Feminist approaches in peace and conflict studies have been neglected for a long time – but they are currently on the rise. Interestingly, a similar trend may be observed in the practice of peacebuilding. While researchers and consultants base their approaches on similar reflections, their challenges with regard to the implementation of feminist approaches are not quite the same. In this discussion, Samantha Ruppel, feminist researcher at the PRIF, and Alena Sander, a feminist freelance consultant, discuss these differences, and emphasize common goals and opportunities of the feminist approach in peace research and practice.
Samantha Ruppel: “Social researchers have been practicing and further developing feminist approaches for decades. Yet, in peace and conflict studies, they are not necessarily very mainstream. Feminist approaches were initially developed in response to the limitations of more traditional research methods in order to capture experiences and voices of marginalized groups. Feminist methodologies, in particular usually follow the principles of reflexivity, participatory methods and social action, and put emphasis on power and social inequalities. This is also why they are particularly useful in the field of peace- and conflict studies, where researchers usually study processes or interactions integrated into global power dynamics of peacebuilding, and where power relations between the researcher – often from the Global Norths – and her research participants – often from the Global Souths – play a role. More recently, feminist methodologies have found their way into peace building practice and are now being used more frequently by peacebuilders – freelance consultants being among them. Ms Sander, you have been working as a freelance consultant for a few years now and you are describing your practice as feminist. What does this mean and why did you start to use this approach?”
Alena Sander: “I discovered feminist approaches through my research for my PhD and started to apply them to the missions I conduct as a freelance consultant in the fields of peacebuilding and development two years ago. I have noticed that especially during the past year, Northern-based donors, who are my main clients, have become more interested in feminist approaches too and seem to be more open to try new methods, especially in evaluations and studies or analyses in general, but also with regard to capacity training. What surprises many in the beginning is that feminist approaches are not just appropriate in the context of projects and programs with a strong gender component. Because feminist approaches come with a philosophy that goes beyond simple box-ticking of criteria, they may be applied to all consulting missions that involve notions of power, and projects that aim at empowerment and social change – which is almost always the case in Norths/Souths consulting, at least to a certain extent.
I believe that especially traditional consulting in Norths/Souths-cooperations often encounters challenges such as the inclusion of voices from the South and implementing participant approaches, the problem of objectivity and neutrality, or questions of ethical research, which go beyond a do-no-harm rationale and plead for more do-some-good, for which feminist approaches from the social sciences have come up with solutions.
Feminist Consulting Implies a Certain Attitude and Positioning
However, personally, feminist consulting includes much more than the adoption of participant and ethical research methods for me. It also implies a certain attitude and positioning that the consultant brings to the mission personally. That is one of a consultant-activist, whose consulting activity is based on the conviction that social inequalities that go beyond, but include the dimension of gender, are harmful for all parties involved in the process of peacebuilding (including Northern stakeholders and donors). Social change needs to be brought about and the consulting activity should contribute to such a change. This also means that I do my best to reflect upon my own role as a white, educated European woman within the mission, in regard to the client and the clients’ beneficiaries as well as in regard to the team members I work with. I also do not consider myself an expert, but rather a facilitator. Experts are those who live and work in the field, whether they are project beneficiaries or colleagues from the South. While this usually looks good on paper, the actual implementation of feminist approaches on the ground is often more challenging.”
Samantha Ruppel: “This self-reflection is also a crucial part of a research process that uses a feminist methodology. I have realized that with the help of these in-depth reflections, I can not only broaden my own horizon, but also understand the contexts of my research better. Therefore, it is important that we as researchers have enough time to carry out the research process.”
Alena Sander: “I agree. The time frame is also very important in feminist consultancy. This however leads to challenges in the approach. The two biggest challenges that I encounter as a feminist consultant are the lack of resources at the disposal of the consulting team – especially time and money – as well as the client’s willingness to not just talk the feminist talk, but to actually walk the walk. Let us take the example of feminist evaluations: because they dig deeper, go further and tend to be more inclusive and participant, they also need more time than traditional evaluations – a rare resource in a result-driven field, where deadlines are often not negotiable. Because even in feminist consulting, time is money, and consultants at least partly make a living from their missions. My colleagues and I often work on a very tight budget, which, finally, also has repercussions on the results.”
Resistances Within the Scientific Community
Samantha Ruppel: “Yes, indeed, the circumstances you are describing sound similar to what I experience in traditional field research in peace and conflict studies, especially the aspects of limited time and funding. The same two factors are often seen as problematic by funding bodies: All too often, research grants only cover a limited time in the field, thus making the application of feminist or participatory approaches over a longer period of time almost impossible. This is a dilemma since time spent with research participants is at the core of the feminist approach that seeks to dig deeper and bring marginalized voices to the surface.
Another challenge that I have already encountered is that the positioning as a feminist researcher often leads to resistances within the scientific community that, for its majority, continues to follow more traditional approaches. Furthermore, many social researchers who are not familiar with the feminist approach automatically assume that you work on the topics of women and/or gender. However, especially in peace and conflict studies, a feminist methodology can be applied for almost every topic that implies questions of social justice and social change. Can you relate to these challenges as a feminist consultant?”
Alena Sander: “I can, and I would like to add that finally, feminist evaluation approaches also call for a greater implication of Southern stakeholders – implying data and shared decision making as well as transparence and knowledge sharing. However, these are practices to which many Northern-based donors are not used to and/or are not ready to commit to (yet). For me as a feminist consultant, this means a lot of lobbying, but also all too often frustration, especially when you know that you could go further in your approach and when you feel like you leave stakeholders – often those from the Global Souths – disappointed in the process.”
Samantha Ruppel: “Yes, but I believe that this frustration is also part of the feminist research process and can be used in a productive way. In fact, many feminist researchers also identify as activists, just like you identify as a consultant-activist – a role which is also nourished by frustration, and often even anger. Turning this frustration into meaningful research practices can, in my opinion, not just contribute to social change in general, but also lead to change in academia, where knowledge production is still very much linked to research conducted by and in the Global Norths.”
Feminist Approaches Support a Rethinking of Power Relations
Alena Sander: “I agree that despite the challenges that I encounter especially in the implementation of feminism in consulting, the opportunities and chances that these approaches yield to build a more equal international cooperation in peace building. This goes especially for the Norths/Souths cooperation that continues to build on global inequalities and power relations, where Southern stakeholders often stand on the less favorable side of the power equation. I am convinced that feminist approaches may support a rethinking of these power relations – especially on the donors’ side. It may help to surface existing Southern-born resistances to certain donor-imposed practices and foster a respectful dialogue between the Norths and Souths. In evaluation, for example, they may help to go beyond the traditionally used OECD-DAC criteria, looking into other dimensions such as social change or empowerment, and thus making recommendations for improved programming, where beneficiaries become real agents who participate in actual decision making.”
Samantha Ruppel: “I totally agree that we have started seeing changes in the way we work. For example, in the past year, a lot of PhD positions or research grants have been offered with a critical or feminist focus. At the same time, we see that global inequalities persist by, for example, looking at where the positions are offered (mostly in the Global Norths) or who actually has access to them. We could summarize that the benefits are taken into consideration in the debates and can hopefully become more mainstream with the work of researchers and consultants in order to foster a global change.”