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Ten things MPs need to know and ask about peacebuilding

November 10, 2017
International Alert recently published Redressing the Balance: why we need more peacebuilding in an increasingly uncertain world. This makes the case for a greater focus on and more resources to be invested in peacebuilding, to increase stability and help improve people’s lives in conflict-affected countries around the world.

As part of a series of recommendations in the report, we have called on members of parliament in donor countries to put more emphasis on peacebuilding. With this in mind, here are five things MPs on the UK’s International Development Committee, and their counterparts in other parliaments and the US Congress need to know, along with five questions they ought to ask as part of their scrutiny.

Five things MPs need to know: 

1. Conflict is on the rise again. After a steady decline in conflict since the end of the cold war, the number of wars has increased from 31 to 40 since 2010. The accompanying graph from the Center for Systemic Peace (figure 2 from our report) shows this trend graphically, based on their index of “war magnitude”. Meantime, the number of battle deaths has tripled since 2003, and went up by 27% in 2016 alone. That so much of today’s conflict is focused in the Middle East and Afghanistan, while other parts of the world seem to be more peaceful, should not make anyone complacent, as conflict crosses borders all too easily, as demonstrated by violent extremist acts taking place across the world.

Fig 2

2. Peacebuilding works, provided it is sustained. Building sustainable peace is a long-term endeavour, as any student of history knows. That puts off some decision makers, who are keen to show rapid, tangible results. But evidence from across the world – a sample of which we included in our report – clearly demonstrates how peacebuilding interventions make a timely, tangible and measurable change in people’s lives, their ability to live more securely, resolve their differences, grow the economy, and meet their aspirations in ways which allow others to do the same. The report shows how levels of trust were increased between warring Christian and Muslim communities in the Central African Republic; conflict resolution was improved in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala and Indonesia; political parties in Lebanon became more collaborative; and Serbian leaders intervened to stop revenge attacks on Albanians in Kosovo, in which they admitted they might previously have taken part themselves. It also features the work of business leaders who helped consolidate peace in Northern Uganda; Burundian activists preventing local political violence; security operatives changing their approaches so as to reduce the risk of violence in the Philippines, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine; and Sudanese women using the mechanisms their mothers had taught them for taunting men to go to war, to persuade community leaders to push for peace instead. And it shows how a variety of mutually supportive peacebuilding initiatives had embedded peaceful attitudes, behaviours and systems in places as diverse as Northern Ireland, Nepal and South Africa.

3. Not nearly enough is being spent on peacebuilding. The policy rhetoric has embraced peacebuilding in the past few years. From the UK Government’s aid programme, the internationally adopted Sustainable Development Goals, the European Union, the World Bank and the UN, to name just a few, policy makers and policies are replete with the language of peacebuilding. And yet, this has not been put into practice on anything like the scale the policies imply, and the needs of peace demand. A recent paper from the Institute for Economics and Peace estimated that the value of peacebuilding investment is only worth about 0.5% of the US$ 1.72 trillion spent globally on the military, and less than 1% of the annual US$ 1.04 trillion cost of lost economic growth due to war. And yet, the same organisation has also demonstrated that every dollar invested in peacebuilding yields sixteen dollars in savings due reduced conflict. So peacebuilding not only works, but is also cost effective – and helps reduce the risk of violent extremism at home, as well as the pain and suffering caused to vulnerable communities far away.

The money piles

4. There is an enormous potential to weave peacebuilding into other forms of engagement: development, diplomacy, trade, etc. Peacebuilding is not something which can be done in isolation, and it can easily be – and should be – integrated into other international initiatives: development aid, diplomacy and so on. In one example, many businesses in Colombia have sought to contribute to the peace process there by their public statements, and also by seeking to support the process of reintegration and reconciliation by workplace initiatives. Meanwhile, it is well known that international initiatives to prevent terrorism are most effective when they rely not just on policing and other traditional security operations, but they also use peacebuilding approaches to reduce tensions and increase the sense of inclusion in the societies where terrorists have typically been recruited.

5. There is a ready-made political constituency willing to back political leaders who champion peacebuilding. This has been demonstrated by polling data recently published by Conciliation Resources and The Alliance for Peacebuilding, which shows that over 70% of people in the UK, the USA and Germany believe peacebuilding is vital, and at least 60% also felt that investment in peacebuilding should be increased, as a both moral and political imperative.

Five questions MPs need to ask: 

​1. Is enough money and effort going into peacebuilding? The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that peacebuilding expenditure in conflict-affected places needs to be worth at least $27 per capita, for a critical mass of change to occur, but is currently only half that.

