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Podcast Episode: Meet Alan Smith

Nov 9, 2021

In this episode Dr Christine Ellison interviews Professor Alan Smith who holds the UNESCO Chair at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. Alan has taught in both Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe and was previously a Senior Research Fellow at Ulster University’s Centre for the Study of Conflict. He was actively involved in the establishment of integrated schools in Northern Ireland, was the founding Chairman of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and a Nuffield Foundation nominee to the Integrated Education Fund.

Alan has been a British Council visiting research fellow to Nigeria, Indonesia and Hong Kong and authored an influential report for DFID on ‘Education, Conflict and International Development’. He has completed research on education, conflict and peace building for DFID, GTZ, Norad, International Alert, Save the Children, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank in the Basque Country, Bosnia, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe. His research includes a three-year investigation of ‘Values in Teacher Education’ funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and an EU‑funded investigation of the legacies of conflict in Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Alan was a UK representative to the Council of Europe on Education for Democratic Citizenship and a member of an external advisory group on civic engagement established by the President of the World Bank. He was a contributing author and adviser to the Education for All, Global Monitoring Report (2011) and a technical advisor to the UNICEF Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy programme, a €150m initiative funded by the Government of the Netherlands over a four-year period (2012-16), involving conflict analyses in 14 conflict-affected countries.

View a transcript for this podcast

Christine: Professor Smith, welcome. I’d like to start with a point that is often made about education in emergencies, that it is a relatively new relatively under-theorised field and so tends to draw from other academic disciplines.  Could you tell us about the theory and academic traditions that have been influential in your own thinking?

Alan: If I’m being honest, I think some of the key formative influences are actually from my own PhD. One of the strongest influences was a sociologist called Jurgen Habermas. I’ve always found it interesting to ask what are the human interests at work in this situation? Who’s involved? Why are they involved? Why do they think in particular ways? And that often leads to other issues – as you say ‘power relations’ and ‘institutional interests.

I think the other key idea that came out of Habermas’ work for me was about the nature of knowledge – ‘epistemology’. The idea that knowledge is not concrete and fixed, but actually intersubjective and coming out of dialogue and exchange. I think that was captured in Habermas’ work about theories of communicative action. So that was another very important factor that has influenced me, that communication is action, and can lead to change. The language you use, the concepts you use, are actually very powerful tools for change. And that idea, linked in with my own biographical background, in my undergraduate degree in the sciences. My PhD led me into this territory of sociology. But I would still regard myself as a fairly logical thinker, and maybe that was because of the education I got in the sciences.

But I was also very much attracted to people from the 60s and 70s who were researching communication theory. Gregory Bateson was someone who was involved in this thinking about the way systems work – the nature of open systems, closed systems and that kind of thing which is much more common now, but it was really quite novel at that stage. There was another academic called Antony Wilden based at Simon Fraser University in Canada. He wrote a very influential publication called System and Structure. It’s quite technically dense, I think, but what it allowed me to do was to experiment with the idea that… we can think of ourselves as individuals, we need to also bear in mind we’re operating within broader systems and questions about what makes systems resistant to change. So, when you’re thinking about education… That was a sort of second stream, which was very much about communicative systems, how they function. What keeps them functioning in the same way, how you might change systems eventually, how the systems get to tipping points where they suddenly flip into a different way of functioning. That was very consistent with a lot of more scientific knowledge about thermodynamics.  It’s a bit of a stretch bringing it into the social domain, but that was very influential on me.

Then, a third influence was I went and worked in Zimbabwe – after independence there, in the early 1980s. I was working in education, I was helping set up a secondary school, because after independence, they were trying to expand education for Black Zimbabwean children. So I was involved in helping set up a science department in a rural secondary school and worked there for about three years. But then came back to Northern Ireland, which at that stage was going through this violent conflict. And I started working as a researcher, on a short term contract, looking at the impact that this was having on education. To what extent education itself was contributing to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

And then once we got into the 90s, and closer to a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, it was a more international interest. I got involved in work in the Basque Country, the Balkans and various other places. I got involved in international development work. I was appointed to the UNESCO chair in 2000, and that coincided with looking beyond Northern Ireland to a greater extent and getting involved with people who were part of this education in emergencies network.

So I think those are the three streams. There is a strong sociological stream coming out of that Critical Theory at the Frankfurt school, there is a communicative theory, a language and communications dimension, and there’s the peacebuilding dimension. It’s that latter strand which connected me to education in emergencies.

