Systemic Action Research

Systemic Action Research, Adapt Peacebuilding, Stephen Gray
The Kachin Independence Organisation, Adapt Peacebuilding
Systemic Action Research, Adapt Peacebuilding, Stephen Gray
Systemic Action Research, Adapt Peacebuilding, Stephen Gray

The Kachin Independence Organisation is one of more than a dozen armed groups that have been fighting an ethno-nationalist struggle in Myanmar for half a century. In June 2011 their 17-year ceasefire with the Myanmar army broke down. In the years since, thousands have been killed and more than one hundred thousand displaced by armed violence. The conflict in Myanmar's north has oscillated in parallel to a profound transition within the country, including the election of the first democratic government in 50 years, an economic boom, and peace agreements with the majority of the country's rebel groups.  Bordering China and rich in natural resource wealth, Kachin state is a physical and ideological battleground in Myanmar's struggle towards a more peaceful and prosperous future.

While elites on both sides of the conflict talk peace and wage war, local communities remain caught in the crossfire. Active conflict areas are off limits, leaving tens of thousands of local people without access to international humanitarian or development assistance. Education and livelihood opportunities have been limited by the conflict, while the world's second highest rates of opium production have contributed to a culture of addiction that has devastated local communities. Patriarchal and undemocratic governance systems dominate, leaving few opportunities for most people to shape a better future for themselves. 

Adapt initiated a process of systemic action research with local communities in non-government controlled areas of Kachin state in 2013. The goal of the work is to empower local communities towards their own peace and development goals. Systemic action research achieves this by helping communities to 1) understand the complex and interdependent factors that influence their situation, 2) identify actions that might transform things for the better, and 3) implement these actions in an iterative manner to enhance impact and learning. The methodology is intended to mobilise community participation in the peace process, in support of peace agreements in Myanmar that are more sustainable and inclusive of public perspectives.   

Local people are the centre of this process. Communities themselves (rather than outside ‘experts’) are empowered to collect information, analyse it, make decisions and take action. 'Listening data' collected from local communities was analysed in order to understand the the multiple factors that influence the challenges they face. Based upon this analysis, three topics were selected for research and action: displaced people and host community relations, drug abuse, and the return of displaced people.

The results have been remarkable. Without any prior blue print for action, local communities ushered in one of the first mine risk education programs in this area, reaching thousands of beneficiaries at risk of mine and UXO exposure. Anti drug messaging was included in education curriculum in schools in high risk areas and community education was initiated to prevent discrimination against former drug addicts. Youth forums were initiated on topics of harmonious communal relations, the peace process, and youth participation, involving hundreds and generating the new opportunities for dialog in relation to peace and development.

These actions served as examples to policy makers, providing 'bottom up' examples and local support for the resolution of of complex challenges. These results were achieved with very low initial investment in an area where international aid is very hard to deliver. As Myanmar's peace process evolves, it is hoped that these communities can continue to inform peacemakers with community solutions for peace and development.

This process has been generously funded by the United States Agency for International Development and the United States Institute for Peace, in collaboration with Columbia University and the Institute for Development Studies.