When I wore a hijab….

This morning, I am listening to a debate on CBC Radio about the proposed Charter of Quebec Values – specifically about not allowing public employees to wear Sikh, Jewish or Muslim headwear or visible crucifixes in the workplace. While this proposed charter is not yet public (this information was leaked), the debate on the radio appears to be mostly about whether women should be allowed to wear the hijab while they are working as public employees.

It reminded me of my experiences wearing a hijab and burqua. When I did research in Somaliland in 2009, I was interviewing many older people, and so I felt it was appropriate for me to cover my head as a sign of respect for the culture in which I was temporarily living. But as I had not grown up with covering my hair, I needed help to do it properly.

The young women who worked at Edna’s hospital, where I was staying while in Hargeisa, helped me wind the cloth around my head and pin it in place so no hair was visible. Often it didn’t stay in place and I seemed to be always readjusting it.

Then I met a young American woman who was in Hargeisa to learn Somali. She spent time at the research centre where I was working during the day, and was living with a Somali family while in Hargeisa. When she was leaving, she gave me the one piece hijab she had been wearing. It was brilliant – I pulled it over my head and it covered my hair and I didn’t have to keep readjusting it.

After six weeks of wearing the hijab and a long coat over a long skirt, I had gotten used to it. And when I stopped wearing it once I was in Addis Ababa, I felt exposed – more visible.

A year or so later, while doing research in Khartoum which involved local people from South Kordofan communities, I was wearing the same outfit – the long black coat, decorated with gold-coloured embroidery on the front, the long skirt (bought in a market in Sarajevo), and the one piece hijab.

I was walking from my hotel, down the street towards the office where I was working. A man began following me, speaking in Arabic. I didn’t understand him as I didn’t speak Arabic. He followed me into the office, where my friend listened to him and then told me what he was saying.

Apparently,  he thought – from my clothing – that I was a Muslim woman, and given the obligation of charity enjoined on all Muslims, he had been begging my help to buy medicine for his son.

This incident gave me pause. I thought I had been expressing respect for a culture by wearing the clothing – but I was also evidently portraying myself as something I was not.

On the other hand, I also remember a wonderful conversation with a tea lady whose stand was just across the street from the office. As I drank spiced tea, we discussed the merits of one piece hijabs vs the ones you had to wind around your hair and pin in place. She thought the one piece hijab was brilliant, and wished she was able to find one in Khartoum. 

Several years ago, in Libya, while observing the election, I met many women who wore head coverings and burquas. I wasn’t covering my head, and I wore the normal western clothing I wear at home. A number of conversations helped me understand more of the complexities of the culture, and specifically what is acceptable for women in terms of their relationship with men.

Once I complimented a young woman on the colour of her hijab and how it matched her eyeshadow. She looked down and didn’t acknowledge what I had said. I was, in fact, embarrassed when I realized that I had met her previously and had not remembered, and should have just said so, rather than trying to pay a compliment – but it proved to be a valuable learning experience for me. Our interpreter explained that what I had said would have been perfectly acceptable if we were only a group of women, but in this case, there were men present and so what I had said was not appropriate. 

Another of our interpreters, with whom I spent a long night observing the counting, shared a picture of her fiancee with me and talked about him. I discovered, in talking about this to our interpreter the next day, that she could share that picture with me but not with our interpreter, even though they were good friends, because he was not a male relative.

So when I hear such debates as the one on the radio, I remember all these complex feelings and learnings – the feeling of being protected from male scrutiny while wearing the hijab and the burqua; the way in which people I was speaking with in Somaliland seemed to appreciate my desire to respect their culture; the feeling of being almost naked when I stopped wearing it; the confusion and embarrassment when someone else interpreted my clothing as meaning I was Muslim and thus held specific beliefs and obligations; and the.discoveries about how the clothing reflects a whole way of looking at the world, and associated behaviours that are acceptable and unacceptable, that is different from my own.

These are not simple debates. They offer us the chance to talk about our different ways of looking at the world, and at what happens when those ways seem to collide, especially as our world becomes ever more interconnected every day. They offer us an opportunity for learning and for dialogue, not diatribe. I wish we would take it.

