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Conflict Engagement

On 12th - 14th January 2015, Elizabeth of iFacilitate participated in a conference on 'Bridging Theory and Practice of Creative Conflict Engagement'  which took place at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel.  She was  invited to be a panel member along with Professor Jay Rothman and Dr Nimrod Rosier of Bar-Ilan University and Dr Nerkez Opacin of the International University of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The panel session considered the topic of 'Critically and personally engaging with conflicts in teaching and learning', considering the relationship between teaching and learning and engaging constructively with conflict. Elizabeth spoke about the role of Higher Education in developing the capabilities of students for analysis, critical thinking and reflective practice. 

Her presentation can be viewed here:

A 'buzz session' was incorporated into the question and answer part of the panel session. Here, the audience were offered the opportunity to converse with each other and to discuss the content of the presentations. They then engaged with the panelists in providing observations and asking questions. This form of audience engagement creates a greater degree of participation for all and could be used more widely in academic gatherings. 

The question and answer session can be viewed here (the 'buzz session is at 13.00mins):

Elizabeth of iFacilitate successfully completed her Master of Science (MSc) in Systems Thinking in Practice with the Open University in November 2015. To do so, she studied a range of postgraduate modules in which she learnt of the techniques, models, methodologies and traditions of Systems Thinking, and of what it means to be a systems practitioner. The final step was undertaking a research inquiry and the writing of a dissertation on the topic of ‘What helps, what hinders in applying Systems Thinking to Professional Practice in Conflict Transformation?’ The completion of this step now opens the way to take forward the work and develop means to support practitioners in applying Systems Thinking to practice in conflict engagement and peacebuilding.

My Story

I first came across Systems Thinking while studying a postgraduate module in 1998 which formed part of my first Open University Masters in Environmental Decision-Making. I was fascinated by the approach and the methodology but I had little opportunity to apply this learning after completion of the study. My interest was reawakened in 2010 when the Open University introduced two new postgraduate modules on Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) and provided the opportunity to continue to complete an MSc in STiP. This opened up a new world for me not only through my studies and research, but in the opportunities it afforded to meet experienced practitioners in Systems Thinking and other learners. My involvement with such communities of practice supported my learning, and helped to develop my confidence and my knowledge of the application of Systems Thinking to practice.

In the same time period, I was focussing my work interests in conflict engagement and peacebuilding. My study, research and training was underpinned and enhanced through dialogues with practitioners, conversations during my travels in countries that had experienced the impact of violent conflict - such as Croatia, Northern Ireland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Israel - and my experience in developing educational materials and in supporting learning on conflict. My developing knowledge and awareness of the richness of the field of Systems Thinking caused me to wonder increasingly why I could not see more evidence of its application in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. Thus evolved the question for the research dissertation.

An extended abstract can be downloaded below.

Contact Elizabeth ( for further details of the work. She will be writing up and extending the findings in the near future.


Exploratiory Paper: Building Bridges across Divides in Communities 

May 2011

Elizabeth Mc Donnell

Key terms: healing, resilience, hope, opportunity, possibility, change, collaboration, learning

1. Conflict, violence and war

Conflict is often equated with war but conflict is a natural process that results from any meeting of difference and struggle for resources and/ or power.  It is when conflicts are not resolved that they may become violent. Conflicts at a regional / state level may result from a struggle for power, access to resources or over land ownership.  If within one country they are termed civil wars. During the Cold War era and in the years since its end, the number of civil wars has increased sharply.

Civil wars take place between particular groupings within a country and/ or between certain factions and the government of that country.  Such wars are complex and messy and are characterized by particular brutality and ferocity. Fighting is between families, neighbours and co-workers within a country/ nation state – it becomes necessary to dehumanize and to demonise the ‘enemy’ so that horrible actions can be taken against the ‘evil’ other. Civilians bear the brunt of the damage (deaths, injuries, loss of resources).  Rules of war such as those defined by the Geneva convention do not apply. The impact of such violent conflict on the country is usually traumatic and long-lasting, the divisions, hatred and loss of trust can last for generations.

The root causes of the descent into civil war can be many and varied but frequently involve what is termed a ‘weak’ state’ whereby the government/ those is power cannot or do not provide for the needs of  the governed / people of the country.  The institutions of the state (security, education, welfare, justice) may be inadequate.  Particular groups within the country may be marginalized and disadvantaged, corruption and criminality may be pervasive and power struggles ongoing. 

