Alison Baily, British Council Security and Stability expert, summarises new research exploring the role of education in conflict and recovery.

Repairing a broken cultural fabric

How do you help a country recover from war? You can rebuild damaged infrastructure, provide medical help to the injured, and shelter for the displaced. Yet while these actions are essential, they only treat conflict’s symptoms. For a society to make that difficult transition from violence to peace, the causes must also be addressed, and the more intangible losses which communities suffer must be repaired. Alongside the devastating impact on human lives, conflict can set back a country’s development, and have long-lasting effects on its social and cultural fabric. Lost years of education, a displaced workforce, psychological trauma, divisions entrenched within communities - these all make recovery much harder, and renewed conflict more likely. 

How do you help a country recover from war?

Education can play an important role in the recovery of these intangible social assets. A new British Council report reviews the evidence on the role of education in the context of conflict, and gives insights for those seeking to maximise the contribution of education programmes to security and stability. Teaching for Peace – Education in conflict and recovery highlights the fundamental, but often complex role that education plays in societies in conflict. The report is based on research commissioned by the British Council from the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. It highlights the Mitchell Institute’s finding that education is an important public institution which can help shape social norms and collective identity, resolve inequality, and give young people skills to improve their employability and social status. 

The complex interaction between education and conflict is illustrated by a review of the experience of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where terrible violence in the second half of the 1990s had a significant long-term impact on the education system. The Mitchell Institute research showed the ways that conflict can damage the capacity of an education system to function properly, affecting the access to - and the quality of - education. In turn, the evidence from the DRC suggested that education helped build resilience, by giving communities a sense of hope, direction, and normality which can help them cope with crisis. This echoes findings from other recent British Council research on its education programmes in the Middle East and North Africa. These showed that education can help develop characteristics associated with resilience - such as a sense of belonging, self-esteem, agency, and empathy – and can help students to establish social support networks.

Image of teacher training taking place
Teaching belonging, self-esteem, agency, empathy. Teacher Training in DRC. Photo USAID in Africa ©

Wikimedia commons used under licence and adapted from the original.

Making a Difference – for Better or Worse

However, the Mitchell Institute’s research also drew attention to the significant potential that education has to foment divisions, as a result of its important role in reproducing group identity and culture. It can be used as a tool to exacerbate tensions along religious, political, social and ethnic lines. Examples cited in the research include the widespread advocacy of eugenics or ‘race science’ in the period before the Second World War, legally enforced segregation in the southern states of the USA, and the institutionalised discrimination of apartheid South Africa. The report discusses numerous cases like this, from the DRC, to South Africa, and Sudan. These include the 1976 uprising in South Africa, which originated in peaceful protests against the introduction of Afrikaans as a compulsory medium of instruction; the Arabisation of missionary schools in southern Sudan after independence in 1964; and the Serbian government’s restrictions on Albanian language education in Kosovo and Metohija in the 1990s.

In Northern Ireland, for example, pupils in integrated schools were found to have more positive attitudes towards those from other denominational groups, more moderate positions on political and constitutional issues, and greater respect for the other group’s culture and religion 

The research concluded that there is no definitive answer to the question of which educational approaches best address peace and security issues, but that it is clear that education can and often does make a measurable and attributable difference. It highlighted the need for education programmes to incorporate conflict-sensitivity into their design at the earliest stages, rooting it in local knowledge to ensure that the risk of exacerbating conflict is mitigated as far as possible. Looking at programme case studies from Lebanon, Northern Ireland and Ukraine, it found emerging evidence for the benefits of approaches which foster critical thinking, civic values and openness to difference. In Northern Ireland, for example, pupils in integrated schools were found to have more positive attitudes towards those from other denominational groups, more moderate positions on political and constitutional issues, and greater respect for the other group’s culture and religion. In Ukraine, schools adopted a model which helped encourage democratic culture through activities spanning across the school, as well as its links with local communities. 

The research found that education plays an important part in human development and human values. Education plays a vital role in inclusive development, which is central to building more peaceful societies, especially in those where high youth populations with limited opportunities contribute to instability. Education enables a young person’s transition to an independent adulthood, and can directly improve their chances of finding employment and improving their social status. It can lead to reduced job insecurity - a key conflict driver - and improved incomes (though it may also raise employment expectations that some societies are unable to fulfil). Education also has a significant influence over the ability of different people within a society to trust and work with each other. Education plays an important role here because it can be key to preserving values like democracy, justice, tolerance, and freedom of expression.

Finally, the research highlighted the particular importance of education in immediate post-conflict recovery periods. It found that education featured in half of the 31 intrastate peace agreements listed on an international index of peace accords between 1989 and 2015. 

This new report provides an opportunity for policymakers and practitioners from across the education, security, and development fields to look together at new ways to promote sustainable peace and security. For a conflict to truly come to an end, the broken relationships within society must be mended – and good education is a vital means to that end.

Alison Baily, Senior Policy Analyst, British Council