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.
What we learn from the process of creating sustainable human development through social innovation platform in the Deep South
When we talk about the topic of innovation, people usually think about some amazing things that only happen in a place like Silicon Valley. ‘Innovation,’ or ‘Social Innovation,’ in particular is often perceived as and associated only with cutting-edge technology, public services, and social entrepreneurship. However, there is much more to it. What does it actually mean? That depends. Innovation can be anything from the new ideas, solutions, tools, methods, approaches or the processes of doing things differently, which can eventually lead to a positive systemic change in our society. This, of course, includes the work in the conflict areas where peace is absent and violence is prevalent.
In the conflict areas, ‘innovation’ or ‘socio-economic development’ and ‘peace building’ are often seen as two separated topics. However, the study of the Basque Transformation by Agirre Lehendakaria Center for Social and Political Studies (ALC) led by Gorka Espiau, social innovation specialist, indicates that
• Conflict, violence, peace-building, human rights, health, education, and sustainable human developments are all interconnected in a complex way;
• Social innovation can improve the social and economic conditions in the conflict areas;
• Building social innovation platforms in conflict areas could help create a ‘sustainable peace’ – a definition that doesn’t mean just a situation without physical violence, but also includes human security in social, economic, and cultural dimensions.
Last week, UNDP had a chance to work with Gorka and his colleague, Iziar Moreno to introduce social innovation process and explore the possibility of creating social innovation platform for socio-economic transformation with groups of local authorities, civil societies, academia, and startups from the southern border provinces of Thailand – Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat. Our journey to the South begins with curiosity to see how social innovation platform can be created as a space to generate ideas/initiatives from the local communities where people face with complexities and extreme difficulties; and how this platform can help us to interconnect multiple development issues in the area.
What happened in the workshop?
1.Sharing of lessons learned from the Basque Country Transformation under extremely challenging situations
Gorka shared his experiences and lessons learned from the Basque case, where people suffered from a profound economic collapse, the highest unemployment rate in Southern Europe, and an image associated to violent conflict. Despite these challenges, today the Basque Country holds advanced positions in healthcare, education, and income per capita. Instead of violence, it becomes known as the city of development and this renowned success is what we called ‘the Basque Transformation.’ This sharing of the Basque case helps participants learn and contextualize.
To summarize the Basque case at a glance,
• The transformation in the Basque Country happened as a result of the people’s hopeful attitudes despite worst scenarios. The sense of urgency and the feeling that no one would help them made it possible for people to start creating something better for themselves. They believed that ‘Change is Possible.’ Their decisions were connected with common values and narratives, that is, instead of being remembered as a symbol of violence and conflict, they wanted the city to be remembered as a symbol of positive change.
• There were many actions that may seem unrelated, for examples, the decision to engage with Gugenheim Foundation and to invite Frank Gehry to build a museum in Bilbao and make it a symbol of transformation (resulted in what we later called the Bilbao Effect), the establishment of Mondragon, a corporation and federation of worker cooperatives, a movement of local chefs who brought in modern and French culinary skills to mix with their local ingredients and traditional cooking technique. Many restaurants are now awarded Michelin Star, and many other activities. However, looking closer, these actions all became the interconnected mechanism that helped accelerate the social and economic development, which eventually made Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) decide to lay down their weapons, eventually leading to ‘sustainable peace.’
For more details of the Basque Transformation, stay tuned and check out our next article very soon!
2. Connecting the dot – what have we done?
A group exercise allowed participants to think about ‘new things’ that they have done or has already happened in their communities, from which resulted in positive changes. Participants were tasked to comprehensively define them in 5 categories.
1. Community actions e.g., a small-group forums in mosque, to discuss support for for orphans, led to a new idea on fund-raising. They agreed to raise funds through garbage selling instead of donations. The garbage were later sold for use as fertilizer and to raise money to help the orphans.
2. Small-medium scale entrepreneurship e.g., the establishment of Fiin Delivery, a food and document delivery service
3. Large scale public-private partnership e.g., public-private partnership on water management system
4. Public service e.g., an ambulance/emergency service in a remote village to take patient to a nearby hospital.
5. New regulation e.g., Community cremation rules which is an agreement that all community members are to help with the funeral arrangement when someone dies.
Allowing participants to think in these 5 levels helped them see a clearer picture of connections as well as slowly began to have a common vision on social innovation that it isn’t something out of reach but is something that may have already be done in the area.
