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Build is to Peace as Make is to War

22 April 2010 No Comment

Pillar of Peace: Conflict Transformation

- Commentary by Alicia Simoni, Community Manager and Staff Writer

Everyone knows what war is, right? If you haven’t personally lived in its midst or sent someone you love off to fight it, you’ve seen it on television or at least read its headlines.

A sampling from today: “Decrying US ‘Threat,’ Iran Begins War Games”; “Relief Work Suspended After Dozens Killed in Pakistan IDP Camp Attack”; “UN Humanitarian Official Says Somali Civilian Casualties Rise”

I tend to believe that there is some truth — not an ideal truth but a harsh truth — in what Chris Hedges’ suggests in his provocative book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning: “Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.”

What do those of us invested in peace have to offer as an alternative??

For the past decade I’ve earned my living working for various organizations that focus on building peace in conflict-zones. I spent days, and most nights, over the course of two years reading and discussing peace, all in the name of acquiring an advanced degree in Peace Studies. I believe in both the possibility and the potential of peace. And I have no doubt that I’m not alone in any of this (although those nights in the library did feel quite lonely at times).

The United States Capitol in Washington, D.C..

Image via Wikipedia

I’m so immersed in the field of peacebuilding that sometimes I forget that the field hasn’t been around forever and that it’s not exactly clear what peacebuilding actually is. Last week, while attending the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s “Take Peacebuilding to Congress” days on Capitol Hill, I was reminded that we have a long way to go in making cultures of peace the norm. (My colleague, Mary Liepold, also shares her experience taking peacebuilding to the Hill here.)

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that most members of the United States Congress –- and the general public in many places, for that matter –- do not know what peacebuilding is. I’ve received enough kind yet tentative smiles from family, friends, and strangers when I tell them what I do for a living to know this. And as I was informed last week by a Congressman, Congress is triage – they don’t have time to delve deeply into issues. (And yet they are the one’s making the critical decisions on our behalf??)

If anyone who reads this works in Congress or knows one, or a few, members of the general public who would be interested to know what peacebuilding is, please help spread the word.

Peace doesn’t just happen and it isn’t simply what’s there when there is no war. Peace is built. Here’s a definition that might help clarify just what I mean by that (nod to the Alliance for Peacebuilding and 3D Security: Development, Diplomacy, Defense for getting us all on the same page with this):

Peacebuilding includes a wide range of efforts by diverse actors in government and civil society to address the root causes of violence and protect civilians before, during, and after violent conflict. Before conflict, preventive peacebuilding addresses potential instability and violence through diplomatic, economic, social, legal, and security sector reform programs. In the midst of violent conflict, peacebuilding takes the form of dialogue, negotiation, and mediation. In the post-conflict phase, peacebuilding fosters stabilization, reconstruction, and reconciliation.

Peace X Peace

This wide range of efforts includes everything from people gathering in a living room in America to watch a film and have a meaningful discussion about Islam to trauma healing workshops for child soldiers in Northern Uganda. And many, many activities in between that do things such as promote cross-cultural understanding, heal trauma, encourage alternatives to violence, and further justice.

If the person you’re speaking with is inclined to consider economic implications please pass on the word that peacebuilding programs to prevent violent conflict cost less than it does to intervene after conflicts turn into crises and violence. In fact, research shows that, on average, one dollar spent on preventive programs compares with approximately sixty dollars to respond to crises once violence erupts. The average cost of a war is $50 billion.

If national security is a concern for people you talk to, tell them that the greatest threats to US security in the last 20 years have come from the volatile and unstable conditions within countries, and that peacebuilding initiatives focus on improving the security of individuals and communities as well as strengthening the responsiveness and effectiveness of government institutions in such settings. (This is straight from a “Discussion Paper on Peacebuilding” produced by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee). It might also be worth mentioning that even the US military recognizes that civilian-led peacebuilding initiatives are critical to stabilization.

Whether for job security or because elected officials genuinely believe in serving their constituents, or a bit of both, I was informed last week that Congress will only fully invest in peacebuilding when people in local districts tell them that it’s what they want. Congressional members need to be convinced that building peace is in their interest.

What’s the perspective in your community? Do your friends and neighbors think promoting peace is important? Whether you live in the United States or elsewhere, what do you think would encourage more people to invest in building peace?

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