• By Michael Little
  • Posted on Friday 15th January, 2010

Two societies building peace

Blogging gives a wary academic like me the chance to offer up half an idea for debate and trust that feedback and better information will help it on its way to becoming more useful.Over the years, I've had a rewarding association with the Basque Country of northern Spain, especially with San Sebastian. I like the life, I've got to know the culture and I've made some good friends.The Basque country is among the richest of Spain's 15 autonomous regions. It's an important part of the country's industrial base (Bilbao used to belch smoke like an English steelworks) but it nevertheless feels spacious, rural and maritime.Things here are better than they used to be, but Basques are still blighted outside Spain for associations with terrorism, arising from a long and bewilderingly complicated struggle for independence on the part of a nationalist faction.I don't pretend to begin to understand the ramifications of the conflict. But about a year ago I became aware that the Basque government was interested in social and emotional regulation programs. I began to dig around for familiar signs and names but could find none, until I strumbled across Maite Garaigordobil’s assessment of the Basque education department's initiative, A Society that Builds Peace.This Basque variant of Richard Lerner’s Positive Youth Development Program delivers ten 90-minute classes to 15- and 16-year-old school students, targeting them at just the age when they might be recruited into the remnant of the armed struggle.The Basque effort is impressive. A randomized control trial involving 285 students in 16 schools is producing very promising results.Students on the program began to think differently about how they would behave were they to be confronted by any inducement to be involved in terrorism.So far I’m on reasonably safe ground. I’ve read the research, I’ve talked to Maite Garaigordobil about it and I’ve met the project co-ordinators.I’ve also learned that in spite of its early successes, the project is faltering. Stepping now into less familiar country, let me speculate why that might be.Remarkably, the program exposes students to the disasters of violence on both sides of the conflict – to testimony not only by the victims ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) but also by the anti-terrorist factions of previous governments, such as the equally infamous GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación).This year, for the first time in 30 years, the socialist party of Spain – the PSOE – took majority control of the Basque government from one of its partners in previous coalitions, the nationalist PNV.I wonder if the new administration is less comfortable than its predecessor with the idea of using images of violence and cruel personal testimony as accessories in a violence prevention program. What little insight I have to bring is based on my work in Northern Ireland, where any reference to the past activities of paramilitary groups or to anti-terrorist violence would have been the kiss of death to any prevention program.Northern Ireland and the Basque Country do not bear comparison. The fundamental nature of the conflict and the prosperity of the two regions are at odds. But I don’t see why the characteristics of prevention programs appropriate to them both should be very different.Perhaps there is an opportunity in the Basque County to examine the relative merits of programs that include or avoid representations of the violence they seek to prevent.The Basque dilemma feeds into another of my preoccupations: the relationship between prevention activity and large administrative systems. In this instance, the outcome – less political violence – can only be achieved by sustained and saturated delivery of an effective program and policy.By one, possibly incomplete reading, the system is recoiling from a potentially proven model because the content offends a political sensitivity. To which politicians might well object that political conflict can be solved only by political means, not by administering prevention programs in schools, any more than it can by resorting to murder in the streets. The trouble is that in such circumstances the act of offering a violence prevention program as a solution is itself a highly political act.• See also: Basque Spain schools build trust in peaceFor newspaper coverage of the story in San Sebastian, see: El testimonio de las víctimas será obligatorio en los colegios vascos

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