Culture vs. Conflict


Last morning we had an extremely interesting session with Dr.Iyer on Culture, Empathy, and Resilience, where we talked about their implications on conflict. We first talked about the nature of culture and illustrated it as an iceberg where customs and behavior stand at the visible tip and the values and our deeper understandings of the world remain underwater. Then we discussed the nature of empathy, as a crucial tool in understanding and intervening in conflict, as well as resilience, which is essential to post-conflict reconstruction.

I was particularly moved by a statement that Professor Avruch had made on the root of conflict, stating that conflict rides on culture, because conflicts are never about culture. It reminded me of cultural materialism, a research strategy proposed by Marvin Harris that prioritizes material, behavioral and etic processes in the explanation of the evolution of human socio-cultural systems. This research method treats human behavior and culture as an object of scientific inquiry and finds the roots of cultural traditions in material conditions. Professor Harris famously explained the Indian ‘sacred cow’ taboo by breaking it down to the fact that the cow is the factory that produces the ox, which, in turn, is the Indian peasant’s tractor, thresher and family car combined, thus extraordinarily useful. This deconstruction of culture brings me back to Professor Avruch’s point about conflict never being about culture itself, and reinforces my deep disagreement with both of these overlapping perspectives.

I don’t feel that it’s possible to detach culture from the root of conflict, as it’s so deeply ingrained in how people view and think of the world. There is a terminological distinction to be made on culture as only the expression of behavior in the form of traditions and customs (visible part of the iceberg) and culture as both, that as well as the deeper norms, values, and ways of thinking (invisible part of the iceberg), yet just as crucial in our understanding of conflict. Whereas it’s neat to see culture as exclusively visible, there is a whole world of cognitive patterns driving the behavior of individuals, which cannot be separated from the behavior itself.Following the definition that culture is how we make meaning of the world, and that conflict is primarily a clash of world views, I feel that it is safe to assume that conflict is very much about how we make meaning of the world, i.e. culture. Whereas it’s impossible to trace the root of sacred beliefs such as the Indian cow, it’s important to be mindful of the incremental meaning associated with it from communities over centuries. Culture is not an animal to be dissected in a lab, because the whole of collective meaning is so much more than the sum of its peaces. This is why I believe that it is outright reductionist to claim that there is a fundamentally material explanation for what drives individuals’ behavior, or that conflict is not caused by the forces driving individuals’ behavior, beliefs, and values.

So What? to What Now?

“Every day, 306 people in America are shot in murders, assaults, suicides & suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention[1].” In the world there are 795 million people – or one in nine people in the world – do not have enough to eat.[2] Every 10 seconds, a child dies from hunger-related diseases.[3] 6.3 million children died in 2013  – 17,000 a day- mostly from preventable health issues such as malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia[4]. 22,000 children die each day due to conditions of poverty[5]. Each day, nearly 1,000 children die due to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrhoeal diseases.[6] UNHCR Global Trends report finds 65.3 million people, or one person in 113, were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution in 2015[7]. The stats can go on and on. So what?

The lecture by Jerome Sigamani asked very profound question that I am still digesting. So what? What is my role in the world or my place and has to do with this statistics? I will try to answer this question through my perspective and really see what it really means?

The lectured started by writing down points that touched the heart and the head. It was surprising that the things that were very human or emotional and had to do with life touched my heart very quickly and I am sure it will be true of others too. It did not happen with the theories and academic work. As a human being it is important that we feel the things in our hart and are passionate to work with peacebuilding. But is it possible when I am broken and need to fix myself more than the society? The quote, “liberate yourself before you liberate others” really stroked me and lot of thoughts came into my mind.

After having the conversation with Pushapa and class discussion, I concluded (there is still a lot of room to improve) that we as a peacebuilder have to accept that we are human beings. We have our own needs, ego, and interest. The most important part though is to find the shared vision and interests from both parties and interconnect it with the local people and fulfill their needs. I believe that it is very important that when we ask so what question it not the negative connotation that is we have to focus on the question but what now? Are you ready to take challenges? Are you ready to be humble? Are you ready to be curios, passionate, mindful? And finally, are you ready to feel the trauma and get paid (usually little) and committed to work and dedicate life to make the change? I am still working on these questions and need time but the lecture made me think on my role in the world and how should I approach to the above questions…











Talking About Gender Rights and Emotional Intelligence…

As a peacebuilder we have to be “passionate and curious to learn new things” was one of the core point of the lecture from Kathryn Poething. It was one of the very influential talk and made me think about rights and gender equality more passionately. I grew up in very patriarchal society. Even if you cry you would get judged for showing your emotions and being a female (?). Being passionate to me does not mean just ask questions and happy and smiley but at deeper level, it means I am mindful about my acts and being emotionally, culturally intelligent, and empathetic toward other cultures.

