The Hearing Voices Project: Building a platform for peacebuilding

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In this blog, David Roberts introduces his new site, the ‘Hearing Voices Project’, arguing that there is a need for a fresh approach to peacebuilding that harnesses the internet to capture people’s hopes and plans for peace. David is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Loughborough. For more information, you can get in touch with David by email.

Peacebuilding isn’t doing so well, it seems. It’s not that there aren’t many people wanting to build peace; there are, everywhere. It’s perhaps more that those with the power to shape peace, rarely ask what shape that peace should take, leading to a mismatch and misfit between external preferences and internal priorities. For years, key global actors have claimed peace depends on inclusivity and participation, identifying local people in conflict-affected spaces as ‘stakeholders’. But it seems to me this is more a rhetorical device that creates an illusion of inclusion, than a citizens’ charter that ensure peaceable local people are in the driving seat.

It isn’t just global actors, its researchers as well. Academics (including myself in the past) rarely self-task with developing local evidence that might guide global policy makers. Certain knowledge is favoured and privileged. Local knowledge is blamed for conflict; global knowledge is equated with solutions. But that perspective excludes the dynamism and power of the local (even if the local is associated with violence).

That’s why I created, with some other similarly-concerned friends, the Hearing Voices Project and its website: to capture and communicate the voices of the people in whose name we claim to build peace, so generic one-size-fits-all peacebuilding based on shoe-horning democracy and capital into all postconflict spaces, might instead embrace the social shape of the places it aims to build peace in. Bottom-up meets top-down, as it were. But for the site to have effect, the people at whom it is aimed need to know about it, and that’s why I’ve been invited to compose this blog. We need help disseminating the site to the people we want to hear from, and whom we believe will benefit from having their knowledge and experience communicated to the people who make policy, in Western governments and global institutions like the UN (to name but one). We recognise how much having the site only in English limits this, so we’d be very interested in hearing from people who could volunteer to translate the site’s contents into Arabic, Swahili, Chinese and Spanish. And if we’re lucky enough to accomplish that, we’ll need a volunteer with enough experience of WordPress websites (this one’s a template) to make the site accommodate multilingual versions (‘click here for English/Mandarin/Arabic’ and so on). If you feel like that’s something you’d like to do, my email’s, or you can reach me through the site’s contact form.

The nature of this research site – a remote gathering system – reflects a lot of issues, but they seem to mainly revolve around two tensions. The first concerns the move to the Right in European, Antipodean and North American policy circles that means Universities and the research bodies that fund them are having their already-diminished funds slashed further and further, every year. There is no replenishment. This means that expensive research involving sending people to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the South Pacific is drawing down dramatically. This draw down is matched by a rise in risk aversion. That is, despite the nature of Liberalism and capital being based on risks, Universities and other interested parties, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are increasingly backing away from ‘risk-intensive’ activities. These activities affect researchers and respondents. As part of the new risk-averse mentality, Universities themselves are cracking down on their own researchers. For instance, a recent research exercise to Somaliland, funded by one part of a University, was knee-capped by the Finance department under the direction of the Vice-Chancellor – on the grounds that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (busy urging investment in Somaliland) declared the place unsafe to travel to. Universities will not accept risks to their reputations afforded by people they send to ‘hotspots’ coming to harm – or harming others in the process. The possibility of a research respondent in Congo or Central African Republic (for example) being punished by his or her government, militias or warlords brings with the possibility of harm to the reputation of the University that sent the researcher. That possibility is then represented as an issue of ethics, focused on protecting individuals living under nefarious regimes, and it’s quite likely that some institutions are guided in this by a sense of moral responsibility. But at the same time, the practice prevents participation and connection. Academics and researchers also have a role in this: there is increasingly awareness that the benefits are far greater for researchers, leading to claims of exploitation. Over the years, academics have been getting publications out of research, which elevates the reputation of the individuals and the institutions they work for. This increases income to the Universities. The upshot is the same: field research is increasingly hard to sanction, both for Universities and their researchers. The same applies to many independent research bodies and to NGOs researching local needs, for example.

The upshot of all this is the trend towards remote engagement. In conflict, it takes the form of drone warfare. In research, it is remote gathering, and it looks increasingly viable and valid, if devoid of contact. It is of the kind typified by the Hearing Voices Project website. Theoretically, it doesn’t rely on the same vast resources researchers tend to consume, and which have shrunk hugely with the move to the Right and austerity measures hitting all aspects of academic and policy research. Simultaneously, the subjects of research are increasingly accessible through the pervasive spread of emerging digital technologies, from MacBook Airs to rickety, second hand mobile (cell) phones. Phone networks in conflict spaces are often priorities for development and business investment; this is enabling and driving the new impetus towards remote gathering. Risk to people is reduced as they can Skype, email and complete surveys with less scrutiny and presumably more safety. But it’s a remote experience, and that word is apposite. It’s cold, and distant, devoid of human contact. It leaves unconsidered the issue of trust, because people tend not to complete surveys about precious issues without knowing who is asking the questions and why they are asking them.

HVP is a response to all these pressures. We hope to take it to Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) in conflict spaces and build trust with respected and accepted community leaders, in the hope that they will see value in the idea and carry our message to their communities. We have greater chance of getting to CBOs in ‘safe’ spots as researchers than we have of being allowed to go to more ‘dangerous’ places.

It isn’t without its challenges. People have better things to do with their time than fill in online forms; people often only use phones rather than the Internet; people use those phones often for very short ‘bursts’ of activity; people often have very limited financial reserves they’d rather not waste on some alien web-site. We’re planning to give the site a free text number and add to the site real proof of the site’s impact on policy making, if that happens. We’re under no illusions that whilst the idea of inclusion and participation at the bottom, to connect the distant and disconnected world of policy at the top, is good. We also know that making it work that way will not be easy. But we believe in it, in ways that Universities increasingly do not. We believe in contact and connection, listening and hearing, belief and trust. We hope the HVP site can earn that trust, make those connections and hear those voices.

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