Centre for African Studies (LUCAS)

Centre for African Studies
University of Leeds
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LUCAS Schools Project coordinator

Richard Borowski

NGOs, Performance and Conflict Transformation – Judy El-Bushra and David Kerr

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[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 67 (2005), pp. 58-72]


Over the last ten years or so, non-governmental development organisations (NGOs) working in parts of Africa affected by violent conflict have increasingly taken on roles in conflict resolution, and have begun to include conflict resolution techniques in their methodological ‘toolboxes’. Amongst these techniques, ‘performance’-related methods are now beginning to appear. These can take the form of small-scale, group-based role-play as a means of ‘rehearsing’ ways of reducing or defusing tension, or perhaps of organising ‘cultural days’ in which opposing communities perform characteristic dances and other cultural activities, or sometimes of devising and performing plays with a ‘peace message’.[1] These approaches borrow in part from ‘theatre for development’, a tradition evolving since the 1970s of applying performance forms for developmental purposes.[2]

However, in our opinion, NGOs have a poor track record, both on harnessing performance arts for development, and on resolving conflict, and will therefore have poor grounds for claiming effectiveness in combining the two. The essence of the problem, we believe, lies in both cases in the NGOs’ view of their roles and position in the world. If NGOs are to succeed in opening up the potential of performance arts in this context, they will therefore need to re-conceptualise their role in processes of development and their understanding of culture – both culture in general, and the particular cultures in which they have chosen to work.

NGOs and Performance

Development NGOs most frequently make use of performance arts through what has loosely been termed Theatre for Development (TfD). The original TfD movement arose in the 1970s out of ‘participatory research’, inspired by the work of the Brazilian adult educator Paulo Freire (Freire, 1970). TfD was first developed by educationists (generally those attached to adult education departments of liberal universities), often working closely with local government. Its centrepiece was a dialectical process involving dialogue between development agents and the ‘oppressed’, using a devised performance in a local cultural idiom [3] as catalyst for discussion around a locally identified problem, and resulting in a strategy for joint action. In this way, TfD aimed to bring marginalised populations into the foreground of development planning and decision-making.

As in Freire’s formulation, the role of the ‘outsider’ in TfD was not to ‘think for’ the people but to ‘think with’ them, re-presenting back to them the problems they had themselves expressed in challenging ways. However, this model was easier to describe theoretically than to put into practice. Kidd and Byram for example, in a critical evaluation of their own practice in Botswana (Kidd and Byram, 1981), saw the danger of TfD becoming a vehicle not for genuine participation but for domestication, i.e. dissemination of the attitudes and expectations of the dominant class.

Indeed, a second strand of TfD, which later became predominant, uses performance arts not as a contribution towards a liberating dialectic, but rather as a technique of development communications. In this approach, performance is seen as providing an effective (because readily understandable in the local context) means of conveying information and raising awareness. This ‘campaign theatre’ (Frank, 1995) approach can be traced back to the colonial era when, in a number of colonial African states, education authorities frequently adopted drama as a means of emphasising the cultural values of the colonists (on Uganda, for example, see Mbowa 1999). The approach is consistent with a modernising view of development, in which the indicator of a successful project is the efficiency with which modernising messages are transmitted and translated into behaviour change. The approach is an instrumentalist one and sees ‘culture’ as a technical tool, to be deployed in the furtherance of a modernising goal.

Development NGOs began adopting TfD and other ‘cultural’ techniques in the 1980s and their interest in these forms has grown since then. As an indication, a recent investigation by Creative Exchange (Marsh and Gould 2003) into the ‘culture and development’ projects of five UK development agencies identified 350 projects with creative or cultural components (of which over two-thirds involved drama), being conducted in more than 40 countries. Increasingly, NGO projects are the main arena in which performance for development projects are conducted, often with professional competences subcontracted to performance artists.[4] As with TfD more generally, NGO performance projects cover a range between the Freireian, liberationist approaches at one end of the spectrum and instrumentalist or modernising approaches at the other. Taking a subject such as health, for example, there is a big difference between projects that enable people to explore the personal, social and political issues around good health, and those that aim to transmit ‘messages’ designed by the NGO (urging, for example, the adoption of vaccination or HIV testing), often using the didactic and simplistic styles reminiscent of the colonial era to cast desired behaviours as moral imperatives.

