Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), social capital & people from refugee backgrounds

The slides and following post is a presentation I did at the Rethinking Peace, Conflict and Governance conference in Paramatta (12-14 February 2020). It was part of a session called “Alternatives to Violence, Psychosocial Transformation and Peacebuilding.”

This final presentation is about an evaluation exploring the impact on social capital of Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops with people from refugee backgrounds.

The workshops and associated evaluation involved a partnership between STARTTS (Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors) and AVP in Sydney. (See the end of the post for the evaluation team.)

Before discussing the research, I want to make a few general comments about AVP and research. AVP has a history of participant feedback (e.g., there is usually verbal feedback after each session so that the workshop can be modified depending on the participants) but there has been little formal research or evaluation done. Some facilitators feel that the experiential nature of the workshops does not sit comfortable with research trying to identify what the outcomes of workshops are. It is up to participants what they get out of a workshop.

But recently there has been a growing sense that AVP needs need to have a greater focus on research and evaluation, and I am one of the co-convenors of the AVP International research team.

Internationally, there has been an increasing emphasis on evidence-informed practice, evidence-based practice and evidence-based programs, particularly in human services. Generally, evidence-based programs need to be standardised and systematised (so they can be replicated) and rigorously evaluated. By rigorously evaluated, registers of evidence-based programs generally mean evaluations that are higher up the hierarchy of evidence (Figure 1), with randomised controlled trials being the “Gold Standard” and little consideration being given to qualitative research.

Figure1: Hierarchy of evidence

AVP is not a standardised program which makes it difficult to use some of the research methods higher up the hierarchy. One of real strengths of AVP is that it can easily be adapted to different contexts. This means there is a great deal of variation in workshops and, at the same time, AVP workshops are easily recognisable anywhere in the world because of its characteristic practices and processes. This lack of standardisation and the wide range of outcomes for participants, create significant challenges for undertaking research coming from a narrow understanding of what counts as evidence. 

It may not be surprising then, that when some colleagues in the USA recently attempted to have AVP listed on a register of evidence-based programs, they discovered that AVP’s evidence base was not strong enough. (Even thought there is quite a bit of literature published on AVP.)

Epstein’s wheel of research (Figure 2) which recognises the value of many different approaches to research, sits more comfortably with AVP.

Wheel of evidence
Figure 2: Wheel of evidence (Epstein, 2011)

I’m now going to move on to the evaluation we’ve been doing over the last few years in partnership with STARTTS.

STARTTS supports people healing from torture and refugee trauma who are rebuilding their lives in Australia and recognises that peacebuilding and reconciliation are important parts of trauma recovery. Because they are committed to clinical and community-based research, STARTTS has been working with AVP in NSW on this evaluation.

The partnership between AVP and STARTTS began in 2011, because the STARTTS’ Community Services coordinator, Jasmina Bajraktarevic-Hayward, had completed an AVP workshop many years ago, and thought it had real potential for their work. Now, in 2020, quite a few STARTTS staff have now trained in AVP and some have gone on to complete the Training for Facilitators (T4F) workshop and STARTTS provides a venue and lunches for the Sydney workshop, provides administrative support and is a major source of workshop participants.

The partnership has certainly seen an increase in the diversity of participants and facilitators in Sydney workshops,(which are help about one a month on successive Saturdays) and has led AVP NSW to develop a workshop on trauma awareness.

The social capital evaluation explored five outcomes related to social capital:

  1. Increased self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth.
  2. Increased sense of safety and stability.
  3. Increased trust.
  4. Increased harmony with family and other close social contacts.
  5. Strengthened or expanded connections with people from outside one’s immediate community.

We decided to focus on social capital because of previous research (Bartolomei et al., 2013, Doney et al., 2013) done by STARTTS showing the important role social capital plays in the resettlement experience of many people from refugee backgrounds.

The five social outcomes (Figure 3) came from the previous STARTTS research (Bartolomei et al., 2013), and for each we selected an associated indicator (again from the previous research), which was relevant to AVP:

Social Capital Outcome*Selected Indicator*
Increased self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worthIncreased ability to calmly handle difficult or culturally challenging situations
Increased sense of safety and stabilityIncreased understanding of how to address and manage conflict
Increased trustIncreased willingness to engage with people from outside one’s immediate community
Increased harmony with family and other close social contactsIncreased positive communication with family members and other close social contacts
Strengthened or expanded connections with people from outside one’s immediate communityIncreased positive relationships with people outside your immediate community or locality
Figure 3: Social capital outcomes and indicators (from Bartolomei et al., 2013)

The evaluation involved a pre and post questionnaire and focus groups. The pre and post questionnaires, given to all workshop participants over a two year period ending in 2019, involved 19 questions incorporating the General Self Efficacy Scale (GSES, a widely used scale) and a self-created social capital scale (based on the STARTTS social capital research).

