Changing the Story: Building Inclusive Civil Societies with, and for, Young People in 5 Post-Conflict Countries

Postgraduate students

Katie Hodgkinson


Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council / Global Challenges Research Fund

Changing The Story is a four-year international, multi-disciplinary project which supports the building of inclusive civil societies with, and for, young people in 5 post-conflict countries. It is a collaborative project between universities, INGOs, artists, grassroots civil society organisations and young people across the world.

The legacy of internal conflict, violence, even genocide poses one of the most intractable obstacles to development in post- conflict states. The on-going lack of resolution of the past is often a very significant factor in the marked fragility of any development gains in such countries. This newly awarded AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund project “Changing the Story” investigates the efficacy of civil society organisations (CSOs, including museums, heritage organizations, community participatory arts and activist groups) in promoting social reconciliation and respect for equality and human rights in the aftermath of conflict in 5 countries: Colombia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo and South Africa.

Over the last 40 years, these countries have had to confront the material consequences of their violent pasts. Each has a very different relationship to this past, from Colombia, where the processes of reconciliation are only just beginning, to Cambodia where the violence of the Khmer Rouge has passed into history and yet its memory continues to shape contemporary society. The international development community and donor states have invested heavily in the work of CSOs supporting reconciliation initiatives, particularly focussed on children and young people – a disproportionately large part of the population due to the effects of past violence on their parents’ generation. This demographic imbalance is often exacerbated by the long-term impact of a wide range of social issues (e.g. HIV/AIDs in South Africa, on-going visa restrictions in Kosovo). CSOs are invariably considered ‘an essential component of peace-building work’ (Zelizer 2003). For example, the role of community theatre in Rwanda is often cited in efforts to support transitional justice, similarly the growth of inter-ethnic musical groups in post-war Kosovo. Such initiatives can have immediate, therapeutic impact for participants. They are also often considered to play an important role in the building of stable institutions, and stronger societies, raising awareness of human rights in the face of weak state structures. However, given the lack of resources generally available in CSOs and the focus of colleagues in international development on the frontline delivery of services to the communities they support, there is only a weak research evidence base for the efficacy of these interventions.

Building on our previous GCRF projects, through this project we will deliver the first large-scale comparative study of CSO practice across a range of post-conflict societies, confronting the challenge of building strong institutions for the delivery of social justice for young people. We will begin by undertaking a critical review of current work by CSOs across these countries, in order to highlight innovative practice, as well as areas that require further investigation. This will lead to 5 ‘proof of concept’ pilot projects, based on lessons learnt from this review. Our initial R&D phase will then lead to the commissioning of 2 rounds of projects, one aimed at ECRs, one at colleagues at all career stages.

Adopting quantitative and qualitative, co-production and action-research methodologies, we will work in partnership with researchers at HEIs and IROs across these 5 countries, locally-based CSOs, the British Council (BC) and its in-country network of partners, as well as other international development organisations (including UNICEF, UNESCO, Hope and Homes for Children, Plan International, Salzburg Global Seminar, PAX). We will develop new methods, case studies and practical toolkits, for engaging children and young people with the many ways that violent national pasts continue to impact on their communities and countries. In the process we seek to make a significant intervention both on the ground and at policy level across and beyond our 5 case-study countries.

Working at the intersection between the Art and Humanities and Social Sciences, and crossing a broad range of disciplines (including languages and cultural studies, arts practice, film, history, post-colonial studies, cultural policy, anthropology, social policy, development studies, education and law), this project will forge new ways of utilizing Arts and Humanities research for practical international development projects with a lasting legacy. In so doing, we will highlight the broad potential of Arts and Humanities within the context International Development.

Project website