Strategy and The Grassroots

I’ve always seen the main problem of communications planning in conflict as balancing between looking into the hearts and minds of people to see what makes them tick, and thinking about how to shape systems and structures within society that drive grievance, inequality or cooperation. I witnessed it as a youth in Northern Ireland. On the one hand street violence outside my window by drink-fuelled gangs, and on the other, interminable and remote negotiations amongst the politically divided elite, reported on TV. I observed it again in Bosnia, where local explanations for the conflict blamed external forces, sweeping historical narratives or economic dynamics – but rarely addressed why one neighbour on the same street actually took up arms against another at any given moment. In my communications work, this is my ‘level of analysis’ problem, perhaps even embodied in the sometimes apparent tension between the terms ‘strategic communication’ and ‘grassroots’ interventions: how to deal with the big issues whilst addressing violence and peace where it happens, where it is felt and where it is lived.

I saw this again in my recent training work with Albany in Somalia and Nigeria. Spending days with a set of people in a classroom, getting the discussion going on how to address conflict through communications. It highlighted the same level of analysis problem for drivers of conflict. One person would try to address them through advocating large-scale national policies on energy. Another would advocate educating widows in a district on how to get crops out of a field as a way of keeping food on the table and reducing vulnerability. Others would focus on the police or governments’ relationship with local people, where ‘actions speak louder than words’. In some ways these different stances simply reflected the nature of the job roles of those in the classroom.

However, it sometimes represented an indicator of remoteness from the experience of violence, poverty or grievance. If you lived amongst it, then national policies seemed remote and academic – they didn’t easily deal with the emotional experience of conflict. If you were a policy person one might have the power to enact change at a strategic level on a large scale – to make a big difference. Of course the workshops needed to take account of all these threads from top to bottom, and this is really what constitutes the problem for us collectively – advocating and taking action at every level that has a local resonance, where the results can be seen, heard and felt – at the grassroots.

Another problematic aspect of the ‘remoteness from the conflict issue’ was also evident. One would see an expectation early in workshops, that facts and cost-benefit messages would resonate at a local level – ‘how could no reasonable person see the argument?’.   This sometimes showed itself in the development of messages for terrorists that remotely assumed what it must be like to be a terrorist – ‘don’t live in fear, don’t isolate yourself from society’. Or what it might be like to be a poor parent with five or more children who abandons one to the street or ‘religious school’– ‘look after your children they are precious’. On the contrary, there is evidence to suggest that fighters have found companionship, belonging and excitement, or that the tradition of children being placed under someone else’s care at a young age seems rational and common.

The Albany work has tried to demonstrate where there is no short-cut to understanding others, the analysis has to be done. One can’t simply assume what it is like to be a terrorist, nomad, or farmer’s wife, otherwise communications are based on fiction. The workshops have tried to encourage communicators and planners to consider the emotional content of conflict, essential in holding the attention of those with whom they wish to communicate. If they (and we) are not listening, there’s no communication. The workshops have stressed the importance of understanding the local practices and the systems in society that shape certain behaviours. It is only then that one can have a realistic view of how difficult or otherwise change is, and how necessary it is that communications, grassroots activities and national policies are aligned.

Nigel Jones is a consultant working for Albany Associates