Conflict Transformation with Oxfam Novib

What does an internship with Oxfam Novib
actually involve?
Here are my thoughts and reflections on my recently finished
four month internship with the Conflict Transformation team…

The Conflict
Transformation team is responsible for developing programmes that support
peacebuilding in countries such as Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo
and Myanmar. As a subtheme of Conflict Transformation, I worked on Women, Peace
and Security (WPS), an approach that emerged globally after 2000, when the
United Nations passed Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325). The resolution is important
because it calls for a greater gender perspective in conflict, the details of
which are often referred to as the 3 Ps. This includes supporting women’s Participation in peace processes,
important because women are woefully underrepresented.For instance, from 1992 to 2011, fewer than 4 per cent of
signatories to peace agreements and less than 10 per cent of negotiators at
peace tables were women
. It also means paying particular attention
to the Protection concerns of women,
such as conflict-related sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), which
disproportionally affect women and girls. The final P is for Prevention, and calls for proactive
approaches to prevent conflict-related SGBV and violent conflict more broadly.

Where do I fit in this and how does it
relate to what I did with Oxfam Novib? I am currently nearing the end of a two
year MA in Women’s and Gender
Studies
with Utrecht University here in the Netherlands and
Bologna University in Italy. The MA programme has been rich with interesting
issues and ideas  – about gender
identities, sexuality, inequality and power – and yet I struggled with the very
theoretical nature of the course. I wanted an opportunity to see how this
theory works ‘in practice’. In part to do this, I started working on WPS over a
year ago, beginning with a cool course with Utrecht
Data School
that led to this project (published in Dutch). The internship
seemed like the perfect opportunity to follow my interest in WPS, in the
context of an international NGO.

What did the internship involve?

The internship provided an opportunity to
try my hand at a number of things – from launching an internal Oxfam Novib
newsletter to update staff and the wider Oxfam Confederation about the Conflict
Transformation team’s work, to attending
a peace conference
and drafting and copy-editing WPS
and Conflict Transformation briefs
. My main, and probably most exciting task, was to research and produce a
‘track record’ of Oxfam Novib’s work on WPS
. This was quite a hefty task –
a track record is a pretty substantial document that draws from policy papers
and internal guidelines to outline the organisation’s approach to WPS. It also includes
case studies of WPS programming successes and lessons learnt, developed through
interviews with staff. 

The track record serves the dual role of outlining
programme ‘output’ and ‘impact’ (in NGO speak), which can be used in proposal
writing to access funding, and provides valuable guidance for staff about the
strengths and challenges of the current approach, in order to support programme
development. Considering Oxfam Novib has been working on WPS as a priority
theme since 2012, in many different countries, this took some work! It was
exciting to carry out a piece of research, incorporating desk based research
and interviews with staff, and to know that this research would actively be
used in future programme development.    

Researching Oxfam Novib from the
‘inside’

I also carried out a second piece of
research, this time for my MA thesis. Oxfam Novib was kind enough to open it’s
doors to me as an independent researcher, and I had the opportunity to
interview staff about their perceptions about the gains, tensions and
challenges of Oxfam Novib’s approach to WPS. This year is the 15th
anniversary of UNSCR 1325, and a time for reflection about the successes and ongoing
challenges
of implementing this approach. It was the perfect
opportunity, then, to ask some questions and find out how WPS is being
approached, navigated and negotiated and within the context of an international
NGO and to closely listen to the insights of those actually responsible for
putting WPS into practice. In terms of my desire to see how theory works in
‘practice’, this proved invaluable.

I found that a number of issues confronting
the international community are also being negotiated by staff within Oxfam
Novib. For instance, there is ongoing concern about the tendency of WPS to be
reduced to an ‘add women and stir’ approach. This means that the inclusion of
women in peace processes, or things such as Security Sector Reform, becomes an
end in itself.  As the statistics
demonstrate, this is clearly important, and yet the greater addition of women
alone is not enough to achieve a truly transformative vision of society, peace
and equality. Subsequently, staff, then, were concerned with promoting women’s
participation, and collecting data on the gender balance of programme
participation, while ensuring this wasn’t reduced to add women and stir.

The role of men and the greater integration
of a masculinities perspective is also currently on the international WPS
agenda (see, for instance, this Saferworld blog). This includes working with men as allies
in the fight for gender equality and also recognising the gendered
vulnerabilites of men in conflict who, for instance, maybe more likely to face
risk of recruitment to armed groups. Oxfam Novib staff are critically engaged
with these issues, but also concerned about what this approach could mean in practice.
After fighting hard to get ‘women’s issues’ on the international agenda, and
demonstrate how ‘gender-blind’ approaches to peacebuilding tend to be
orientated to the needs of men, there are dangers in this approach (see, for
instance this great talk by feminist peace scholar Cythia Enloe
about the significance of the names ‘Women’s Studies’ and ‘Gender Studies,’ its
relation to current WPS debates about the role of men, and the influence of
donors to set NGO priorities).

The track record and MA thesis research
tasks were complementary  – the former
provided a more ‘factual’ account of what the organisation has achieved and how
this can be developed in the future, while my MA research provided a more
detailed reflection of the day-to-day challenges of those actually implementing
WPS in the context of an international NGO.

Photo Credit: Oxfam Novib Academy, 2015 | Working at Oxfam Novib

All in all, I really enjoyed my time with
Oxfam Novib. If you are wondering about an internship I would say, go for it! I
found it very exciting to be part of an international environment, filled with
people from diverse walks of life, working towards similar goals, although
sometimes with different ideas about how best to  get there. On the outside, NGOs articulate
clear visions and aims, understandable within the context of donor funding and
public support. My reflection though, is that they are actually much more
interesting from the inside. It’s here that the gains, tensions and challenges
of different approaches – in this case related to WPS – are happening, in an
effort to determine the best path to peace and gender equality.

Sarah Pelham

Sarah worked on Women, Peace & Security issues in the Conflict Transformation Team at Oxfam Novib for 6 months in 2015 as an intern. A feminist at heart, she was also pursuing her Masters at Utrecht University at the same time. After an intensive 6 months of research, she is now road-tripping across Europe and is probably somewhere in the Czech Republic!

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