In 2022, a group of University of St Andrews undergraduate students developed a research project looking at different approaches to peace education, as part of some wider research into the forces that shape past and present habits of visualising peace. While team members Joe Walker, Margaux de Seze and Otilia Meden compared school curricula, newspapers aimed at children, and mindfulness training, two other students – Harris Siderfin and Maddie McCall – became interested in the use of popular media such as comics as interactive and impactful teaching tools. Together, they created a short comic strip based around a story of forced migration, as a way of engaging young people with this complex topic in an accessible and human-centered way. In what follows, Harris explain his goals and inspiration.
As part of my research into different approaches to peace education, I researched the power of comics as a popular, accessible medium that can inspire and engage young people in active learning; and I worked with team member Maddie McCall to design a comic of our own which we plan to trial in some school-based workshops, to assess its effectiveness. My goals in this project were:
- To deepen young people’s understanding of the drivers and impacts of conflict (such as climate change), and the need for holistic approaches to sustainable peace-building
- To explore the role of comics as a teaching tool in peace education
The comic is titled after the main character Āśā, whose name means ‘hope’ in Bangla. The story follows her family’s abrupt transition from a normal, settled life to becoming climate refugees due to catastrophic flooding in their home village. I centred the story around a young character because I wanted students to relate to her, feeling an affinity with her and her family.
The school workshop based around the comic falls into two parts. First, students will read and discuss the ‘story so far’ in the first two pages of the comic, which cover Āśā’s happy childhood, followed by the sudden trauma of losing her father in floods and having to leave the family home to find shelter and support elsewhere. They then will have the opportunity to complete a third, empty page of the comic, to narrate what happens to Āśā next and add to or finish her story.
I designed the comic and workshop in this way for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to make the lesson as interactive as possible. Secondly, I was interested in how the children would visualise the experience of forced migration for someone their own age. Would they create a happy ending for Āśā? Or draw a more bleak and potentially more realistic story? As this topic is becoming increasingly relevant, I wanted to craft an exercise which encourages children to think about the broader impacts of climate change and how it will affect real people similar to them.
To helps students to find the topic engaging, artist Maddie McCall designed the comic using bright colours and drawing in a simple, accessible style to prevent children from being too intimidated when it came to drawing their own sections. (You can read more about her approach here.) Speech bubbles on the final page offer guidance to the children, asking them to think about questions such as ‘where will the characters go?’, ‘will they be welcomed?’, ‘could they come to live in your town?’. These prompts give students plenty of freedom to decide their own endings, while helping to raise issues around climate migration, peace and potential conflict which we hope they will think about.
Following the workshop, students and teachers will complete surveys, sharing their experience of learning with the comic and how effective they think this kind of resource can be in peace education more broadly. Our findings will feed into our wider research into how different education systems currently deliver peace education and what innovations and approaches might enhance its effectiveness.
Why climate change?
Peace education need not just focus on war’s aftermath. As our research has shown, it can incorporate a very wide range of topics, from campaigns for human rights to the development of inner peace. I wanted to tackle a topic that was challenging without being too triggering for young children (bearing in mind school classrooms today include children from all sorts of backgrounds, including from conflict zones).
I settled on climate migration because, while climate change is increasingly tackled in school curricula, the human displacement that it causes tends to be overlooked in the UK’s national curriculum (Harvey, 2020). It is also a less well-developed aspect of peace education around the world than some other areas of peace studies (Harris, 2004). With reports suggesting that there could be 25 million to 1 billion climate refugees by 2050, it is critical that this topic is more discussed and better understood (Nielsen, 2019). Therefore, I developed a story focusing on a young climate refugee in rural Bangladesh, one of the areas currently most affected by the changing climate. A World Bank report suggested that climate change was set to displace 19 million people in the region by 2050. This number may increase depending on the continued emission of greenhouse gasses (World Bank Group, 2021).
