Viewing resilience through a culture lens
Amjad Saleeem November 18, 2015

Viewing resilience through a culture lens

Ahead of the session on Cultural responses to conflict, Amjad Saleem blogs on how raising cultural awareness and using creative expression can build resilience in communities and countries affected by conflict and war. 

Resilience is the new buzzword in most international discussions.  It is about the capacity of individuals and communities to withstand stress and catastrophe. More often than not most people seem to think about reducing vulnerability to disaster because it is seen as enhancing capabilities of reducing risk and overcoming adversity in ways that lessen negative impacts and decrease vulnerability. Yes these definitions are formal and theoretical approaching the perspective from a so called ‘hardware’ component where communities’ capabilities are built without perhaps inculcating a sense of the paradigm shift in thought, practice and lifestyles that are needed. However the concept of resilience stands greater than this narrow perspective in particular when we talk about post conflict scenarios.

So how do you build resilience that allows people to not only recover from the physical disaster of the conflict but also start to heal and reconcile so that conflicts are not repeated? Hence resilience is also about exploring existing political, social, economic and cultural institutional structures. In particular the latter bears some exploring as it highlights the ‘software’ needed for communities to truly retain the spirit of resilience. It speaks to the very essence of embedding resilience as a concept and practice within communities. It reaffirms the idea of the importance of culture as a space to have conversations with a wider group of people and how we need to reframe the concept of culture.

“In the past culture has been routinely instrumentalised as both friend and foe” In the past culture has been routinely instrumentalised as both friend and foe. It has been used as a nationalist construct to marginalise communities by framing discussions of identity and self-determination. In organised mediations of conflict, culture has been utilised to create impressions of reconciliation.

Yet culture is something more than an instrument. It is not about delivering a message to a beneficiary or target audience nor is it about being captured by development design that constrains the ability to engage with people. It is a dynamic process that involves negotiation, learning and discovery. In post conflict scenarios trying to build resilience for people re-experiencing violence, it becomes a process of transformation not just representation. Thus culture becomes a medium to resolve conflicts without violence and to work better together to improve the quality of lives in a manner that is very different that state acknowledgement cannot with the caveat that it is not a replacement.

So how does this work in building up the concept of resilience in people? It effectively humanises the concept. By its very nature of being creative, expressive, emotional and deeply human, culture (and arts) can help to ‘de-centre’ us from our world view, from our social realities and from rigid, polarised standpoints. It gives voice to alternative narratives and challenge the status quo; has the capacity challenge stereotypes, transform deeply held beliefs, reduce distance and generate compassion and empathy.  In addition, the sharing of a cultural or artistic experience or moment can bring people together and help facilitate empathy for other standpoints. It can provide a moment for people to transcend the past and future and be sensitive to their current encounters and feelings and thoughts.

“Cultural expression can be used to engage marginalised groups to build a positive culture of peace and a more inclusive and just society” Cultural expression can be used to engage marginalised groups to build a positive culture of peace and a more inclusive and just society. Art-making and the creative process involved can be employed as a convenor to facilitate ‘power with’ others. Engaging in this space helps to build skills and confidence of those outside the traditional confines of power. The enlivening qualities of such engagements can support confidence building and enable people to communicate better. It can also teach leadership skills, self-expression, creative thinking and problem solving. Well known examples of such interventions, include Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed, which is used to engage disempowered people to challenge, without confrontation, the structural and possibly violent oppression they experience. This is widely used in South Asia.

Thus in rethinking resilience using a culture lens we become aware of the centrality of open dialogue.  Culture opens the door or creates a safe space for a meaningful conversation to be had. Yet in this conversation, there is a need for a greater sensitivity to the context in which the conversation is taking place in particular with an understanding of power relationships. In a post conflict space, this is about understanding conflict drivers and being more conflict sensitive.  There is also a need for greater evidence of this process. The ‘what has been learnt’, ‘how’ ‘when’ and ‘why’ are yet to be satisfactorily expanded on by artists, academics or peace-builders.

Ultimately, understanding how culture can contribute to a community’s resilience to overcome adversity by broadening the range of available options to avoid, mitigate, manage and recover ultimately leads to the following: A more inclusive form of governance that promotes values and discourses that address the root causes of crises and ask why some people, communities and systems remain vulnerable.