Tag Archives social justice

Integrated approach to research: Towards transformation of social (gender) injustices:  A case of understanding gender-land injustice

Integrated approach to research: Towards transformation of social (gender) injustices: A case of understanding gender-land injustice

This article is a contribution to the transformative methodologies blog series. It argues that employing an integrated approach to research, by equally highlighting status order (such as gender relations, by ...

Keeping Africans out: Injustice following wilful neglect and the politicization of Covid-19 measures

Keeping Africans out: Injustice following wilful neglect and the politicization of Covid-19 measures

As the Omicron variant continues to spread across the globe, Western nations have taken the decision to impose travel bans to African countries. This measure to contain the virus, is ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | How social accountability initiatives are helping pursue social justice aims

Achieving social justice in service delivery in the health, social welfare, and humanitarian sectors is still a formidable challenge in most developing countries. Poor and marginalised people generally lack the voice to make their demands heard and the awareness to claim their rights. However, social accountability initiatives have become a promising way to address these issues, as a panel discussion at the recent EADI ISS Conference showed. In this article, Elsbet Lodenstein and Sylvia Bergh highlight the key insights that emerged during the discussion, which focused on issues related to ensuring substantive citizenship and legitimacy and the role of interlocutors, donors, and of researchers themselves in helping pursue social justice through such initiatives. 

Traditional ‘democratic’ accountability mechanisms such as elections are failing citizens. In response, citizens have set up a range of initiatives called social accountability initiatives to demand the respect of civic, political, and social rights and improved public service delivery in their interest. Such social accountability initiatives are targeted at holding the state and service providers accountable and are – under certain conditions – proving rather effective. What can we learn from these initiatives?

A lively panel discussion that took place at the recent ISS EADI 2021 Conference showed that such initiatives can help pursue to social justice in a number of ways, contributing for example to equitable participation or greater respect for diversity. Participants in the panel session considered how these could be supportive to the transformation of power relations between marginalised groups and the state or other duty-bearers such as humanitarian agencies.

Convened by Elsbet Lodenstein (KIT Royal Tropical Institute) and Sylvia I. Bergh (ISS and Centre of Expertise on Global Governance at The Hague University of Applied Sciences), the panel reviewed experiences from the humanitarian, health, and sexual and reproductive health and rights sectors in several countries where participating researchers conducted case studies. The following social accountability initiatives were discussed during the panel session:

  • K. Sandhya (SAHAYOG) described how NGOs, CBOs, and grassroots organisations of poor and marginalised women in Uttar Pradesh in India jointly demanded accountability from Hospital Management Committees who are responsible for ensuring patient welfare and quality of care.
  • Another initiative in India was presented by Jashodhara Dasgupta (independent researcher), who analysed the trajectory of the transgender community’s claims for state recognition and access to the benefits of the welfare state.
  • Afeez Lawal (University of South Africa) shared insights on the role of health committees in the oversight of a Community-Based Health Insurance programme in Nigeria.
  • Seye Abimbola (University of Sydney, Australia; National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Abuja, Nigeria, and current Prins Claus Chair) explored how health committee members in Nigeria perceive their role in social accountability and how these perceptions shape their motivations to demand accountability for the underperformance of health service providers and policymakers.
  • A research team led by Thea Hilhorst (ISS) explored the social accountability mechanisms in place in the humanitarian sector in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Myanmar. Mechanisms include feedback channels on programme delivery, community-based indicator setting activities, and complaint mechanisms.

Some key takeaways

What can we learn from the case studies about the potential of social accountability to contribute to social justice? The key takeaways of the panel discussion are summarised here:

  1. Ensuring the ‘right to have rights’ is a crucial first step in enacting change.

Many social accountability initiatives are based on the assumption that citizens are able and willing to express their voice in the face of injustice regardless of their gender, age, class, sexuality, or education and regardless of their experiences with and position vis-à-vis the state. Yet many citizens are discriminated against, whereby intersecting identities can influence the way in which citizens engage with the state and the way in which they participate in social accountability initiatives.