2. Divides in communities

Divides between groupings in society may have origin in identity (e.g. ethnic, cultural), intergenerational, power differentials, past happenings and combinations thereof.  Such divides may be characterised by a lack of interaction, communication and understanding between different groupings.  The divides are not necessarily problematical but have the potential to give rise to social tensions, particularly in times of stress and uncertainty.  Where difference in status and power exist, the situation may give rise to discrimination against the less powerful groups with resulting inequality and disadvantage, and may even become an accepted norm in a society (e.g caste system in Nepal, past discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland). Such divides may become institutionalised and ingrained in the fabric of society, giving rise to segregation e.g. the educational system in Vukovar, Croatia.

3. The advantages to division

Keeping apart from another group can help retain a sense of identity, of difference, even of superiority.  It also is a means of avoidance – of dealing with conflict, or with difficult interactions. In the case where a history of past violence exists between the groups, segregation provides a third space, a means of separation from dealing with past pain, distress and hatred.  It enables people to get on with life and results in the existence of a negative peace.

4. The disadvantages of division

Division, lack of interaction and alienation between groups create the potential for misunderstanding, suspicion and fear.  In times of stress or threat, it is convenient to project onto an outside group, to engage in identifying its members as ‘other’, different, threatening and inferior to members of one’s own group. Where there is a history of abuse or violence between groups, separation does not allow for any healing or reconciliation and stores up problems for the future. There is a danger of trans-generational transmission of prejudice, hatred and trauma and of susceptibility to manipulation by influential leaders.

5. Changing the situation – opportunities and barriers

As with any living system, communities are complex, dynamic entities always in a state of flux, due to the diverse interactions and relationships that exist and the ongoing cycle of life and death.  No social system is an island and external influences will impact upon them – this is becoming more true in our globalised world.  So even if everything seems stuck in a rigid place with no room for manoeuvre, sooner or later something will move and change – witness the upheavals spreading through countries in North Africa at present.  The challenge is knowing if, when and how to intervene to ensure change takes a positive course.

Barriers to social change may be rooted in the prevailing power dynamics – those who have something to gain from the existing situation will resist change.  This may include political leaders, rulers, the wealthy or some particular identity groups.  The ways of working and interrelating may be ingrained in the social system and have become part of the social norm – ‘this is the way things are done here’.  On the other hand, the population may have experienced great trauma and loss as a result of violence and war, changes leading to loss of employment, community resources and connections, or natural disasters.  The capacity of a community to respond will depend on many factors but a temporary or lasting loss of hope, feelings of despair and disbelief, unresolved pain, fear and anger may be prevalent.  In addition, there may be transmission of trauma and unresolved emotions to younger people and transmission through the generations. 

Ironically, the very elements that create barriers to change may also provide opportunities for change.  A community may grow weary of the status quo and long for something better, so open up to hope and new possibilities. Young people have energy, are likely to be open to new perspectives and it is in the very nature of growing to adulthood for the young to rebel and seek to stamp their own identity. External influence such as social networking can open their eyes to other ways of life.  The pent-up emotions may be triggered to release an unstoppable force for change, despite the dangers (North Africa again).  Social inequality, lack of freedom and injustice eventually can drive a hunger for change and a better way of living for those affected.

6. Who intervenes?

It is essential that the drive for change comes from within, and that it involves internal players of all identities and from all societal levels e.g. community leaders and influencers, young people, women, decision-makers, policy-makers.  The role of external players needs consideration and clarity. For instance, they can provide inspiration, hope, resources, and demonstrate other ways of addressing issues.  The interactions need to equitable and a2-way..

7. An approach to addressing divides in communities: 1-2-3

The approach has 3 explicit elements but these should not be considered as being linear in execution i.e. it is not essential to first do 1, then 2, then 3.  The needs of the participants are paramount i.e. ‘where they are at’, will identify the most appropriate process or mix of processes.  So it may make sense to start at 2, or to move between 1 and 2, or touch on 3 and move to 2 and so on.

1. Interactions and building relationships – creating safe spaces, inspiring, giving hope,

2. Working separately with each group, dealing with issues, building capacity

3. Bringing together of groups to deal with difficult issues, building capacity to heal, learn from the past and towards a shared future;

(1) Creating opportunities for interaction

Groups and individuals may not be able to deal productively with the issues that divide them e.g. if difference, suspicion, fear, past history, hatred exists and is too divisive and threatening.  Thus there exists a need to create opportunities for interaction and working together in which each can feel safe and does not take the participants out of their comfort zones too early in the process. Even if this it not the case, initial meeting between groups benefit from spending time getting to know each other.   Such approaches should be enjoyable and engaging, create a sense of fun and allow for learning and exploration. 

Example: Consol Croatia is developing innovative approaches that draw on academic methodology in enable interaction and in building relationships.  Additionally, the process supports the development of skills in communication, conflict management and collaboration. The use of simple scientific experiments provides a way of engaging participants in learning and in working together that draws on those human attributes of a sense of wonder, curiosity and creativity, as well as developing skills in critical inquiry.