Two recent examples from Malawi (Kerr, forthcoming) of theatre communication in health projects may illustrate the two approaches. The first was initiated by Population Services International (PSI), a US-based NGO specialising in social marketing of health products such as condoms and treated mosquito nets. PSI promotes its wares through TV, radio, print adverts and posters with glossy, up-to-the minute images/music from western popular culture, mixed with elements such as traditional-sounding proverbs from Malawian culture. Its range of adverts includes short dramas in village settings incorporating pre-determined ‘messages’. These commercial techniques sell not only the products, but also a broader ideology of consumerism and the glamorisation of the ‘American way of life’, in short, update a colonial ideology of westernisation and modernisation and adapt it to 21st century global conditions.

The second, developed as part of a Norwegian-funded health research project being carried out by the University of Malawi, starts with the need for the community to understand its own knowledge and practices in relation to health, sanitation and nutrition, moving on only after that to an engagement between community and researchers to co-create methods of delivery of improved services. So far in this project, discussions around devised plays, using a non-didactic style, have led to frank and penetrating exchanges at village level on key health-related issues such as polygamy and early marriage, often going further to explore deeper issues of gender, class and global power relations. The exercise has provided researchers with understandings of the community’s attitudes and practices, and similar techniques will be used in formulating and implementing health strategies.

Relatively practical problems limit the effectiveness of NGO work in the area of performance and development. These essentially stem from the unwillingness of many NGOs to address it as a serious professional field, an unwillingness which is reflected in the frequent absence of policy or research on anything connected to ‘culture’ (Marsh and Gould, 2003), and hence the absence of research or evaluation contributing to the establishment of standards of practice. ‘Performance’ tends to be regarded as a technical matter concerned with project delivery, rather than an aspect of development methodology, and generally one of such little importance that it can safely be consigned to ‘partner’ organisations specialising in cultural activism. A hierarchical relationship exists between development NGOs on the one hand and professional ‘cultural workers’[5] on the other; the financial dependency of the latter on the former does not foster best practice.

However, over and above (and at the root of) these issues of organisational policy and management, the more serious charge to be levelled at NGOs as a general category is that they have failed to provide leadership or guidance on fundamental issues of development philosophy and methodology. As indicated earlier, the tension between ‘liberating’ and ‘modernising’ tendencies is endemic in TfD: development NGOs have tended to confuse the two, mirroring perhaps a disjuncture between bottom-up rhetoric and top-down practice. Moreover, this disjuncture reflects a tension between the NGOs’ mandate to eradicate poverty on the one hand, and their position as beneficiaries of the structures that perpetuate it on the other. NGOs are often quite ‘fuzzy’ on their motivations, lacking an analysis of power relations which situates themselves within both global and local power structures. Without this analysis, their claim of solidarity with the poor is hollow.

Conflict Transformation

War and how to prevent it has been a major preoccupation of the international development community since the middle of the 20th century, and more particularly after the end of the cold war. Much of the interest in ‘conflict resolution’ has focused on Africa, responding to a perceived growth in the incidence and severity of armed conflict in Africa (see, for example, Deng and Zartman, 1991; Furley, 1995). This interest is reflected in a growth of conflict resolution projects undertaken by development NGOs, humanitarian agencies, and specialist conflict resolution organisations: indeed, the blurring of boundaries between these types of organisation is one of the features of the conflict resolution field.

‘Conflict resolution’ has a long and venerable history, being integral to the world’s religions, philosophies and cultures from ancient times (Holmes, 1990). As will be clear from later sections of this paper, African cultures are as skilled and sophisticated as any others in this regard. Current approaches however, though drawing from these universal cultural resources, set themselves apart as modernised and systematised frameworks. As the profession develops (with an ever-expanding range of training institutions, masters degrees, journals and research programmes) what we seem to be witnessing is the export of ‘conflict resolution’ skills from the West to Africa. However, delving a little deeper, it soon becomes clear that conflict resolution as a professional field is relatively new and untried, and that its philosophy, discourse and practice are untested and often ineffective.