Evaluation – the art of working with the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’

One of the challenges of ‘evaluation’ is that it requires judgment of someone else’s work. Especially if the evaluation takes place at the end of a project, the evaluator must assess work done by others over a long period of time. As someone whose work has been evaluated, as well as someone who evaluates others’ work, I find this need to make a ‘judgment’ one of the most challenging aspects of my work.

I am always aware that no matter how many questions I ask and how many reports I read, I will never understand all that has been accomplished in the same way as those who have worked on a project day in and day out for one or two years. I remember what it felt like to have two years of intensive work ‘evaluated’ by two people who came with extensive CVs, assumptions picked up in head office, and a distinct reluctance to work as hard as we did. Instead of giving us a helpful and longer-term perspective on our work, they cut down the terms of reference in the field, asked few questions and made few notes, and produced a report that worsened the existing politics within the project.

So I read as much as I can. I ask questions – many questions – of everyone I meet. I do my best to test my conclusions while in the field, to see if I have understood well or not. I work as hard as I can, for as many hours a day as I can, while in the field. I do my best to let people know that I am there to tap into their expertise and knowledge.

A learner with power

I know that a few weeks in the field allows one to see only a small part of an NGO’s work. I know that an NGO may not know how to package and present their work to an evaluator. Even if they do, it is entirely likely that both NGO and evaluator may have made assumptions about the other that are never surfaced – and thus never confirmed or dismissed. In short, I know that I am in essence evaluating the map rather than the territory.

Yet while I try to be as much as possible a learner, I also know that I am a learner with power. I am acutely aware that in many ways, my evaluation will affect their activities, their view of their achievements, and possibly even the future of their organization. I also know that I have a responsibility to the donor, to produce a report that is as clear and coherent as possible and that gives the donor a good idea of how their money has been spent. Did the funding have the results they expected? Was the funding effective? Were the project goals achieved? If not, why not?

This is where the judgment comes in. And in some projects, like a project to test whether a medicine is effective against a particular disease or not, it is relatively easy. One can see from the numbers whether the medicine is effective or not, although the data may not necessarily show you the behavior changes that may have contributed to those results.

But when the results are focused on peacebuilding or community development, in a situation where there has been conflict or civil war, finding numbers becomes considerably more problematic. The challenge, for the evaluator, is much more akin to how Meas Nee describes the process of recovering from conflict in Cambodia. The village, he says, is like a basket that has been torn apart.  The people in the village still remember what the basket looked like, but they are living in its shreds, physically and metaphorically. So what does one report – the destroyed basket, the strands that may have been rewoven, or the progress towards the rebuilding of the basket? And in doing so, whose perspective or perspectives takes precedence?

Rebuilding seems overwhelming

The idea of rebuilding after conflict is at first overwhelming.  Think about the challenge of rebuilding from devastating floods, even in a city with a modern infrastructure and services, like Calgary, Alberta. Within that infrastructure, individuals who have lost their homes and possessions may be in a state of shock, unable to figure out even where to begin. For the city, the infrastructure rebuilding needs may seem enormous. Planning can be extremely challenging, but still, there is a reasonable certainty that with time, things can be back to normal.

Then visualize a situation where a village may have been burned to the ground.  Where any infrastructure (stores, offices, government services) that existed has been destroyed. Where many people have been killed, wounded, mutilated, or raped. Where there are no lights, no one to protect you, and the possibility that militias may come at night in the dark. Where there is no form of public transportation. Where there may be no clean water anywhere, and little if any wood to light a fire to boil water. Where there is no food, because gardens have been destroyed or looted, and everyone is afraid to go into the forest to find wild foods. And where, because security is seen as precarious, there is little or no help on the ground from the outside world – or even from your own government, which is located far away.

Even when it may look to an outsider as if things are returning to ‘normal’, you can still see the terrible impacts of the conflict. You can see the young people who have been orphaned and have no one to care for them. You can see the people who have no way to feed their family because there is no work and their fields have been devastated.  You might see hundreds or thousands of people who have been displaced and have no homes to return to. You might see how relatives are becoming overburdened by the challenge of caring for those who are living with them, and how that is causing conflicts among people.