Christine: This very nicely leads to my next question which is about the real variety of work that is covered by the term eie or education in conflict.  On the one hand you have the humanitarian part which is focused on responding and protecting the right to education when crisis hits. On the other, you have developmentalists thinking about societal progress and the really very long term processes you need to support to achieve anything sustainable.  In the context of that humanitarian-developmental gap, how do you navigate the pragmatic and theorical sides to this field?

Alan: When I think over, probably what was a career trajectory over 30 odd years or more, I have gone from a highly theorized PhD experience, to trying to relate what that means in the real world. And how does any of this theory help and I think a lot of it is simply so embedded in my thinking, I rarely think consciously about the theoretical frameworks that are driving my actions or critiques. So I think, the more you see some of these international agencies and structures in action, you realize a lot of it is driven by pragmatism. People don’t have time to overly theorize. If they haven’t got a well theorised background themselves, I think they’re looking essentially for short term solutions. But that way of thinking has never open to me, not just because of my PhD experience but because of my experience in Northern Ireland, where you know the practical reality. Maybe you can have theoretical understandings of the history, the politics, how vested interest and certain institutions etc can feed a conflict. The longer term, developmental way of thinking is also saying how do you, I wouldn’t have used the term disrupt, but how can you influence the long term as well as the short-term consequences. How do you simultaneously begin to think about what are really the underlying causes here? Why are so many of the solutions that are being tried not working?

I think education in emergencies is still driven largely by the politics of governance, wanting quick solutions to significant crises – the mass refugee movements or the health pandemic or climate change, or whatever. I think the common question that unifies to some extent education in emergencies, is that in order to find the longer term solutions, you can have many short term responses to try and offset some of the worst consequences. But in order to get sustainable longer term solutions, I think you have to ask, much more fundamentally critical questions about the way in which institutions and vested interests are operating. Whether at the geopolitical level or the national level.

Christine: I was reading an article of yours from 2005 called Education in the twentieth century that set out a number of challenges for education and conflict. And it’s interesting because even in that time since 2005 the challenges have changed.  I’m just wondering do you see peacebuilding as still being relevant and how convinced are you now of education’s ability to address the new emerging concerns?

Alan: Well I suppose the thing for me is that, certainly in the early, earlier part of my career we dealing with these [identity] issues a lot. A lot of conflicts that I mentioned earlier [Basque Country, former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, South Africa] were to do with identity and constitutional issues. Maybe they are kind of postcolonial, or certainly they are conflicts of unresolved issues about states and nationality. And a sense of nationality which is based on birthright and religious, cultural identity – very often that’s how states have emerged, from a group with some sense of common identity. So I think as diversity emerges a lot of those contexts experience conflicts. So, thinking in developmental terms [we need to ask] how education feeds into those conflicts, who controls the education system, who benefits from it, what are the dominant ideas and influences through the curriculum, who are the teachers communicating traditions from one generation to another? What has significantly changed since the ending of apartheid, fall of the Berlin Wall is that the idea of the nation state is fundamentally not only challenged, but has been overtaken really by modernity – not only through population movements [leading to] more plural and diverse societies, but just through communications as well. And the ease with which people can communicate.

So that whole world order if you like has been challenged and broken down and a lot of the conflicts now are really about how do we deal with that – the pressures that arise from that more complex nature of society. It also raises fundamental questions about citizenship, and who has the right to live where, challenging the nation state idea of citizenship that you were born here, or you are of a particular cultural tradition or religious background. The idea that ‘everyone else is a foreigner’ doesn’t really function well now.

In the paper I wrote around citizenship. I was questioning whether it is possible to move to a notion of citizenship which is much more fundamentally based on common rights and responsibilities for all citizens, irrespective of where they live [or come from]. There isn’t a perfect solution – for example, countries will have to deal with pressures on their social services if they open their borders completely. There’s a question about how quickly change is taking place as well; moving from nation states to more porous borders, movement too quickly is bound to bring conflicts and genuine crises in terms of how you deal with making sure people have livelihoods and access to health. So I think that’s a significant change. I think it does push this whole field in that direction. I think I probably see it more relevant right now, maybe I didn’t in the early days, so peacebuilding work and work on conflict as a kind of a subset with relevance for education in emergencies. I do see it now as much more part of a larger patchwork of, whether some of these crises emerged from social, cultural conflicts or where they emerged from environmental, or health pandemics, or whether from economic recessions. I think they are fundamentally interlinked.

Christine: And perhaps even more so in the context of the pandemic?