For example, Jashodhara Dasgupta noted how the recent Indian law on transgender persons makes no provision for ensuring gender non-conforming individuals’ access to public goods and denies them adequate protection from violence and discrimination. This makes it challenging for these groups to develop the confidence to demand accountability and take collective action.

Donors and funders in conflict settings may also need to be more aware of how different social markers may constrain the possibilities for exercising voice. Thea Hilhorst for example highlighted how internally displaced people, and within that group, minority groups, such as the Rohingya in Myanmar, cannot be reached by formal accountability initiatives.

Jashodhara Dasgupta and Y.K. Sandhya suggested that for marginalised groups, their own realisation that they are rights holders, i.e. having ‘the right to have rights’, needs to become a primary focus of social accountability initiatives. Attention could be drawn to this by strengthening the political capabilities and negotiation skills of marginalised groups to articulate and voice demands. Doing so means moving beyond just improving service delivery or effectiveness of humanitarian interventions to strengthening the agency of citizens in a way that can help further equitable participation towards changing the norms of engagement that challenges power relations.

  1. Your understanding of your role in society may influence how engaged you are in pursuing social justice.

Research plays a significant role in unpacking the assumptions about agency, motivations, and capabilities of intermediary organisations such as health committees or community governance boards in voicing demands on behalf of citizens. Afeez Lawal talked about how health committees in Nigeria have helped improve dialogue between health service providers and users. For example, they facilitated joint monitoring with traditional leaders, enrolees, and health providers to demand programme managers to address drug stock-outs and preferential treatment of non-enrolees. But, he noted, their ability to influence larger political agendas remains limited.

Seye Abimbola confirmed this based on his own research in Nigeria. He found that the perceptions of health committee members of their roles influence their level of engagement in social justice agendas. For example, they could consider themselves either representatives of the health sector aiming to improve the uptake of services and/or advocates for communities and patients. In general, though, the way in which health committees are created and trained tends to limit committee members’ sense of legitimacy to challenge governments and service providers, thus giving them a marginal role in fostering social accountability.

  1. Identifying interlocutors can help citizens act strategically.

Interlocutors or agents that catalyse change were considered crucial by many of the discussants. These individuals or associations are allies of citizens that share a common goal in helping to address injustices. They may have resources or networks that make it possible for them to connect individuals or groups to each other or to find ways to communicate with government officials, whether formally or informally. Often, as Seye Abimbola suggested, these may be the local elite who have the resources to bear the costs of participation and who have the connections to make a difference.

The identification of interlocutors who speak for marginalised groups requires longer-term and in-depth participatory research such as that conducted by Y.K. Sandhya and her team in India. Interlocutors might be individuals who act on behalf of citizens in their individual capacity; an example is a clerk of a health facility with whom the NGO informally built relation of trust and who pushed for internal reforms to intensify community-based monitoring.

Interlocutors might also be members of grassroots organisations – Sandhya noted that legitimate and established community-based organisations, such as the grassroots association of marginalised women in India, are able to navigate institutions, identify opportunities for legal and policy change and identify opportunities for support by influential actors who want to reverse situations of marginalisation and poor accountability. Other organisations with fewer resources might struggle more with this. It’s therefore crucial to find individuals who know how to navigate the institutional landscape and who hold power to facilitate dialogue or strategic action.

  1. Long-term support building on community initiatives is needed.

Social accountability initiatives need intensive, long-term support from funders in the humanitarian and development sectors. Sylvia Bergh flagged the danger of technocratisation of social accountability initiatives by donors, who often frame them as a technical and neutral process that leaves political struggle aside. If more initiatives would build on existing solidarity groups and indigenous forms of collective action and get support from these groups, the chance of enacting meaningful change could be much greater.