A thorough critique of conflict resolution belongs elsewhere. However, it is perhaps sufficient for our purpose to raise some issues of scope and definition. For example, definitions of ‘conflict’ range between non-violent, interpersonal disagreement at one end of the spectrum to formal, inter-state war at the other. ‘Conflict resolution’ similarly ranges between enhancing interpersonal skills at one level and high-level diplomacy at another. Perspectives differ on whether conflict is an exceptional and abhorrent event, to be avoided by any means, or a natural and normal feature of society, to be valued as a means of challenging inequality and injustice.

As the professionalism of conflict resolution advances, there is an increasing trend towards the latter perspective, implying a clearer separation between ‘conflict’ (the ever-present fact of social division and differences of interests) and ‘war’ (a condition in which social difference has degenerated into communal violence organised for communal ends). Cease-fires and mediated peace agreements slip back into war with disturbing frequency,[6] suggesting that ‘peace’ can only be a meaningful concept if it is taken to imply the removal of the factors which gave rise to and perpetuated the war, i.e. a condition in which conflicts of interest are managed constructively. This definitional shift is mirrored by the increasing tendency to refer to ‘conflict transformation’ in preference to ‘conflict resolution’, the latter implying a narrow focus on mediation. This is a positive development. However, the breadth of scope implied by ‘conflict transformation’ brings in its own problems. ‘Conflict transformation’ now comprises a wide spectrum of activities, ranging from providing food and shelter to organising elections to international lobbying for women’s rights (to name but a few examples selected at random), all of which are regarded by different experts as being essential to the establishment of ‘sustainable peace’.

The absence of clarity or consensus on basic terminology clearly has implications for practice. One cannot avoid the observation that Africa is serving as the testing-ground for the development of a new professionalism, just as it did for the development profession before it. However, it is not just a matter of neo-colonialist ‘social capital accumulation’; underpinning current practice is a deep-seated paternalism and mistrust of African institutions and capabilities. This attitude is reflected in, for example, debates about internal versus external causes of war in Africa. The common perception of conflict scholars is that war in present-day Africa is a product of the phenomenon of ‘failing states’ and state collapse, the principle cause of which is poverty and corruption, for which avaricious politicians and warlords must take the major part of the blame. While there is no doubt that this concern with the internal dynamics of conflict is all too justified, there is very little willingness within the international community generally to link this to an understanding of how global exploitation extracts Africa’s wealth and human resources and exacerbates social division, or how global and national inequalities reinforce each other. Similarly, one of the implicit and untested assumptions that commonly finds its way into conflict transformation training courses is that when individuals find it hard to resolve interpersonal differences, the ensuing problems will somehow ‘bulk up’ into more inclusive and more violent clashes at community and inter-community levels. The implication is that if only African individuals and communities were more skilful in communicating and in managing relationships, violent conflict could easily be avoided.

The discourse of conflict transformation is pervaded by an unspoken belief that the problem lies, at a fundamental level, with ‘African culture’. The strength or otherwise of ‘African culture’ in resisting the collapse of social relations is therefore worth examining as a basis for identifying useful strategies for the future evolution of ‘conflict transformation’. Those who espouse the logic of ‘internal war’, and those who believe that global exploitation is destroying Africa’s indigenous strengths, come together over the proposition that African solutions must be found for African problems. But do they mean the same thing? While the stress on seeking out and supporting indigenous solutions is to be welcomed, the discourse needs to be less about rooting universalised (but essentially western) solutions in Africa, and more about dynamising the existing social fabric:

”If war has spread from within, making its own cultural sense as it goes, then the search for peace may have to trace out similar paths. This implies a reliance on the capacity of ordinary Sierra Leoneans to figure out culturally smart ways to contain further outbreaks of violence and invent peace.” (Richards, 1996, p.33).

This is not to suggest that conflict transformation approaches have not yet attempted to incorporate a cultural dimension. John Paul Lederach, for example, a foremost exponent of Mennonite peacebuilding practice, describes how the ‘conflict resolution’ approach which he had acquired in training changed, as a result of his experience, ‘from a rhetoric of cultural sensitivity toward an orientation rooted in the centrality of context, culture and empowerment.’ (Lederach, 1996, p 47).

”I found that my conflict resolution training was too narrow, often out of context, and presumptuous…. Context…rather than conciliation techniques and methods, is the starting point for defining conciliation work….this calls for a seedbed understanding of culture, as well as of conflict. Culture is not seen as an obstacle to be overcome by innovative conciliation practices. Culture is understood to be the soil in which conflict-handling mechanisms sprout and take root” (ibid, pp. 46-47).

It is not evident however that this understanding is widespread: many organisations concerned with conflict transformation in Africa have little knowledge of local cultures or conflict management mechanisms, and those that do have such knowledge may indeed operate on the basis of ‘cultural sensitivity’ rather than ‘an orientation rooted in the centrality of context, culture and empowerment’. For example Search for Common Ground, a US/Europe-based NGO which has taken a lead in developing capacities for cultural and media-based conflict transformation work in USA, Eastern Europe and Africa, has chosen radio drama in its Burundi programme because radio ‘is the most productive and cost-effective means for delivering information in the Great Lakes region’ (emphasis added). If, in contrast, culture was taken as ‘the soil in which conflict-handling mechanisms sprout and take root’, what sort of resources would it provide us with, and how might these be supported by INGOs?

Culture and Conflict-handling: Some Examples

If we accept the notion that conflict in the sense of contrary interests is an ever-present element in human society, then it is inevitable that culture, both in its deep ideological roots and in its more explicit everyday manifestations, will represent tendencies towards both fission and fusion. It is not our contention that performance functions, or functioned in a pre-colonial past, as a social or ethnic peacemaking mechanism. Indeed, many performance modes had – and have – the exact opposite function. In the Zulu war-dance, ingoma, to give a well-known example, the words of the songs, urging warriors to blood-thirsty heroics or despising their enemies, the unison dancing and clapping rhythms, the uniforms of wild animal skins, and the brandishing of spears, shields or knobkerries, were all designed to whip up the fervour of warriors for battle, or to celebrate their victories. Nor was this a male-only form of militarism. Women’s lament songs of the Basotho (mokorotlo), while somewhat less martial than male war songs, still served to build pride in the achievements of brothers, husbands or sons in battle (Molema, 2003, p.85).

There are, however, many examples of the opposite tendency. Performances were often used, not so much for conflict resolution but for conflict prevention, especially in situations where conflict had once existed, and might be in danger of flaring up again. In different parts of sub-Saharan Africa rituals, dances, songs, masking traditions, joking relationships and stories were frequently employed to effect the emotional disarmament of physical conquerors, to integrate conquered peoples into dominant polities, or to lubricate the social links between former or potential enemies.

Performing arts, because of their tendency to ambiguity, were a particularly useful tool for this task. The capacity for complex signification in such forms as masquerade dance (with its combination of masks, songs, costumes, dance-steps, ritual chants and interaction with the audience) allowed them to mediate the complexities of conflict management, which involve a range of emotions from identity/solidarity at one pole to innovation/absorption at the other.

The Yoruba masquerade form of egungun provides a good example (Kerr, 1995). The primary aim of this dance was the cleansing of society’s physical and spiritual impurities through the agency of orisa (ancestral gods), of which the egungun masqueraders were incarnations. An important aspect of this purification was an assertion of cultural identity, the continuity of local (e.g. Egba) traditions from one generation to another in order to assure the group’s survival. This exclusive and parochial function of egungun, however, was closely linked to a dialectically opposed tendency, a more open, heterodox function, which was capable of negotiating and even synthesizing with external influences. This ambiguity is clear in the very myths of origin of egungun. One of the commonest myths is that the masquerade was initiated by a Nupe woman, married to a Yoruba, a contradiction both of the masquerade’s Yoruba identity, and of its male-dominant power source.