And yet, in this setting, you can still see the basket that once was, and you have a vision – to rebuild that basket. But you know you can’t do it alone. You cannot do it for people; you must do it with them. And you know that this is a long term proposition. And so you begin by finding the leaders, the people who are known in their communities as the ones who solve problems and resolve disputes – because you know that people will listen to them. You invite those people to come together and talk about what you can do together. And even as you do that, you work with people, one on one, to help them begin to recover their capacity to work together. You weep with people, and you laugh with people.  You listen to them, and you encourage them when they have ideas for taking some action for themselves. You do this even as you struggle to feed and clothe your own family.

In every situation where there has been conflict, there are some people with this vision of the village as it used to be. And as they gradually find the people who are able to work with them to rebuild the strands, and then to weave them together, the village gradually becomes to come back into itself. At first it doesn’t look much like the village that used to be, says Meas Nee, but in time, it will be once again.

The outside perspective

Often, it is at this point of recovery that outside organizations and donors arrive. And they are focused on what seems most urgent, and visible, to them – the needs. And being good hearted, they want to do their best to meet as many needs as they can. What is much harder for them to see is the capacity that lies within the village and its people. Without fully appreciating that capacity, and without intending to do so, they may well disrupt the process of rebuilding peoples’ spirits and lives that is already underway and that will lead to – over time – rebuilding the physical infrastructure.

As outsiders, they need to be wise; to sit with people, to listen to them, to let them recover their spirits and their capacity to begin working together to rebuild; to identify the support they need, and to provide that support at the time and in the way it is needed. Such patience, however, is hard to fit into a business plan or a project schedule.

For example, outsiders might see that the roads are rutted and badly damaged, and they might think that in order to best help, they should bring in a contractor to repair and pave the roads using heavy equipment.  That is very efficient, and it would result in a good road that would make it easier to repair peoples’ houses, get food to outlying areas, and get economic development underway.  They might even get some local support for this idea because, even if it is not really what is needed, people think it might bring in more resources into their community, and some might see a personal opportunity in it.

What outsiders probably wouldn’t see is that in such a case, efficiency would mean that the opportunity for many men to earn some money repairing the road with hand tools would be lost. That the opportunity for former combatants to show the villagers that they are human, by working together to repair the roads by hand, would be lost. That the message they inadvertently sent to the village was that you are not capable of rebuilding by yourself; that maybe you have gotten this far in rebuilding by yourselves, but you can’t do the rest without us.

The evaluation challenge

An evaluator, coming in from outside, might look at this situation and see a newly paved road. They might talk to the mayor, who is hoping for even more outside aid to arrive, and get a very positive response to the donor-funded initiative in hopes that it will bring even more donor aid. They might hear from some newly-arrived international aid agencies that the new road is going to make it much easier to reach the people who need food.  If they are from a country that has good roads, they are less likely to even think about the possibility that rebuilding the road by hand might have created jobs for local people, that in turn might have made it possible for them to feed their families and thus reduce the need for outside food aid.

The evaluator might have only a few days in the field to talk to people. Probably was briefed about the project, with reams of paper and nicely-organized log frames, before their arrival. Knows how much money was spent on the project. Has probably have spoken to the contractor, who may be full of the stories about how difficult it was to get the project completed, or conversely, how efficiently the work was done. Probably a few local people got jobs, and they will say positive things. The evaluator is focused on what is in front of his or her eyes – the paved road – and not what might have been, had things been done differently. And in that situation, of course, it is difficult for him or her to do otherwise.

We have no way (at least none I am aware of) to assess the lost ‘opportunity’ costs of rebuilding in a way that is more labour intensive and less equipment intensive. To assess how this intervention might have affected the progress people had been making for themselves, in rebuilding, before the outside world arrived. And most likely, no way to assess what impact the newly paved road might have on travel by combatants if the conflict resumes because the community peacebuilding process has been interrupted. We are evaluating the visible, and not the less visible.

