The 1914 Christmas truce

1914 2014To mark the centenary of The First World War, we will be publishing a series of articles looking at what has changed over the last century in a number of domains. Today’s article is the third from Alan Whaites, team leader, Governance for Peace and Development at the OECD.

The Christmas truce of 1914 is one of the iconic moments of the First World War, soldiers on the Western Front took the initiative to suspend hostilities in order to meet, share rations and play football. Accounts of the events on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914 often refer to the singing of carols as a point of connection between the two sides. It seems that the power and symbolism of a religious festival that for many is associated with hope acted as a point of unity across divisions of nation and politics.

The truce is a rare positive reminder that identity is a powerful factor in many conflicts; too often identity is seen as the curse of conflict, the mechanism for division. Yet shared symbols, shared history and a sense of belonging to a group are simply the mediums through which ideas and ethics are transmitted. In his classic work Benedict Anderson described this sense of belonging as “imagined communities”, the bedrock of national identity and of the state itself.

Yes, of course the ties that bind can also divide and the phrase “conflict entrepreneurs” was coined to describe those adept at exploiting identity and sense of community for the purpose of individual or collective gain. In a report on a workshop on the issue Marina Ottaway noted that: “Conflict entrepreneurs often mobilize individuals through three general tactics: appeals to ethnic, religious, and/or ideological solidarity; patronage; and positive or negative promises regarding security.”

The vulnerability of identity to exploitation by conflict entrepreneurs creates a sense of pessimism about differentness and belief. In the Clash of Civilisations Samuel Huntington tells us that: “The philosophical assumptions, underlying values, social relations, customs, and overall outlooks on life differ significantly among civilizations. The revitalization of religion throughout much of the world is reinforcing these cultural differences.” Frances Stewart, however, warns against over-simplification: “Clearly, cultural differences alone are insufficient to cause violent conflict, given the large number of peaceful multicultural societies. Hence the many socio-economic and political explanations of conflict. Among these are horizontal inequalities (inequalities among culturally defined groups).”

Stewart’s work points to the need to also look at the power of political divisions. Particularly the role of social and economic problems that can either be harnessed to the mobilising potential of identity; or to those existing divisions that are visible through identity. After all consolidating the support of one constituency can often be discrimination against another, even to the extent of enshrining in law, constitutions and budgets the privileging of identity. These political divisions constructed through the medium of identity create the fuel for it to be instrumentalised by leaders in the context of conflict.

Ultimately this means that it is the choices that individuals make, as leaders, citizens and followers that matter. For this reason the work of those who explore “political settlements” has much to offer. Political settlement thinking recognises that If political leaders are willing to exploit identity for the purpose of conflict then that is likely to be for political gain – and this means political in its raw sense of access and use of power. Identity becomes a vehicle for controlling or destabilising the political settlement in question, but could equally be used to negotiate a more visibly inclusive process to manage power.

Sometimes caricatured as too elitist these studies have instead often pointed to ways in which relational dynamics and personal strategies for managing power make all the difference between peace and war. Political settlement thinking recognises that the strategies leaders use to relate to their constituencies matter, whether a society is deeply heterogeneous or not. Earlier this year Sarah Phillips outlined at the OECD the findings of her study on the Somaliland pointing to the way in which shared experience can play a positive role. Coupled with the work of others, such as Stefan Lindemann’s studies of several African countries, it suggests that the tactics adopted to include others in political settlements are crucial. Inclusive enough political settlements also need to be smart enough.

Choosing the smart rather than expedient path is the challenge. The positive and negative choices that leaders make have always been difficult to explain. Why are some leaders more willing than others to positively manage political settlements, rather than opting for the leverage of mobilisation and conflict entrepreneurialism? We all carry multiple identities around with us, and constantly weigh and prioritise these in the context of circumstances, opportunities and challenges. Yet while in the constant renegotiation and adaption of resilient political settlements these identities still surface and matter they are not usually instrumentalised as frameworks for discrimination and privilege. Research groups such as the Development Leadership Programme, ESID, and others are now chipping away at the issues of why some political settlements work in managing these processes, while others collapse.

The failure of leaders to manage these processes in 1914 provided a stark illustration of the cost when managing political settlements – including cross border ones – breaks down. It is therefore apt to remember that the ability of shared values and shared humanity to overcome those failures, shown momentarily at Christmas in the same year, is something that works on both identity and political settlements and it needs to be built on – not fear.

Useful links

OECD work on peacebuilding, statebuilding and security

Better Plays for Better Lives: The Tempest

Parting is such sweet sorrow
Parting is such sweet sorrow

Today we publish the last article of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.

