Gorka Espiau and the learning from the Basque Country on conflict resolution
Tackle conflict through a lesson learned from the Basque Country with Gorka Espiau, a social innovation expert who believes “conflict can be reduced if we’re committed.”
“One of the most important question when working in conflict areas is, do you think change is possible?”
Gorka Espiau is a social innovation specialist and a Senior Fellow at the Agirre Lehendakaria Center for Social and Political Studies (ALC) who believes that conflicts happening in different regions of the world can be minimized by the combined power of people, innovation, and the conviction that change can happen. Espiau made a visit to Bangkok to share his experience at the talk hosted by UNDP Thailand on “How to Build Social Innovation Platforms in Conflict Areas: The Basque Experience”. on September 20, 2019 at TCDC Bangkok.
Situated in the north of Spain, the Basque Country was an area of conflict and violence. The Basque national groups were seeking their highest political objective of independence from Spain and France, and re-established the identity of a Basque nation. Violence grew between those with opposing ideas. There were armed conflicts and drug problems, and the GDP was lower than the level set by the EU. The region’s reputation deteriorated by the day, resulting in an economic collapse in the 1980’s and the unemployment rate that hit a historic low.
From that decade on, the Basque Country began restoring its stability started with the foundation of Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, the modern and contemporary art museum marked the dawn of change for the formerly conflict-ridden region.
The Basque Country was committed to change and conflict management. It didn’t use innovation for socio-economic advancement ‘after’ all conflicts were resolved, but simultaneously improving the cities and establishing peace through social innovation. The social innovation in question actually isn’t a specific type of technology but a new process or inventive approach that helps address existing problems and conflict peacefully.
The approach to working in conflict areas, Gorka Espiau concluded, is driven by one key idea:
“Do you think change can happen in conflict areas? No matter how bad the situation is, if people in those areas believe they can make change happen, there’s always a way.”
We’ve learned from Basque Country’s experience that there are five levels to building social innovation platforms in conflict areas, namely:
1. Community Action
2. Small / Medium Scale Projects
3. Large Scale Projects
4. New Services
5. New Regulations
All five levels of action need to be taken in complementarily and integratively through listening. Listening is a process that needs to take place in conflict areas. It can mean providing a creative platform for people to share their stories and issues they face, come together to find an opportunity for change by talking and observing, because asking and listening is the way towards understanding; the platform can also gather opposing ideas in order to understand their reasons and motives (the process is called sense making), finding out what each person values, what they believe, and what drives them, and how they make sense collectively. Then, relevant actors work together (co-creation) to analyze the problems, inform others, create advocacy tools and learning space, and come up with an innovation, ideas or a new approach based on the needs of the local community, before creating a prototype of interconnected projects to experiment and verify results together. This would lead to systemic change through scaling, which not only raises the bar at the project level but also at the process level.
Change in Basque Country happened as a result of various actions, from the revival of the Basque language, a native tongue that was dying but the grounds of all of Basque civilization, to the resurgence of Basque cuisine – the Basque people, group of chefs in particular, wanted to call attention to their local ingredients so they jumpstarted the food industry by incorporating the French techniques with traditional ways, and opening restaurants and cooking schools where students can start working at the restaurants upon the completion of their course. Today, Basque cuisine is well-known around the world, particularly pintxos and tapas. It also gave the region the global record of the most number of Michelin star restaurants per square meter.
Next is empowering the labor sector. When the Basque economy collapsed, workers were undoubtedly greatly impacted. Then came the establishment of Mondragon, a corporation and federation of worker cooperatives that support workers in numerous ways. The Basque’s people also influenced policy change for income equality, expanding seaports, underground train and airport constructions, as well as road and railroad maintenance. All this has enabled Basque Country to connect to the outside world and attract investors, which in turn increase employment rate. Moreover, the development also focused on workers with disabilities as one of the ways to improve social inequality. It created a process that supports these workers and organized trainings for them on skills that meet market demands. In addition, Basque Country has been committed to promoting the right to education to guarantee equal access and capacity for all youths. These are only a few instances of how the process of social innovation was used in the development, which evidently and effectively minimized conflict in the region.
The experience of the Basque Country shows that peace and development can be achieved without resolving all conflicts beforehand. Building peace can be completed hand in hand with social and economic development and addressing disparity. Citizens were informed and saw the collective goals that would take them forward. Finally, the region was able to rebuild its reputation and garnered worldwide interest in its success stories.
Using social innovation to affect change and resolving conflict at the same time has led Basque Country to hold a leading position in public health and education, and achieve GDP growth, an export rate of domestic products at 75% as well as one of the highest per capita income levels in Europe.