  1. Questioning own assumptions can help academics do better research.

The panel was concluded with an observation by Elsbet Lodenstein that (operational) research is required to break down assumptions about the voice, behaviour, and agency of citizens, civil society, and institutions and to understand how context influence these. Too often, external interventions in humanitarian and development sectors are based on problematic assumptions about how and why citizens act for change, or how and why governmental actors and other duty-bearers react to social accountability initiatives. Researchers can support the development of grounded, contextualised and ‘smart’ approaches to social accountability in terms of whom to engage, where to push the needle, and how to leverage existing forms of collective action by adopting methods of longer-term (participatory) research and in-depth analysis.


With thanks to Francesco Colin for the notes taken during the panel session.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Dr Elsbet Lodenstein is a senior gender and governance advisor at the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) with 18 years of experience in international development. She has a keen interest in integrating a social science and gender perspective into development programming and research and specialises in community engagement and the governance of local health systems, citizenship and the empowerment of marginalized groups, including women and girls. She is skilled in gender and intersectional analysis, gender integration, monitoring and evaluation, learning and knowledge management, policy review, evidence synthesis, and research capacity building.

Sylvia BerghSylvia I. Bergh (a Swedish national) is a Senior Researcher at the Centre of Expertise on Global Governance at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, as well as Associate Professor in Development Management and Governance at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam. Sylvia has a keen interest in multi-level governance issues, and has published widely on state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa region.  She currently leads a research project that studies the effects of heatwaves on vulnerable populations in The Hague.

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Tearing down the walls that colonise Palestine, a thousand bricks at a time

Tearing down the walls that colonise Palestine, a thousand bricks at a time

Palestinians are showing enormous bravery during this moment of horror. The walls of intimidation and despair that Israel has erected in the minds of Palestinians to prevent resistance are being ...

What can we do as Palestine burns?

What can we do as Palestine burns?

It is May 2021. Once again, Palestine is burning. Again, the US- and EU-funded Israeli military machine is in full throttle and again, the US – now led by Joe ...

COVID-19 | Driving transformative social change through an internationalist response to COVID-19 by Lize Swartz

A recent webinar organized by the Transnational Institute and partners brought together activists from all over the world to brainstorm how to make social justice central to our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The main message? Stand united instead of divided, let empathy inform context-based responses, and start thinking of changing what’s broken, including our healthcare systems. These principles should also guide our collective efforts to enact transformative social change that starts with our responses to the crisis and ends in a sustainable, just and resilient future—one in which no-one is left behind.


We find ourselves standing on the edge of a cliff with an abyss in front of us, left with three (or more?) choices: build a bridge to reach the other side, which is unknown territory; become engulfed by the darkness of the abyss and stand paralyzed; or retreat from the edge of the cliff to deceptive safety. This metaphor symbolizes the critical juncture[1] we’re currently at and the pathways we can choose: a radical transformation (the other side representing an unknown future, hopefully a sustainable and just one), paralysis (do nothing and watch the crisis run its course, whatever the consequences), or many steps in the opposite direction (further away from each other, creating a new normal that is worse than the one we had before).

Never before has the opportunity for real, comprehensive change been greater, never before has it been as necessary, and never before have the stakes been higher. But we have to start now―the window of opportunity is closing. There is some progress on this front as activists and thought leaders gather forces to fight for change. A webinar held recently by the Transnational Institute (TNI), in collaboration with the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) and Focus on the Global South, brought together roughly 600 participants to brainstorm how to build an internationalist response to COVID-19 in light of the crisis of deep global inequality.

Current responses to COVID-19 will shape future trends in how crises are tackled, and it is imperative to 1) prevent further injustices and inequalities arising from current responses that build upon already-existing inequalities and divides, and 2) start to enact radical change to prevent a return to the old normal or the adoption of a new normal that may be manifold worse. Thus, our responses show which of the pathways we choose now that we have reached the critical juncture, and responses should mirror the future we desire.

This seems like a mammoth task, but there are many energetic fighters across the world that are eager to get started. The webinar was a starting point to discussions and strategies for enacting change collectively. Discussions centered around not only humane responses to COVID-19, but also the need to critically discuss the state of our healthcare systems and to transform them. The crisis has clearly highlighted that healthcare systems in the Global North and Global South alike are woefully unprepared to deal with pandemics, not even providing universal healthcare services in non-crisis times. Mazibuko Jara, founder of the Treatment Action Campaign and currently Deputy Director of the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education (both in South Africa), emphasized the need for healthcare to be seen as a fundamental human right—a public good, which would change how it is approached.