“It is about how we interconnect things that are happening in the area, and that could be hidden due to violence and conflict, and how we create alternatives.”
3. Learn to ‘Listen’
To create systemic change, the first and foremost important process is ‘listening’.
We must ‘listen’ to the untold stories, to things that sometimes may not be said out loud in order to find the reasons behind people’s actions, attitudes and behaviors, as well as their beliefs and values in life to see the narratives and how the stories are making sense collectively (collective sensemaking)
Most importantly, we must find out if people believe that ‘change is possible or not’ as the belief can directly affect the development. For instance, in some communities, despite a lot of projects, budget or government support, young people still want to leave their hometown to find jobs somewhere else because they are taught by their parents that to be successful is to be able to work in the capital city. In contrast, in the place where people think that change is possible, they might open small businesses in their community to tackle unemployment challenge.
This process allowed participants to learn the importance of deep listening to identify the challenges and opportunities and see the connection between stories.
Social innovation builds co-creation on human-centred design processes which help us overcome the traditional top-down approach. Participants together envisioned the future of the provinces they want to see as well as co-created and co-designed social innovation ideas and solution to prototype further.
Some interesting ideas and stories from the locals:
• Participants shared common perspective that agriculture, food and sustainable tourism are opportunities. They take pride in their unique cultural richness and natural resources. But, due to the negative representation of conflict and violence in the media, less people come to visit this area and tourism cannot be promoted. They also feel that they cannot fully utilize their resources efficiently. At the same time, the provinces also have many talented people and interesting events but these are not represented in the media as often as the negative ones.
• People see the opportunities to export both fresh and processed fruits, especially longkong and durian, to other provinces or neighbouring countries. In Narathiwat, local people mainly depend on rubber tapping. The authorities try to encourage people to grow other kinds of vegetable and fruits for additional sources of income. However, rubber tapping is seen as a way of life inherited from their ancestor. They still want to preserve the knowledge and local wisdom amidst unstable rubber price. The questions may lie in how to achieve the balance between maintaining identity and creating new economic opportunities – and that the solutions shall truly meet the needs of people in the community.
• Participants see the possibility of partnership and connection to other communities. They present tourist destinations in their provinces, which can easily be developed into a sustainable community-based tourism. The travel routes can also be interconnected between various districts and provinces.
• In some areas, extreme difficulties discouraged and make people lose hope in life. It is difficult to organize creative activities and many activists also stop their action on development issues. To solve the issue, participant suggested the idea of ‘PeaceLab,’ to use technology and media to support local people’s learning about human rights and sustainable peace.
What we learned from the process?
1.Listening and reflecting to create systemic change
The most important thing that happened this process is that we listened to people from ‘every sector.’
This workshop convened participants from different groups, including local authorities, community leaders, entrepreneurs, startups, academia and civil society organizations.
By staring with a simple question, “How would you describe Pattani/Yala/Narathiwat to people who have never heard of your provinces before?” We were able to listen to different stories and different narratives from people, though living in the same province, who have different backgrounds, experiences, interests, and professions. And in these differences we found an interesting connection; people actually feel that they are connected by taking pride in the diverse cultures and identities of the area, including Muslim, Buddhist, and Chinese. They felt that the charm of the Deep South is that, despite the diversity, they can share the rich resources and co-exist with each other as reflected during the dialogue “Religious affairs, we do separately – Social affairs, we act together”
After that, more intense questions were asked. “What do you think are the challenges in the area that people know exist but have never spoken out loud?” The discussion made us see a much broader and deeper narrative and helped us visualize the connections in social, economic, and cultural dimensions from upstream to downstream.
From the observation of the atmosphere during the dialogue, we found that by having a listening space for people to tell their stories, people are more engaged and truly feel they are part of process. Moreover, it helps them to see the connections of different narratives and to not rush to the conclusion on ‘what is the right thing to do.’ The two keys to this listening process, especially for facilitators, are 1) to be a glass half empty and 2) to not make any pre-judgement and conclusion before knowing the whole stories.
Another important process is the reflecting after listening, and the collective sensemaking by which people give meaning to their collective experiences, visualized through diagram mapping. The purpose of this step is not to find solution to the problem but allowing participants to reflect on the connection of their own stories. As facilitators, we didn’t really have to worry if our linked arrows between each post-its are going to be right or wrong because, even they are wrong it will be a tool to encourage participants to think deeper and correct them. This mapping is a joint process which all participants are responsible together and which makes sure that everyone’s stories are in the picture.
