Conflict as powerful change maker

Civic Action04 Oct 2011Diego Murguía

Socio-environmental conflict is a powerful mechanism that has great potential to push for the paradigm shift that we urgently need, argues Diego Murguía.

By no means should we consider conflicts from a negative point of view. They are not just a hindrance on the way to further accumulation and growth, but instead indicate ways in which the economic system must change to be respectful of society’s inclusive demands and the ecological systems that provide us with our material needs.

Social conflicts over anything—but especially over natural resources—provide political authorities, policy makers and citizens with a signal that a governance flaw is happening. Within a global situation that is characterized by long-term injustice between industrialized and developing countries, these flaws encompass inequalities in wealth distribution and the lack of a sustainable management of natural resources, among others. Conflicts, in all of their stages, are the natural response to that and help us understand the connections between the local appearance of a conflict and the global force driving it.

Then, where does the power of conflict lie to push the paradigm shift? How can we think of conflict in a positive way and how can it help to overcome such flaws? Conflicts are raised by groups of people whose priorities and values differ from those of other groups. This diversity in thinking is both a strength and a weakness, since usually people cannot move beyond contentious situations alone and require third parties to intervene. Living well together requires tackling conflicts at their early stages and, what’s more, preventing them before they appear. For that, a shift in the current business-as-usual scenario is urgently needed to change lifestyles and consumption patterns in the global market, mainly in industrialized countries. But also to reassess the values that underlie economic activities. The potential of conflicts lies in the people leading them since, if properly managed, they can help in finding innovative solutions based on local knowledge and different valuation systems for resources, other than purely traditional Western economic ones.

What then is the role of aid and development agencies and donors in this process? First, it must be acknowledged that development cooperation has not been effective in reaching its goals so far. A main point here is that in order to promote the development of poor countries, changes are required in developed ones to change the dependence structure to address historical power inequalities—such as external and ecological debts, the role of global value chains, and how stakeholder engagement processes are carried out to redefine those issues.

Conflicts do draw attention to the core of the tensions and in this sense exert pressure on powerful stakeholders and shareholders to reform their way of assessing investments’ results, encouraging them to increasingly view progress in terms of human wellbeing and the respect for nature as ‘returns’. If no conflict exists, meaningful structural reforms in the system will hardly occur. Thus, we should start viewing and managing socio-environmental conflicts as a powerful and key mechanism with a huge potential to act as a change maker and push for a paradigm shift.