NEXT – Evaluating the ‘invisible’ parts of the basket








Holding vigil for Madiba

Like so many others around the world, I have been holding vigil for Nelson Mandela. I may be continents away from that road outside the hospital in Pretoria but it feels, to me, as if I am there in spirit. I am grateful to those women who are singing so beautifully, and grateful for being able to share – in some small way – the love that South Africans have for Madiba.

I once came very close to Mr. Mandela, just after he was elected President in the first multi-racial elections in 1994. I was an election observer, part of the very large contingent that Canada sent to participate in UNOMSA’s observation of this ground-breaking election. I had spent several days observing in ‘deep’ Soweto, the huge township just outside Johannesburg.

But on this day, I was standing outside the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg. A friend in Yellowknife had asked if I would bring a small gift to one of his friends who lived in South Africa. I didn’t know what she looked like (this was before Facebook and Google) and so I was wearing my elder daughter’s red sandals, which I had borrowed, to help her recognize me.

I was looking out on the street, watching for her, when I felt someone push me. I turned around, a bit angry, and then stood amazed. The man who had pushed me was one of Mr. Mandela’s security team, and Mr. Mandela had just emerged from the hotel. He was only about three feet away from me.

One of the local South African observers, with whom I had been talking earlier, went over to him, and shook his hand. I watched as these two people shared a moment of joy. I asked her afterwards if it was the first time she had shaken Mr. Mandela’s hand. “It was the first time I shook his hand as President”, she said.

I still remember that moment so vividly because Mr. Mandela emanated such a sense of peace, integrity, joy. I have heard others also struggle to describe this aura, this energy of his.

I remembered it again when I watched Invictus, in which Morgan Freeman portrayed Mr. Mandela as he used support for the rugby team, the Springboks, as a way to demonstrate to South Africans that he was the president of all the people  – as a way of overcoming long-held divisions.

And for me, among all the many tributes that will undoubtedly be paid to Mr. Mandela when he leaves us physically, it will be his wisdom in understanding systems and structures – and the importance of symbolism in changing them – that will be his most powerful legacy.

Apartheid was a system of dividing the races in South Africa. There were white areas, areas for blacks, and areas for coloureds. The country was a map of places where some people could go and others could not. And underneath those physical delineations of difference lay an entire architecture – psychological, spiritual – like an underwater continent. I remember speaking with a teacher, who was by the apartheid definition “coloured”, during the counting process. I remember him saying to me that he could speak to me, because I was a white person from another country. But when he spoke to white South Africans, he felt a revulsion of spirit.

Madiba’s genius lay in understanding that changes in governance structure, and thus in society and in its governance, had to be rooted in changing that underlying spiritual architecture. And that kind of change was not something one person could do by himself, no matter how revered – it had to be a change made by the people themselves, of their own volition.

It was, however, a change that he could inspire, both by his example and by the actions he chose to take. He had power, and he exercised it, often in ways that surprised his staff. Rather than creating a black-only government and thus merely changing the colour and ethnicity of those at the top of the system, Madiba chose to inspire a rainbow nation by how he structured his government and cabinet. He was inclusive, not exclusive, in his approach to governance.

Knowing that there was a vital need to openly deal with all that had happened in the past and to hold accountable those responsible for terrible abuses, he created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that people could learn what had happened to loved ones and that those who regretted their actions could confess what they had done. Those who were not prepared to confess their past actions would still be prosecuted through the legal system. Not only was this a community-oriented and open approach to dealing with the terrible pain of the past, it also was efficient in organizational terms, as anyone who has watched the specially-created tribunal dealing with the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s can recognize.

And – as is told in Invictus – he chose to work with the Springboks, who had long been a symbol of white dominance. His choice to support and help the team, and to appear in their jersey at the penultimate game, showed the power of his understanding of how to change the spiritual architecture that lay under the way society and government had operated in the past. What he was saying, symbolically, was that we are all one nation and that we can work together to change the past. It was, in essence, an invitation to the nation – and especially to white South Africans who had feared black power – to create the new South Africa he could see so clearly.

Anyone who has tried to change a corporate culture, in a company or organization or community (and most especially when that culture has been a toxic one), can appreciate the magnitude of Madiba’s achievement. Today, the debate in South Africa is not about who is in charge of government as much as it is about how well they are governing. And that is not a debate that is unique to South Africa.

