Helping Educators in Conflict Zones

Pamela Aall

Director of the Education Program at the United States Institute of Peace

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Is the education component in your work more geared toward prevention of conflict, or towards reconciliation or resolution right in the middle, or all of the above?

A: Well, it depends on which audiences you are talking about because in the United States what our goal is to get people to understand conflict better. And we work with partners on defining what it is that their faculty is working on and would be interested in knowing more about. So we are very open to all parts of the conflict cycle if you want to call it that and putting together programs and materials on any part of it depending on what the needs are of the people we are working with. For instance, right now my colleague is at the University of Notre Dame participating in the conference on peace building. Another of my colleagues has put on a faculty seminar on education in conflict. We have done human rights and conflict, we have done mediation. So it just depends on what the needs are. When we are working abroad, in the three areas which we are working, there are active conflicts. So without making any kind of particular decision about what phase of the conflict we are coming into we are actually working with ongoing conflicts while they are still pretty hot. So we can't prevent them. You know you couldn't help people who were trying to resolve them or you know prevent other outbreaks of violence or whatever.

I find that once you get into that situation it is analytically muddy. You are kind of doing everything at the same time. And since we ourselves are not actually trying to facilitate conflicts, we are not trying to bring people together to get them to talk over there about their disagreements and so forth, we want to help people who are doing that in their own country. You know, we come in at a step back from the conflict and sometimes all we are doing is allowing people to have some space to think, not some space to make peace but some space to think.

Q: When you say "doing", what do you mean exactly? This is the education component when you go in and give seminars or you talk to people about the role of education in conflict or what does "doing" mean?

A: We use the model of the faculty seminar because academics are academics and they are very comfortable with you know kind of model where people will present short papers and it is not a training program. We usually bring in some people from the United States, obviously us, plus maybe one or two other people. But we also recruit people from other conflict zones to come in and talk about their conflict. So it is not us telling them how to think or how to look at conflict. It is us providing the opportunity for both people from inside that specific conflict, say inside the Philippines who are interested in doing something about Mindanao To think about Mindanao now, to think about the Philippines, to hear a little bit from us on the outside but also to talk to people who might come from in Indonesia or might come from the Middle East or might come from Northern Ireland who have dealt with the same kinds of issues that they are dealing with. So it is a combination of some short papers, usually on a somewhat academic theme but having to do with conflict. And some discussion about how does an academic actually... How does the conflict affect an academics life and what does that academic person or institution doing about it?

Again to take the example of the Philippines, we have worked with several higher education institutions in the Philippines, one in Manila and three or four in Mindanao. And the educational institutions in Mindanao, they are all universities, have programs who are trying to go out in their community and effect conflict in positive ways. Some of these institutions are Catholic and some of them are largely Muslim. They don't necessarily, they like each other, they don't necessarily work together and what was interesting when we had a meeting bringing them all together, even though everybody in the room was for peace, they all had a very different conception of what that peace would be.

So as I said we don't try to facilitate anything, but we do try to give people who are active in their own conflict room to broaden their perspective perhaps meet other people who are working the same things, maybe see how they differ from these other approaches but also to hear from other people who have had very similar experiences because you know what happens in a conflict often is that you start to feel very isolated or you don't feel isolated, it is just that you don't have any room for any other information, you are focused on your own conflict and you become isolated because it's all absorbing. So just sort of opening the window to the idea that there are other people who struggled with the same things and come up with some sort of solutions which may or may not work, can be enlightening. So we use a case method a lot in terms of, I don't know mean by using case studies, but we do bring in other cases of responding to the same sets of issues. So that there is a sense of you know, a global community that is facing the same things.

Q: Do you find that there is as a result some cross-germination of approaches to dealing with those conflicts?

A: It depends on whether people have time to do that. But I think there is, I don't think we always know about it because particularly if we introduce somebody, bring them in from say... Let me give you another example. Several years ago we were at a program in Cairo, not on Egypt's relation to the Middle East but in a way Egypt's relation to the conflicts to its south in Africa. And so there were people there from Egypt and Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Kenya. And we brought somebody in from Albania, who had been active in setting up mediation centers. It turns out the people who came from Kenya had been struggling with this idea of how do you set up mediation centers. And they among everybody else were fascinated by this Albanian story. Do they keep up after we leave, probably, under those circumstances they probably did. We have no way necessarily of knowing that unless we directly ask them.

Another example where we're pretty sure there will be an ongoing connection is a Pakistani scholar, he is actually a scientist who has done a very scientific study of textbooks in Pakistan, not the curriculum that comes out of the Madras schools, but the state curriculum. And in social studies and in teaching of English and in ... I can't remember, there were several areas that this study group that he had looked at and they went through these books spotting where there was a hidden biased or a very blatant bias in these textbooks. And he came down here, he was in the United States this summer, came down, and we gave him a platform to talk about his work. This is someone that I am working with now. But to that meeting came one of our fellows, our future fellow here who is going to be looking at curriculum in the Middle East, he himself is Egyptian. And they really understood that they had important things to say to each other. And it was a connection that you know happened right there in the room and we saw it and I am quite sure that that will lead to something. So it depends, you hope so but you don't know. They certainly maintain their connection with us.

Q: Is that, in this particular instance anyway, the institutional rule that USIP wants to play as sort of a gatherer of information on conflict in various parts of the world and then a relater of that information where it is relevant to other people?

A: Yes, we want to establish networks. That is a part of what we want to do. But we also want to give support to people who are actively working in their own conflict. And through the education program and this is, I am just talking about the education program, it is our approach because we have found it works and you know academics are alike the world around. They are substantive experts in a field and you know, we stole the title "Herding Cats" from the academic and administrative field. You don't come in with anything but a kind of, almost suggestive, sort of approach to introducing new ideas. Or as I said an academic setting, which they are very, very use to, but yeah, we want to effect how they do this, we do have certain ideas about how third parties or outsiders can help. So we do have certain ideas about what our role is and for instance, we are quite aware of our selves as a government entity.

We are not an NGO and we make this very clear to our partners and hopefully they understand that when they are working with us. If they have any hesitancy about working with a government agency no matter where, then they shouldn't work with us. But having said that, I think that a lot of our partners understand that we also can bring in some resources like better contact with our own government. There are a number of things that we can do in these programs. And I say we have our own ideas about how we can operate and how they can operate in conflict. They are not very complicated ideas but we believe very strongly that it is necessary to have a profound, analytical grasp of what you are doing so that education is very important even if it is just in the classroom, even if you are not going out into the community. You know, how you get your students to see the world around them is the first step here. And it is surprising how often that step is more or less ignored, particularly when, it is not always true that conflicts are well taught in the country that is in conflict. In fact, it is often true that conflicts are very, very badly taught or they might teach other conflicts in a great way but they teach in a terrible way about their own conflict because they are dealing with probably a lack of information. And they are also dealing with the kinds of prejudices that you know float around in the background in everybody's life.