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New British Council report on art and peace

The art of peace: the value of culture in post-conflict recovery

Executive Summary

This report explores the academic evidence for the role that the arts and culture can play in mitigating conflict and building peace. Based on new research commissioned by the British Council from the University of the West of Scotland, it finds emerging evidence for the role that arts and cultural programmes can play as part of a spectrum of interventions linking culture, security and development.

In particular, the research highlights the contribution that arts and cultural programmes can make to post-conflict communities, through therapy, reconciliation and civil society strengthening. Rwanda is a notable example, where cultural programmes drawing on shared cultural heritage have been central to the government’s efforts to create a unified Rwandan identity and heal ethnic divisions following the 1994 genocide.

However, the research also cautions that the ability of the arts to transform conflict in and of themselves must not be overstated, and that they can, like other interventions, also exacerbate conflict. Managing programmes in conflict-affected sensitive ways and integrating them as part of a wider range of measures is therefore vital.

The researchers reviewed a number of programmes in Colombia, Syria and Rwanda. They demonstrated how arts and cultural programmes can be adapted to local contexts and used to engage communities in their own cultural language. Very few aimed explicitly to improve security and stability, but instead saw the principal outcomes as having subsidiary benefit for peace and security, for example by improving community cohesion and resilience. The review identified the following key benefits of arts and cultural programmes to security and stability: community engagement; skills for employment; inclusive development; therapeutic interventions; social cohesion; and voice and agency. It also identified a number of key risks and challenges for arts and cultural programmes in fragile and conflict affected contexts, some of which also apply to other areas of intervention: unrealistic expectations; evaluating impact; top-down approaches; lack of conflict sensitivity; and scale.

Their findings suggest that programmes have the greatest chance of success when they are locally led and based on understanding of local cultural traditions. Due to the small scale of many programmes, the quality of impact evaluation is mixed and much more work is required to develop a strong evidence base. However, what exists indicates that further research to maximise the contribution of culture to peacebuilding initiatives is warranted.

The British Council has drawn the following key recommendations from the research for itself and other international cultural organisations seeking to maximise the security and stability outcomes of their programmes:

  • Further research should be commissioned to understand the role of culture in promoting inclusive development and resilience in conflict-affected areas.
  • This research should be used to devise new theories of change which use arts and culture to support security and stability outcomes.
  • Cultural programmes should focus on tangible and realistic goals, in areas such as confidence building, skills training, self-expression, intergroup understanding and tolerance.
  • Organisations should build on existing measures to ensure that programmes are designed and implemented in a conflict-sensitive manner, understanding the particular role that culture plays in local conflict dynamics, and adapting its Do No Harm policies accordingly.
  • NGOs should seek opportunities to test innovative and creative approaches in partnership with each other, or where appropriate with governments and international donors.

The British Council has adopted the recommendations and is working hard to implement them.

The report has been written by Alison Baily. Click here to read the full report.