Lessons learned on the priorities of peacebuilding

Professor Mario Novelli’s research into the positive effects of education in countries ravaged by conflict has influenced the United Nations’ peacebuilding programmes.

Mario Novelli

“Our central argument is that education matters in issues related to war and peace but is often overlooked by conflict researchers and specialists in international relations. Our research has been an antidote to that.”

For more than three decades, Mario Novelli, Professor in the Political Economy of Education at Sussex, has seen the damage that war can inflict on people around the globe.

Having worked in Egypt, Palestine and Colombia and carried out conflict-related research in Lebanon, Nepal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Pakistan, South Africa, Turkey, Rwanda and Kenya, Novelli was struck by the absence of education in the peacebuilding efforts he witnessed first-hand. 

Without the power of education to understand the causes of conflict, efforts to rebuild a country could be doomed before they even begin, he says.

“We made a simple but important point around the way that peace agreements often involved political and military elites and addressed their demands, but often didn’t redress the underlying causes of the particular conflicts and the needs of the broader population. These were often rooted in different places to different degrees, in injustices economic, social, cultural and political.

“Education is a really important public good, and while good education is not the only thing that matters in building peace, it is an important component. For many people, education is seen as a victim of conflict: schools get damaged, students and teachers are targeted. This is of course true, but education can also be a causal factor. Educational inequality can fuel resentment, educational content can contribute to prejudice and xenophobia, and unequal distribution of educational resources can contribute to enmity and anger.”

Challenging the UN's approach

To help address this oversight, Novelli led a UNICEF-commissioned research project examining the role of education in peacebuilding in conflict-affected states between September 2010 and December 2012 with a focus on three countries: Nepal, Lebanon and Sierra Leone.

Novelli conducted the case study in Sierra Leone: a country that has endured a brutal dictatorship and a bloody seven-year civil war in its short independence.

The findings were then directly employed by the United Nations aid agency to create a $200 million, Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy Programme (PBEA), which operated in more than a dozen countries between 2012 and 2016.

The research successfully challenged the UN's approach to peacebuilding, which had prioritised investment in security, democracy and economic reforms. It highlighted the need for social sectors, including education and health, to have a bigger role in peacebuilding operations and made an irrefutable case for greater investment in education programming in post-conflict settings.

It is hoped that this significant change in focus in how the UN operates in countries afflicted by conflict can make a positive, long-term impact in the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and adolescents who are the blameless victims of war.

Novelli says: “I really feel that the research and its findings led UNICEF to adopt a much more holistic and critical approach to the education/conflict relationship, and to really challenge the drivers of conflict linked to multiple forms of inequalities.

“I witnessed many UNICEF colleagues change their attitudes and approaches and really work on trying to redress grievances through education, drawing on tools that we had helped to develop.”

refugee camp

Addressing the root causes of conflict

Specifically, the research showed where education was marginalised from the UN peacebuilding agenda and how its role could be expanded and better integrated into the process.

The researchers found that the concept of peacebuilding varied substantially between different stakeholders, from minimalist `negative peace' understandings (the cessation of violence) to more expansive and transformatory conceptualisations of `positive peace' (addressing the root causes of conflict).

The study also concluded that there was little knowledge amongst key peacebuilding actors on education's potential to contribute to peacebuilding, and that education stakeholders often lacked the skills and knowledge to successfully integrate peacebuilding measures into education programmes.

While many of the world’s conflicts persist unobserved and without interference as the international gaze focuses on dealing with the threat posed by Covid-19, Novelli is hopeful that the legacy and impact of his work will continue.  

The focus of his own work also remains within peacebuilding as he and colleagues within the University's Centre for International Education explore issues related to UNICEF’s education provision during the emergency phases of a humanitarian crisis.

“UN policy making in general, and UNICEF in particular, is a complex process linked to global politics, funding cycles and changing challenges and contexts,” he says. “The current global focus is, as it should be, clearly on the impacts and effect of COVID19 on education. But wars and conflicts have not gone away, and we hope that the legacy of the work that UNICEF has engaged in on education and peacebuilding will continue to be influential within, but also beyond, the institution itself.”

While his work has taken him to countries ravaged by human violence, Novelli finds hope and inspiration from the work that he does and the people he meets.

“I have a great faith in ordinary people's capacity to overcome adversity and I am always humbled by the amazing people I have met through these experiences. I feel their pain and rage at the injustices that are taking place and feel privileged to have been able to see and experience so many places. Their hopes and belief in the possibility of a more socially just future is what keeps me going.”

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