Many are not focusing on building up (improving health systems), however, but on breaking down (fighting the virus and fighting each other). Sonia Shah, award-winning investigative science journalist who authored the book ‘Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond’ (2017), noted during the webinar that diseases and viruses are framed as external, prompting the closing of borders and the closing of minds as we distance ourselves from these ‘alien entities’[2].

Rather, what she calls a ‘microbial xenophobia’ arises as the disease is blamed on China and cultural practices in Asian countries. This process of ‘othering’ entrenches racism and xenophobia, enacted both by individuals and countries, preventing a collective global effort to transformative change and leading to increasing isolation as countries shut their borders and global geopolitical divides are strengthened. A strong counternarrative to this militaristic imaginary of ‘being at war’ with the disease and with each other urgently needs to be created.

Several discussants highlighted the inadequacies of current responses. Even if stringent measures can prevent the spread of the virus, which has yet to be proven by evidence, the authoritarian measures lack humaneness, further threatening the survival and dignity of already vulnerable populations without access to basic human rights. A one-size-fits-all approach, such as a national lockdown, does not work in contexts where such lockdowns can hasten the spread of the virus and lead to suffering due to loss of income and hunger, for example.

Thus, keynote speakers at the seminar concluded, we need an internationalist approach that:

  • Is based on solidarity and empathy so that responses are context-specific and do not create new injustices or inequalities that place an additional burden on vulnerable people
  • Creates a strong counternarrative to the xenophobic, militaristic narrative that is driving defensive and authoritarian responses, with a central emphasis on human rights and a common humanity, shown in how we communicate and how we act
  • Are based on health as a human right, a public good and working toward transforming the health system to this end
  • Recognizes that we are facing a supercrisis, that standing crises of poverty, inequality and climate change are interacting with biological crises such as COVID-19 and cannot be viewed in isolation
  • Counters growing authoritarianism and fundamentalism at all levels of society that are threatening to deepen social divides and split the world apart.

Participants agreed that solidarity and empathy should drive responses to COVID-19, but I argue that we need to go further than just responding. Our recognition of the root causes of injustices and inequalities should drive a multi-pronged strategy to not only prevent the spread of the virus and prevent unjust responses to it, but also to enact radical transformation through our responses to ensure that the inequalities the crisis feasts on are eradicated and that no-one is left behind as we move on to a future we can only dream of.

Without the recognition that the crisis requires a collective global response, we will get nowhere. And central to this is questioning the underlying structures and institutions that have created the breeding ground for the virus and the disaster that it has brought along with it, and changing them through intense and enduring collaboration based on a sense of shared humanity, or what especially Buddhist monks have called interbeing.

[1] Thank you to Duncan Green for mentioning the term ‘critical juncture’ that perfectly sums up the thoughts that I’ve had since the pandemic broke out in February.
[2]She also highlights the failure to recognize that pathogens or microbes become pandemics due to humankind’s encroachment on wildlife habitats.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


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About the authors:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes. She is also the editor of the ISS Blog Bliss.

Epistemic Diversity| Understanding epistemic diversity: decoloniality as research strategy by Olivia U. Rutazibwa

Epistemic Diversity| Understanding epistemic diversity: decoloniality as research strategy by Olivia U. Rutazibwa

How do we make sure that our efforts to diversify knowledge production go beyond a window-dressing/Benetton operation? How can we move beyond merely adding some colour and other markers of ...

Epistemic Diversity | From ‘do no harm’ to making research useful: a conversation on ethics in development research by Karin Astrid Siegmann

Epistemic Diversity | From ‘do no harm’ to making research useful: a conversation on ethics in development research by Karin Astrid Siegmann

Ethical dilemmas are part and parcel of the research processes that researchers are engaged in. This article details a recent conversation between ISS students and staff in which they tried ...

