Jun 5, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Innovations (and challenges) in Peacebuilding

Nairobi, Kenya

Yesterday, at the Catholic University of East Africa on the southern edge of Nairobi, two students and a professor from Georgetown’s Conflict Resolution program hosted an event to discuss recent innovations in peacebuilding. Master’s candidates Deborah Drew and Joshua Peacock sat on a panel with Dr. S. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana, presenting in front of an audience of Kenyan students, professors, and field practitioners. After an initial discussion of broader themes and strategies within the CR field, as well as the application of CR tools within international politics and corporate life, the panel opened the floor for questions. And the audience responded with a series of insightful, energetic, and challenging statements that reflected the deep interest within Kenyan society in overcoming what often seem like intractable divisions and conflicts between tribes, ethnicities, violent extremists, and governments.

This event, and topic, comes amid a particularly tense period in Kenya. Last week an explosion in Nairobi’s crowded business district injured at least 33 people — an incident the government quickly blamed on Al-Shabaab, who then responded by issuing a series of statements threatening to target Nairobi’s tallest buildings. Only days later, Kenyan military forces in Somalia captured the strategically important town of Afmadow from Al-Shabaab militants, in the ongoing effort to stabilize the country by regaining control over central and southern Somalia from the extremist group. Yet, this only heightened concerns that Al-Shabaab affiliates and sympathizers in Kenya would respond violently to demonstrate the group’s ongoing capacity to wage war despite its recent setbacks.

However, with only a few exceptions, the questions from the audience during yesterday’s event avoided a direct hit on this sensitive topic, and instead focused on a range of abstract concepts (How do we heal when both sides are taught to hate the other?); new tools and technologies (How does media impact perception and willingness to resolve conflict?); and lessons derived from on-the-ground experience (One woman stood up to share her story as a practitioner in the sprawling Nairobi slum, Kibera, injecting a much more local, and personal, flavor into the discussion).

One important theme that emerged time and again was the notion of identity, and how it may be malleable depending on circumstance — social interactions and political conditions. For example, Dr. Kadayifci-Orellana discussed a Lebanese woman of Turkish decent, who was raised in an Islamic home but did not personally subscribe to observant Islamic beliefs. Yet, when placed in a group with Israelis during a workshop, she claimed that she was a Palestinian Muslim. Why? Because, according to her, that was the portion of her identity that was subjugated by political actors who were denying her rights.

In an Kenyan context, identity once again breaks down on multiple levels. While most of the people who attended the peacebuilding event were Catholic, there are also Protestants and a sizable Muslim minority in the country. Yet even among those particular groups, ethnicity and tribal identity often reign supreme, with Kikuyu and Luhya the most prominent and politically influential. The field of conflict resolution in Kenya, it seems, may be nearly inseparable from the identity politics that so often dictate government behavior and performance, with parties composed mainly on ethnic lines, all with ostensibly similar policy platforms but serving the interests of distinct groups.

Living here in Nairobi this summer, hopefully I will develop a better understanding of these forces, and perhaps how they shape ongoing (development, Al-Shabaab, corruption) and future (presidential elections and government formation) political events.



  • Hi Josh,
    super interesting! Im looking forward to reading more about your experiences in Kenya.

  • Absolutely. If people in Kenya view politics as a zero-sum competition between ethnic groups, conflicts do become intractable.

  • Super interesting! I like the discussion surrounding identity. Looking forward to reading more.

  • Knowing that people care how and why others think and feel gives me hope for the world. Keep up the good work :)

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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