Image of two people carrying the Kwibuka flame
Lighting a fire for peace. Kwibuka Flame Tour. Photo ©

Creative Commons used under licence and adapted from the original.

April 2019

A new report examines the value of culture in post-conflict recovery. Alison Baily, British Council Security and Stability expert, describes the main findings.

Flames of Remembrance 

This April Rwanda marks the 25th anniversary of the 1994 genocide. Commemoration has played a central role in Rwanda’s efforts to recover. Each year in April the country begins ‘Kwibuka’, a three-month period of events commemorating the tragedy. Rwandans are encouraged to come together to remember the conflict in which over 800,000 people died. The arts have played an important role, drawing on shared cultural heritage and identity. The Kwibuka Flame, similar to the Olympic torch, tours the country in the run-up to the main official event at the national Amahoro stadium. To mark its arrival, communities hold their own special memorial events, often informed and strengthened by culture and the arts. In a powerful symbol of national unity and remembrance, the flame then returns to the capital to light a memorial fire at the Amahoro ceremony. These commemorations form part of the Rwandan government’s strategy (also encompassing civic education, socioeconomic development, and reconciliation through justice) to prevent a return to violence and heal a divided nation after the atrocities of 25 years ago.

Rwanda’s national commemoration efforts are a case study in a new British Council report, The Art of Peace: The Value of Culture in Post-Conflict Recovery. The report is based on research conducted by the University of the West of Scotland, which looked at academic literature and country case studies in an effort to gain a better understanding of the role of culture in mitigating conflict and building peace. The research identified emerging evidence for the role that arts and cultural programmes can play as part of a spectrum of interventions linking culture, security, and development. In particular, it highlights the contribution that such programmes can make to post-conflict communities: through therapy, reconciliation, and strengthening civil society. 

Colombia provides another example of the integration of cultural and arts programmes into a government’s national reconciliation strategy. A wide range of arts and cultural initiatives are being carried out to help rebuild social relations and resilience. These include its Music For Reconciliation programme, which provides a space for the reintegration of victims of war - giving young people quality musical education with a focus on group music-making, in order to aid reconciliation and recovery; and Sensory Expedition - a programme providing training in local arts-and-crafts traditions. These have been successful in helping young people in areas particularly affected by violence to come to terms with the past and gain practical skills for the future. 

Arts and culture are regarded as offering a more neutral ground for mutual understanding than explicit peacebuilding activities

Image of wall mural
A sense of purpose. Wall mural by the Casa Kolacho cultural centre, Colombia. Photo ©

Greis Cifuentes, for the British Council, adapted from the original.


The report highlights two particular strengths of arts and cultural programmes during times of conflict. The first is their ability to engage communities in their own cultural language. The second is their ability to foster understanding. Arts and culture are regarded as offering a more neutral ground for mutual understanding than explicit peacebuilding activities, because they are able to bring people from different groups together around a shared interest and goal, rather than around issues related to the conflict. They also provide a form of expression and a creative reflection. In Syria, the research profiles an arts therapy initiative for vulnerable street children, and theatre projects which have been used to help communities process the trauma of conflict and build a stronger sense of belonging.

But the research cautions that the ability of the arts to transform conflict in and of themselves must not be overstated, and that, like other interventions, they can even exacerbate conflict (for example, in Rwanda, popular music was used in radio broadcasts designed to promote ethnic violence). It also identified a number of key risks and challenges for arts and cultural programmes in conflict-affected contexts, some of which also apply to other areas of intervention, such as unrealistic expectations; a limited evidence base; problems evaluating impact; top-down approaches; lack of conflict sensitivity; and difficulties of scale.

Key implications of the report for international cultural organisations include the need to commission further research to understand the role of culture in promoting resilience in conflict-affected areas; and the use of this research to develop new theories of change. It also suggests the need for cultural programmes to focus on tangible and realistic goals, in areas such as confidence building, skills training, self-expression, and intergroup understanding and tolerance.

Arts and cultural programmes can have success when they are locally led, based on an understanding of local cultural traditions, and linked to wider reconciliation and recovery programmes

The existing evidence indicates that arts and cultural programmes can have success when they are locally led, based on an understanding of local cultural traditions, and linked to wider reconciliation and recovery programmes. As Rwanda marks a quarter of a century since the 1994 genocide, this report shines a welcome light on the restorative power of the arts. 

Alison Baily, Senior Policy Analyst, British Council

See also