Conflict, peacebuilding and the UK
Conflict is not a negative process in itself. It is an essential part of an evolving and healthy society. Change is often driven by new ideas which are difficult to manage and which generate conflicting emotions, behaviours and policies. Conflict becomes problematic when societies are not able to manage change peacefully. A deficit in their capacity to channel it can lead to violence, the abuse of human rights and loss of life. In the UK, expressions of violence are somewhat different from other countries we work in. There is no openly visible ‘war’. Rather, violence is to be found in the home, in gang rivalry, in the trafficking of drugs and people, in some aspects of protest, and in the politics of extremism. Violence is also structural, expressed through growing divisions in wealth, access to opportunities and recourse to justice.
Conflict and violence in the UK therefore presents a different but no less significant face to the one we confront in our international work. In addition, global connections inherent in the drugs trade, in extreme political expression, in new technologies and in our actions overseas and its their repercussions on local UK communities makes it increasingly difficult for the UK to insulate itself from violence traditionally seen as something ‘over there’ or ‘beyond our shores’. The underlying factors which sustain and drive expressions of violence are part of a shared understanding of the challenges that need to be addressed to maintain a peaceful society.
Alert brings to the UK context its international experience of understanding conflict and the interconnections between structural and social processes needed to ensure that change is managed peacefully at all levels of society.
Alert began working on conflict in the UK in 2010. Our aim is to help build resilient communities in what are complex, diverse environments undergoing tension, conflict and change. There are both well- established and emerging trends which present challenges to this resilience. Well- established trends include growing inequality in wealth distribution; decline in participation in electoral processes; continuing uncertainty about levels of immigration; increasingly variable and poor prospects for young people; rising tension between liberty and security policy agendas; and on-going efforts to rebalance responsibility for the provision of services between the government and community.
With regard to emerging trends, and following the general election in May 2010, the new coalition Government has made tackling the national budget deficit its primary objective and has set up the independent Office of Budgetary Responsibility to oversee this within five years. This, together with the Prime Minister’s vision of ‘The Big Society’, emphasiszing the importance of community-level action, has ratcheted up the level of challenge posed to both civil society and the government in their efforts to deliver the capacities needed to deal with an increasingly complex array of interconnected peace and conflict issues.
The 2010 general election also saw the issue of immigration emerge prominently. Certain communities, including some traditional Labour constituencies, voiced concern that their views were not being listened to on this issue. The extreme right wing and anti-immigration British National Party (BNP) received the highest number of votes in its history and the fifth largest number of votes across all parties.
The juxtaposition of these peace and conflict trends with the diverse nature of the UK’s communities poses serious challenges for those working to manage conflict without recourse to violence. When jobs are in short supply, opportunities for young people limited, and personal safety threatened, attitudes towards difference can harden and become polariszed. This increases perceptions of unfairness, creates further anxiety and fear and can deepen underlying problems rather than offer constructive ways forward. Alert is trying to change this picture, by promoting innovative models of connecting diverse groups in solving problems which create and sustain community tension.
We do this through partnerships in various different locations in the UK where best practice is evident and where lessons can be drawn to influence local and national policy. These locations include Bristol, London, Derby, Sheffield, Preston, Burnley, and Bradford, together with a number of rural populations such as in Boston andin Lincolnshire.
Alert brings to these partnerships its experience of working in complex, challenging environments, some of which are the countries of heritage of those who make up the rich diversity of the UK’s population. We accompany different local organisations working on different aspects of community cohesion, good relations and peacebuilding, exchanging experience and drawing together best practice from a variety of different contexts. We then work with our partners to distil what works in the task of strengthening a community’s capacity to deal with the challenges and complexities that threaten peace. And we use this knowledge to frame key messages for those with the influence to leverage support and resources for more of what works. In this way, we aim to positively improve real and perceived levels of fairness in those communities we are engaged with; improve understanding of the issues which underpin conflict and tension; and influence both local and national policies that impact on the ability of communities to deal with tension, conflict and change.
Working through strategic partnerships and at community and policy levels, we aim to generate knowledge and networks that cover both the breadth and depth necessary to leverage significant change. Dialogue, advocacy and research are the key methods we adopt, together with training in conflict analysis and conflict sensitivity.
Barry Navarro, Senior Programme Officer UK Peacebuilding Programme (maternity cover)