Khartoum, Sudan is my city of birth. War is not new to Sudan, but a war breaking out in Khartoum on 15 April 2023 was a huge shock to the world.

The Horn of Africa (comprising of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Somaliland) along with Sudan and South Sudan, are notorious for being turbulent and violent. Peacebuilding efforts in this region have spanned over decades, and building peace in the region is a specialisation of hundreds of scholars and institutes. Yet, whatever progress is made never lasts.

Since the war in Sudan broke out, I have been absorbing everything I can to understand how we got here. Again. I also wanted to know what analyses existed from the social, behavioural and neurosciences that could explain how this happened and how we might be able to build lasting peace. I’ll highlight three key points here and I have added links to reading material and organisations to follow.

The way we approach war and peace underestimates the role that emotions play.

Mari Fitzduff, a social psychologist, is amongst the most pioneering in looking at how behavioural genetics, biopsychology, political psychology, and social and cognitive neuroscience influence decisions in times of war and in peace negotiations. She argues that we don’t take enough consideration of the ‘human’ in the conflict, and even the human causing the conflict. After all, men and boys with guns have basic human needs too, like the need to belong, and find it hard to process facts in a highly charged emotional state. This might be knowledge that we commonly tap into in social and behaviour change programmes, but it is highly underutilised in peacebuilding intervention design.  Fitzduff further offers 10 key lessons for peacebuilding (see graphic).

Anti-dehumanisation efforts are critical in peacebuilding processes.

Getting different groups of people to empathise with one another and form a new collective identity is regarded as one the most important strategies in peacebuilding efforts. One of the main reasons that violence erupts is the formation of perceptions of ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’, and at times even differences within an in-group. The late prominent neuroscientist Emile Bruneau’s work has been focused on the impact of dehumanisation on driving conflict, and places it as the central cause of most conflicts. Dehumanisation is a special form of marginalising groups, which goes beyond affect or dislike for people. In fact, different brain regions are activated when people talk about groups that they dehumanise rather than those that they dislike. This means that we need a different approach in how we design interventions that tackle this facet of conflict.

In the space of in-group and out-group sentiments, social and behavioural science has been used in various ways. One example is the Colombian project ‘Romper el Silencio’. The project (whose title translates to ‘Breaking the Silence’ in English) seeks to promote perceptions of unity through a multi-media approach. Intended for Colombian adolescents and young people (between 12 and 17 years of age), as well as their families and teachers, the initiative includes a fictional thriller series, documentaries, video profiles, podcasts, and social mobilisation activities. While the drama is not focused on dehumanisation per se, it does prompt more positive meta-perceptions or mentalising between groups, by showing that people have more of a shared experience than they might think. This could potentially lead to a process of preventing conflict between groups.  

Adapted from 'Why our brains are at war — and what we can do about it'.

A complex adaptive system understanding of the causes of war is crucial.

The reasons why wars break out are numerous and they are getting more complex. A brilliant Economist article entitled ‘The world’s deadliest war last year wasn’t in Ukraine’ shows how Ethiopia went through an atrocious conflict in the Tigray region last year, with more than 500,000 people killed. The systems that are driving wars are creating longer, deadlier wars. There are three elements in the system that are contributing to these wars: Complexity, Criminality and Climate change. Current wars are complex because often they are not just between two groups, but several groups may be at war with each other. Furthermore, wars now have an international dimension that involves the meddling of various countries in wars. In the case of Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya and the UAE have all been linked to the conflict. Second, ‘men and boys with guns’ are a way to secure resources for one’s own group and assure a group’s access to scarce resources. In the case of Sudan, this is, amongst many other things, access to gold in the Darfur region. Finally, climate change plays a huge factor in current wars in the Horn of Africa and beyond. Droughts mean that people have to move, which in turn means that there is a real or perceived lack of land for all to share, which then leads to hostilities. In sum, making wars just about individuals or even groups would not be sufficient to design any peacebuilding effort.

According to The Economist editor Robert Guest, experts have several recommendations of how to promote peace:

  1. Stakeholders should start talks long before conflicts start. And crucially, these talks should include the ‘bad guys’.
  2. Including women as peace mediators and civil society groups into peacebuilding processes often act as catalysts.
  3. More experimentation is needed with what works. In this regard, there is a large foundation to build on from social, behavioural and neuroscience.

Work that should start now for long-term peace outcomes at the systemic level include:

  1. Building institutions that people trust.
  2. Addressing climate change as a key factor in conflict.

If you would like to donate to help people in Sudan, this is an excellent resource by Sara Elhassan.

People and organisations working on social, behavioural and neuroscience and peacebuilding

Mari Fitzduff

Andrés Casas

Beyond Conflict

Futuring Peace

United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA)