Why you should care
Living through conflict doesn’t necessarily mean you lose your optimism, a survey has found.
In 2016, five years into the Syrian war — when more than a quarter of a million people had already died and more than 11 million were displaced — Harriet Lamb, CEO of peace and conflict charity International Alert, visited a school for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In spite of the bloodshed and upheaval, she quickly learned these Syrians hadn’t lost hope. As she walked into a classroom, she caught one teacher in fits of laughter as the class clown explained to him the meaning of diversity: “My cousin always gets good grades and I always get bad ones …”
The class is being taught as a way of building peace. It’s one of several efforts by various organizations to start planning for a Syria no longer at war, in neighboring countries like Lebanon and within Syria itself. Lamb went on to ask another Syrian organizer, Why now? A fair question — at the time the third iteration of international Geneva peace talks on Syria were around the corner, and the country was a complex battleground involving proxy elements and a violent ISIS. To date, the future of Syria is precarious, even if the war ends and the government remains in power. But in thinking about that positive future, Syria doesn’t appear to be alone.
According to an unprecedented survey by International Alert, the British Council and global research agency RIWI, of 100,000 ordinary people in 15 countries:
People living amid conflict are more optimistic about peace than those living in more peaceful countries.
International Alert’s 2018 Peace Perceptions Poll showed different forms of insecurity troubled different countries: terrorism and political uncertainty surrounding Brexit in the U.K.; a diminishing rule of law and declining press freedom in Hungary and Poland; a new brand of politics — unprecedented and unpredictable — in the U.S.
The U.K. was at the top of the list of countries for more people thinking peace and security would get worse than those thinking it would get better. And Syria was the most optimistic about the prospect of improved peace and security. According to the poll, only 27 percent of people in the U.K. thought things would get better, compared to 84 percent of Syrians. Forty percent of those in the U.K. thought things would get worse, while only 6 percent of Syrians thought the same.
Some of the U.K.’s news headlines show how uncertainty around Brexit has got them thinking the worst: “Police Plan for Civil Unrest After ‘No-Deal’ Brexit” reads one headline. “Will There Be Civil War if Brexit Isn’t Delivered?” asks another. “A New EU Referendum Could Spark ‘Civil Disobedience.’” It’s a real glass-half-empty situation in a country that has rule of law and functioning institutions.
Julian Egan, head of advocacy at International Alert and author of the report, explains you have to consider that Europe and North America have enjoyed unprecedented levels of peace, prosperity and stability since the middle of the 20th century, whereas people in conflict-affected countries have had to be more resilient and adaptable. “So when we’re faced with a new brand of politics, that goes some way in explaining the results we’ve seen,” he says.
Christine Wilson, portfolio lead in research at the British Council, sees the data as a sobering reflection “that people who are at rock bottom assume the only way is up.” That and the pessimism felt in more peaceful countries could be chalked up to connectivity — those living in peace see how much conflict is occurring and are afraid it could be inflicted upon them.
However, both Wilson and Egan caution against taking the data fully at face value.
The geographical differences in the poll’s data are far more telling and may be a better indicator of people’s thoughts on peace and security in their country. In Colombia, for instance, where the majority of people thought things would get better, those living in rural areas were more pessimistic, reflecting the fact that violent conflict tends to be concentrated in rural and other areas outside major population centers.
While more in-depth analysis is needed around the data, first insights from the poll showed that many of those surveyed thought policies should be guided toward long-term solutions to conflict that go beyond refugee acceptance quotas, military intervention and high-end diplomacy. Eliminating conflict, according to those polled, means better education around peace and dealing with the reasons people fight to begin with.
Wilson said such insights were pleasantly surprising: “When you have positive peace, which is what a lot more people would strive for, you not only have the absence of violent conflict, but you also have systems being rebuilt and institutions being rebuilt.”
Whether it’s these policies or other ones depends on context. Egan also stresses that interventions must be nuanced and local. “The way you go about it … going to these regions and getting a strong understanding of what is driving the conflict there and then designing the responses is critical.” Policies then need to take into account perceptions, realities and the interplay between different forms of conflict, as there is often an intersection.
Getting it right is a “political opportunity,” Egan says. If people are saying they want more considered long-term solutions to peace, there’s a chance for politicians to win loyalty — and maybe even a better world — by offering that.