Teach your children well: the science of lasting peace

11 Jan 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 11 Jan 2019

Experts from Northern Ireland have helped write a landmark paper which could help to build a more peaceful world.

Contributions of Early Childhood Development Programming to Sustainable Peace and Development, published by the Early Childhood Peace Consortium concludes: “We have the science, the knowledge, the technology and the experience to build a world of peace.”

This bold claim is backed by a wealth of scientific evidence and case studies of successful interventions. It concludes with a section which makes a series of recommendations of what governments can and should do right now to help build a more peaceful future. Some of these are based on pioneering work carried out in Northern Ireland.

What is important about the report is that it merges insights from two different perspectives on peace and development. Traditionally peacebuilding experts focus on high level strategies like government reform and economic development. On the other hand ECD practitioners are concerned with interventions with individual children and their families.

The report brings evidence from both. And it warns that “without an integrated approach centring around children, evidence suggests that cycles of poverty and adversity may continue for generations”.

Since 2001 90% of conflicts have been in countries that have already experienced civil war within the past 30 years. And nearly half of countries relapse into conflict within a decade. It therefore follows that peacebuilding cannot just be about reducing violence. It must also include strategies to address risk factors as well.

The report identifies three risk factors: Structural and Systemic (unemployment, inequality, marginalisation, corruption etc) Cultural (discrimination embedded in educational/religious/cultural practices, biased historical narratives, denial of mother tongue language) and Family (poverty, domestic violence, trauma of care-giver, high stress levels, substance abuse, mental ill health etc)

All of these can lead to violence, from armed conflict through to trouble in the home or at school.

There have been many past instances when well-intentioned efforts to build peace have exacerbated tensions and increased the risk of violence. The report therefore proposes that all government peacebuilding efforts should adopt what it calls the “4Rs”. These are Redistribution (equitable access to services, resources, employment) Recognition (language, cultural diversity, freedom of worship, civic participation in state-building) Reconciliation (addressing historic and contemporary injustice, public debate about the past, building trust between people and government and different groups) and Representation (extent to which services support fundamental freedoms and the extent to which people participate in the running of public services).

It would be a fascinating exercise to see just how well the Northern Ireland peace process stacks up to this model. Three of the nine co-authors of the paper include Professor Paul Connolly, interim Vice Chancellor at Queens University, and Siobhan Fitzpatrick and Pauline Walmsley from Early Years.

The report gets even more interesting when it focuses on early childhood development. It has long been accepted that investing in ECD is vitally important in any society. It defines this as “nurturing care” which involves health, nutrition, the right caregiving, security, safety and early learning.

The key is that the support does not just help the child, but also parents or other caregivers and also the communities in which they live.

There is a huge body of science to support this. Much of it arises from studies of children who have been exposed to stress. Some of this can be direct, like living through war, some of it is indirect like parents become unemployed or unable to work, perhaps because  their group is marginalised in society.

The effects of adversity in early childhood can last a lifetime, or even become intergenerational. For example children who are maltreated are more likely to maltreat their own children, and those who become imbued with prejudice or norms of violence are more likely to continue these beliefs as grown-ups.

Globally 357 million children are living in conflict zones and 50 million have been displaced by conflict. All of them are vulnerable to what scientists call toxic stress. This is where a child is not protected from harm or does not receive adequate care, and as a result experiences prolonged stress. This can happen in early childhood or inside the womb.

The result is that stress hormones are increased and these can alter the neurone structure and functioning of the developing brain. The brain regions affected are those that deal with regulating emotions, rational decision making and self-control.

As the child grows up the result can be increased anxiety, fear, hostility and aggression and decreased levels of social empathy and trust.

Scope has previously examined theories relating to intergenerational trauma through changes to genes (epigenetic modification). One hypothesis is that prolonged stress can trigger the epigenetic modifications required to increase survival in a harsh environment. If this is correct children of traumatised parents are likely to be hypersensitive to stress because that will better prepare their bodies for violence or flight. This raises an extremely unsettling possibility. Given that there are currently many millions of children exposed to toxic stress we could be in for cycles of violence and adversity for generations.

One finding which is beyond dispute is that children exposed to toxic stress are likely to develop unsettling behaviour. Play habits of children in conflict or post-conflict societies can often involve recreating the violence they see around them. So in South Africa, for example, researchers observed children playing “police raid” games and in Northern Ireland children were seen talking about bombs and discussing which paramilitary groups they would join.

Early childhood development programmes are therefore essential. Studies in the USA, Jamaica and Guatemala have shown that vulnerable children who did not take part in such programmes went on to earn significantly less wages (as much as 46% less) than those who did. This can have impact at a state level, reducing a country’s gross national income. This on top of the massively increased public expenditure trying to correct problems later in life. Similar studies have shown a link between violent crime and a lack of ECD programmes.

Finally there is confirmation of what many of us intuitively believe: that children born into families who are marginalised, experience inequalities or social exclusion can develop low expectations about the future, low self-worth and even antisocial or self-destructive behaviour.

A study by Professor Connolly found that when toxic stress or neglect is added to the mix this can also lead individuals to feel a heightened need for belonging. When this is combined with a lack of job opportunities later in life it can make them vulnerable to joining violent or criminal groups.

The document contains many case studies from around the world dealing with issues as varied as blood feuds in Albania, kidnapping and forced displacement in Columbia, prejudice and conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and trauma and fear in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It is a compelling read with a positive message, one which should be adopted by governments, not least our own.



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