2. Are government interventions in conflict-affected places focused on building peace and reducing fragility; are they focused not only on short-term stability and security, but also on long-term durable security, engineered through deep and wide political and economic inclusion? It is all too easy to fall into the trap of supporting short term arrangements which help create the stability needed to end or avoid violence, and then turn into repressive and non-inclusive political arrangements which harm their citizens and create grievances which later foment violence. The excitement of the Arab Spring has given way to a military dictatorship in Egypt which is as bad if not worse than the Mubarak regime the Arab Spring brought down. It’s critical that international support for stabilisation integrates support for the development of increasingly inclusive political economy which highlights tolerance, fairness and the inclusion pf women, men and people of all ages and identity groups. Are development and humanitarian programmes in fragile and conflict affected places being designed so they integrate elements of peacebuilding – as they can all too easily be?

3. Are peace activities being sustained for long enough to make a real difference to durable peace? It takes decades to build the foundations for sustainable peace, so it is important that peacebuilding remains a central goal of initiatives, long after the violence which first inspired them may have subsided. And yet all too often, the need for peacebuilding is forgotten as other, familiar tropes take centre stage: economic growth, infrastructure, and so on. It’s critical that providers of international aid focus their support to fragile or conflict affected countries on the need to reduce fragility and embed sustainable peace, for at least twenty-five years after the last fighting ended. After all, at least one third of peace agreements still fail to hold.

4. Are decision makers in government departments and the multilaterals they fund, sufficiently aware of the peacebuilding options available to them or otherwise active in accessing relevant advice? One of the obstacles to peacebuilding is that politicians and officials tend to support initiatives with they are already familiar: health, education and livelihoods aid programmes; military and security initiatives, etc. An important question to ask ministers facing parliamentary inquiries is: what do they know of peacebuilding methods, and what do their key advisors and decision-makers know?

5. Are international organisations being supported to work in fragile/conflict-affected places, sufficiently skilled in peacebuilding? Huge budgets are allocated to intergovernmental organisations: the UN and its various departments; the World Bank and its regional sister organisations, etc. Much of this money is spent in fragile and conflict-affected states. Are such organisation directing these resources to peacebuilding, and do they have the knowledge and skills to do so?




November 10, 2017

Throughout your life, you suffered prejudice:

a look, a word, the absence of a word,

led you to add offenders to your list –

though what they’d said was seldom what you’d heard.


And yet to those who knew their place, and yours,

as I did naturally, you shone so bright

we basked, and took for granted the applause

accorded – sought by – you was yours by right.


When your candescence died before you did,

if you knew us, or you, you gave no sign;

we prayed you weren’t aware of how you lived –

the helplessness, the odour of decline,


your not quite puzzled commentary and tone:

I knew you yesterday; don’t make that face;

my brother’s ship is due; is this my home?

And then withdrawal: an empty pupa case.


One morning like today, in spring’s chaste light

you drew me close – you knew me after all –

and whispered I went to the edge last night –

they held me back – they should have let me fall.


In that clear glimpse before the clouds closed in

again, your hopeless eyes told me you knew.

We kept your flame alight but faltering.

And now, I struggle to remember you.


Published in Pennine Platform, No. 82, 2017

Letting down

November 10, 2017

There are péchés véniels of letting down:

the dates and deadlines missed, the cards unsent,

implied commitments quietly disavowed,

and un-run errands; small forgettings. Then

the more important kind: the two men dead

because of things he failed to do; the pains

ignored, solicitations left unsaid:

his ceaseless failure to untangle shame

from guilt. You swam in swelling waters and

I looked away. You wandered unprepared

into the badlands; I could only stand

there as your voice grew ever fainter – scared

to act. You’re still not safe. I still can’t move.

I let down furthest, those I’m closest to.


Published in Pennine Platform, No.82, 2017

Strengthening the Humanitarian-Development-Peacebuilding Nexus

November 9, 2017

I spent a day this week as the guest of the INCAF (the International Network on Conflict and Fragility), a network of donors and multi-lateral organisations hosted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) to improve donor practice in conflict affected and fragile contexts: the kinds of places where development progress has been hardest to achieve, largely due to inadequate governance, and therefore a susceptibility to violence as a way to respond to differences and conflicts.

I was taking part in a discussion about how to improve the linkages between the often separate efforts of donors and multi-lateral organisations in three domains: providing humanitarian services, promoting development, and building stability and peace. This is sometimes known as improving coherence across the ‘Humanitarian-Development-Peacebuilding Nexus’, or HDP Nexus.