Other thing that I learned and I think is important to be a peacebuilder is to be Human. Most of the time we get into the idea that we know everything or after reading two articles we feel that we are the masters (?) in that filed like attitude does not help grow individually and rather than creating peace it makes negative impact on building peace.

Not want to repeat but other thing that was very important was discussion about “are women prone to peacemaking?” I do not know if women are prone are or not but most of our group and I agreed that women do not get to play major role in the society. Women have as much potential as men to make decision and can work even hard work than men. As a male, I strongly believe that women need space, time and environment that will create leadership and peacebuilding. Most of the time women are the one who are affected by the war, violence and are used as a war weapon (by raping) but they play very little role in peacemaking. These women need to play more than 50 percentage role in peacebuilding. Mr. Kazu Haga said in his lecture that the patriotic society does not just impact on other genders but on the male too. It negatively impacts the on being human and full of emotions and feelings that are essential. As a man I believe that that it is my duty to loose and break the barrier of thousands of years. But is our patriotic society ready?





Perception does not equal Reality

Every single human has his own absolute threshold; we are limited in different ways. Our senses limit the way we perceive and understand our surroundings. Depending on where we are, whom we are with, we constantly change our gestures to voices.

We usually see what we want to see not what is in front of us. Let us take a basic example, like, meeting someone for the first time. In general, we would shake hands; introduce ourselves and talk a little about our background and we would usually start looking for what we have in common with that person. What we don’t realise is that depending on how our brain perceived that person, the way we presented ourselves was different that the way we did last week meeting another person. What changed? The assumptions. Our perceptions of people come along with assumptions that later will have an impact on how we behave with that particular human being or situation. But are we always right? Well, not really.

Humans don’t like uncertainties therefore referee to assumptions.  Your first perception has a vast impact on your future perceptions and decisions. We tend to think that a single situation can represent all the other situations. “Assumptions create illusions under specific circumstance.” You assume that I am this way because we met in this particular situation. The way I perceive things will be different than yours and that is because we have different backgrounds and different ways of thinking. Being mindful of our own perceptions and leaving our assumptions aside, can allow ambiguities to settle and leave place to accurate representations of reality, which is important for peacebuilding world.


Self care for Peacebuilders

Self care for peacebuilders

Almost every practitioner we have heard from over the past three weeks has stressed the importance of self care. Anyone who participates in the caring for others should take time out to care for themselves. Kathy Goodman, a mediator and Emotional Intelligence (EI) expert, told us her research showed high levels of empathy for most people who engage in peacebuilding. Empathy is an common trait for those who work in professions like peacebuilding and development.

According to the EQ-i 2.0 model of emotional intelligence, “empathy is recognizing, understanding, and appreciating how other people feel. Empathy involves being able to articulate your understanding of another’s perspective and behaving in a way that respects others’ feelings.” For anyone who sees or hears stories of violence, it can be harmful and cause trauma. Empathetic peacebuilders are especially vulnerable because of their extended exposure, and close contact with victims (vicarious trauma).

What happens to the body when it is under great stress, or witnesses traumatic events? Symptoms can include: depression, insomnia, anxiety, anger, sadness, poor concentration, and mood swings. Our class speakers each mentioned the importance listening our bodies, and diagnosing stress before it becomes too damaging. Some suggestions we’ve heard for self care have been: walking, yoga, journalling, meditation, breathing exercises, tapping (EFT or TTT), talking to a friend, cognitive behavioral therapy, eating healthfully, and avoiding excess caffeine and alcohol.

Wishing all of my fellow students, and practitioners, safe and healthy interactions our in the world. Remember to check in with yourself, and please do not be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling.

“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” – Dalai Lama XIV
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Nonviolence as a practice of self care

My last two entries have focused on the role religion plays in constructing and influencing a society. I have discussed that it can act as an instrument to challenge oppressive structures. But what I haven’t mentioned is how the practice of faith and religion for many brings about a sense of internal peace and security. My goal here is not to do that per se, but instead, talk about how important practicing self care is for aspiring peace builders.

Almost all of our speakers–albeit in different ways–have communicated that in order for effective and enduring service to others one has to be at peace with themselves. And they did not describe ‘peace’ as the absence of stressful situations, but rather, the result of acting consistently within a clearly defined ethical framework and the ability to successfully engage with stress and conflict in a fashion that does not erode relationships.