The same contradiction can be seen in specific mask types. Among the satirical human masks, known as onidan, are caricatures of various alien peoples, such as Liberians, Hausa and Europeans. The common caricature of a straw-hatted Hausa farmer (the Hausa having been a traditional enemy to the Yoruba in the 18th and early 19th centuries) creates a stereotype which is open for rejection (incidentally, alongside other anathematised vices including prostitution, theft and smallpox). But, by the very process of being associated with the spiritual system of the orisa, the power, energy and alien-ness of the Hausa are appropriated by and accommodated to Yoruba spiritual and cultural values. Once such a process of cultural absorption has taken place it becomes more difficult for conflict to break out again between the two groups, since the conflict has been transferred from the military field to that of the symbolic and ritual.

A similar process can be seen in spirit possession rituals (Vail and White, 1991). Among the Tumbuka of Malawi and Zambia the vimbuza spirit possession ritual usually involves participants, afflicted with psycho-somatic maladies, being possessed by alien spirits. Very frequently these are of Bemba or Ngoni men (both of which groups were enemies of the Tumbuka in the 19th century). The invasions of the Ngoni in the 19th century had a particularly profound impact on Tumbuka society. The Ngoni warriors took Tumbuka women as their wives and introduced a pastoral patrilineal/patriarchal kinship system, which, in many ways, contradicted the previously existing system which was both agricultural and matrilineal/matriarchal. The vimbuza rituals had a complex psychological function, partly as protest against the alien system (including specific domestic protests against male abuse), but partly also absorbing the alien power for the purpose of spiritual relief to the afflicted women.

The degree to which the therapeutic/unifying tendencies in African performance are capable of absorbing the forces of modernity varies according to the context. At the level of definition, it is not easy to decide when a cultural form is simply absorbing superficial features of modern iconography (such as coca-cola bottle tops to replace seed rattles on dancers anklets) into a basically stable aesthetic, and when it is being totally transformed by modernisation. Post-industrial warfare has sometimes been reflected by performances which exacerbate conflict, and sometimes by those which find ways of defusing it. During the Zimbabwean chimurenga war of the 1970s, both the white-dominated troops of Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front army and the nationalist guerrilla fighters tried to enlist the ideological support of rural rain cult leaders, mapira spirit possession dancers and diviners associated with ancestral earth rituals. The guerrilla fighters, due to their more assiduous attention to ritual protocols, were more successful, and this gave them a considerable moral advantage in their relations with rural populations (Lan, 1985).

In a quite different context, the syncretic militaristic mimes of East Africa, which arose in such cities as Mombasa, Lamu and Dar es Salaam, and spread to rural parts of the region in the period after the first world war, tended to serve the function of conflict avoidance. The militaristic iconography of the colonial armies (of Britain and Germany), such as uniforms, military instruments and marching steps, were imitated, transformed and to some extent lampooned in dance mimes. The purpose of these may have contained some element of martial pride in its earliest phases, but over the years the mimes developed other functions, tending towards conflict management. The spectre of ethnic, religious or cultural conflict arising from the rapid urbanisation in colonial and post-colonial Africa, was sometimes averted through the use of such competitive militaristic mimes, as they provided an ‘escape valve’ for factionalism and competitiveness between communities and regions (Ranger, 1975).

On the opposite coast of Africa, among the Fanti of Ghana, the neo-traditional performances associated with akwambe (path clearing) rituals served a similar function. Semi-militaristic companies (asafo), each with their own colours and uniforms, and support bases in the city of Legon, used songs, dances, skits, and parodic marching through the town square to express culturally acceptable forms of conflict. According to Cole and Roy, at these performances, ‘latent hostilities sometimes nearly erupt; taunts and insults are exchanged, which in an earlier era might have ended in bloodshed’ (Cole and Roy, 1977, p. 206).