Climate change and migration are critical topics in peace studies for several reasons. From the international perspective, climate change and migration threaten state security and present geo-political concerns. Due to this, many states try to manage and minimise migration into their countries, forcefully policing their borders. Migrants from war-torn or failing states have become increasingly desperate to come to the relative safety of Europe. However, we are seeing an increasingly hostile response to migrants within European politics and the European public (Charlemagne, 2022). This has led to more people living in refugee camps for lengthy periods of time, where the standards of living are very challenging. These camps lack critical resources, including food, medicine, water and shelter; many refugees live without their fundamental human rights (Bonyan, 2022). Further, deaths at sea of migrants trying to enter Europe via various sea routes have nearly doubled yearly (United Nations, 2022). This demonstrates the dangers of migration, illustrating how desperate people must be to risk their lives to come to Europe.
All of these conditions are potential drivers of conflict, large and small; so understanding and addressing them is important to peace-building efforts at local, national and global levels. Ironically, it is also fear of conflict that is behind many draconian efforts to ‘other’, demonise and exclude refugees. Since the events of 9/11, refugees have become a security concern for many western states. There has been a growing fear of terrorism and terrorist groups utilising migration groups to commit acts of terror (Ullah et al., 2020). States further fear that these refugees will take up resources, causing strains on their economies and productivity. All of this has led to the widespread dehumanisation of refugees, as people view them as a threat to their security rather than as ‘people like us’ (Esses et al., 2012).
There has been increasingly strict legislation surrounding asylum seekers in European countries. For example, the UK and Denmark have developed more stringent laws to prevent illegal migration, with the UK government attempting to send ‘illegal’ migrants to Rwanda to be processed, without providing support for these individuals (MacDougal, 2022; Merrick, 2022). An estimated 1.9 million migrants entered the EU from non-EU states in 2020 (Europa, 2022), leading to talk of a so-called ‘migration crisis’ (Charlemagne, 2022). It is important to note that ‘world-wide around 85% of all refugees live in developing regions , not in wealthy industrialised countries, and 73% of refugees displaced abroad live in countries neighbouring their countries of origin.
The Institute for Economics & Peace, an international think tank, recently forecasted that there may be as many as 1.2 billion climate refugees globally by 2050 (IEP, 2022). If the current movement of people is causing issues regarding state security, what challenges will future climate migration bring, and where can people go if states close their borders? Climate migration could cause many different kinds of conflict as millions attempt to find new homes and states try to maintain their borders (Reuveny, 2007).
The term ‘climate migration’ implies just one simple cause for the displacement experienced by people like our comic character Āśā. However, there are strong causal links between the climate crisis and conflict. In Syria, which experienced mass desertification of fertile farmland, 800,000 rural citizens lost their income, and 85% of the country’s livestock died, leading 1.5 million people to migrate to cities (Zurich, 2022). Those left behind had little and became targets for recruitment by the Islamic State, which targets vulnerable individuals (Hollies, 2021). Climate change and migration were undoubtedly factors contributing to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. As resources such as water and food are further diminished, conflict over resources is likely to occur increasingly frequently, as individuals become desperate (Selby, 2005). This outlines why it is important to understand climate change and migration when examining peace. Without context or understanding of this topic, many conflicts may directly result from climate change.
Conflict can be started, escalated and perpetuated due to a lack of understanding and accessibility to information; on the other hand, disseminating knowledge and depending understanding can be critical in reducing conflict (Carpenter & Kennedy, 1991). Media of all sorts play an influential role in developing and changing people’s ideas and intentions, changing the direction of conflict in both negative and positive ways (Paluck, 2009).
Film, TV and social media are arguably the primary sources of information in the 21st century, particularly in the West. However, radio and print media remain very influential, especially in global south countries where energy supplies, internet access and state control of media can disrupt information flows. One form of print media which has garnered significant success in producing peaceful outcomes in East Africa is comics. For example, the company Shujaaz Inc has demonstrated that young people who interact with their media (roughly 9.1 million monthly readers) are 2.4x less likely to have children in their teens, 43% more likely to use contraception and earn on average $21 more a month than non-fans (Shujaaz Research, 2022). Shujaaz Inc gives young people in East Africa access to information that will help them take control of their lives and educate them about the dangers of groups such as Al-Shabaab, a powerful militant group in the region. They mainly conduct this education through comics that have been extremely popular with their readers, demonstrating the efficacy of comics in producing peace. But what makes comics so powerful?