Madiba will always be a towering figure in our world, no matter whether he is with us physically or not. He inspires us to a bigger picture of ourselves, our societies and our world, and he will always do so.

Thank you, Madiba, for all that you have given to us and for all that you represent. May your passing be peaceful, surrounded by loved ones near your hospital bed and surrounded in spirit by all those around the world who are grateful for your generous and peaceful spirit, your wisdom, and your understanding of how to shape the kind of world we all want to live in.

A footnote: I am indebted to Molly Melching for helping me understand the power of addressing that underlying spiritual architecture, as a way of creating societal change (and for the wise man who  helped her understand that). You can see her speak about this in a wonderful video from the 2013 Skoll World Forum.

The opportunities for ‘government as platform’

Recently I have been reading an increasing number of comments about institutional and governance failure – about how our governance systems don’t work any longer. The comments seem to fall into two categories – despair, and hope. Some people look at the failure of governance to deal with changing circumstances, and think the answer is to institute ever more control. Others look at such failure and see hope for creating something new.

It reminds me that when I first began studying ‘failed states’ earlier this decade, I discovered – amid the many ideas for teaching improved governance  to ‘failing’ governments – a wonderful nugget of new possibility. This was the idea that state failure provided an opportunity to create something entirely new, and that such failure was – as in nature – a natural part of life. It was not something to be addressed by trying to restore systems that no longer worked – as in Somalia.

Today’s governance institutions are in some ways the last remnant of 19th century industrial structure. Government structures haven’t really changed that much in a century – they still organize themselves within ‘silos’, as if a health department is solely responsible for health and an employment department is solely responsible for work. At best, they seem to tinker with the names, so that ‘unemployment insurance’ becomes ‘employment insurance’ but the complex rules don’t change.

Similarly, at the international level, governments often behave as if they are the only ones who can solve a problem, even as it becomes clear to everyone that our problems are interconnected and so the solutions must also be interconnected. Municipalities, as the level of governance closest to people locally, have known this for quite some time and have been on the leading edge of changing structures to more effectively serve people.

But this change from the bottom doesn’t seem to percolate upwards. Governments seem to be the prisoners of bureaucratic structures that change slowly and creakily, if at all. I think this is because governments have seen their role as ‘controlling’ rather than ‘co-creating’, even as factories and stores and schools changed how they operated. Deep down, this is because governments don’t seem to trust their citizens or don’t believe they can find solutions to challenging problems – even as citizens are doing so.

Food is one key example. Local solutions see how interconnected the challenges of farmers finding markets, children and hospital patients having better nutrition, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions are. So we have farmers using the internet to find customers locally and thus having a guaranteed market; schools and hospitals sourcing food locally, improving food quality and supporting local farmers; and people realizing that buying food locally means that food doesn’t have to be trucked, or flown in, from destinations far away.

Several years ago, a couple in BC began blogging about the question of where their food came from, and decided to live on food that was grown or raised only within a 100 mile radius. Their diet was quite sparse at first. For one thing, people no longer grew grain within that 100 miles as they had once done. Their experiment led to a book. That book created awareness, and awareness created change. People began to grow grain, to be aware of local food sources, and to begin supporting them. No one at the top decided to create a changed system – this change grew from the bottom up . And it has spread around the world, complementing the Slow Food Movement.

These self-organizing innovations come from the power of knowledge. Governments should work with them, rather than trying to co-opt them. I read yesterday that the Canadian food inspection agency has just changed the definition of ‘local’ to cover a much larger area than just the area around a community, and on the same day, food stores began to label as ‘local’ foods that are not grown as locally as local people understand the term.

Would it not be more sensible for government to collect these stories of innovation, share them, and also examine how their policies can support this kind of change? This is the idea of ‘government as platform’, rather than the idea of government as ‘regulator’.