This ability to engage with conflict to produce either internal peace or social change is one, according to Mr Kazu Haga, nonviolent training emphasizes. He mentioned that there is a difference between non-violence and nonviolence. The former term refers to an absence of violence but does not necessarily suggest a positive peace. The former refers to conscious and disciplined ways of engaging with violent people or structures in a way that brings about true and positive change for all. For Haga, nonviolence isn’t about what not to do, but rather, how you respond to injustice to change it. This insight changed my perception on the necessity for nonviolent approaches.

I haven’t always been a supporter of nonviolent approaches to situations of injustice. I felt that in certain contexts the only way to respond to violence was with applied force and aggression. However, I am recognizing that violence cannot be a vehicle for establishing enduring peace; a situation where multiple stakeholders are invested in working towards the ‘beloved community’. I now recognize that my understanding of nonviolence approaches was based on what the term non-violent suggests, and as such, failed to appreciate the wisdom and complexity of this way of life.

Perhaps the most striking comment of the session–and one I know will continue to challenge me for a while- is to make a distinction between hating forces of evil without hating the people enacting those atrocities. Haga showed an interesting diagram, which essentially communicated this: we should have anger for conditions but compassion for people. It was welcoming and encouraging to hear both him and Ms Goodman extol the emotion of anger. They mentioned that anger alerts us to the fact that we perceive that one of our values have been violated. So, to an extent, feeling anger is a sign of emotional intelligence. But, the trust test is how we respond and express that anger that differentiates a person of self control from an impulsive individual.

Haga, channeling Ghandi, mentioned that nonviolence is essentially a process of healing, self care and self purification. And it is definitely a way of life I will be exploring in the future 🙂

Different teaching styles

The first thing I noticed during the first sessions we had, was how communication in the SPP worked, how much the students engaged in meaningful discussions, challenged not only the teacher but also themselves.

In Brazil, classes were more “formal”, in a way that the teacher-student relationship wasn’t always so dynamic, students would only ask questions when something the teacher explained was not clear. The information I have is based on my personal experiences, but I am sure that it reflects my country’s culture in a way, for I expressed this feeling to some of my colleagues and some of them said that this kind of class dynamics has not been around for long.

Second thing I noticed was that a lot of the questions and comments started with words such as I am passionate about, I feel, how do you feel, I really appreciate. Again, it is not something I am used to, so honestly it took me a while to adjust to this type of class, which I think that relates to emotional intelligence, not feeling comfortable talking about how something made me feel. The thing that stroke me the most was that all the speakers were very open to the questions and really tried to answer them in the best way possible.

Even though I am not used to sharing in the classroom or asking questions I really like this approach, and I wish that I had these type of dynamics in classes with my teachers back home. Sometimes you might have some piece of information that the other might not have, or have some interesting anecdote to tell that might actually change someone’s way of thinking not to mention that knowing how your teacher feels about something might help you relate to them.

Takeaways from the Development Industry


Several days ago, during our session on the Impact of Conflict and Violence on Development, Professor Laurence asked us to write down five takeaways. As the days(weeks?) pass, I go back to those takeaways almost every day when contemplating the development industry and how essential it is to decondition myself from how and what I’ve been taught to think about it. My group researched the Global Peace Index in particular, which is “an attempt to measure the relative position of nations’ and regions’ peacefulness”, by looking at the correlation level between several variables, such as the number of internal and external conflicts fought, number of deaths from organized conflict, terrorist activity, political stability, etc. The following points were the conclusions I drew from our research and background in the field.


  1. Peace is not necessarily correlated to foreign aid.

A very interesting trend we observed while looking at the Top Five National Improvements in Peace was that the biggest improvements in peace were correlated to the withdrawal of foreign aid from those areas. Even though correlation does not infer causation, this particular correlation makes a very important point about the true impacts of foreign intervention and how they might serve to disrupt peace instead of the opposite. I have been thinking a lot about these negative impacts in the context of Western human rights NGOs in the Global South, where there is significant qualitative evidence to back up the actual harms caused by the Westernization of marginalized identities.


  1. There is no causative correlation between peace and development.

There is a grand narrative surrounding development, as anchored by the democratic peace theory, which states that democracies are less likely to go into war with each other than non-democracies. Since most of the democratic countries are developed countries, by default we are led to believe that the more developed a country is, the more peaceful it is. However, by looking at the statistics regarding the Global Peace Index, it was obvious that there definitely wasn’t a clear correlation as there were really developed countries, such as the U.S., ranking very low.


