Innovation in Peace and Conflict

A recent rash of conferences focusing on innovation in peace and conflict have got me thinking is this really innovation?

Throughout the peacebuilding world there are NGO’s, activists, and others who seek to use ‘innovative’ approaches.  These range from interfaith dialogue, to inter-confessional summer camps for kids, trauma healing, and much, much more.  (Take a look at the wiki entry on interfaith dialog, and read the section on the history of such dialogue, given its long and notable history you’ll understand my concern at calling it ‘new’.)  In fact, such practices ceased being innovative years ago, though they are likely now ‘state of the art’.  I won’t quibble over whether these interventions are effective, whether they are simply preaching to the converted, or whether they have any long lasting impact.  I’ll leave that aside for another day.

What I will quibble over is the use of the term ‘innovation.’  The Oxford English Dictionary’s relevant entries include:

1. a. The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.

2. a. A change made in the nature or fashion of anything; something newly introduced; a novel practice, method, etc.

The thrust of innovation concerns newness and novelty.  When something becomes expected, or loses its novelty, it ceases to be innovative.  It becomes established practice, the norm, even mundane.  It seems to me that most peacebuilding practices today called ‘innovative’ have really become expected, and can no longer be labeled as novel.

You might well say, “well, so what?”  Labeling something as innovative or otherwise is surely not very important.  On this point, if this is your thinking, I would have to disagree.  Budgets are allocated, expectations are raised, and anticipation created on the basis of trying something that is innovative.  After all, there is not much difference between an innovative peace process and new and improved soap.  Both are labeled as ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ to give them the aura and promise delivering the goods where the tried and tested has failed.

Here’s one simple example.  It has been regarded as innovative to put negotiators together, in close proximity, so that they might overcome their misunderstandings and biases.  This idea has been ‘new and innovative’ several times.  In the 1950’s Gordon Allport originated something called the contact hypothesis.  Later, this idea was resurrected in multi-track diplomacy with the suggestion that if only negotiators could be locked away out of view, and in close proximity to one another, then they would learn about their shared humanity and thus create a peace agreement.  For example, Jewish Israelis could be put into close contact with Palestinians and in sharing such intimate space they would come to understand and appreciate one another’s humanity, thus releasing them from their bondage of enmity.  Of course, neither Allport’s contact hypothesis nor its later reincarnation was really new or innovative.  The thesis had been tried at the end of World War I at Versailles.  Clemenceau, Wilson and George were all holed up together in Paris, on the idea that sharing such space would facilitate dialogue and understanding.  And what happened? Clemenceau and Wilson came to hate the sight of one another.  The thought that close contact could overcome enmity probably has its origins in the earliest days of humanity.  (All this makes me wonder at the origin of the aphorism – “familiarity breeds contempt”.

Just as managers like to be strategic, peacebuilders like to be innovative.  The label “innovative” gets used too frequently and easily in the world of peace and conflict.  And when real innovation occurs, it gets lumped with ideas that are anything but, and this is too bad. Why must truly innovative ideas compete for attention and support when they are lumped together with the innovative in name only?  Not only that but by being drowned in this way it makes getting funding for true innovation much more difficult.

So, let’s be clear in our terminology.  Save the label of innovation for the truly new and novel, and use a better description for those activities that represent current practice.

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