Historically these three domains have often been conceptualised, implemented and funded quite separately, even by different cadres within the same organisations. Funding models, staff profiles, and even the culture of each have been distinct. In the past twenty years however, there have been a number of attempts to bring them closer together: after all, the same people are often the beneficiaries of all three sectors, and it’s long been thought sensible to integrate aspects of each sector, in the others. At its simplest, this is expressed in terms of people moving along a spectrum from lifesaving humanitarian service recipient to becoming an agent of change in their own lives. But there are more sophisticated models which claim that peacebuilding and development can be successfully ingrained in the way humanitarian services are provided, that a humanitarian element is not out of place in longer term peace and development efforts, and that peacebuilding is really just part of “good development” in fragile and conflict-susceptible places, anyway. There is no simple, linear progress from humanitarian-to-development in real life, and humanitarian crises can occur anywhere, often unexpectedly, so it makes sense that the different sectors are linked to one another. In any case dividing work into the three separate domains is confusing to beneficiaries, governments, and other collaborators.

We shared many interesting ideas about how to work more effectively across the three elements of the nexus. There are plenty of opportunities for this: e.g. more joint strategising, more sharing of ideas and knowledge, joint projects, etc. It really is high time more collaboration happened in such ways. Of the roughly $142bn of aid spent by OECD donors each year, about half is spent in conflict-affected or fragile countries, where responding to people’s humanitarian needs should not preclude helping them make progress in development and towards sustainable peace.

Obstacles to joined-up working

However, I came away from the meeting quite sceptical about the potential for substantial progress to be made in ensuring consistent, practical collaboration across the nexus, for a number of reasons. First of all, the three elements of the nexus are among the most contentiously political issues that exist: how to allocate resources to provide succour to those in distress; what is the definition of ‘progress’ and how to achieve it; and what do we mean by ‘peace’ and how to achieve it….?

These questions are not merely devilishly difficult to answer definitively, but they are also some of the questions over which people quite rightly disagree and argue. That’s why we have political systems, after all: to examine complex issues on which people hold divergent views. So it is not surprising that collaboration among different actors both within and among the three sectors has been hard to achieve. After all, the – often relatively junior and overworked – staff of donor agencies dealing with such issues in the field aren’t necessarily qualified, nor do they have the systems in place, to debate and come to effective consensus with their counterparts in other agencies.

And they can’t necessarily rely on the political systems in fragile countries where they operate, to provide guidance, as the very places where humanitarian, development and peacebuilding are most salient, tend to be places where political and governance systems are acknowledged to be inadequate.

In addition, each donor agency Is held to account its own parliament, on behalf of its own taxpayers and voters, so is entitled – indeed, is likely – to have different views on these thorny questions as well as on how each of the three elements of the nexus should accommodate the other two. The same is also true for multi-laterals like UN agencies and the World Bank, who are held accountable in relatively blunt ways by their members states.

To make things more complex still, each agency has its own political and strategy cycle, so it is logistically hard for them to plan together. Some donors always seem to be revising their strategy…

None of this undermines the need for those operating in different parts of the Nexus to work in a more joined up way. However, to my mind it is important not to assume that this can be achieved through seamlessly joined-up planning and completely coordinated practical approaches. There will surely always be limits to this. And perhaps there should be, since if all donors agree, it might turn out they do so on the least good way to achieve humanitarian, development or peace outcomes: a kind of lowest common denominator. Or they may just follow the loudest and largest among them, who may well turn out later to have been wrong. That would be arguably worse than the problems which currently result from an uncoordinated approach …

Strengthening the binds that tie

Perhaps, therefore, the best thing to recommend is that they simply agree on a broad, high level narrative, and aim not so much for coordination as coherence. The word nexus is from the Latin nectere – to bind – and agencies can be bound together by a common narrative, without necessarily losing the freedom each needs and enjoys, to fit within its own national or multi-lateral architecture.

What might this look like? I’d suggest it can be quite simple, at first, consisting of three core elements, viz:

  1. That each agency understands that its work is one defined primarily by the idea of human progress: helping people, communities, societies, human society improve their situation
  2. That ‘progress’ includes saving lives, stabilising political situations, and promoting sustainable improvements in people’s ability to achieve their potential
  3. That the common approach to providing succour, stability, and longer-term progress, is always defined – at least partly – in terms of promoting a sustainable increase in dignity, fairness and aspiration, through actual improvements in at least one of the five core material domains of human flourishing:
    1. Welfare (shelter, health, education, a decent living environment, etc.)
    2. Livelihood
    3. Justice
    4. Security
    5. Responsive and effective governance.