One core strength of comics is that anyone can process information regardless of literacy. Comics have been vital in conflict resolution in areas such as Rwanda, where illiteracy is high; alongside radio shows, comics have educated people about the genocide, helping to build relative peace in the region (Yashmon & Yashmon, 2006). Further, comics can be engaging and uplifting even when the topics they discuss are upsetting or difficult (take, for example, Judd Winick’s 2009 book Pedro and Me: friendship, loss and what I learned). Topics such as genocide, conflict and displacement can be tough to discuss, especially for those with personal experience with these topics. Through the use of satire and humour, complex subjects can become far more accessible (Yashmon & Yashmon, 2006). For example, comics in major newspapers often discuss serious political issues but do so in a way that is humorous to readers. There is much anecdotal information on the power of comics to educate. However, few academic studies have tested to see how effective comics are as an educational tool to teach about peace.
For these reasons, we wanted to investigate how effective comics could be in teaching children about critical peace-related topics, in particular forced displacement. Through school-based workshops, we plan to test the effectiveness of this comic to teach students of various ages about climate migration, investigating how much they enjoyed engaging with it and what they learned, via some before-and-after surveys with both teachers and pupils.
As well as being an accessible medium in itself, the comic format has allowed us to create a resource which children can directly interact with – by developing their own endings. As Maddie McCall discusses in this museum entry, we did not want our comic to look so professional that the workshop participants would feel nervous about adding their own text and drawings; so we kept the artwork simple, and provided speech bubbles to help guide their storytelling. Whatever stories they end up adding in the workshops themselves, we hope that our comic will generate conversation, encourage more discovery and learning, and teach children that visualising forced migration from different perspectives is a crucial step in addressing its causes and in supporting people impacted by it.
Traditionally peace education focused on studying the causes of war and its prevention; but it has since evolved into studying conflict in all its manifestations (from state-sponsored violence to knife crime and racism), educating people on broader security issues to help develop a more peaceful future (Ardizzone, 2003). Ian Harris’ (2004) ‘Peace Education’ article discussed five critical and distinct subjects within peace education:
1. International Education
2. Human Rights Education
3. Developmental Education
4. Environmental Education
5. Conflict Resolution Education
This comic focuses on the effects of climate change and climate refugees for three reasons: it bypasses difficulties with creating stories around a conflict which would be potentially more triggering and difficult for children to process. Migration has been a hot topic in the country that this research stems from (the UK), and the researchers wanted to see how children understood this issue. Finally, climate security has become a topic of growing social and political importance, as the effects of climate change are becoming more pronounced (Dellmuth et al., 2017). Climate change is causing global security concerns, which are only becoming more prevalent in areas where natural resources such as water are depleting, potentially creating geo-political conflicts over resources (Selby, 2005). As we enter an age where climate migration is becoming the norm, it is clear that Sustainable Development is an essential topic to be taught in peace education.
We hope that our comic workshops will provide valuable insights not only for the students and teachers who take part but also for wider curriculum designers and peace-building practitioners, in developing our understanding of the role that environmental education can play in peace education and the power of comics to inform and engage.
You can download our full teaching resource below.
What do you think?
- What connection does climate migration have to peace and conflict studies?
- Do you think that learning about climate migration should be considered an important part of peace studies?
- What else would you like to see included in peace education?
- How useful do you think the medium of the comic is as a teaching tool on difficult topics, such as climate change, conflict and peace-building?
- How do you imagine children will complete Āśā’s story? What kinds of endings might they envisage for her – and what will they learn by having to decide?
If you enjoyed this item in our museum…
You might also enjoy ‘Drawing a Peace Narrative‘, ‘Peace is Fun‘, ‘Taking love and care seriously in classrooms‘, ‘Generation Peace‘, and other items with the tag ‘Peace Education‘.
A huge thank you to Maddie McCall who created the comic: I can’t believe you managed to make my visualisation come to life. You were always patient and went along with my requests no matter how long it took. Thank you Dr König for your constant support. Finally, thank you to Shujaaz Inc and Magnus Burnet for making me aware of this medium for developing peace; the research has been fascinating and I am proud of what we have produced.
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