George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Better evidence is the key to better peacebuilding

November 18, 2020   /   by Audrey Williams

A group of scholars, practitioners, policymakers, and funders poses for a group photo against a backdrop of late winter at the Point of View Retreat and Research Center in Lorton, VA.

A group of 36 scholars, practitioners, policymakers, and funders came together at a workshop on February 4, 2020, at the Carter School’s Point of View Retreat and Research Center to form the Better Evidence Project. (Photo credit: Carter School)

When Milt Lauenstein retired from his distinguished career in business management in 2001, he knew he wanted to dedicate both his time and his resources toward doing good in the world—and in particular, toward alleviating human suffering.

To that end, he has been providing support to a wide variety of peacebuilding and conflict resolution initiatives over the last two decades, including to the Purdue Peace Project at Purdue University, and Impact:Peace at the Joan P. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego.

Now, Lauenstein is continuing this effort through his support of the Better Evidence Project (BEP), a new initiative based at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

BEP involves a wide variety of organizations working toward a common goal: conducting research to generate more precise and usable evidence on how to reduce violent conflict.

The need for such an initiative is clear. According to Lauenstein, recent warfare “has resulted in 70 million refugees and internally displaced persons, and [it] costs trillions of dollars per year.”

While peacebuilders have done a lot of good in recent decades, more robust efforts are needed to generate evidence on how best to “reverse the trend toward increasing political violence,” he said.

Embarking on such an initiative requires an element of risk-taking and courage.

“One of the challenges is that people in the field tend to have a vested interest in the status quo. They are doing their thing, and they hope that it will contribute to peace,” Lauenstein said. “But I’d say people are reluctant to risk finding out that what they're doing isn’t really doing anything good.”

The Better Evidence Project was thus created to provide a space for scholars and practitioners to break away from the tempting familiarity of the status quo and to support empirical research focused on generating the evidence they need to allocate their resources to achieve better peacebuilding outcomes.

Susan Allen, who is BEP’s principal investigator and an associate professor at the Carter School, says that the peace and conflict studies field boasts a wealth of stakeholders working to elaborate the different types of approaches and techniques that are likely to bring about the cessation of violence and the resolution of conflict.

However, a lack of information sharing across the field remains a major barrier to making evidence of effective peacebuilding better known.

Recognition of this barrier helped seed the idea for the Better Evidence Project, which was launched in February 2020 following a workshop involving 36 scholars, practitioners, policymakers, and funders at the Carter School’s Point of View International Retreat and Research Center in Lorton, Virginia.

At the February workshop, participants came to a collective understanding that, in order to uncover and develop the best evidence for how violent conflict can be halted and prevented, “there really was a need for some kind of hub to pull this disparate work together and to ensure cross-fertilization and building on each other’s work,” according to Allen.

To carry out its mandate, BEP will focus specifically on “reducing large-scale political violence and warfare” by carrying out strategic planning that is meant to address “how better evidence plays out in those scenarios,” according to the project’s first executive director, Kristina Hook.

Hook said that existing research shows that conflicts are highly likely to recur, which makes it even more important not only to uncover evidence of what works in peacebuilding but also to disseminate it in such a way as to be useful to scholars, practitioners, policymakers, and funders alike.

The participants of the February 2020 workshop recommended that the project should focus on two areas in particular during its first year: (1) developing a shared set of core measures that describe peacebuilding success and effectiveness; and (2) learning from local peacebuilding successes to develop and communicate a stronger evidence base on the effectiveness of locally-led peacebuilding.

According to Allen, it is important to appreciate how these two areas are intertwined.

“One reason people search for core indicators is people want to understand what really works, and they want to be able to measure things by the same standards,” Allen said.

However, these indicators need to be “contextually relevant,” because the path to peace may look different in one place as compared to another.

“Local peacebuilding is super important, because peace is built locally,” Allen said. “There can be a national piece of paper signed, but unless every town and village, every rural area, changes behaviors, that's not peace.”

“We commend the Better Evidence Project’s emphasis on locally-led peacebuilding, an area where more work needs to be done both to build capacity and re-orient policy and assistance approaches towards local ownership,” said Uzra Zeya, the president and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP), which was one of the co-sponsors of the February 2020 workshop.

AfP has recently developed the Eirene Peacebuilding Database, which pulls together more than 3,300 peacebuilding indicators from the existing literature to help render techniques for gathering evidence more accessible to scholars and practitioners.

The importance of local contexts to successful peacebuilding is among one of the findings of BEP’s new major research reports, which have been rolled out over the Fall 2020 semester and are available on the project’s website.

BEP’s latest report, titled “What Role Does International Organization Intervention Play in Successful War Prevention?”, will be launched during a virtual event on November 19, 2020.

The report was researched and written by Margarita Tadevosyan, a Carter School PhD alum who was selected from a competitive pool of applicants to be BEP’s first postdoctoral fellow.

With this report and other developing research initiatives, the Better Evidence Project hopes to both draw on and further solidify the link between theory and practice within the field of peace and conflict studies.

Hook’s own career has been a study in how research and practice inform each other. For example, her work as a policy officer at the U.S. Department of State—where she was tapped to support a newly established U.S. interagency mechanism on preventing and responding to genocides and mass atrocities—informed her ensuing doctoral studies in anthropology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. 

“Allowing yourself to be in a place where your research is shaped by your practice and your practice shapes your subsequent research is a great place to be,” she said. 

This link between theory and practice also makes the Carter School an especially good fit to host BEP. In particular, the Better Evidence Project will benefit from being based within the Center for Peacemaking Practice (CPP), which Allen directs.

“One of the questions that [is] always at the forefront [of the CPP] is, ‘What's the practical impact of this research?’” said Allen.

It’s a question that the Better Evidence Project will now also have at the center of its work. In seeking to ensure that its research can be translated to inform policymakers and practitioners, while also allowing the insights of policymakers and practitioners to be translated back into further research, BEP will continue a long tradition at the Carter School.

“A very important part of the Carter School DNA and the Carter School identity is the fact that research should be connected to practice. And that is the driving impulse of the Better Evidence Project,” said Hook. “I think that being under the larger umbrella [of the Carter School], and being able to tap into [its] resources, is a dream come true for a new initiative like this.”

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