(How) should scholars say what humanitarians can’t? by Roanne van Voorst and Isabelle Desportes

In January this year, a long day of interviewing aid workers involved in the Myanmar Rohingya crisis revealed that these aid workers often refrain from talking about the human rights violations in Myanmar. Out of fear to be forced to cease operations or to get fired, they keep silent and carry on. This raises the question: should the scholars engaging with them speak up in their stead? This blog provides a reflection of whether and how scholars can get involved in the entanglements of humanitarianism and conflict. It also provides insights into the ethical and practical reasons why both aid workers and scholars sometimes hesitate to become more engaged.


The time we were doing fieldwork relating to the governance and the accountability of aid in Myanmar coincided with a massive exodus of the Rohingya Muslim minority fleeing persecution and the destruction of their homes in the northwestern Rakhine province. Yet, as we asked broader questions relating to the accountability of aid, the stories of humanitarian aid workers resounded with us. Stories of frustration and powerlessness, as they felt barriers were posed to their work not only by authorities, but also by their own organisations. As scholars, we felt determined that we wanted to ‘do something’. But along with this urge to act came insecurities and concerns.

Providing aid in restrictive settings

Local and international relief agencies that work in restrictive conflict settings are doing something that is intrinsically difficult. Often perceived as a threat by authorities involved in violence, agencies need to make sure they remain tolerated and even supported by these same authorities in order to operate effectively and deliver aid to those in need. In practice in Myanmar, aid agencies are stuck in the middle of two discourses: that of the United Nations that from afar qualifies the military offensive in Rakhine as a « textbook example of ethnic cleansing », and that of Myanmar authorities, who claim they were fighting Rohingya militias only and deny targeting civilians.

Faced with the overwhelming need for support to continue operating in the field, most humanitarian agencies refrain from being overtly critical of human rights violations and prefer to assert their position as impartial and neutral aid providers. Only very few are allowed by the government to work in Rakhine, and those who may, generally keep silent about what they observe. No wonder: when in 2014 Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said that it was deeply concerned about the tens of thousands of people it was treating, the government forced it to cease operations in Myanmar. In order to avoid that for their own organisations, most aid agencies active on the ground thus strictly do and say what they’ve agreed to in (obligated) memoranda of understanding with the government—even if that does not match needs on the ground.

The personal dilemmas of humanitarians

These strategic decisions, however understandable, can have major consequences for the people whom agencies come to assist, but also have psychological implications for relief workers. Many suffer from what Hugo Slim has termed ‘bystander anxiety’. And this was also evident during our interviews: many of those we talked to in Yangon felt anxious and frustrated by the violence they observed in the field and the self-censorship they observed within their own organisations.

One field officer of a large international organisation felt that his agency was « sacrifying its principles and moral authority » in exchange for Rakhine field access and status, which was not even alleviating suffering on the ground because the government forbade actual activities. After he anonymously spoke to journalists, the whole team received a serious warning never to speak to the press again. He lamented the complete lack of internal discussions on these dilemmas, even as many of the staff, including Rohingya, « begged the organisation to speak out ».

We heard many similar stories from humanitarians working for INGOs or the UN. They could not openly discuss, let alone act upon, what they observed in the field. Particularly in meetings attended by the government, they knew « not to be critical ».

Here is where the scholars could come in, but often don’t do so.

Four broad arguments can motivate scholars to engage in the humanitarianism-conflict debate. First, as independent researchers in the field, scholars have more freedom to speak up. Second, many will argue that ‘speaking the truth’ is a scholarly duty. Third, scholars’ voice might carry differently than that of human rights organisations or journalists, as scholars are supposed to adhere to rigorous scientific and ethical standards that grant their research some credibility. Last, academics increasingly vary their channels to seek ‘societal impact’. Newspaper articles, debate evenings, social media and blogs such as this one can help convey to a wider audience what would otherwise remain obscured.