  1. Data must not be taken and used for granted, since it’s not always reliable and generalizable.

During this session, we talked a lot about how data actually gets collected and the consequent problems with its application and usage. First of all, there a substantial problem with its reliability since in the field of development there’s cross-cultural implications for data collection methods, which if applied incorrectly can lead to largely incorrect findings. Secondly, the application of this data can be quite problematic even when we’re mindful of its generalizability, because development data is so essentially linked to its communities, their culture and their political, economic and historical context. In the end, data is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the world’s problems and it’s our responsibility to use it responsibly as a tool.

Non-violence and Nonviolence: Working Towards Positive Peace

Yesterday we had the pleasure to attend one of the most inspiring and exciting lectures so far: Power of LoveThe Militant Power of Nonviolence by Kazu Haga. Kazu, who has over 15 years experience in social change and nonviolence work, is the founder and coordinator of the East Point Peace Academy based in Oakland, CA. Generally, nonviolence encompasses several practices and “branches,” including civilian peacekeeping, grassroots organizing, nonviolent communication, nonviolent meditation, and nonviolent civil resistance. Personally, I have been interested in studying nonviolent movements around the world, and in particular I am interested in the ways this political tool is used as a method to stand up against an oppressive government that does not allow protests and political participation in general. For this reason, Kazu’s perspective was both incredibly relevant to my area of interest and very informative, as this was the first time I had the opportunity to formally learn about Kingian nonviolence methods.

Kingian noviolence is a philosophy and practice that provides the knowledge and skills needed for people to pursue peaceful strategies for solving problems in their communities and societies. The six key principles of this approach include: (1) nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people; (2) the community is the framework for the future; (3) attack forces of evil not persons doing evil; (4) accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve a goal; (5) avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence; and (6) the universe is on the side of justice.

Besides this, one of the most important lessons from this was learning the distinction between non-violence and nonviolence, and how we should reflect upon the values that each of these terms stands for. In essence, the hyphen in non-violence changes the word into an adjective. So, non-violence stands simply for the absence of violent behavior/action—as in “I am not violent, therefore, I consider myself non-violent.” On the other hand, nonviolence is not about what not to do. Instead, it is a principle that calls for standing up against injustice in order to make a positive change in our communities. This relates to the Kingian idea of negative peace, which basically refers to the “peace” (i.e. quiet, calmness, absence of riots, avoiding conflict) that often serves as a facade for injustice. In contrast, positive peace is aligned with building community based on respect and mutual justice for all people.

In short, Kazu introduced us to an inspiring and effective set of principles in order to fight injustice and shake up the status quo in societies where violence and oppression are the norm.


Environmental dangers to civil society


The Big Sur wildfire is less than 100 miles south of our retreat center, in Northern California. Since we arrived three weeks ago, the fires have burned over 107 square miles, and destroyed 57 homes. There are currently more than 1,700 firefighters working to save homes, crops, trees, and towns in it’s path. If the state of California, and the federal government did not have the resources to fight the fires, it could conceivably threaten larger cities, and cause widespread economic and environmental harm. In a worse case scenario, environmental damage can trigger scarcity, which can then result in conflict.

What do I mean by environmental damage causing conflict? According to, our class reading by Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, “environmental scarcity simultaneously increases economic deprivation and disrupts key social institutions which in turn causes ‘deprivation’ conflicts such as civil strife and insurgency. Environmental scarcity does produce economic deprivation, and this deprivation does cause civil strife.”

Despite living a comfortable life in a first world country, we are still vulnerable to environmental damage, and the scarcity and conflict which can follow. Thankfully, our government currently has the resources to fight this fire, but if it continued to burn, it would destroy towns and cities all along the Central California coast, displacing families and businesses, and destroying food crops and vital infrastructure. This destruction would put pressure on the government and population, and the individual loss of homes and jobs would put extra pressure on those already struggling financially. This is because they do not have second homes to escape to, or the means to move to other areas. The temporary shelter set up in the Carmel Middle School was shut down because few residents needed it: they had the means to leave the area, stay with family or friends, hotels, or second homes. If the fire threatened Salinas or Watsonville, or other less affluent areas, there would be tremendous pressure to house and care for the immediate needs of thousands. Long term, thousands would have to migrate to other areas, putting pressure on their resources, and possibly causing social tension. The loss and damage to the soil, trees, and crops along the Central coast would also be felt financially, and possibly led to conflict if food became more expensive or scarce.

Thankfully, the fire is currently 50 percent contained, and it’s expected to be fully contained by the end of the week. As a result of Dr. Richard Matthew’s lecture on environmental change, extreme poverty, and acute violence, I was able to imagine how damaging a large environmental crisis could be to this area.



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