Contact of this kind does not address directly divisive and contentious issues, or stereotyping and prejudice.   However there is concern that re-examining the past can re-traumatize those impacted by it.  Healing takes many forms.  Engagement in learning and creative activities creates a different space and way of being, and may support moving on without the need for explicit examination of the past.  Such interactions build capacity for tolerance and acceptance and for considering new and other perspectives on a familiar situation, particularly where issues arise due to trans-generational transmission of trauma, prejudice or hatred.

(2)  Working separately with each group, dealing with issues, building capacity

There may be challenges in inspiring, motivating and engaging people in interacting with another group and it may be desirable to work separately with the groups for a time.  If there exists a high level of conflict between groups and/ or they have engaged in past violence towards each other, neither party may be ready or willing to meet the other.

There is then a need to explore creative ways of drawing in learners and of helping them to participate in new experiences in non-threatening and engaging ways. Engagement with such experiences helps participants to overcome their fears, builds self-confidence and opens up new possibilities in personal and social development.   This approach builds developmental capacity, allow issues to be aired safely and give time for reflection and reconsideration.

(3)  Bringing together of groups to deal with difficult issues

This involves building participants’ capacity to heal, to learn from the past and to collaborate in working towards a shared future.  It entails a complex tension between assimilation and integration, tolerance and intolerance, and developing separate and shared identities.

8. Arising Questions

  • What kinds of activity motivate and inspire people to engage in learning and to become involved in community initiatives?
  • What methods do we use to provoke curiosity, willingness to experiment and to innovate?  What can be gained from using interdisciplinary methods?
  • How key are young people in influencing and bringing about change in their communities?
  • Which approaches do we use to maintain our own resilience and energy when the going gets tough?
  • What tools and techniques can help the partners to work best with each other taking into account differences in language, culture, discipline and background?
  • What ethical and moral dilemmas do partners meet in their work of empowering individuals and communities?



Arts as mediating processes in peacebuilding

on Thu, 04/25/2013 - 17:58

In peacebuilding work, arts, music and dance provide mediating processes between the rational and the irrational, providing processes, media and frameworks whereby we can work holistically with mind, body and spirit. 'What goes on here?'

Teaching peace and conflict in Higher Education - the need for a changing dynamic in a changing world

Elizabeth Mc Donnell    August 2012

The field of peace and conflict studies (PCS) first emerged in response to the destruction wrought by the Second World War and continues to evolve and grow in response to the challenges to peace arising from an ever-increasing world population, poverty and inequality, climate change and global movements of peoples.  The 2005 riots in Paris and those in London in 2011 indicate that there is a need to build capacities in all societies for addressing conflict creatively and for collaborative problem-solving if such conflicts are not to take a negative destructive path and end in violence and long term damage. The growing recognition of the need and role of peacebuilding is creating new opportunities for qualified professionals and thus increasing the demand for education and training in the field.

However, herein lies somewhat of a paradox. There is no clearly defined discipline of peace and conflict studies nor of the field of peacebuilding - there are many divergent interpretations of they are and the context of operation and application is in constant flux.  In academia, there is no agreement on a core curriculum or on core competencies for graduate education in peace and conflict studies, resulting in a lack of coherence across academic provision. The field is interdisciplinary in nature and draws on many areas of the social sciences including political science, history, psychology, international relations and sociology.  This brings benefits but also generates difficulties in creating educational programmes that are adaptable and flexible to changing student demands and needs.  The place and role of Higher Education (HE) is coming under challenge and scrutiny. Increasing competition, decline in public funding, change in student populations and attitudes, and rapid technological advances are drivers for change that will continue to grow. The potential of open educational resources (OERs) has yet to be realized but their impacts on educational provision could be transformative. Phelen (2012) queries the role of teaching and academic institutions in a world that makes it possible for the creative learner to seek out and put together a learning package for themselves outside of any formal HE institutional setting, especially if novel approaches to validation and accreditation become accepted and recognized.  In the field of practice, the boundaries between security, peacemaking, humanitarian aid, development and peacebuilidng are becoming increasingly blurred and there is no consensus on what constitutes a ‘peace professional’.   Yet the concepts of a duty of care and ‘do no harm’ are central to addressing the needs, and working with the  vulnerabilities, of those who are experiencing, or have experienced, the devastating impacts of violence and war.  Education and training has a critical role to play in ensuring the preparedness of professionals to work in this complex field and to provide them with grounding in the relevant knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Given such issues, a study was undertaken on behalf of the Higher Education Academy on the teaching of peace and conflict in UK Higher Education institutions and a workshop held on the topic of ‘Connecting the study of peace and conflict with professional practice’ at the Open University in London.  The workshop brought together 25 participants from academic institutions and practitioner organizations, all of whom engaged enthusiastically with the topics of discussion and considered the opportunity to meet in such a way to be very timely and beneficial to all involved.  The study showed that peace and conflict study programmes are spread across a range of disciplines and departments in UK universities and that the approach taken in course content and teaching is  primarily of an ‘academic’ nature i.e. placing emphasis on learning of theory and its application, developing skills in critical inquiry, analysis and evaluation and building research capability. 

