The two faces of education in ethnic conflict: Towards a peacebuilding education for children

Diana Saltarelli
Kenneth D. Bush
Publication Year:
May 04, 2020
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

While stressing the many stabilizing aspects of good quality education, editors Kenneth Bush and Diana Saltarelli show how education can be manipulated to drive a wedge between people, rather than drawing them closer together. After analyzing the increasing importance of ethnicity in contemporary conflicts, this Innocenti Insight outlines the negative and positive faces of education in situations of tension or violence, including the denial of education as a weapon of war (negative) and the cultivation of inclusive citizenship (positive).

About the study

This study seeks to develop a clearer understanding of one particular dimension of contemporary ethnic conflict: the constructive and destructive impacts of education – the two faces of education. The need for such analysis is apparent from even a cursory review of experiences in conflict-prone regions. Because educational initiatives can have polar opposite impacts, those involved must stop supporting peace-destroying educational initiatives, and start supporting those aimed at peacebuilding. In other words, if such educational initiatives are to have a positive peacebuilding impact, then they must seek to deconstruct structures of violence and construct structures of peace. The ways in which this might be achieved are addressed in the final section of this study.

Most of the world’s armed conflicts are civil wars. Of the 25 armed conflicts in 1997, only one – between India and Pakistan – was interstate. All the others were internal conflicts. (SIPRI Yearbook 1998, Oxford University Press, 1999). The current trend is to label these conflicts ‘ethnic’, perhaps to distinguish them from the conflicts of the past, when the underlying problems seemed to be ideological and political. Now they appear at first glance to be motivated by the fact of one’s religion, traditions, the colour of one’s skin or any other reason that is not openly ideological or economic in nature.

Countries that have endured such conflicts have diverted vast amounts of resources, both economic and human, to support military actions. ‘Victory’, if ever finally declared, has a very hollow ring indeed. In such conflicts there are no victors, only victims. Such countries often find themselves in a state of complete economic and social collapse. In the aftermath of the 1994 Rwanda genocide – which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 800,000 children, women and men – the national economy was decimated, and almost every institution of local and central government destroyed. Large portions of international aid that could have gone to development were, instead, diverted to emergency assistance. It is estimated that international emergency relief to Rwandan refugees and displaced persons during nine months in 1996 alone amounted to US$ 1.4 billion (Sellstrom and Wohlgemuth, 1996; Cantwell, 1997).

The structures and processes that appear to turn ethnic intolerance into unbridled violence are highly complex. A list of causal factors might include ‘historical forces’, economic tensions, ‘bad’ governance, perceived threats to cultural identity and (in ways that are not adequately understood) formal, non-formal and informal educational processes. Ethnicity itself is often asserted to be a key contributor to ‘ethnic conflict’. However, it is increasingly evident that “ethnicity neither causes conflict, nor in many cases does it accurately describe it. Rather ethnicity/identity is increasingly mobilized and politicized in contemporary violent conflicts” (Bush, 1997).

There are many theories attempting to explain the formation of ethnic identity and some are introduced below. However, this study focuses on the educational structures and processes that politicize identities in ways that allow diversity and cultural difference to become the basis for violent, protracted, conflict. Historically, much attention has been paid to ‘racial’ differences, but this has tended to obscure some of the underpinning dynamics of the problem. Today, we are quite aware that race is a social and political construction, a social fact – or fiction, if you will – with no biological basis. Nonetheless, such differences have been used – and continue to be used – as a pretext for treating people differently. The reality is that any difference, however accidental or barely perceptible, may be used as a pretext for discriminatory practices.

The impact of violent ethnic conflicts on children is profound. According to the 1996 United Nations report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, coordinated by Graça Machel1, two million children died during armed conflicts between 1986 and 1996. Six million children were seriously injured or permanently disabled, and millions more were separated from their families, physically abused, abducted into military groups and, particularly in the case of girls, traumatized by sexual violence and rape. In Rwanda alone, as many as 300,000 children were killed within a period of three months in 1994, while vast numbers were physically and psychologically maimed and forced to flee their homes (Cantwell, 1997). In Chechnya, 40 per cent of civilian casualties from February to May 1995 were children (UN, 1996a). In Bosnia and Herzegovina, over 15,000 children were killed during fighting. Classrooms had to move underground to protect children from snipers (UNICEF Yugoslavia, 1994).

James Wolfenson, President of the World Bank, once observed that ‘true’ development could be distinguished from fake development by “the smile on the face of a child”. The importance of this very human and basic observation should not be underestimated. It sees the well-being of children as the essential measure of all development and peace work. The well-being of children, rather than abstract and complex indicators, becomes the most immediate and transparent measure of the well-being of an entire community. While there are challenges to collecting this type of information, it is an especially important and sensitive means of measuring and assessing conditions in conflict-prone settings because it focuses on those who are typically the first and most directly affected populations – children and women. Given the large number of conflicts still raging today, their devastating consequences and enormous costs, it becomes essential to ask not just how the damage can be repaired, but more importantly how future conflicts can be prevented or at least foreseen.

Our current state of knowledge about the specific mechanisms that generate armed conflicts is expressed well by James Rule(1988) when he writes, “We know a lot of things that are true about civil violence, but we do not know when they are going to be true.”

Education on its own cannot be expected to manage or resolve identity-based violent conflicts, just as diplomatic and peacekeeping initiatives on their own cannot be expected to resolve militarized conflict in the absence of complementary political, economic and social initiatives. Any solution to violent conflict will be sustainable only if it is developed and supported by both governmental and nongovernmental actors within violence-affected societies in ways that are consistent with the fundamental and universal principles of human rights.




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