Ep. 033: Dr. Catherine Barnes

Show Notes

Stephen and Catherine met in Myanmar. He found that she would often not be in the capital where most expats were; she was always out in the field facilitating and training facilitators. Her approach has always been to walk hand and hand with those she is working with and supporting. This is an unusual approach and one that Stephen admires. Her approach has not been to come in as a outside expert to instruct, help, and education the locals in conflict, but rather to work directly with people to find localized solutions.

Catherine has a diverse background as a “scholar practitioner.” Stephen believes she has truly embodied this title, having a dense background both in the field and as a scholar.

What led her to social justice and peacebuilding?

Catherine remembers meeting Stephen in Myanmar in what she calls a “totally immersive experience” and recalls that Stephen also spent very little time in the capital with expats. Catherine sees being on the ground with people really in the struggle and building relationships with them is one of the joys of peacebuilding.

In her teens and college days, she took a activist approach in the United States, where she is from. She took a job in West Virginia working in domestic violence. This is where she started understanding how deeply penetrating and intergeneration systems of violence can be. She often felt powerless and an impatient: she wanted to do more than only help one family at a time. At a point of transition, she ran into Dudley Weeks at a conference, who was one of the first practitioners in a new and developing field called “conflict resolution.” He was doing work with gangs to bring them into dialogue processes. He was a Quaker and Catherine is also from a Quaker background. A guiding principle in this tradition is “there is that of God in everyone” and this mentality was leading his work with these gang members. A light turned on for her. This is how you can transform your stance from being an activist with opposition. What would happen if you were to talk to your opponent and engage in dialogue?

She started out on this path academically at George Mason University where she got her doctorate. Her professional path has shifted over the years. She often admires people who stick with a conflict and have a deep commitment to it throughout their entire lives because she has been involved in approximately 30 countries. She uses this metaphor of a “seed carrier,” where the carrier travels taking seeds from places and bringing them to new places. She saw herself in this role, where the seeds are ideas and approaches. Recently, she has wanted to transform her role as a “gardener” to actually stay in one place and enrich the soil. This has narrowed her practice to limit the number of countries, but she finds this to be more fruitful.

Stephen asks if she adjusted her approach from the “seed carrier” to the “gardener” because she noticed a particular theory of change. Essentially, is one approach more effective than the other? Is gardening more important than seed planting?

Catherine says that this might be a stage of life adjustment. She might be looking for a place to settle in more closely now, when while she was younger, she wasn’t willing to commit to one “garden.” She says, as a literal gardener herself, if you plant things in connection with each other, they will create a self-sustaining system. This enables everything to thrive. This leads to the complexity approach to peacebuilding. How can we nurture environments that will sustain themselves in the long term? How do we eliminate things that are extracting value while not contributing any value back.

She has gotten into her role more as a facilitator and process designer and to help people get into conversations that they need to have.

Complexity as it relates to peacebuilding:

For Stephen:

  • David Harland: Executive Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue discussing the decline and success of negotiation and dialogue.

    • Increased complexity of modern conflicts; (splitting dynamics, globalism, organizing through internet, no stable unipolar geopolitical order)

    • The United Nations can’t have a pre-planned, top down approach that will work in most contexts because each context is so different

    • Applying a complexity approach allows peacebuilding to draw from other fields to understand the best ways to develop unique, sustainable approaches while working in the context.

    • The United Nations is not agile or able to adapt its approach to meet this need

For Catherine:

  • People from an international relations background approach this from a mediation stand point. This leads to some challenges:

    • In the pre-Cold War world, there was this notion that you could bring the leaders of states together and negotiate just with those leaders. They would sign an agreement that would end the war decisively. This model carried over into the post-Cold War world where we would sit the leader of a country down with the leader of the opposition and they would sign an agreement and the war would end. However, this approach doesn’t not seem to be effective as conflicts become increasingly nuanced.

    • Catherine was working in Tajikistan in the 1990s where in the United Nations was actually pretty successful during this negotiation. However, at the end of the negotiation, their were many issues left unaddressed and the peace process cemented in an unequal power structure. Catherine pointed this out to a colleague at the United Nations would said, “Well, those are issues to be dealt with the day after the peace agreement is signed. Our job is to end the war.”

    • They were replicating a similar agreement in Sierra Leone which had many similar issues.

    • Peace agreements were really cementing the unequal and unfair power structures related to various identities that led to war and violence in the first place. They locked in exploitation and exclusion.

    • If you close down these issues quickly in order to reach a deal, you are risking it reverting to the same cycles of violence.

    • If there was not a sustained international presence with troops, these agreements would fail. These deals have been insufficient in addressing the real issues.

    • The idea that more inclusive peace processes are more effective had a difficult time gaining traction in the 90s and early 2000s. They are extremely difficult. The people negotiating cannot only be the one that resorted to violence because this ignored everyday people and needs.

    • We cannot enforce a peace upon people. This entrenches conflict more deeply.

Stephen: Catherine seems to be indicating a shift in the conditions under which peacebuilding occurs. Maybe in the 90s, conflicts were more susceptible to processes that had pre-designed means and ends. Conflicts now need self-organization where the local parties need to design their own means and ends. This can’t be imposed by an outside source.

Catherine: However, this approach to conflict in the 90s overwhelmingly failed and was not sustainable in the long term. The dream of the “liberal peace” enforced by democratic governments without directly stake in the conflict was always an illusion.