In some ways, it seems that governments are contributing to the collapse of this idea of their role as manager, and regulator. Austerity, imposed from the top of the system downwards, has led many people to return to the communities they left, long ago, to seek opportunity in the city. This return to villages offers government an opportunity to support a more sustainable economy, but it requires governments to change how they think about what they do, and how they organize themselves. People who return to villages bring skills they learned in cities, and in turn must learn older skills from those who stayed, and this blend can rejuvenate local village economies – and this is true whether it is people returning as a result of governmental austerity policies, or refugees returning home after conflict.

Many of the most sustainable answers to drought-ravaged land come from local people who have learned how interconnected their problems are – water management, crop selection, land management, markets – and have been able to restore natural systems that once worked well. When others see these systems in action, and learn the principles behind them, they too adapt them for their villages. The result is a better life for everyone, as well as a healthier ecosystem.

One of the things about ‘government as platform’ is that platforms make possible widespread sharing of information. And once people have information, they use it locally in a way that fits their circumstances. So information platforms create diverse solutions that address problems as big as building peace, creating sustainable sanitation solutions, restoring degraded land – from a local perspective.

Underneath the radar, people around the world are reinventing governance as they find ways to manage land communally. To grow food for themselves and their community. To create work while protecting local resources and people. All of this offers an invitation to governments to change their approach, and thus their structure – not to try and strengthen structures developed in a bygone era that no longer work.

The importance of learning to distinguish anger from violence

Anger makes me uncomfortable, I must admit. And last month, I finally realized exactly why that is. It is because for me anger has often seemed indistinguishable from violence, whether it is direct or indirect. Anger seems dangerous, uncontrolled, and frightening, and so I have often had difficulty expressing anger or hearing others express anger to me.

I have discovered I am not alone in that. I attended the Anger, Boundaries and Safety workshop at The Haven, on the west coast of Canada. The Haven is a place where I have gone several times over the past 15 years to learn about myself – why I think and behave the way I do, how it affects my relationships with those around me, and how I can change what I don’t like and celebrate what I do like.

This workshop is based on the pioneering work on anger done by the late Dr. Joann Peterson, a world authority on this topic. She ran these workshops at Haven for many years, based on her book of the same name, and is featured in a video called The Anger Toolbox – A Blueprint for Responsible Anger, Boundaries and Safety, to which I have just been listening.

A courageous choice?

One profound realization for me is how few of us learn, as children or as adults, to feel and express anger responsibly and safely. We don’t often think of anger as being a courageous choice or a constructive choice, because too often in our own experience, anger and rage may have been intertwined. Unexpressed anger doesn’t go away, however, Joann said. We carry it in our body, which has health consequences for us and thus costs for society as a whole; or we express it in socially sanctioned ways, from violent video games through addictions through sporting riots, that often can be damaging to ourselves and our relationships with others.

There are ways to express anger responsibly and safely, and the workshop helps participants understand how to do this. It involves being clear about our own intentions, getting permission from the other person, being determined to express anger in a way that is ‘personal, relational and constructive’, and doing it in a way that is boundaried and safe. There are tools, and strategies, that we can learn and apply.

Violence, whether it is socially sanctioned or indirect or direct attacks on others, sees others as objects, not as people; does not care about what they think or what their personal boundaries may be; and is impulsive and reactive. It is about exercising control, about getting one’s own way no matter what others may think or wish. It harms others emotionally and often physically as well, and it damages our relationships with each other. Put simply, violence is crossing a person’s boundaries with intent to hurt that person or to exercise power over that person.

Lessons for peacebuilding?

While I went to the workshop because I wanted to learn about anger and boundaries for myself, I cannot help but reflect on how sharing such knowledge widely could affect peacebuilding and governance around the world.

How many of us as peacebuilders understand and are comfortable with expressing anger responsibly and are able to walk with others as they do the same thing? How many of us might be more likely to shut down, rather than to facilitate, responsible expressions of anger within a group or community that is recovering from conflict? How many of us are able to clearly distinguish anger and violence?

Fear of anger, or internalization of anger because it cannot be expressed outwardly, can cause great harm, I think. I remember meeting some young boys in Africa who had joined armed groups because they feared their parents would be angry because they had lost the family cow while herding. I remember hearing people in various parts of Eastern Europe apologize in case they had said something incorrectly, if they had said something that could be construed as being mildly critical of others.

