Go Deeper: Cultural Strategy for Peacetech (by Jacob Lefton)

Note: I wrote this essay in part to help frame the arts program at Build Peace 2016. One of the questions I seek to answer is why arts and cultural work are integral to the development of peacetech processes. This year’s conference theme is Toward Transformation, with focused inquiries in political and socio-cultural transformation and ethics. It’s clear to me that arts and cultural work are a series of tools and methodologies that can broaden the engagement and outcome of transformation in political and socio-cultural arenas, and aid people in working through ethical questions. This essay takes the long view: arts and cultural work broaden and deepen transformative processes over long, generational periods of time—and we should plan for that.

Emerging technology continues to be a powerful tool in peacebuilding initiatives, but given a lack of cultural strategy, peacetech’s long-term impacts are unknown at best and destined to fail at worst. Understanding and engaging cultural contexts in peacebuilding processes is vital to their success—the renowned peacebuilding scholar, John Paul Lederach, says, “peace is seen not merely as a stage in time or a condition. It is a dynamic social construct.”

Peacetech is also a political force in its ability to flatten hierarchies and create the conditions for massive, nuanced citizen participation in governance. Use of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring movement is one example. It is a stark reminder of the old adage, “politics follows culture.” As peacetech connects the halls of power to grassroots movements, cultural context is everything. Helena Puig Larrauri, co-director of BuildUp, characterizes these peacebuilding implementations as “civic engagement processes that deal with conflict.” Peacetech’s broadening influence on peacebuilding requires understanding and utilization of cultural strategy.

Culture influences the shape of peacetech projects in much the same ways that it influences other aid work. Aid oriented NGOs such as Engineers Without Borders challenge themselves to bring cultural awareness to their work. The organization began by importing engineers to develop solutions to local problems, but after looking deeply into development failures, has shifted over the years to supporting people in host communities to define, develop, and own the projects. So many failure cases came from a lack of understanding engagement and cultural contexts: lack of participatory design and implementation of the work, and lack of cultural understandings.

In the last decade, it has become widely recognized that aid and peacebuilding processes must be carried out contextually, in a participatory manner, aiming to engage local stakeholders. This engagement alone is not enough to ensure a long-term sustainable success. Most peacetech projects are developed on a reactionary basis, looking to solve existing problems without addressing the long-standing cultural forces and policy issues. For example, data gathering tools only allow researchers and conflict monitors to see violence breaking out. Without being tied to a cultural strategy, these tools will only allow peacebuilders to react to problems as they come up, not move proactively to address the issues at their cultural roots.

I think Michelle LeBaron speaks truth when she writes, “cultures are like underground rivers that run through our lives and relationships, giving us messages that shape our perceptions, attributions, judgements and ideas of self and the other.” UNESCO writes, “While culture can be found at the heart of many of today’s conflicts, it is through cultural diplomacy that the root causes of violence, the prevention of crises, and the exploration of conflict-resolution and reconciliation strategies must be explored.”

A few peacetech projects embody these values. Through the ‘Make a Friend, Make Peace’ campaign, the Peace Factory connects people across the Arab-Israeli conflict as Facebook friends. While this strategy seems superficial, the guiding idea is that people from either side of the conflict never have an opportunity to interact with the ‘enemy’. The Peace Factory offers a platform for upsetting implicit biases. It’s much the same philosophy as Games for Peace, a program that brings youth from conflicts like Israel and Palestine together to co-build in the popular game Minecraft. Founder Uri Mishol describes a current reality in which Israeli youth don’t interact with Arab youth until they are on either side of guns.

What’s striking in the similarities between Games for Peace and The Peace Factory is their reliance on cultural tools and their long-term vision. The intractability of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and its impact on Middle East security, the failure of decades of attempts of international politics, is an extreme example that highlights the importance of cultural strategy. As the Culture Group writes in their report, Culture Matters: Understanding Cultural Strategy and Measuring Cultural Impact, “By investing in cultural strategies that help alter or reduce negative cultural beliefs in target audiences, we can actually begin to change the behavioral patterns that lead to disparities in our society.”

Other projects are starting to emerge that take the long view. The UNDP’s #Sudan2030 is a “foresighting experience”—a future-imagining designed to enhance strategic planning in Sudan. While not entirely a peacetech project, the initiative uses internet and social media tools to broaden its reach and bring in new stakeholders. The discussion revolves around describing a vision for the future of Sudan, with participants from government, development partners, academia, youth, and the private sector. The project is a proactive peacebuilding process, supporting Sudanese people in defining and taking ownership of the issues. However, long-term success would be significantly strengthened through involvement and buy-in from Sudanese artists and cultural influencers.

Culture Matters makes a bold statement in the chapter “Culture before Politics”: “Culture is the space in our national consciousness filled by music, books, sports, movies, theater, visual arts, and media… where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change… political change is the final manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.” When viewing a project like #Sudan2030 in that context, striking questions emerge: What is the cultural strategy for realizing the vision that comes from the foresight process? How do we involve Sudanese artists who hold, question, and shape Sudanese identity. What is their role in the process?

These questions are just the beginnings of a cultural strategy that encompasses engagement not only across the private and public sector, among technologists and users, but also includes artists and cultural workers. It is a process which recognizes that “politics is where some of the people are some of the time. Culture is where most of the people are most of the time.” If peacebuilding and peacetech processes wish to produce sustainable and compounding successes for both people and policy, their project implementations must be more participatory, must engage in deeper cultural contexts, and must be part of long term cultural strategy.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on arts, peacebuilding, and technology, in both short and long-term processes.

Sources for this essay can be found here.