These performances go beyond art’s symbolic or catalytic function: rather, they bring into the open, in interactive and physical form, the conflicting social tendencies of integration and opposition, acceptance and resistance, belonging and otherness, as well as providing opportunities for subaltern groups to exert a form of agency in the face of constraining circumstances. In this sense they promote what one might describe as ‘social health’ by providing rehearsal opportunities for dealing with difference. To what extent, however, might performance arts come into play to defuse already declared hostility? One example is the use of poetry by the women’s peace movement in Somalia and Somaliland.

Poetry and other declaratory oral forms have considerable power in terms of influencing trends and decisions, being ‘licensed by a freedom of expression which violates normal conventions’ (Vail and White, 1991). Poets can not only chronicle events but call power-holders to account, using their skills in wordplay, rhythm, phrasing and metaphor to acquire their own authority in the reinterpretation of history. This authority is not inherently peaceable: poetry may be used to encourage conflict as much as to discourage it, but this is part of what gives it its power. Poetry and oral narratives can function as a means of controlling war behaviour, socialising rules of engagement, as well as urging a cessation of hostilities.

Women in Somalia and Somaliland have used their traditions of poetry recital in a modern context to describe their situation and their perceptions of the evolving political context (Hasan et al, 1995). Women have a particular relationship to the clan warfare that has engulfed Somalia and Somaliland since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991, which is derived from their ambiguous clan identities and conflictual social positions as links between clans, and they have used this experience to develop a specifically women’s movement for peace activism, in which poetry has played an important part (Gardner and El-Bushra eds, 2004). The poem below was composed by Saado Abdi Amare, and first recited by her publicly in 1994 during renewed fighting in Somaliland. It expresses her sadness and surprise at fresh conflicts, coming after the devastating civil war was finally over.

O, Deeqa,[8] I am truly at a loss
As to the real intentions of this war.
Unlike unrelated people who can drift apart.
My own people are fighting one another,
Neighbours are fiercely at each other’s throat,
My plight has no match.
My clothes have caught fire at both ends.[9] Knowing nothing of swimming
Was I taken away by a current.
From the bitter da’ar[10] tree,
Of fatal poison had I my fill.
Why do people from this bank,
Despise people on the other?[11] Why must weary orphans flee again?
Must grieving mothers suffer afresh?
Deeqa, I am truly at a loss.

Like many other such declarations, this poem contributed to mobilising women in peace demonstrations, and in orienting the emerging women’s movement towards a peace activism which included encouraging male authorities to solve differences through dialogue, as well as working together to re-establish health and education services and to manage income-generating, credit and demobilisation projects.

NGOs, Performance and Conflict Transformation

What then are the implications of the above review for NGOs? Does it mean that they should adopt local performance forms as part of their conflict transformation strategy? This is not our contention. For the most part, in local subaltern performance traditions which function as conflict management systems, the specific songs, dances, mimes or rituals are inextricably connected to a complex matrix of broader cultural features. These might include oral histories, rain cults, genealogies, praise names or spirit possession beliefs. The whole cultural matrix is, of course, perfectly capable of change. This might be in the direction of exacerbating conflict, discouraging it, challenging it into manageable modalities, or of cleansing society after conflict. Performance, like any element of a culture, reflects people’s outlook, values, and understandings of where they fit in the world order: culture is not inherently peace-oriented, indeed it may act as a funnelling and mobilising mechanism for violence. Specific performance forms, then, have associations which are hard to know and even harder to control.

Moreover, if ‘indigenous’ performance forms have strengths in this regard, they have acquired them independently of NGOs or governments: indeed, it is their status as genuine subaltern voices that gives them their power. This power will be diluted if they are commandeered for an external purpose or institutionalised (El-Bushra and Dolan, 2002). In a worst case scenario, professional conflict resolution ‘experts’ may simply take an indigenous song or dance and provide new, ‘uplifting’ words. This amounts to little more than an appropriation of local culture for instrumental ends, and could conceivably, by alienating important elements in the audience, do more harm than good. NGOs will need to listen and learn intently, rather than try to co-opt these forms and incorporate them into their ‘toolboxes’.