2. The transformation is stemmed from the common belief that “Change is Possible”
The listening process should not occur only once, but repeatedly, every time and in every stage of development process so that we could gain a deeper understanding of the narrative. We have to dig deep to find hidden messages in each story – whether people think that ‘change is possible or not.’
The question may sound simple, but to make sure that the answers we get come really from their hearts is not an easy task at all. Especially in the areas plagued by daily conflict and violence, people tend to undermine their belief in change, development, and living a positive life. Participants might answer ‘Yes, I think it is possible, but…’ followed by many other conditions. This shows that they do not really believe in the possibility of change
So, the further question is that if people don’t believe that change is possible, what can we do? Maybe shifting the vision to focus on a much smaller action for a tangible outcome (or even show that what they have already done is actually the change itself) could be a better starting point to show that it is possible to create change. So, the question ‘is change possible?’ is important in a way that it helps with designing and shaping process of development in a sustainable way.
To summarize, ‘Transformative Change’ can only happen when people believe that change is possible. This belief will eventually be the driving force for individuals, organizations, communities, and society.
3. A sustainable and systemic change must come from the local people themselves.
The intense workshop on listening, sensemaking, co-creation, and prototype allows us to see a new light of interconnected opportunities such as food and culture as previously mentioned. However, for the next step as facilitator, even though it is surely easier for us to lead the process as we know a lot about tools and familiar with the approach of social innovation, we may need to step back to open up a space for the local to come up with their own conclusions and interpretation, and find solutions that are most suitable for them. That way the interpretation and solution will represent the local needs and ways of life, and not being misrepresented by the outsiders.
The process of creating transformative change that is driven not by experts but by local people is much more challenging and complex. Of course, participants might not be able to connect the dots and grasp the essentials all together at once, but it is definitely a good beginning of creating a learning process for local people to get to know new tools and methods that can be used in a sustainable peace building process. We believe that this process will eventually lead us to sustainable developments in the southern border provinces of Thailand. At the heart of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it isn’t merely working to achieve the 17 Goals, but it is working with ‘Leaving No One Behind’ lens.
Making sure that everyone from every sector, including the most vulnerable persons, is engaged in the process may take more time and is more complex, nevertheless, it enables the paths towards sustainable development and peace building.
““Social innovation should bring people together to have common missions. As a local community, we need to understand problems that we are facing and connect them with new ideas.” ”
Most importantly, this workshop of building social innovation platforms in Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat would not be possible without the passionate participation from all participants.
I would like to take this opportunity to praise the representatives from all three provinces
• CHABA Startup Group
• Sri Yala MyHome
• Saiburi Looker
• HiGoat Company
• MAC Pattani
• MAC Yala
• MAC Narathiwat
• Hilal Ahmed Foundation
• CSO Council of Yala
• Nusantara Foundation
• Thanksin University
• Institute of Peace Studies, PSU
There are many innovation platforms all over the world. What makes Thailand Social Innovation Platform unique is that we have created a Thai platform fully dedicated to the SDGs, where social innovators in Thailand can access a unique eco system of entrepreneurs, corporations, start-ups, universities, foundations, non-profits, investors, etc. This platform thus seeks to strengthen the social innovation ecosystem in Thailand in order to better be able to achieve the SDGs. Even though a lot of great work within the ﬁeld of social innovation in Thailand is already happening, the area lacks a central organizing entity that can successfully engage and unify the disparate social innovation initiatives taking place in the country.
This innovation platform guides you through innovative projects in Thailand, which address the SDGs. It furthermore presents how these projects are addressing the SDGs.
Aside from mapping cutting-edge innovation in Thailand, this platform aims to help businesses, entrepreneurs, governments, students, universities, investors and others to connect with new partners, projects and markets to foster more partnerships for the SDGs and a greener and fairer world by 2030.
The ultimate goal of the platform is to create a space for people and businesses in Thailand with an interest in social innovation to visit on a regular basis whether they are looking for inspiration, new partnerships, ideas for school projects, or something else.
We are constantly on the lookout for more outstanding social innovation projects in Thailand. Please help us out and submit your own or your favorite solutions here
What are The Sustainable Development Goals?
UNDP and TSIP’s Principles Of Innovation
What are The Sustainable Development Goals?
United Nations Development Programme
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