Then there are the examples of how governments and police forces have chosen to respond to citizens’ honest anger (individual protests against injustice and inequality which effectively say “I matter; listen to me”, like the one that set off the Arab Spring) by preparing to meet anticipated violence with violence, thus setting off an escalating cycle of violence that causes injuries and death and damages property.

How different might the outcomes be, both individually and societally, if we distinguished clearly between anger and violence; learned, and taught others, how to express anger responsibly and safely; and were absolutely clear about the nature, characteristics and impacts of violence in all its forms, both indirect and direct.

Using local knowledge to plan coherent post-conflict rebuilding

‘The village is like a basket that has been broken and the pieces scattered. The pieces are still there but not everyone can see them. What has been broken can be rewoven slowly and gradually, but only by those who will take the time to stay close to the village people and build trust with them.’ Meas Nee, Towards restoring life in Cambodian villages

This wonderful image captures for me the essence of rebuilding after conflict. It is a slow, gradual process of rebuilding the local structures and governance that has been destroyed or damaged by war. It reflects the idea that rebuilding depends on working with local people to restore and enhance their capacities and abilities, even as they are recovering from the trauma of what they have experienced. And it starts at the bottom of the system, and not the top.

I was thinking about this image as I read about the pleas of people in northern Mali for government officials to return, so that services can return to normality. IRIN News reported on Monday that people living in Gao and Timbukti, in northern Mali, are “calling for the rapid return of officials to re-start basic services and help run their towns, which they say are in a state of ‘complete chaos’. “ While the insurgent groups are mostly gone, thanks to the French, Chadian and Malian armies, only a few administrators have returned.

While they are waiting for the government officials to return, IRIN reported, “town residents – including village elders, chiefs, women and youths – are working to operate basic services and clean up the damage as best they can.” But while some key officials in Gao and Timbuktu have come back, officials responsible for health, energy, education, planning and other programmes have yet to return. Clearly, that limits the amount and extent of rebuilding that can take place.

However, those exiled officials represent an extremely useful resource of local knowledge that could aid military and government in ensuring that the transition from relief to rebuilding is a smooth continuum. Often in such situations, longer term planning (if it is done) is done from a distance by people who don’t know the area well, if at all. Regarding those officials as a ‘think tank’ full of local expertise could allow government and the military to create rebuilding plans that are meaningful and useful for local communities. Quick impact projects thus could be planned so they help form part of the foundation for long-term recovery that can begin once government officials return.

The situation points out, once again, the need for military interventions to be thinking beyond the shorter term aims of restoring law and order in places where conflict has occurred or is occurring.

Even as soldiers are sent in, someone should be planning for the time when peace will return and people will want services to return as well. That is a lesson that has been drawn from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places which have experienced military interventions in the past decade or more. Such an approach is respectful of both local people and of the soldiers who intervene, ensuring that their efforts can have maximum locally-appropriate impact and thus make the best use of any available local resources, diaspora funding, and donor funding.


Plea for return of officials to northern Mali, IRIN News, April 22, 2013
Towards restoring life in Cambodian villages, Meas Nee, 1999 – chapter 5.

The power of acting powerfully from the bottom or the top of any system

As a facilitator, I am always interested in how people relate to each other, and how those relationships affect what they are able to accomplish. I spent years working in various capacities in community groups and sometimes in elected office, and it always surprised me how much feelings affected the group’s work.
Once a neighbor persuaded me to get involved in a local sports club, saying it needed my particular skills. My daughters were part of the club, and so I eventually did get involved. But then my neighbor, and several of his friends within the club, didn’t like what I was doing and set out to disrupt it. The result, of course, was to disrupt the work of the organization as a whole, even though their attacks focused on me. So I never underestimate how much a person’s perceptions of others affect what happens when a group is trying to carry out a particular goal, and especially how much peoples’ perceptions of other people’s power – real or imagined – affect the relationships that are so vital in making a group’s accomplishments possible.
What surprised me immensely, in reading reviews of Robert Caro’s latest volume in his biography of Lyndon Johnson, was to learn that this same phenomenon happens at the top of systems, affecting matters far more weighty than the yearly program of a sports club in a small and remote community.