From the workshop and ongoing discussions in a Linkedin group, the existence of a divide between academic and practitioners is acknowledged.  For some, the divide shows itself as a seeming arrogance by students and academic researchers and a lack of appreciation of the problems faced by communities in situations of violence or post-violence.  Academic researchers show little empathy with their "subjects" and little realization to what extent conflict can take a toll on a population, and how being looked at as a 'dataset' can be. This can lead to highly questionable ethical practices and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at grassroots level get stuck with the consequences. On the other hand, practitioners may show a lack of appreciation and knowledge of what it is academics do and assume that they lack capacity to do anything useful on the ground.  However, these are generalised views and do not reflect those of all practitioners or all academics, especially as some continually criss-cross academic-practitioner boundaries.

The study and discussions show an immense goodwill and interest between practitioners and academics to collaborate, to learn from each other and contribute to developing learning and teaching in peace and conflict. They acknowledge that the ‘divide’ between them creates wariness, suspicion and lack of recognition of the inherent value in each and the potential greater value in unity.  Practitioners have many questions regarding peacebuilding and methodologies that academics could help to answer and, in turn, have access to data of use to academic researchers. Combining the two ways of seeing gives the best of both worlds- scholars could add a practical dimension to their work and practitioners a scholarly aspect.  Opportunities for training and gaining practical experience could be negotiated as well as bringing an awareness of the assumptions and bias that external interveners bring coming into a situation from their own cultural context.  The benefits could be extended to the communities with whom practitioners work.  Translating academic language and concepts into simpler words (which does not mean simplifying the idea) and using accessible language enables local people and practitioners to own the processes of peacebuilding rather than seeing them as something complicated being done by outsiders. In turn, conveying their own work in terms that the academic community can more easily understand supports the appropriate framing of both research and application in practice.

References and further reading

Botes, Johannes (Jannie) (2004) Graduate Peace & Conflict Studies Programs: Reconsidering Their Problems & Prospects Conflict Management in Higher Education Report, Volume 5, Number 1, Sept 2004   Accessed 26th July 2012

Carstarphen, N., Zelizer, C., Harris, R. and Smith, D.J (2010) Graduate Education and Professional Practice in International Peace and Conflict United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 246. Accessed 26th July 2012

Fitzduff, Mari (2006) Core Competencies for Graduate Programs in Coexistence and Conflict Work—Can We Agree? Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, Leadership Series notes, Issue no. 1, September 2006  Accessed 26th July 2012

Kubler, Jay and Sayers, Nicola (2010), Higher Education Futures: Key Themes and Implications for Leadership and Management, Research and Development, Series 2, Publication 4.1, The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, London, UK 

Olcott Jr., Don (2012): OER perspectives: emerging issues for universities,  Distance Education, 33:2, 283-290.  Accessed 15th August 2012

Phelan, Liam (2012), Politics, practices, and possibilities of open educational resources, Distance Education, 33:2, 279-282, Accessed 15th August 2012

Windmueller, John, Wayne, Ellen Kabcenell and Botes, Johannes (Jannie) (2009) Core Competencies: The Challenge for Graduate Peace and Conflict Studies Education International Review of Education (2009) 55:285–301, Springer 2009

World Development Report (2011) Conflict, Security and Development, The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank

Accessed 25th July 2012

Zelizer, Craig and Johnston, Linda  (2005) Skills, Networks & Knowledge: Developing a Career in International Peace and Conflict Resolution  Alliancefor Conflict Transformation (ACT) Inc., 2005 Accessed July 26th 2012




Whether you wish to evaluate the effectiveness of your programme or project, get feedback from your stakeholders, or get an overview of activities in a particular field, iFacilitate can help you. We carry out action research in the fields of conflict management, community development and environment, making use of Kolb's Learning Cycle to inform our approach and making learning integral to the project process. iFacilitate draws on the latest developments in evaluation practice in determining the effectiveness and impact of project actions and interventions, providing a participatory process and ensuring that review and reflection is inbuilt from the start, rather than being a bolt-on at project completion. We provide

  • links to academic expertise and research
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  • research and evaluation reports in a range of formats, both hardcopy and online.








Workshop feedback subsequently written up in a paper and report.