Power and violence

Power and violence

Conflict is all about power. So is peacebuilding. And peace work that fails to take account of power issues is hardly worthy of the name, nor is it likely to be successful. This post reflects on power and violence - the issues we face in our work.



We’ve already made some comments about the need for locally rooted analysis as one essential foundation for any peacebuilding intervention, and based upon that presented the case for work that is strategic. The post on values hopefully signposted a second essential grounding for effective action. An understanding of power can reasonably be proposed as a third essential perspective for conflict work. But we need to unpack the idea that peacebuilding is about power at little more.  


Some comments on power

Power is not evenly distributed amongst us. We are all aware that some people or groups are more powerful than others, and we can observe that those with power seek to justify having it, and try to retain it. Powerful groups want to preserve their advantage.  Equally, less powerful groups tend to resist, and to seek power for themselves. Conflict reflects these opposing interests. If it is to be addressed, peacebuilders must tackle these dynamics. Peacebuilding then is about shifting power relations.


But not all power shifts simply supplant the interests of one group with those of another. The greatest power imbalances occur when most power is concentrated in the hands of the smallest number - what one might characterise as ‘power over’. On the other hand if power is more evenly spread, diffused between a large proportion or even all of a group, we might think of this as ‘power with’. Peacebuilding tends to favour shifts in power from small groups to broader numbers, promoting its more even distribution, and upholding ‘power with’.



Peacebuilding work as a sub-set of broader efforts to address conflict

We can observe that a lot of work that addresses armed conflict is not targeted at its dynamics, but at the environment in which it takes place. DDR - disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration - may be an element of a peace deal. De-commissioning arms or preventing arms sales can address the levels of violence. Carrying out educational programmes that promote respect for human rights can have a positive impact. De-mining or educating people about landmine avoidance will likely save lives. Campaigning against the use of child soldiers can help to change attitudes about their recruitment. We hope that our blogs and trainings will be relevant to workers doing each of these activities. All are important and often lifesaving, and all can benefit from an understanding of power, whether on the strategic, community or interpersonal level.  


But these approaches are not sufficient in themselves for effective peacebuilding, because none of them go to the heart of why a conflict is taking place. If peacebuilding is to address the causes of conflict, its analysis and strategy must engage with power relations. Without this we cannot go far towards peace. Power relations are being challenged and resisted in all societies at all times, and in multiple respects, through legal, illegal, non-violent or violent means. The greatest peacebuilders of the last century, including Gandhi, Mandela, King and Maathai, were all engaged in challenging and shifting power relations.


With local analysis, strategy, and a value base, we still can’t go far without examining and addressing the issue of power and its abuse. That observation bring us to the issue of violence.



Some comments on violence

A view of violence limited to visible physical violence is deficient. In a domestic setting we are familiar with the idea that violence, and the harm it causes, may be psychological. Beyond that setting, invisible violence occurs at institutional and state level. Prejudice, discrimination and racism are powerful currents in all societies, and their impacts including exclusion, poverty, and deprivation are profound. A child teased about a disability in the playground is a victim of violence, as is a child destitute in the Jungle Camp in Calais. A household living with the poisonous experience of daily community and workplace discrimination is experiencing violence, as is a peasant family driven from their land by legal process. When people challenge injustices of these kinds, emergence of the physical violence of rebellion or repression is a response to deeper rooted violence.


Galtung has helpfully characterised violence as arranged between the three points of a triangle. The first is a visible point at the apex, characterised by physical violence that we are familiar with. The other points are invisible, the first representing violence embedded within a culture (cultural violence), and the second representing violence imposed through social, economic or other systems (structural violence).  



Invisible violence observed

These three types of violence can for example be observed in relation to the emerging scandal of the experience of women harassed in their workplaces, in the media, political institutions or industry. Even though it takes different forms in different cultures and societies, the cultural violence of women’s exclusion from power for centuries is familiar to us. That cultural exclusion is reflected and embodied in the structures of modern institutions of business, governance and politics. For centuries powerful men have used the hidden violence of these practices and arrangements to coerce and bully women, to their advantage. Now the international media have brought these issues to the fore, showing how hidden cultural and structural violence was (and doubtless still is) used to perpetrate physical sexual violence upon women, and to secure their subsequent silence.


Challenging violence is not welcomed by all, and structural violence can be electorally popular. British arms sales to Saudi Arabia are a case in point. Britain currently exports arms and ammunition to Saudi Arabia worth billions of dollars. Saudi Arabia is using these weapons to bomb Yemen, where civilians are the principal victims - both through direct killings, and now cholera and famine resulting from the destruction of infrastructure and livelihoods. In response to my questioning, my MP recently wrote to me that he is in favour of these arms and munitions sales because they are profitable and legal. His position is perceived as normal and respectable here, representing the interests of his constituents as it does.


As peacebuilders we may perceive politics as the preferred means to expose, challenge and remove structural violence, but it may also be used to conceal, excuse or promote it. Power does not easily reform, and the abuse of power has beneficiaries. However, if structural or cultural violence is not challenged through political or social non-violent processes, physical violence can erupt.



Galtung speaks to people’s experience

A joyful experience for me has been the recognition by people across cultures and continents of Galtung’s insight. On grasping it people’s faces light up with understanding - women in rural Burundi deprived of their land rights, smile at the recognition of their suffering; communities in Kenya are mobilised by the understanding that they are experiencing violence by their political representatives upon them; I once witnessed a woman in Rwanda testify about her personal transformation in response to a broader understanding of violence in her own home. You can read her story here.



The abuse of power, and associated visible and invisible violence that results is something that people identify clearly from their own experience. Galtung’s observation of invisible violence legitimizes people's urge to resist. However, the model brings with it a balancing requirement. If violent acts include activities that do not overtly present as violent, then it is necessary to re-examine our own conduct, and consider in what ways our own actions promote or collude with abuses of power that carry invisible forms of violence. This theme will be returned to in the next blog post.


Power shifts when conflicts move between different types of violence

The distribution of power changes when violent conflict begins. When the normal boundaries around the use of physical violence are removed, different stakeholders become empowered or disempowered according to their capabilities in the new context. These changes in power relations drive new dynamics, which can favour more violence.  


In seeking to return a context to a situation where more normal limitations to the use of physical violence are restored, peacebuilders must appreciate these changes. Their own power, and that of all stakeholders, may change profoundly when understandings concerning the use of physical force alter. In considering pathways out of violence, peacebuilders must reflect upon changing power dynamics during such a transition. When carrying out their analysis, developing their strategies, or implementing their programmes, peacebuilders must use the lens of power.




Work of many kinds in conflict regions can reduce violence, but only work that addresses power will affect the underlying conflict dynamics. That is because issues of power are at the root of violence. Peacebuilding measures rooted in local analysis, and based upon a clear strategy and shared values, must be imbued with a strong understanding of power. That is because if we are to challenge violence, peacebuilders must address power.



It follows that peacebuilding is not passive. To address power peacebuilders must act. Non-violent peacebuilding is a threat to those who abuse their power, and use violence. That is why the in the next blog post will move from looking at ‘Power ands Violence’, to looking at ‘Power and Non-violence’.


Post by Bryn Higgs from The Peacebuilding Practitioner.