This may be too broad, and may be seen as not enough to ‘bind’ agencies together. But the framework has the merit that it’s narrower than the too-unwieldy SDGs, maps to the slightly more technical Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals to which INCAF has already subscribed, and might have more success than requiring so many agencies to follow sets of common guidelines and rules.

Do international organisations distract civil society activists in conflict zones?

November 1, 2017

This post also appeared on the International Alert  and Oxfam websites, with the launch of their joint report by written Monica Stephen: Partnerships in Conflict, 31st October, 2017  

A healthy and active civil society is both an essential indicator of a resilient society, and an essential vehicle for achieving one, through activism and service delivery. But civil society is under pressure in too many countries, and no more so than in places affected by conflict. Activists and people providing much-needed services there are subject to all kinds of risks, putting themselves in harm’s way from accidental cross-fire or when they are targeted for political reasons. Too many are wounded, traumatised, harassed, locked up, tortured or killed while trying to improve people’s lives.

International organisations active in conflict affected countries have long collaborated with civil society there. Such partnerships make great sense. The internationals bring knowledge, tools, ideas, solidarity and funds to the table, while their local collaborators bring contextual knowledge, access to local communities and resources, their own tools and expertise, political activism and the energy which comes from wanting to bring about better outcomes in one’s own society.

At its best, this produces powerful outcomes in which national and international organisations both achieve their overlapping aims, and the partnership works well for both sides. For example, International Alert’s Peace Education project has helped thousands of young Syrians recover from trauma, and helped many of them follow a peaceful path, where violence may otherwise have beckoned. Alert secured the funding and provided programme management, monitoring and evaluation, research and training expertise, while our Syrian partners delivered high quality services to young people and their families.

Oxfam’s five year global Within and Without the State supported local civil society organisations in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, South Sudan and Yemen to lead on their own solutions supporting governance and peace in diverse fragile and conflict affected contexts. Through flexible funding modalities, capacity support and a commitment to learning and piloting approaches as to what works for pursuing peace in these contexts, civil society organisations achieved impressive outcomes on context specific issues such as reducing cattle raiding violence in South Sudan, supporting women’s engagement in local and national peace processes in Afghanistan and developing civil society led contingency plans for women with disabilities in Gaza.

Such partnerships, though forged in difficult circumstances, are often highly effective. Sometimes, however, they are less so, especially where either the national or international partner simply instrumentalises the relationship, failing to build the kind of a deeper collaboration which can absorb the stresses and strains which are all-too-common. In conflict contexts, project timelines tend to slip because of delays due to insecurity, and plans often need to be significantly revised in scope and scale, as initial ideas turn out not to make such good sense after all, when circumstances change or become better understood. Carefully built relationships imbued with mutual trust and a shared sense of vision and values are essential in such circumstances. Relationships built on a more transactional basis are far less resilient and too often lead to mistrust, rancour and ineffective projects.

Oxfam and International Alert work in partnerships with hundreds of civil society organisations in fragile and conflict-affected places. They have also collaborated in the past year on two pieces of research which raise concerns about how local and national CSOs’ priorities have become skewed by the priorities of international organisations and donors. ‘Now is the Time’ looked at the issue of gender justice in the Middle East and North Africa. Our Partnerships in Conflict report with Oxfam launched today examined the way CSOs have been affected by conflict in Myanmar, DRC and Afghanistan, including the influence of international organisations operating there.

Worryingly, both reports highlight ways in which the priorities and emphasis of some CSOs are being inadvertently skewed in unfortunate ways. ‘Now is the Time’ reports that gender justice is simply not visible enough in donors’ and other international organisations’ priorities in the Middle East and North Africa. To take just one example, activists in Egypt claimed that donors funding the Egyptian government’s gender plans were failing to insist that the government engage with women’s rights organisations, and were also providing insufficient support to human rights organisations so they could conduct advocacy and hold their government to account.

Similarly, ‘Partnerships in Conflict’ finds that the energies of some human rights advocacy CSOs are being diverted to the provision of services – for example to displaced people – leaving a worrying gap. These examples are doubly worrying as gender justice and human rights advocacy are surely even more critical in conflict and post-conflict situations, than elsewhere.

