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Position paper for IPT/JRCT Workshop, 3 November 2003

 The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust seeks “radical solutions” to global problems of inequality and injustice. Its Draft Policy Document for 2004 to 2008 eschews approaches that are “about making problems easier to live with”.  The goal is to advance universal human rights in contexts of inequality and injustice.

 In this position paper I examine some indicators for successful interventions and offer some thoughts on the prospects of the JRCT approach in contexts of poverty and violence.

 In order to frame and initiate interventions that address violence, we need to think about what violence is (or is not). In the first section I briefly examine theories about causes of conflict, violence and poverty. I then consider how interventions to deal with (solve/ameliorate/manage) the consequences of such conditions might be measured. I will look at three separate categories: The personal, the institutional, the context and nature of interventions.

 Violence –definitional considerations and causes

 In the last couple of decades, definitions of violence have been growing broader and broader. Whereas dictionary definitions limited violence to overt physical acts associated with aggression and intent, recent definitions have moved to capture a wide range of acts and processes. Now, under the rubric of violence, are included, for example, starvation in Africa. This is regarded as structural violence which is an effect of the way in which the developed world relates unevenly and unfairly to the developing world. At the other end of the spectrum, at the interpersonal level, we now have laws that stretch the concept to include verbal and psychological violence. What has been created is a continuum along which a variety of acts or processes which cause harm to people are deemed to be forms of violence.

 With such a broad definition of violence (and I shall not try here to offer a single definition), the number of possible causes rise. With the old definition, the agent of violence was relatively easy to identify. Once such identification had been managed, it was often a relatively easy matter to find a cause. This was the territory of the detective and is today still the stuff of TV detective programmes. Here the cause is invariably personal, which is to say that the cause has something to do with the psychological make-up of the violent person. He or she might be a psychopath or somebody exacting revenge.

 Once one widens the definition of violence, the perpetrators of violence become ever more difficult to identify. States, institutions of state and shadowy organisations are held to be responsible for structural violence. Violence is no longer just an act of commission, it may be a result of omission. The unsatisfactory and slippery nature of trying to identify the agent and cause of violence when operating with broad definitions of violence produces the (often fruitless) search for the smoking gun. At the other end of the scale, where it is easy to identify the agent of violence – the person who commits psychological or verbal violence for example - we have a different kind of problem. The perpetrator may deny culpability and his or her guilt often rests entirely on an experiential claim on the part of the party claiming to have been harmed.

 The problem with the conceptualizations of violence discussed above is that they see violence as external, and not as something intrinsic to people. One of the major advances of post-structuralism and a legacy of Foucault’s work is that that it shows that nobody can locate themselves outside of power. In the same way, we all have to acknowledge that violence cannot be identified with certain perpetrators. And this being the case, we cannot deal with violence simply be excising it from society or from specific social locations (cf Morrell, 2002). Nor should we operate with good guy/bad guy binaries.

 A further complication concerning attempts to redress violence is the cultural relativity of the term. Globalising discourses, for example human rights discourses, emanating primarily from the developed world, have reframed understandings of violence. There are now supposedly universal definitions to which all people subscribe or should subscribe. There is something politically important in this process, but it runs the danger of isolating alternative definitions and understandings. We can see the problem most easily when we examine the extension of the definition to include verbal and psychological violence. Even within the developed world there are significant variations in understanding. Provocatively, this can be seen in rap and hiphop music and the controversy around Eminem’s lyrics. In the developed world, violence is often not considered as a deed, but rather as a process which is in the civil rather the criminal realm. This understanding places store on contrition, forgiveness and making good, though retribution can equally be part of the process. Whereas international definitions of violence have steadily atomized the analysis of human actions, alternative understandings have wanted to retain a holistic understanding of happenings.

 A second consideration might be that some cultures accept that some kinds of violence are legitimate and necessary. The most obvious would be in contexts of threat which involve protecting one’s community. Where traditional ways are threatened or undermined by global pressures, communities might stress values which specifically challenge a global consensus. In an important work on Uganda, Suzette Heald (1999) has shown how the Gisu retain an understanding and appreciation of men as violent and work to ritualize and control this violence rather than stamp it out. One could examine other contexts – Palestine, Chechnya, for example – and possibly find similar gendered cultural constructions.

What are the implications for problematising the concept of violence for inequality, injustice and reconciliation?

  To reflect on this question, I propose to examine four areas in which the efficacy of interventions might be judged and to explore some indicators of such efficacy.


 Many interventions have stressed and still stress the importance of ‘empowerment’. What does this mean? It can mean giving people the skills and the confidence to express themselves clearly. For example, in HIV/AIDS work, empowerment of women often means giving them the capacity to say no and protect themselves from unprotected sex.

A problem of empowerment is that it can utilize a model of personal transformation that focuses exclusively on the individual and ignores the community context of subjectivity. In Africa, for example, one might first and foremost be a member of a clan or kinship group, and only secondarily ‘an individual’. Or, at the very least, there will be times when one’s individual identity are located more within a collective understanding (in terms of what is good for the community) and require personal rights and desires to be subordinated to the greater good. Equality models which insist on a rather mechanical understanding may drive programmes to give women the same rights as men without appreciating that role differences are intrinsic to community cohesion. In my work in the field of gender politics and transformation, I have increasingly found that interventions that work with men are founded on an assumption that for a better, more peaceful and harmonious world, it is expected that men should become more like women. Men should be domesticated, peaceful, caring and should not be engaged by or engage in physical encounters that stress competition, strength, aggression. Not only does this approach fail to elicit support from men, it also ignores that in many societies men are asked to do work and take up roles which stem from understandings of masculinity in which these values are central. Rather than frown on such understandings, approaches which BROADEN the capacities of men and which take the standpoint of equity (justice) as opposed to equality are in my view much more likely to promote peace and justice and contribute to the reduction of inequality. There are programmes that are trying to do this, which work with local understandings (Sampath), and it seems to me that these have a much greater chance of success.