Alan: I think people at a very fundamental level, without having to be taught any theory or know any names of any sociologists, realize that what this virus had done is highlighted huge inequalities within societies, between countries, at the geopolitical level whether it is about access to healthcare, economics, capacity to survive in these difficult environments, or whether it’s nationalistic struggles over access to vaccines. All these things. And yet there is a fundamental common message, which is no matter how well you do nationalistically, you’re going to be stuck within your own borders if your neighbours do not make similar progress. So I think it’s been a very practical lesson for people, probably very acute and for those living in the poorest parts of the world. So whether that will fundamentally change how we think about this dichotomy between humanitarian and developmental thinking in the field. It will be interesting to see, because I think it’ll be… There will always be those who just want to to act quickly to the effects of any crisis.  In whatever field it’s in. But one would hope it would encourage them to also think there are also more fundamental reasons here, why and how these pandemics and other crises interact with each other.

Christine: In some ways you could put it very bluntly and say humanitarians have to react and deal with the crisis and don’t necessarily have the time to engage in the critical thinking and type of analysis you’re talking about

Alan: What I have realized is that there’s quite a spectrum of people who see themselves as humanitarians. I’ve done some work with the International Committee of the Red Cross over the past few years, because they are developing a policy to include education in part of their response of crisis. I think many would characterize it as “the purist interpretation of humanitarianism as apolitical. Their role is simply to negotiate access for those who are affected by crises.” This goes back to their foundations to get medical attention to people on the field of battle on both sides. I think they’ve tried to hold true to that, or are saying they don’t have any political agenda, because then we won’t be trusted. And that has stood them in good stead, because they do access difficult situations, people who need help in areas where no other agencies are able to access.

But I think they are increasingly under challenge now If you hold to those [purist humanitarian principles], you cannot position yourself as taking any particular political side, but this also makes it very difficult to hold a view on whether there needs to be any change.

Christine: There’s a feeling that humanitarian agencies are moving into more political aspects of programming, perhaps being forced to because of the complex nature of modern conflict and crises. You mentioned ICRC is committing to education strategy for example. Do you think the more explicitly political approaches and types of analysis are moving into the mainstream?

Alan: Well, even more apparent than that is the strong commitment to girl’s education by UNICEF, which is a good thing but at the same time, it’s highly political, in many countries. They seem to have managed to be strongly supportive of this. I’m not sure but there seems to be sufficient agreement about girls’ access to education, even though some people are saying that just to be politically correct in some countries. Even in the more extreme political environments, it may alienate a lot of their voters, half of them are women, by saying that we oppose girls’ education. Of course we want that.

I’m thinking again, going back to Habermas when he talks about knowledge and human interest. Habermas draws a distinction about whether our interest in knowledge is really technical and practical, as opposed to emancipatory. If it is emancipatory then that really does introduce much more dynamic notions about change, something about change here which is at the heart of the dilemma for INEE. How can you be a humanitarian and advocate for change, while maintaining your neutrality? I think there is some contradiction [or at least tension] there.

I mean, I still don’t feel… peacebuilding isn’t really very central on the agenda. Now, despite investments by the governments and the UNICEF peacebuilding program. I still think people find it difficult to mention peacebuilding.  I know it’s contentious, it forces people to think what is peace and ask all these kinds of questions. Being able to use that language is an anathema to people working in the field is difficult because many people see it as unhelpful for relationships with governments, and the various interests they have to work with.

Christine: Yes, it’ll be interesting to see in 20 years whether peacebuilding is a term or concept that has been embraced and developed.  I mean, what would you like to see happen in this area over the next 20 years or so?

Alan: Well, I think what you’re concentrating on to some degree is, is there a more integrated way of thinking about all these very different contexts? How do they actually interact with each other? You may have a health pandemic or be in the midst of a conflict or environmental challenges, economic crises… The field is probably made up of very separate ways of thinking, and I am also party to that as well coming from my own education, conflict, peacebuilding angle. So, I think maybe 20 odd years on, this is the time to be really thinking hard about the integration of these different challenges. What are their common underlying causes? And how do they interact with each other? How for example, in the ebola crisis, because of the measures you take you can cause tensions within communities that lead to violence and conflict? Because people are being restricted in their movement. Now you can see echoes of that across many of our own countries. Interestingly, the most protests against restrictions for the pandemic I think have probably been in more individualistic liberal democracies. People’s sense of their individual rights, freedoms seem to supersede their commitment to the social good if their actions are being restricted.

A better understanding of that kind of integration between the various strands of education in emergencies, and also the tensions between humanitarian and developmental thinking. That seems to me to be where things are at.

Christine: Many thanks Professor Smith, it has been a real pleasure speaking with you today.

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