Both reports are to be welcomed, as they provide us with a chance to take a step back and recalibrate our responses. Whether we work in local or international organisations, it is hard, once caught up in the clamour and complexity of conflict and responding to human needs, to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

These two reports both remind us that we must be wary, in responding to urgent needs, not to lose sight of the long term, and that it is essential to build human rights advocacy, including the promotion of gender justice, into our programming models and our partnerships, and to provide support for CSOs pursuing these goals during disruptive, difficult times. That way, once the smoke has cleared, it will be possible to rebuild momentum for these essential development and peacebuilding goals.

Peacebuilding – let’s not be shy about proclaiming its success

September 22, 2017

On International Peace Day, 21st September, a new report was published showcasing the positive cumulative effect of peacebuilding initiatives, even when conflicts worldwide and the people killed or suffering are on the increase.

This article first appeared on Open Democracy

As director of programmes for International Alert over the past 13 years, I have seldom doubted the importance of our work, supporting local efforts to reduce violence and build peace in troubled parts of the world. When I was asked earlier this year to write this report – more or a discussion paper, really – making the economic, moral, and political case for more resources to be applied to peacebuilding, I thought it would be a simple task. After all, I have long been convinced of this case, so what could be simpler than articulating it to others?

But as I did my research, and began to frame the arguments, I started to have doubts. I realised that one of the reasons international agencies spend less than 1% of the economic cost of war on building peace, is that their decision-makers are sceptical that peacebuilding really works – so they reach for more familiar tools for international engagement, or walk away from conflicts that remain unresolved. After all, I heard them say in my mind’s ear, achieving sustainable peace is a massive, well-nigh impossible goal, so why not settle for short term stability, however imperfect, and leave it at that.

But this crisis of confidence did not last. I continued my research, spoke with others, and found the answer to their scepticism and my own nascent concerns. First, there are hundreds of good stories of successful peacebuilding initiatives out there, backed up by research and data. Well-documented stories of improved trust between warring groups in the Central African Republic, and between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda; improved political processes in Lebanon and Indonesia; and conflict resolution processes from the Philippines and Indonesia in the east, all the way to eastern Congo, to name just a few of these. And when one looks at the cumulative impact of these in a particular country, one can see that they generate a critical mass of energy for peace, and that if this continues, it leads to a constantly diminishing risk that violence will return.

This is what Mary Anderson called “peace writ large” – a sustainably peaceful society, where people are able to resolve their differences and conflicts without violence. One can see it in Northern Ireland, or in Nepal, for example, where a widespread, dispersed and locally led initiatives have been supported and enhanced by sustained, external support. That doesn’t mean we can ease off our call for more resources, but it does mean we can confidently call for more effort to be paid to peacebuilding around the world.

Our report, “Redressing the Balance: why we need more peacebuilding in an increasingly uncertain world”, published on International Peace Day (21 September), makes a convincing case for more support and resources to be applied to peacebuilding. Especially now, in a world where the number of conflicts and numbers of people killed or suffering is on the increase. From the experience of writing it, my confidence in the utility and effectiveness of peacebuilding was not only restored but strengthened, and led me to some key insights.

Whatever the sceptics say, there is clear evidence out there that peacebuilding initiatives work. The cumulative effect of many initiatives, operating at all levels, and locally-led but with international support, is to generate a critical mass of energy for peace, and has the potential to become self-sustaining.

But that doesn’t mean we can take our foot of the pedal. Because at least one third of peace processes break down, it is important to sustain peacebuilding efforts for a generation or more, moving from an initial focus on stabilisation to peacebuilding initiatives, purposefully aiming to embed peace writ large.

Evidences of success means we can confidently call on governments and international organisations to put peacebuilding at the heart of their policies and engagements, and to at least double the funds they allocate to this.

But this also means that we ourselves, as peacebuilders, need to be more confident in proclaiming success – in order to inspire others.


The unacknowledged legislators

August 30, 2017

Shelley wrote that poets – by which I think he meant all creative artists – were the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”, in part because through their art they can get closer to truth. How, then, do creative writers engage with issues of justice during and after periods of conflict and political change; and how does the idea of justice evolve and interact with other factors, and especially the need for stability and reconciliation? These are two question asked by Mike Newman in his book Six Authors in Search of Justice, which was published last year by Hurst and Co.

Newman seeks clarity about how justice might be approached in such circumstances, by examining how six writer-activists did so, and how their ideas changed as their circumstances and understanding evolved. His short book starts with a summary of different philosophical and historical interpretations of justice, which is followed by a chapter of around 25 pages each on Victor Serge in revolutionary Russia, Albert Camus in post-war France, Jorge Semprún in Spain from the Civil War through to the post-Franco era, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in colonial and post-colonial Kenya, Ariel Dorfman following the Pinochet coup in Chile, and Nadine Gordimer during the liberation struggle in South Africa.

