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Currency Created by Looking and Seeing

Image by Author

My task was to look for, and to see the challenges of a return from displacement, a relatively common practice, which many of my fellow peacebuilding professionals and I sometimes take for granted.

“To look is to draw attention to something. In everyday language we often say, ‘would you look over there please’ or ‘look at that’. In other words looking requires lenses that draw attention and help us become aware. To see, on the other hand, is to look beyond and deeper. Seeing insight and understanding. ‘Do you see what I mean’ – Understanding is the process of creating meaning. Meaning requires that we bring something into sharper focus. – Conflict transformation is more than a set of specific techniques; it is a way of looking as well as seeing”

(John Paul Lederach 2003)

Lederach’s quote brings into focus the dichotomy between looking and seeing, an overlooked and fundamental consideration if working to improve difficult situations in communities of displaced people. In the image above, I meet with ten tribal leaders from the Ninewa Governate in Iraq. The meeting was arranged to identify the key challenges faced by the internally displaced people residing in Northern Iraq’s official camps, where they are compelled to consider returning home after the trauma and upheaval of displacement during the recent conflict. Challenges such as, a proliferation of IEDs in their villages, services, amenities, security and many more, all entangled with social and political fears.

My task was to look for, and to see the challenges of a return from displacement, a relatively common practice, which many of my fellow peacebuilding professionals and I sometimes take for granted.

It is important to be remain mindful that the so called ‘peacebuilder’, aid worker or volunteer is under scrutiny at the same time, many times over. In a meeting like the one in the photograph, where one observes, collects and analyses the information from ten people, each one of those ten are making their own observations and analysis, collecting data and developing their own investigative framework for later scrutiny. And this is only the tip of the voyeuristic iceberg.

Looking and seeing provides a stream of informal information that becomes valuable currency in a displacement camp of thousands where the ‘time and place’ dynamics are no longer measured in universal ways. Time is measured using a rhythmic and familiar series of humanitarian aid visits from outside the camp - (water supplies, food drops, medical, diplomatic and media visits etc). And place defined by camp management, NGO compounds and internationally established and well-practiced methods of camp logistics, practicalities and security. In other words, ironically in a typically universal fashion, those in possession of the most current and accurate information are more prepared within their unusual and precarious home.

Within a camp setting, this kind of information seems vital. Not only does it help people to be more competitive in their collection of food and materials more efficiently (which may mean basically, being in the front of a food line, locating and accessing medical support, relocating tents near family, gaining employment and even gaining asylum elsewhere), information also seems to help the community to frame and understand the political and social context outside the camp fences, the camp’s economic and cultural dynamics, the precarious nature of the camp’s reliance on Aid and goodwill. Often this elusive and unpredictable camp commodity reinforces status and hierarchy and divides ‘the haves from the have nots’, meaning the less informed miss out, become more disorientated and beholden to their neighbour’s good nature.

Therefore, it’s easy to imagine that my visit began a series of cultured observations. How important was I? Arriving in a UN convoy meant I appeared to be relatively significant. Who was I with? Arriving with the camp management staff and a senior military figure meant something too. How was I dressed, what equipment (laptop, phone etc) did I use, what was my country of origin, what did my questions mean and to whom, what were my replies to their questions, how much did I know about their conditions and about their day-to-issues, what didn’t I ask (even what pen did I use when taking notes), who was my interpreter, in what location did the meeting take place, what refreshments were made available, what stories were told, did I speak to the children and hand them anything. Before the meeting, many eyes understandably watched as I walked around the camp, visited tents for tea with some and was introduced to others.

My presence in the camp meant something other than my present task. For those men around the table, it might of meant a new stage in the peacebuilding process, a glimpse into the bigger picture, a strengthening national approach to its governance after the war, new international agencies, their actors and agenda, NGO hierarchy and relevance. It might also mean, opportunity and traction with regards their situation and for many it will certainly have meant further anxiety… For everyone, it meant something! And would no doubt have been unpicked by the fire, in tents, by mobile phone and as family groups…

The ten tribal leaders were privy to much more valuable information than others, their initial interpretations of the meeting’s content and its context would be important to the camp’s hierarchy, moral fabric, social cohesion and local readings of their precarious displaced position. At the other end of the information scale, are the thousands of displaced people listening to less valuable interpretations of the information, vulnerable to misinterpretation and manipulations.

Therefore, a note of caution is offered. Despite the processes of ‘Looking and Seeing’ whilst trying to ascertain the challenges of the displaced (after all, these processes are a very important and useful aspect of peacebuilding practises in terribly disconnected and traumatised communities), viewing a situation without appreciating the reciprocal nature of the processes can be risky and amplify the anxiety when the sole focus is to help.

This clunky examination of the reciprocal nature of observation opens many more avenues for deliberation and analysis …When does observation becomes information to be communicated and how is the currency of looking and seeing quantifiable?


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