Stephen: This is a larger debate in the international development community to either use grand plans for development or to create conditions where people can make their own peace. You can imagine how difficult it is to “get to yes” for an agreement, but this creates so many long term issues and makes the peace agreement unsustainable. The focus needs to be on system health: what are the underlying issues that are leading to this violence?

Catherine: She has been working on a project called “Addiction to Coercion.” This is at the root of the problems we have when dealing with conflict. If you have allies who have extremely different goals, but they put those goals aside in order to save the relationships, this is “cooperation” and the “win/win.” However, too often, there is an idea that, if we push hard enough, we eventually meet our goals. This notion that you can prevail unilaterally is disastrous to sustainable peace.

She saw this in 1999 when, in order to prevent Serbia from committing another atrocity in Kosovo, NATO decided to bomb Serbian forces. This creates huge moral dilemmas. There had been so many small negotiations to address the immediate impact of violence occuring in the region and this prevented a real conversation from commencing about what would inevitably happen in Kosovo. When you’re addicted to coercion, you need to have a grand solution to a critical problem now, but this isn’t how productive peace will be achieved.

The NATO summit of 2018 recently occurred and the wealthiest countries in the world increased their military spending because this is the approach world leaders are taking-- you must be prepared to force the other side to bend to your will.

Stephen: When we use force to coerce others to bend to our will, are we not simply encouraging the other to do exactly the same? Does this not create an endless cycle of greater and greater force and aggression?


Exactly. Both sides will do this because both sides will interpret each other’s actions to be of aggression, and arm themselves accordingly. This stems from a mental model based on unilateralism: I am justified to take what needs I need to to protect myself. This is a description of the “security dilemma,” which often interrupts us into endless cycle of violence where all of our attention and resources are focused on that instead of cooperation.

There are moments in history where this cycle has been broken where both sides realize their interdependency. Catherine uses the example of South Africa where key leaders had a shared vision of unity and interdependence that really drove the peace process to break the cycle of escalating violence.

The formation of the European Union has also done this. The was a fundamental shift in the mental model of relations in two ways: 1) within the countries themselves, where they adopted a new social contract and lifted those who had been in immense poverty up, and 2) among the countries, where they understood that cooperation would be in their best interest. After this shift, the EU built institutions on the foundation of this cooperation. This concept had never happened before. This gives her hope that we can organize ourselves differently. She hopes this will shed light on the idea that states can be more and do more when they work together, as opposed to simply trying to coerce each other into giving a state what it wants.

Stephen sees echos of this in many spaces. The polarization in the United States is truly everywhere in society. Citizens are seeing their identities as completely opposed to those of the other political parties. The President of the United States is embracing an isolationist policy, which is really the opposite of embracing this interconnectedness. What is going to bring us back to this cooperation?

Catherine lives very close to Charlottesville, Virginia where the United the Right march occurred in 2017. The decision to have this rally was catalyzed by the city decided to remove a statue of a Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee. She has been a part of a group organizing community dialogues about very open themes such as “heritage and honor.” A group of activists want to change the name of the local “Robert E. Lee High School.” When this happens, you start talking about people’s identities. The tension between sides to change or save the name of Robert E. Lee has been escalating. The school hired a group to host a community dialogue about this issue where people could sign up ahead of time to express their view. This led to people trying to have the best argument, but really no one changing their mind, but rather becoming more entrenched in their own ideas. This is happening more and more. As a culture, we have not learned how to have processes where we can hear, and be accountable, to each other.

There are absolutely many people who are racist and approaching the issue. Others, however, have had many generations attend the school with this name and genuinely don’t understand why it is such a problem. They feel as if their history and culture will be erased with this. However, in the United States, we have never had a public conversation about slavery and the lasting impact of it on the country. Catherine remembers growing up in Virginia in one of the first racially integrated schools after the U.S. Supreme Court Decision Brown v. Board of Education. In this newly integrated class, no one ever talked about the past. No one was taught how to. Many of the black students lost the affection of their teachers, administration, and communities and white students never knew the loss they were experiencing. In historic times that are conflict saturated, societies organize themselves around the same structures. The mental models, in this case of racial exclusion, never really go away. These unjust systems are never accounted for. Healing from Hate by Michael Kimmel makes an argument that is very relevant here where people want to be comfortable in their own society and don’t want those comforts taken away by bringing unjust systems and privilege to light.

This plays out throughout much of the world right now. These deep mental models of identities based on superiority and inferiority is a driver of these conflicts. Another driver is an economy that is always extracting without adding value to a society. These drivers allow fear of the “other” to create coercion and hate.

Stephen: People’s mental models are surfacing and there are many ways we can have these mental models reinforced, even though this is not productive. What processes can we put in place that allow us to hear each other? The political arena is the worst place to have these conversations. Are there spaces where we can create more spaces for better dialogue?

Catherine: Within crisis, there is opportunity. There are more people and more realization for the need for dialogue then there was 10 years ago. We have the technology and systems processes to do this now. An example of a church confronting issues of the LGBTQ community and marriages/relationships within that group. Out of this crisis, they wanted to come together to see how they could be together. Catherine designed a large dialogue seminar for them asking: how can we move on together? Many people realized that this was a dialogue that needed to happen. At the end of the process, they noticed that they reemphasized the core values of why they were drawn to their faith in the first place. We can get to a new place if we sit together and listen to each other. However, the political arena now is not allowing the space to allow these conversations to happen. “If it exists, it’s possible.”