But this freedom comes with responsibilities. Scholars, somewhat like humanitarians, tread a fine line between engaging in effective action and making their own work—or worse, that of relief agencies or local research partners—harder or even impossible to carry out. Discussions about the role of researchers are by no means new. Take the discussions on scholar activism and action research (combing research and social change work), or the divide in the field of anthropology, amongst others, between those who believe they should retain distance in the field and those who support local activism or other types of involvement.

Ethics aren’t the only reason scholars often don’t speak up. Many of the issues that came up during our Myanmar discussions were practical, concerning safety, future access to visas and research permits, academic integrity, and access to non-academic channels, both in terms of networks and skills. Myanmar is a complex setting to work in, not only for humanitarians. Scholars and journalists also face difficulties in accessing the field, while some have been deported or arrested.

Moreover, the ‘hard evidence’ was thin. There would not be enough informants allowing for the rigorous cross-validation of statements. Interviews could not always be recorded and informants insisted that they, their agency and the locality where they operated should remain confidential to avoid raising colleagues’ or authorities’ suspicions. Were these stories even convincing enough for people who hadn’t been here, let alone fulfilling academic standards? Wouldn’t journalists after all be a better fit to relay them?

The answers might differ for each scholar, for each person. We share them to stir up a conversation and to share our doubts with researchers and (inter)national practitioners alike. Even with intentions to change local realities for the better, it’s not easy to take the leap from scholar to messenger. Yet, who else would fulfil that role?

This blog is a first attempt to support humanitarians who can’t speak up.


chantal-ariens-portret-high-res.jpgAbout the authors:

Roanne van Voorst is a postdoctoral researcher involved in the research projectisa”When disaster meets conflict. Disaster response of humanitarian aid and local state and non-state institutions in different conflict scenarios” at the ISS.

Isabelle Desportes is a PhD candidate working on the governance of disaster response, in particular the interplay between humanitarian and local actors.

 

Toward ‘fisheries justice’?: the global ‘fisheries crisis’ and how small-scale fishers are fighting back by Elyse Mills

The global ‘fisheries crisis’—in which fish stocks are depleted, environmental destruction has reached an apex, and small-scale fisheries are disappearing—is causing irreversible damage to both the fisheries sector and communities ...

Resistance and persecution: fighting the politics of control by Salena Tramel

Resistance and persecution: fighting the politics of control by Salena Tramel

Social justice movements from around the world are pushing back against a shift toward nationalism, extraction and environmental destruction. Those who resist increasingly do so at risk of great personal ...

The Hague Peace Projects: practicing peace and justice by Helen Hintjens

How can peace and justice be embodied? How can we move from thinking about societal problems to taking concrete action to bring about change? The Hague Peace Projects, a program bringing together diaspora communities in The Hague to think and act together to build peace, shows us how these principles can be brought to life.


Art assumes many roles beyond acting as a canvas for self-expression, from creating greater consciousness of societal problems to serving as a platform for activism. It is a central element of The Hague Peace Projects (THPP), a program that promotes dialogue and campaigns for change through a variety of means. The project, which engages diaspora communities to advocate for peace, can inspire others to become involved in this or similar local initiatives to embody the change they aspire to.

On a (peace) mission

Located in The Hague, known as the City of Peace and Justice, THPP is one of several programs working with diaspora communities to involve them in contributing to positive change in their home countries and across Europe. The project’s main goals are to work toward a world in which conflict between humans, groups of people and countries are not solved by violence, but “through dialogue, respect for human rights, and honest cooperation between equals” (THPP).

THPP was established in 2015 by Jakob de Jonge, himself an artist. The project seeks to help find peaceful solutions to (armed) conflicts. It brings together diaspora from conflict zones that live in The Netherlands, facilitating their collaboration toward finding realistic solutions to local conflicts. The project is based on the belief that diaspora communities know best what causes conflict in their home regions and how such conflicts can be addressed in a non-violent manner. Through dialogue, social media, blogs and public events of all kinds, THPP contributes to diasporic dialogues. THPP also views art as a medium of communication for peace.