 Interventions cannot be considered outside of their institutional location. For example, if an intervention focuses on addressing sexual harassment, it is probably best for such an intervention to have an excellent appreciation of the gender regime of a particular school. I know of cases where interventions seemed to work very well, only to find that existing (and hidden) patterns of unequal sexual transactions between teachers and learners continued undisturbed.

 Intervention and Context

 For quite some time now, the critique of one-size-fits all interventions has been current. This critique correctly points out that an intervention has to be sensitive to context. It has to be shaped to the needs of local communities and environments and cannot proceed from fixed assumptions developed in other contexts. Despite this critique it is depressing to see how many interventions, driven by demands for rapid transformation and donor expectations of measurable impact, continue ambitiously to implement interventions which are not context-sensitive. As already indicated, many interventions are predicated on impatience and are often associated with unrealistic expectations of scale and delivery. Where resources are available in abundance (for example at the state level), the intervention is often superficial. Where careful work with limited resources is undertaken, a legitimate criticism may be of limited impact in the context of the size of the problem.

Given the complexity of violence and its history, it is probably true to say that it will take a long time to build a culture of peace. This being the case, even small interventions should be ongoing. Making a difference requires time, involves forging relationships and shaping identities. 

 Some reflections on dealing with Violence

 South Africa has had many approaches to dealing with violence (in whatever form it takes). The security approach, using the criminal justice system, has understandably been stressed. The number of crimes has been expanded, prison capacity extended, the size of the police force increased. Another approach has been to promote reconciliation. Primarily developed to tackle the legacy of ‘political’ violence, this approach can now be seen to operate in diplomatic work (eg peace keeping in the continent).

 Most people would say that violence needs to be handled together with job creation. Here progress has been depressingly slow and it may be that we have to accept that levels of unemployment will range between 40 and 50% (a consequence of global economic pressures and choices of the national government). Since NGOs can do little about this, I think that we need to consider that the effects of ‘structural violence’ will be present in society and that interventions will at some level be ameliorative rather than solving (see goals of JRCT above).

 But all is not lost. One area which I think might fruitfully be explored is the promotion of caring. Here the project is not directly related to dealing with violence, but will have an impact on producing a culture of peace. In Scandinavia, research has shown that with the encouragement of caring amongst men (in the family, for children), levels of domestic violence have fallen. Men are less likely to beat their wives and children, if they are involved in parenting. South Africa has done virtually nothing to promote fatherhood. In fact, national surveys such as the recent census, do not even count fathers. Projects that focus on families and promote caring are desperately needed. The state cannot deal with the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Already home-based care is preferred to hospital care because of the scale of the tragedy. Given that women are affected earlier than men by HIV/AIDS, it makes sense to begin to include men in caring activities. This will develop new, more peaceful, understandings of masculinity and promote a culture of peace.


 In changing, multi-cultural contexts, it is a major challenge for interventions to steer between existing values (which are likely themselves to be under challenge) and a transformative agenda. It is not enough just to listen to local values – these will always be mediated and reflect power inequalities of one sort or another. But nor can such values be ignored. Nor is it enough simply to enact universal formulae (for example, human rights edicts). There needs to be sensitivity towards local situations.

 I think interventions need to be modest. Tackling violence, for example, should not be measured against the goal of ending the huge range of violences that current definitions offer. Rather they should be measured by their ability to promote harmony and justice as understood by the recipients of the intervention rather than by donor agencies.

 I have begun to think that interventions should promote and support processes that work, should focus on areas of endeavour that have been unnoticed. My pet project of the moment (and one shared by the HSRC) is the promotion of fatherhood. With some exceptions, fatherhood is dealt with in Africa as an area of male neglect and policy is designed to force men to meet their responsibilities. I think that there is huge scope to support men to take fatherhood seriously, to care for their children and, at the same time, to find self-worth in themselves.

 Approaches which gain the support of as many of the people affected as possible are more likely to succeed. In interventions that address gender inequality, identifying men (even implicitly) as the source of the inequality has made them into outsiders. In the same way, anti-violence projects which operate with assumptions that some people are violent, run the risk of a) creating social divisions b)missing the opportunity of finding out and working with people who cannot be reduced to or equated with ‘their violence’. Empowerment should mean working with all people, not just ‘victims’.

 I am not sure that problems can be solved in a context of global inequality, chronic unemployment and poverty. It may be that ‘making things easier to live with’ is itself a worthy, and maybe even ‘radical’ goal. It is a very important goal to help people who live in impoverished conditions to do so with dignity. No trust can do much about global unemployment and so long as this is a feature of the developing world, so will violence be likely as people struggle for limited resources. But within these contexts it is possible to orient people to understand their lives in new ways. This involves looking for ways of validating non-materialistic versions of living by supporting cultures of caring and respect. It may involve working with new modes of redistribution – sharing things communally or domestically in new ways. It will need to keep on eye on the need to preserve cultures as well as challenge violent relationships which promote injustice.