All six were radicals in their context, embracing the need for transformational change. For example, Serge wanted to overthrow the capitalist system not just in Tsarist Russia but globally, Camus served in the French Resistance, and Gordimer’s fundamental belief in the equality of all peoples burned like an eternal guiding flame. All had an abiding belief in social and economic justice as a central element of the better world they sought. From his reading of their lives and their creative output, Newman maps the journeys they travelled, as their revolutionary dreams were enacted or frustrated, and explores the ways their ideas evolved.

Each lived through times of transition, and their ideas developed as they were confronted with changing political realities, which altered their views of what was appropriate and what was right, fair and just. During the Russian revolution, Serge agreed with Lenin’s view that their goals justified violence and the deaths of many who would stand in their way, to overcome resistance, demonstrate commitment, and in proportion to the fundamental nature of the transformation they sought. But later he became disgusted by Stalin’s use of terror tactics as a method of governing. He held that no revolutionary aims could justify trampling continuously on human rights, nor the use of secret trials, and came to the view that that Marxism and social justice were impossible without freedom.

Camus emerged from his initial belief that the execution of Nazi collaborators was a necessary ingredient of the post-war moment in France. Quite quickly, amid thousands of executions which were carried out in 1944, he came to abhor the scale and manner of what he understood as mainly a retribution process. He became a fervent believer that, even if retribution might have been necessary for a short period following the departure of the German occupiers, it should have been replaced as soon as possible by a project of reconciliation, in order to establish a just post-war order. This was an unpopular view among fellow cadres.

To take another example, Ngũgĩ, having grown up amidst – and been personally touched by – the Mau Mau rebellion against the British, held very powerful beliefs in the need to overcome colonial and then post-colonial domination by the imperial power. He shared with Gordimer an increasing disaffection as their new governments seemed to move away from the economic and social justice project, and become corrupted. He understood that the search for justice was an ever-more complex and comprehensive process, embracing social, economic, political, judicial and cultural dimensions.

For Newman, all six authors illuminate the fundamentally multi-dimensional and nuanced character of transitional justice, and this seems absolutely right. All six shifted from simpler to more complex notions of justice: for example from the fight against Nazism or imperial power, to the struggle for a just society, and for politics and culture emphasising fairness. All, to a degree, witnessed transitional and post-transitional governments fail to deliver and uphold the values which they increasingly saw as essential to justice. Values became more important than other structural factors. Accurate conjunctural and historical narratives were also essential, as they saw truth fall victim to change. As Newman writes, the “attempt to eliminate a particular form of injustice can produce new forms of injustice” which themselves need to be acknowledged truthfully and addressed. The process is a continuous one, not something to be achieved all at once by revolution – even one as transformational as the Russian revolution.

All six also came to understand that the process of achieving justice is contingent on circumstances, involves compromise, and that decisions of emphasis taken today will affect the future. This is perhaps most obviously seen in terms of the balance between punishment (and its close cousins, revenge and retribution), and reconciliation – an important characteristic of most “transitional justice” policies and programmes playing out today. Semprún wanted political stability after Franco, above all, even if this meant sacrificing socialist principles he had embraced throughout his life, and he accepted that crimes committed during and after the civil war could remain unpunished, provided they were at least acknowledged. But as political freedom became more and more bedded in in Spain, he became an advocate for a clearer and more balanced telling of a history in which all sides, including his own, had committed human rights violations.

Newman quotes the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comment that fiction can illuminate the truth and ‘infuse the world with meaning’ – which brings us back nicely to Shelley. All six authors in Newman’s book used their art to explore and illuminate critical issues of justice and political moment in their times. But from Newman’s reading, they were generally undidactic in so doing, believing that – as Ngũgĩ put it – they were ‘not in art because of politics; [but] in politics because of [their] artistic calling’. By writing fiction, describing human characters dealing with human challenges and living out human relationships in a fictional context, they not only developed their own thinking but influenced the way their readers encountered and understood the real world. This is a fascinating book which, by exploring the way in which six real-life humans encountered their real-life circumstances, more or less achieves the same goal. For this reader, Newman’s book says emphatically that the search for fairness is a never-ending, multi-dimensional project – one that is intimately bound up with, and ultimately contingent on, freedom, and on people’s ability to shape and constrain the politics of their place and time.