There have been statistically significant increases in the basic and T4F workshops, but not the Advanced workshops for the average score on the General Self Efficacy Scale (GSES) developed by Schwarzer and Jerusalem (1995). (See Figure 4.) The scale was a 4-point scale (1 = Not at all true; 2 = Hardly true; 3 = Moderately true; 4 = Exactly true).

Figure 4: GSES group averages (mean):

There have also been statistically significant increases in all workshops for the social capital scale (using the same 4-point scale). (See Figure 5.) The results are pleasing, and we are about replicate the research in AVP workshop with people from refugee backgrounds in Tasmania.

Figure 5: Social Capital Scale group averages (mean)

The focus groups added depth to the results. Here I will briefly discuss four major themes and give a few indicative quotes.

Participants reported an increased understanding of how to address and manage conflict.

They said they were able to explore, identify and adopt nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution. Some of them said their approaches were less aggressive, more thoughtful and more strategic. Some of them spoke about how the simplicity of the transformational keys captured in the AVP mandala.

One participant in an Advanced workshop suggested:

I would add that those keys, the transforming power keys, I like how they’re really simple. There is not too many of them so they are pretty easy to remember you know. And so, there is a simplicity I think that even though there is a lot of things done in AVP, there is also a simplicity that really helps a lot. So that is a key thing about AVP.

Speaking personally, I find the five keys of the mandala—respect for self, care for others, expect the best, think before reacting and ask for a nonviolent path—very simple in theory but quite tricky to put into practice. For example, how can we really balance respect for self with caring for others and balance our needs with those of those around us?

Participants also said that they increased positive communication with their family members and other close social contacts. The workshop helped them create harmony in family and other relationships. Not surprisingly, the more workshops they did, the stronger the impact.

For example, a participant in an Advanced workshop said:

Recently I was working with my dad who has been very difficult, and I addressed the situation with a really positive attitude and as a result of that it was a really positive outcome, even he said that too, attitude. Even attitude towards yourself.

The workshops helped participants build positive relationships and a willingness to engage with people from outside their immediate community, by providing opportunities for them to form connections with people from the wider community, to increasing their ability to trust others, and to expand their social networks.

And finally, the trauma awareness workshop helped participants increase their knowledge of trauma and conflict. For example, they became more aware that trauma impacts everyone, and this awareness cultivated a greater sense of compassion and empathy. As one participant suggested in a Trauma Awareness workshops:

We all experience trauma in one way, and it all harms us in one way and I think that brings people together to feel for each other.

As we think of the next steps there are a few things we know:

  • We know AVP has lots of potential and makes a difference to communities and people’s lives.
  • Because it is so dependent on volunteers, it can only continue if people with passion believe in its potential for transformation.
  • But we also know that people believing in the value of something is not the same as being sure that it really is having a positive impact.

This means that we do need research and evaluation, but we need to do it in ways that are consistent with our values and our approach. I believe there would be real value in doing creative, qualitative forms of research, but these are unlikely to help us become recognised as an evidence-based program. If we are to go down this path, we need to do more quantitative or mixed method research (like this one). We need to balance our needs, with those of others, which is a very AVP thing to do.

The evaluation team involved:

  • From STARTTS—Ansuya Naguran, David Ajak Ajang, Helen Bibby and Jasmina Bajraktarevic-Hayward
  • From STARTTS and AVP—Ken Woods
  • From AVP—Katherine Smith,
  • From AVP and the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney— Wendy Lambourne and Raphael Manirakiza
  • From AVP and the Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle—Graeme Stuart

The reference for this presentation is:

Stuart, G., Ajang, D. A., Barjrakterevic, J., Bibby, H., Lambourne, W., Matirakiza, R., Naguran, A., Smith, K., & Wood, K. (2019). The Alternatives to Violence Project Social Capital and People from Refugee Backgrounds. Paper presented at the Rethinking Peace, Conflict and Governance Conference, Parramatta, NSW.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops?
  2. The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution
  3. Strengths-based measurement
  4. Evidence-informed practice, evidence-based programs and measuring outcomes
  5. Research evidence for family (and community) workers
  6. Rethinking the roles of families and clients in evidence-based practice

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.


  • Bartolomei, L., Pittaway, E., & Ward, K. (2013). ‘The glue that binds’ the social capital evaluation tool: Objectives and indicators for social capital projects with refugee communities settling in Australia. Sydney: STARTTS.
  • Doney, G., Pittaway, E., Bartolomei, L., & Ward, K. (2013). ‘The Glue that Binds’: Social Capital in Refugee Communities Settling in Australia. Service For Treatment & Rehabilitation Of Torture & Trauma Survivors.
  • Schwarzer, R., & Jerusalem, M. (1995). Generalized self-efficacy scale. In J. Weinman, S. Wright, & M. Johnston (Eds.), Measures in health psychology: A user’s portfolio. Causal and control beliefs. Windsor: NFER-Nelson.
  • Epstein, I. (2009). Promoting harmony where there is commonly conflict: Evidence-informed practice as an integrative strategy. Social Work in Health Care, 48(3), 216-231. doi: 10.1080/00981380802589845

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
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