Twelve years before the start of The Tempest, Prospero the Duke of Milan, was usurped by his brother Antonio, with the help of Alonso, King of Naples. Prospero was exiled to an island, with his three-year old daughter Miranda, where he reigns over the spirit Ariel and native resident Caliban, using his magic powers and books. The play opens with a storm conjured by Prospero; designed to shipwreck Antonio and Alonso on his island. After conjuring the storm, Prospero reminds his daughter; “I have done nothing but in care of thee, / Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter.” Over the years, the play has taken on post-colonial readings; but it’s also a story about a father trying to secure a better future for his daughter.

Securing a better life for our children, family, society and friends is something some of us might also worry about. The OECD certainly does, judging by its slogan – Better policies for better lives. But what do we mean by better? It’s probably got a lot to do with wellbeing, but how do we measure that? Surely that touches on something too difficult to define, or as Miranda says; “’Tis far off / And rather like a dream than an assurance.”

Fortunately, as part of the OECD Better Life Initiative, (you’ve probably heard about this one), the OECD How’s Life? Measuring Well-Being report presents the first international set of comparable well-being indicators. Better still, the OECD offers an interactive tool called Your Better Life Index where you can rank the 11 different dimensions of wellbeing discussed in the report according  your own personal priorities, allowing you to contribute your voice to the wellbeing debate, not only in English, but also in Spanish, French and Russian.

What would Prospero’s index be? Well, he’d probably give housing a 3/5; exiled on his island he is merely “Prospero, master of a full poor cell,” and laments the loss of his dukedom. But the reason Antonio was able to usurp him was because of his keen interest in studying, “Me, poor man, my library / Was dukedom large enough,” and indeed much of the play revolves around Prospero’s magical “art.” He also stresses his efforts to tutor his daughter, so education would probably rank pretty high, around 5/5.

Given that Prospero almost lost his life before being exiled, uncovers a drunken plot by his slave Caliban, prevents the murder of the faithful servant Gonzalo, and is wary of Miranda being assaulted by either Caliban or Ferdinand, safety would also receive 5/5. Income would be important, around a 4/5, because the spirits of his imagination seek to bless his daughter’s marriage with “honours and riches.”

His control over the spirit Ariel, as well as the elements around the island, “I have bedimm’d / The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,” suggests that the environment serves a useful short-term purpose, but he probably doesn’t value it as much in the long-run, so it would be given a 3/5. Jobs would get also get a 3/5, seeing as he’s keen on making all those in his power work (Caliban, Ariel and Ferdinand), but he’s not so much in tune with job security or earnings distribution.

Lower down on his list of priorities would be life-satisfaction, 2/5; he cannot express the same joy as the young lovers, “so glad of this as they I cannot be.” As he spends most of his time orchestrating the plot of the play in order to seek justice for his exile, his work-life balance would be 0/5. Being a recluse megalomaniac, civic engagement would also receive a zero ratings, whilst community would be low – although he seems to get some enjoyment from his small island subjects, so it would receive 1/5. He never really mentions health and is eager for peace in death by the end of the play, “Every third thought shall be my grave”, and so it would also get 0/5.

An interesting part of the BLI Index allows you to compare your priorities with individuals like you in age, gender and nationality. Compared to his fellow Italian males aged 55-64, Prospero’s priorities are close to the average in housing, jobs, education, environment and income, but way off in health, civic engagement and work-life balance. Given his arrangement of priorities, he’d be best off moving to the United States or Switzerland.

Overall, the OECD Better Life Initiative joins an international trend to look “Beyond GDP” as an indicator of wellbeing, into all those dimensions that put life behind the figures. Just as Miranda says to her newfound friend Ferdinand, “Be of comfort: / My father’s of a better nature, sir, / Than he appears by speech,” so we also have much to learn when we use new indicators to examine wellbeing from fresh perspectives.

Towards the end of the play the spirit Ariel reminds Prospero of what it means to be human. Having witnessed the punishment inflicted on Antonio and Alonso, Ariel assures Prospero his heart would be moved if he saw their suffering, “Mine would, sir, were I human.” Prospero, stunned that a spirit has more feeling than him, also sees life from a new perspective. With his daughter happily married to Prince Ferdinand, he turns from revenge to reconciliation, offering his hand in friendship to Alonso, “First noble friend / Let me embrace thine age, whose honour cannot be measured or confined.”

Today, we’re having a good go at measuring the un-measurable; “O brave new world!” So for now, we’ll leave Prospero and Shakespeare, as they bid us farewell –

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.

Useful links

Here’s Prospero’s BLI. Create your own at this link

Prospero BLI