Book Review: Lives Amid Violence: Transforming Development in the Wake of Conflict

March 21, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Lives Amid Violence: Transforming Development in the Wake of Conflict, by Mareike Schomerus, (Open Access here) is one of the wisest books I’ve read in a long time. To write it, she became a modern day hermit (‘solitude, storms and music’), retreating to the Shetland Islands to reflect on and synthesize the lessons of a monster 10 year ODI research programme, the Sustainable Livelihoods Research Consortium. That research contributes, among other things, lots of great illustrative examples from around the world.

Schomerus got me from the opening paragraphs:

‘When life is complicated, causality is alluring.

The possibility that there could exist a straight line of cause and effect fuels conspiracy theories, creates powerful arguments and has been the logic underpinning countless international development programmes. Even complexity – when acknowledged – tends to be depicted as a convoluted image of warbled spaghetti to replace the normally-straight causality lines leading from A to B. Yet, even tangled spaghetti diagrams still depict imagined causality: they have a starting and an end point.’

What follows is a brilliant reflection on the power and stickiness of ‘mental models’ in the aid business – causation, ‘what works’, metaphors (building stuff, gardening). She summarizes this as:

‘Relevant indicators could be security/legitimacy/governance (preferably of the good type)/economic development/service delivery and institutional capacity. Improvement in these indicators signals progress in people’s lives, which equals recovery and development. Service delivery plays a huge part in this. Improving access to services, while challenging, seems obviously related to a better environment, which in turn must translate into a better perception of those in power and a better outlook overall.’

Instead, ‘rather than a capture-all picture, what is needed is learning how to live with ambiguity, contradiction and revision’.

This book is specifically concerned with environments of current or past violence, and what makes them different to work in as an aid programmer. I’m not a humanitarian, but a lot of what she proposes seems absolutely right. I can’t improve on her chapter summary so here it is:

‘Chapter 2 argues that stabilizing, statebuilding and prioritizing a transactional approach have contributed to a damaging status quo, pushing a mental model that hides the relational, mental and social aspects of development. A typical post-conflict response is to implement programmes that support economic growth and thus Chapter 3 builds on the previous chapter’s demonstration that economic growth policies do not automatically trickle down to make lives better by arguing that the image of economic life applied in these policies is too narrow. Crucially, it overlooks the importance of social and moral connections in driving economic life. In a sense, the chapter takes issue with how this kind of economic thinking has infused all other ways of thinking of development through the lens of growth and transaction.

While this driver may not be instantly visible to programme decision-makers, it can profoundly shape people’s access to markets and the broader economy. Chapter 4 explores why the experience of having survived a violent conflict rarely seems to lead to stable livelihoods or improved perceptions of security once the conflict ends. The chapter takes issue with the view that it is conflict that causes the greatest disruption to lives and that its end constitutes an automatic improvement. Given this, the chapter proposes moving away from notions of sequencing towards a more lateral approach of responding to challenges people experience as they live their lives amid violence.

There are also other unseen factors at play, which Chapter 5 proceeds to outline through the concept of the mental landscape. The mental landscape acknowledges that narratives, experiences and identity influence behaviour and in turn the future experience of the post-conflict environment, including the relationship between citizens and the state.

Chapter 6 reveals that current ways of operationalizing identity create a contradiction: they assume a shared experience and emphasize the rigidity of identity to then support change within that identity. While identity is a useful way to understand local realities, it can also create structures of exclusion. This is due to the damaging effects of categorizing individuals in order to administer development programmes – a categorization that achieves often the opposite of what it sets out to do, which is to find ways to include and to improve how citizens experience the state.

This state–citizen relationship is at the heart of many statebuilding and stabilization policies. In examining the assumptions on which such policies rest, Chapter 7 builds on the argument that legitimacy is co-constructed in a process of permanent exchange between state and society, and that the currency of this exchange is the salient issue along which legitimacy is negotiated.

Whether or not a state is capable of delivering services is usually explained through state capacity. This is a technical view that focuses on strengthening state structures through training, and through these structures allowing governance to develop. Chapter 8 instead suggests that a characteristic of environments marked by violent conflict is that they are structured through existing relationships, which are both productive and the bedrock of being able to adapt: they are what allows pivoting for programmes and adjustment of approaches, since humans are involved and their interactions with each other remain (for better or for worse). Relationships that can provide the capacity to govern or access markets are, however, not open to everyone.’

But do you still think there’s a beginning and an end?

She summarizes (some of) the barriers to change as:

  • People are too busy to notice there is a problem.
  • ·         Confirmation bias means people only see what they already believe in.21
  • ·         Familiarity/availability bias means people only draw on what they are most familiar with.
  • ·         Fear of failure means people choose the action for which they are least likely to be criticized in the event things go wrong.
  • ·         Groupthink means people find it very difficult to raise a dissenting voice.
  • ·         People seek clear lines of cause and effect, meaning that acknowledging how issues interconnect and how one action may deepen complexity can be a hugely unsettling experience.

Recognize any of that? I loved her focus on assets – building on what exists, either in people’s heads or on the ground (e.g. markets) rather than coming in with something new and alien. Also the focus on empathy/POVO (Point of View of the Other). If aid workers cannot at least try to understand how people on the ground perceive issues such as risk, livelihoods, migration, patronage etc, their interventions are destined to fail, and maybe even do harm.

In a final chapter, she teams up with a practitioner, Stephanie Buell, to try and extract some ‘so whats’. They set out what they call practical ideas for change, but also for ‘inner work’ – the personal journey aid workers must undertake to unlearn the current model, and embrace ambiguity and reality.

All this is very wise, but also quite gnomic (the examples are great, but I would have liked more). Even the very welcome final chapter is pretty meta – it reminds me of some moral/religious text that study groups should take, read and reflect on to uncover the implications for their daily lives and practices.

So this is a significant book – don’t be put off by the academic cover and high price. The wonders of Open Access make it available to all!

March 21, 2023
Duncan Green