The point, rather, is that culture needs to be understood both more broadly and more deeply, to consist not only of practical manifestations and forms of expression, but also of the values and expectations which underlie these. How do people habitually deal with conflictual relationships and contentious issues? What values and attitudes are at play concerning the nature of power and contestation? What tensions exist between different identities (male/female, indigenous/outsider, invader/invaded for example)? The key issue for NGOs is not so much what direct use can be made of local (or imported, for that matter) performing arts in conflict transformation projects, but rather, the importance of learning how different cultures approach the task of managing conflict. Such approaches might enhance or enrich, or be built up through, the methods adopted by external agencies.

For this to happen, do NGOs necessarily need to become fully knowledgeable about the cultures which are the subject of the conflict management process? The cultural context is all-important; the one-size-fits-all frameworks beloved of NGOs cannot respond to this. Clearly an in-depth understanding is an important resource. But the methodology guiding the response is also important, and would need to include at least two elements. Firstly, it would include a clear and considered understanding of the dilemmas of the ‘outsider’ role. The transformatory potential of culture can only be truly understood by ‘insiders’ who share and have reflected intensively on the culture, or by ‘outsiders’ (such as sympathetic anthropologists) who have studied that culture with equal intensity. Naturally, in a world of rapid globalisation, the whole notion of insider/outsider is fluid and capable of contestation. But even the process of negotiating the hyphen between insider-outsider requires considerable expertise in cultural diplomacy, as well as a sense of humility and capacity to listen rather than impose. In short, negotiating culture and conflict transformation requires of NGOs a critical analysis of their own power and their own position in the world order.

The second requirement is for a set of planning and implementation techniques which would enable NGOs to accept their restrictions and work within their limitations. Techniques are available which provide space for mutually respectful challenge, often based on the Freirean notion of ‘critical enquiry’. For example, the concept of ‘performance barter’, whereby the facilitating group and local performance troupes exchange performances, helps move the discourse away from manipulative didacticism towards a more equal sharing of cultural production. In a situation of potential conflict, this might allow the opportunity for more open discourse, rather than one in which the agenda has already been set by the NGO.

In such circumstances, it might still be possible for NGOs to make useful inputs into the process of conflict transformation. Their contributions, however, can only work if they are seen, by the communities in conflict, not to be part of a broader process of marginalisation by distant metropolitan agencies. It is also important for the shifting set of new power networks not to exacerbate the conflicts which the old power agencies had helped to create. Above all, such contributions need to allow space for local processes of healing to take root and eventually flower.

Judy El-Bushra worked for twenty years in the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD) and is now an independent consultant working on conflict research.

David Kerr has taught in Universities in Botswana, Malawi and Zambia for over thirty years and has published widely in the areas of popular performance and media.


[1]Documentation of these activities is rare, although less rare in relation to Europe and USA, where interest in the subject of culture and conflict mainly comes from the peace movement. See for example Grant, 1993; Mundy, 2000.
[2] We understand ‘culture’ to refer to the totality of knowledge, skills, practices, beliefs and social arrangements which characterise a particular (self-defined) identity and which are transmitted, and maintained or modified, through socialisation processes. ‘Performance’ or ‘performance arts’ are one element within this; they cover a variety of practices including music, drama, theatre, ritual, puppetry and dance, and may be carried out in a variety of formal or informal contexts and locations.
[3] Often not strictly ‘theatre’, if the word is used in the sense of a scripted play performed in a reserved space.
[4] This trend reflects a massive growth in funding for the NGO movement internationally since the 1970s.
[5] The problem affects visual as well as performance arts. ‘Cultural workers’ combine skills in artistic disciplines with development philosophy and practice.
[6] Current examples of highly insecure peace initiatives include those in Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and Liberia.
[7] We use the phrase without intending to imply an essentialist or homogenising concept of Africa.
[8] Deeqa is a common Somali woman’s name.
[9] Meaning she is related to both warring parties
[10] Aloe
[11] Referring to Hargeisa town, divided by a river into two sections
[12] Clearly not all NGOs have a totally ‘outsider’ identity – some may be national NGOs or employ national staff. However, even these have a degree of self-identification with external influences (perhaps cultural or class based) which enables them to ‘stand outside’. This is a substantial issue which requires separate investigation.


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