Change through action

Jakob explains that he was inspired by his friend Sylvestre Bwira, a Congolese human rights defender, to start this project. Jakob defines THPP as “both a think-tank and a do-tank” spreading “creativity and hope”. THPP’s approach echoes the goals of ISS, which increasingly places emphasis on the importance of scholar activism in bringing about change. Both organisations wish to be “critical but constructive”, grounded in “grassroots communities”, and reaching out to influence “platforms of power”.

THPP is reliant on volunteers, who in turn feel themselves part of a movement for social justice and peace. Having worked with THPP on several projects related to the African Great Lakes region, I put a few questions to Jakob:

Can you tell BLISS readers how art connects with advocacy through The Hague Peace Projects?

As a ‘socially engaged’ artist, it felt weird working alone in a studio. I wanted to connect with people as much as possible, so I decided to engage people through my art. Through visual art I try to present the disturbing mix of horror and beauty that we see in the world. What inspires me is the hope that things can be different if you genuinely desire it to be. Art is also a way to uncover a glimpse of optimism, in the belief that ideas come to life through visualisation, as with THPP’s exhibition The Survivors, in 2016, inspired by a Syrian boy’s drawings. Idealistic as it may seem, THPP is all about transforming reality, however slowly.

What THPP activities have touched you most deeply?

What moves me and keeps me going are the everyday life stories of colleagues I work with. THPP is based on working groups of diaspora members (mostly refugees) from different conflict regions around the world. Each working group establishes its own space for ongoing dialogue between conflicting communities. This creates basic trust between those who might otherwise fear to connect with others in daily life. This trust becomes fertile ground for all sorts of relevant peacebuilding activities.

Two things have especially moved me: First, many colleagues in the THPP working groups have a history of severe suffering. Team members have personally paid a high price for being seen as a member of a certain social group, or for speaking out for the rights of others. They have been tortured, detained, lost their families, witnessed unspeakable crimes and finally, have had to flee abroad. They often lost everything.

Coming from Sudan, the DRC, Bangladesh, Uganda, Syria, Burundi, Turkey, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, it strikes me how resilient, hopeful and committed to change they remain. The people I work with strive for positive outcomes, even when these are hard to imagine. It moves me very much when you see a person’s attitude change over time, from fearful, emotional and easily triggered, to more relaxed, open and creative.

Similarly, publicly commemorating the murder of Bangladeshi writer and free thinker Avijit Roy, as we have done annually since 2016 remains a very special moment. It is a powerful reminder you can never really silence someone through violence. Seeing friendships develop between Turks and Kurds, seeing Dutch Somalis getting together for something positive like Somali poetry, rather than the usual stigmatising divisions, or just dancing together at THPP office with people of every background, including Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. There have just been too many beautiful moments!

After three years, how do you reflect on working in the City of Peace and Justice?

I collaborate well and on many levels with The Hague Municipality. We fully support their mission of striving to be a City of Peace and Justice. In fact, that is how we chose our name. “The Hague” gives many people around the world hope that their tormentors may eventually end up in prison in Scheveningen!

At the same time I believe much more can be done to make the City of Peace and Justice more than a mission statement. The idea is very powerful and creates a kind of responsibility to be different from other cities. The challenge is to show what peace and justice look like in reality, not only internationally, but for all the city’s inhabitants, and across all layers of policy.

How can interested parties become involved?

We are a 99% volunteer organisation and rely heavily on volunteers for goodwill and to take initiative. We always need qualified and motivated people to join our network, so if you are interested, please send an email and your CV to info@thehaguepeace.org.


Main Photo: The Hague Peace Projects

20160917_190837Dr Helen Hintjens is Assistant Professor in Development and Social Justice at the ISS, working in the field of migration. Like Jakob, she graduated with a BA in Fine Art from the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague. From 2015 to 2017, she collaborated with THPP to organise three African Great Lakes Diaspora conferences that were held at the ISS. The first conference report is on the THPP’s website; the second conference produced the Declaration and Plan of Action on the role of diaspora media in peacebuilding in the Great Lakes Region. The third conference on women, men and peacebuilding, will be reported on soon. Watch this space!