The Void?

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shakes hands with Timochenko sanctifying the Colombian Peace Accords

With all of the optimistic proclamations and robust resources bolstering peace, violence and conflict are often assumed to be a fading phenomenon.  The reality, however, is more troubling with the number of armed conflicts actually increasing over recent decades – along with roughly half of all post-conflict settings relapsing into violence.[1]  New approaches to engage the complexity of conflict are needed.

One of the main issues hindering peace is a lack of understanding into what is actually taking place locally amidst violent conflict – termed here as “The Void.”  To help highlight this disconnect and engage the issue more holistically wider discussions amidst conflict become immediately relevant.  How are we as stakeholders talking about conflict, and how are we narrating the challenges faced for subsequent generations that will need to lead the path to peace?

This relevance is underscored by formal education playing a central role within solving conflict.  As the United Nations frames it, ‘Better education’ is ‘central to preventing and mitigating conflicts and crises and to promoting peace’ (UNESCO 2015: 27).  Such prevailing wisdom is so habitual that $78 billion in educational aid has been disbursed to ‘fragile countries’ over the past 25 years to help mitigate conflict.[2]  Yet such enduring approaches – as underscored by the recurring nature of conflict – often fail to solve the problems at hand.  This failure is in part aggravated by such programming often having little awareness of how such narratives play out locally amidst contested communities. 

Case in point, despite the popularity of educational programming as a tool for mitigating conflict there are traditionally few field assessments which directly investigate whether such approaches in conflicted communities actually discourage support for violence among youth and prevent conflict.[3]  Believing that such largely theoretical assumptions are out of touch with what is driving the enduring nature of violence within conflict and post-conflict contexts the significance of this “Void” is emphasized here – as is the need to listen more intently to local voices to insure their insights are incorporated into renewed solutions.

When peace was declared in 2016 most people hoped life in Colombia would get easier. Yet for many daily struggles have become more expensive, more violent, and more discouraging.

As a timely example Colombia’s 2016 Peace Accords between the Colombian government and what was then Latin America’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was supposed to end five decades of civil war that has killed 260,000 people and displaced seven million more.  As a purported goal of the FARC insurgency was improving the lives of rural Colombians, the Peace Accords subsequently call for universal primary and secondary education in rural areas, as well as other rural development initiatives.[4]   The rebels, in turn, would cease all hostilities and pursue their interests nonviolently.  While only five years into the 15-year implementation window, it is already widely apparent that the original aspirations of peace – like so many preceding instances – are falling short.

Voices from the Void is subsequently looking deeper into the complex realities of peace by focusing on Cauca, the most conflicted department in post-peace Colombia.[5]  By building on the grounded insights of local stakeholders, this endeavor aims to move beyond the easy promises common when declaring peace and alternatively explore the more complex and often ongoing realities to better support more inclusive discussions on how to do better.

[1] There were more state and non-state conflicts in 2018 than at any time in the post-World War II era (Pettersson et al. 2019). Forty percent of the conflicts that have ended started again within 10 years (Chauvet and Collier 2007). Von Einsiedel, using 2012 data, highlights the 60% recurrence rate of intrastate conflicts has never been higher (2017: 3).

[2] Between 1995-2017 $77.6 billion in educational overseas development assistance (ODA) was disbursed to ‘fragile countries’ within $191.7 billion that was disbursed to the developing world over the same timeframe (OECD 2019).

[3] From 1994 to 2010, only 1% of research in peace and conflict journals involved education practice outside of Europe and North America (King 2013: 5-6).

[4] More specifically the Accords calls for, 1) The construction, reconstruction, improvement, and adaptation of rural educational infrastructure, including providing qualified teaching staff and access to information technologies; 2) The guarantee of free education at pre-school, primary, and secondary school levels; 3) Improved access to education for boys, girls, and adolescents, including the provision of free textbooks, school feeding, and transportation; 4) Increased education programming promoting democracy at different levels of schooling; 5) The creation of a special dissemination program educating citizens on the Accords at all levels of public and private educational systems; 6) Flexibility allowing FARC to provide its members education at the primary, secondary, or technical levels in accordance with its own interests within Transitional Local Zones for Normalization (TLZNs).

[5] Because of the nuance often required in conflict-based educational assessments this inquiry will narrow in on one larger community as a case study to learn more directly from Colombian youth as they navigate the post-peace process.  Cauca, being home to 1.4 million largely rural youth between 15-24 years of age, accommodating three Territorial Areas for Training and Reintegration (TATRs), and hosting relevant Arando la Educación (Arando) programming is a seemingly ideal community to assess.