Left out of power
Johnson came from the southern US, at a time when southern politicians were not in positions of power nationally within his party. He had years of experience in working within the legislative system in Washington; he knew how to get things done. But the politics of the time meant he could never hope to become his party’s presidential nominee, and so he agreed to become the vice presidential running mate to the younger and seemingly more charismatic John F. Kennedy.
He was not, however, trusted by the presidential inner circle. He was left out of meetings, and took to walking by the Oval Office just to show he was still there. His advice was not sought. When JFK was shot in Dallas, he waited alone at the hospital for an hour or so before he was given information. Given his knowledge of the political system, however, he quickly took on the responsibility of making decisions as he flew back to Washington. And as quickly, he began introducing some of the most innovative legislative changes made in decades, despite working with a reluctant Congress and against the advice of many advisors who feared it would cost him ‘political capital’ – the 1964 Civil Rights Act, action on poverty, voting rights, Head Start and Medicare and Medicaid.
In a review of the book, Bill Clinton notes the political genius that Johnson demonstrated – his ability to persuade almost anyone to go along with what he was proposing. But he also notes the difficult years when Johnson was left outside the trusted presidential circle, without power or influence, and that is particularly the part that intrigued me.

Making good decisions
One likes to think that powerful people, like the presidents and prime ministers of countries, have the ability to work with people from a variety of backgrounds and ways of thinking, in order to make the best decisions possible. Facilitators know that, difficult as this may be to do, the best decisions result when one takes into account a variety of points of view, including the ones that don’t agree with your own. Forming a closed circle, and leaving out others you don’t agree with, is not a recipe for good decision-making, even if it may seem easier.
So I began to wonder what might have happened had Kennedy treated Johnson as a partner in the presidency. What could they have accomplished together for their country, had they found a way to work past the mutual distrust, given their individual capacities and skills and knowledge?
Building this kind of trust at the top of systems is very challenging, of course. When Barry Oshry studied systems, he found that in every group, there are people at different levels – the top, the middle, and the bottom. Each has different challenges to face, but they don’t see that clearly from their place in the system. The people at the top tend to think of themselves primarily as individuals, rather than as members of a group, and they tend to react to and against what their peers – the other elite – think and say. As a result, they may tend to draw less on the knowledge of the whole group and more on their own knowledge, which – however great it may be – is always limited in some way or the other.

Learning each other’s stories
Oshry learned that one way to work within such systems, within organizations, is to make it possible for people at each level to hear each other. Without such an opportunity, people tend to make up stories about others based on how they interpret other people’s actions. They might think, for example, that people at the top are uncaring, people at the bottom lack initiative, and people in the middle are indecisive. When they are able to share their stories and perceptions, however, it becomes possible to find a way forward that draws on the abilities of people at all levels in the system.
People at the top of any system face many challenges. People expect them to make decisions; expect them to take responsibility for the whole system; and expect them to be knowledgeable about the whole system. Because they are seen as so powerful, it can be hard for them to find people they trust to give them good advice. Because people expect them to act powerfully, it can be hard for them to admit that they don’t know what to do about a particular problem. Being seen as vulnerable can make them vulnerable to others who want their power, especially if their country seems fragile.
And yet, it is those people at the top of systems who make so many of the decisions that affect everyone else within the system. When powerful people, who have been opponents, find a way to work together at the top of any system, powerful legislation can be passed and wars can end and peacebuilding begin.
This is what made it possible to develop and implement a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. Yesterday I read that Joyce Banda, in Malawi, has brought together a cabinet made of up key leaders including some former opponents, and explained that they all needed to work together for the good of the country. This takes courage, and vision, and possibly the insight that comes from having been – like Lyndon Johnson – in a position that may have seemed powerful but was actually not so.
Let us encourage this kind of emotional intelligence when it is demonstrated by our country’s leaders and by those of other countries, by honouring their courage and vision and insight. If we do that, even if we think we are at the bottom of the system, we will ourselves be acting powerfully.