Peacebuilding activity in Sri Lanka. Photo by Ted Giffords

“Your If is the only peacemaker, much virtue in if” - William Shakespeare, As You Like It

As Shakespeare’s fool Touchstone noted four centuries ago, peacemaking requires the exploration of the possible. Peacemakers challenge us to look at the world as it can be: What if violence was not the means we choose to resolve conflict? What if we recognized the grievances of our enemies, What if...? This insight applies as much today as it did in Shakespeare’s time.

How to promote the exploration of “if” is then the central question all peacemakers. How do we equip and aide ourselves and others in conflict with the knowledge, material and human resources - be they ideas, insights, skills, relationships, funding, arguments, or institutions that can lead to peaceful relations?

The record of international support for peace initiatives in intra-state conflicts in the last several decades suggests that the capacity of our world to come to the aid of local peacemakers in conflicts, let alone to prevent them, is modest at best.  The experiences in Sri Lanka and Somalia this past year illustrate the limitations of international action.

No single multi-lateral or bilateral entity, no matter how large, can meet the needs of the field.  Multi-lateral institutions, from the UN, to the EU to the African Union, are severely constrained by limited financial resources and competing political agendas in their peacemaking activities. Bi-lateral governmental efforts face many of the same constraints. The lesson we at the Peace Appeal have drawn from our experience to date is that the field of peacebuilding as a whole needs to develop further so that it is adequate to the challenge at hand.

The field of peacebuilding, as distinct from the practice, is still young. The most mature segment of the field is its educational and research arm, which witnessed remarkable growth with the arrival of several dozen university-based interdisciplinary centers in Europe and the United States in the 1970’s and continuing to this day. Though universities and colleges are graduating growing numbers of future practitioners, their ranks are still small.  It may take decades before the full impact of an expanded knowledge base and professional community is felt.

Other segments of the field of peacebuilding are even younger. The field’s most prominent policy research and advocacy organization, the International Crisis Group, headquartered in Brussels, was founded in 1995. Despite its size, reputation and stature, its influence is often limited without broader constituencies advocating alongside it. In the realm of peacebuilding, examples of effective global citizen action are still few in number. Two of the best known citizen lobbying efforts, Americans for Peace Now (founded in 1981) and the Save Darfur Campaign (founded in 2004) dwarf the constituencies advocating for peace in conflicts in other regions of the globe. Yet even with their resources and clout, their impact too is limited without concrete alternatives emerging on the ground.

One of the more promising developments in the field of peacebuilding over the last several decades has been the growth of citizen organizations and networks internationally engaging in peacebuilding work both at Track II and at the grassroots level. Most operate out of the limelight working diligently to end conflicts in their own communities, societies and across the globe. While many of these efforts achieve success within local communities, or build relationships of trust at the Track II level, without the engagement and commitment of political leadership in the process of conflict transformation, securing a broader peace in a society in conflict is nearly impossible.

The need for skilled, sustained, on the ground peacemaking, working with political leadership to develop new alternatives in conflicts remains acute. Historically, technical advice in this arena was provided sporadically by international diplomats (and occasionally independent solo practitioners), who often parachuted in and out of conflict zones, with mixed results. Today we recognize the need for more robust, comprehensive initiatives that can address the adaptive complexity of our world’s most challenging conflicts.

With this recognition, the predominance of such short term diplomatic initiatives has receded in favor of more systemic, comprehensive approaches.  One aspect of this transition is visible in the evolution from the efforts of the earliest UN special representatives (Count Folke Bernadotte and his successor Ralph Bunche, who served as mediators to the Arab Israel conflict in the late 1940’s) to the Secretary General’s Special Representatives of today, whose mandates are much broader, and whose supporting institutions often entail hundreds of staff working in countries in conflict with multi-million dollar budgets.

Another aspect of this evolution to a more comprehensive approach has been the recent growth of independent practitioner organizations, with the ability and access to work in a sustained fashion directly with key leaders in societies in conflict.  While too few of these emanate from regions and countries in conflict themselves, there are several well known international organizations, including the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, and Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari’s Crisis Management Initiative. Both were founded in the late 1990s.

Predating these new players in our field is the tradition of religious peacemakers, often operating in loose networks but over long periods, who have played critical constructive roles in conflicts around the globe. Among the most notable are the efforts of the many Quaker peacemakers of the Society of Friends, and the contributions of the Catholic lay person society, the Community of St. Egidio, founded in 1968.

The cumulative experiences of all these organizations highlights the potential for independent organizations to make substantive contributions to peacebuilding alongside the official diplomatic efforts of governments and multi-lateral institutions.

Yet, despite the impact of many of our field’s organizations, the predominance of violent intrastate conflicts suggest that they have yet to amount than more than the sum of their parts. For the promise of the field to be realized, much more will be required: increased innovation and collaboration among growing numbers of institutions spread widely throughout our globe, a much more nuanced legal and regulatory environment, enhanced research and training institutions, more responsive and pro-active funding mechanisms, and most certainly a vastly increased public awareness.

Only as the field matures in these and other ways will it be able to serve the needs of societies in conflict – helping communities explore the possibilty of “if”, and leading to a peaceful, just and promising future.

This post was originally published on the Ashoka Peace Blog.