in different areas of a given country and working directly with local villagers to build projects and programs. Partnerships can be made with those communities that are already determined as laboratories for peace. In this way, it would be easier for donors and other international staff to be “plugged-into” local dynamics and politics and have some access to information that is often unknown or inaccessible to them.  

This would, of course, require that some senior officials in embassies and offices in capital cities get their hands dirty and spend some significant time in the field working with everyday people in situations that are often precarious. In my view, this is fundamental to changing the way in which funding works because the actual donor staff would be able to see firsthand the problems and challenges inherent in their own funding structures in each particular context. They would be able to get to know a community closely, see their work in action and understand the underlying dynamics and issues they have to deal with. 

Additionally, technical skills should not always be prioritized over contextual knowledge. The way in which international staff assignments cycle on short-term contracts in conflict-affected contexts is counter-intuitive to accomplishing the kind of long-term work necessary for building trust and relationships with local communities. International staff should have a wide-range of experiences and training, from evaluation to program implementation. This way they can speak with more authority and engage more effectively with the issues at hand. In addition, international staff with local experience and understanding can be champions of everyday people when dealing with more elite level reforms. 

In July, governments will report their progress on UN Sustainable Development Goal 16. How does EPI connect with SDG 16 and advance implementation of its indicators?  

I think the biggest advantage of EPI is its potential to be used as a powerful advocacy tool on behalf of everyday people vis-à-vis their elites and governments. In other words, EPI could help answer questions about whether or not local priorities are in line with national or elite level priorities when aspiring to attain peace, justice, or strong institutions.   

Communicating Local Peace Needs and Priorities: Q&A with Pamina Firchow 

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