Jerry White was a 20-year-old college student when, on a camping trip in Israel, he stepped on a landmine and lost his left leg. A Massachusetts native, he spent the following year in Israel, learning not just how to walk again but also how to live as a survivor in society. Thirteen years later, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. But this was merely the beginning. Today, Jerry and his organization Survivor Corps are setting out on a more difficult journey: to build a world where there are no victims, only survivors.

Unlike Jerry, Neichute Doulo grew up in conflict-stricken Nagaland, a region in India comprising 17 different hill tribes. The area was never fully conquered by the British and its residents have carried that proud legacy into their battle against the state of India, one of the longest running secession movements in history. Convinced that Nagaland will not have a viable future (regardless of the outcome of the conflict) without indigenous small-scale industry, Neichute created Entrepreneurs Associates (EA) to foster a new generation of socially responsible business entrepreneurs that strengthen the Naga economy and allow youth the opportunity to actively contribute towards shaping a positive future.

Jerry and Neichute are classic social entrepreneurs, people who come up with new ideas to solve intractable social problems and work relentlessly to execute them in order to achieve lasting social impact; in this case, that of preparing society to overcome the effects of violent conflict. But why is building peaceful societies so critical for economic and social development?

No Development without Peace

Peace is a pre-requisite for development as a whole because it creates an enabling environment for the fundamentals of a society’s progress: human capital formation, infrastructure development, markets subject to the rule of law, and so on. In the absence of peace, education and health structures break down, systems to provide infrastructure disintegrate, and legal commerce is crippled. Critically, peace also frees up resources, both financial and human, that would otherwise be diverted to controlling (or creating) violence.

Intuitively, we’ve long known that peace and development go hand in hand – generally speaking, the more peaceful a society, the more prosperous and stable. But we’re only now starting to understand the economic costs of violent conflict. Over the last ten years, in about 60 countries, violence has significantly and directly reduced growth – in Brazil, 5% of GDP is lost due to violence and crime; in El Salvador it is 25%. The economist Paul Collier has shown that, on average, annual GDP growth of a conflict-affected country is reduced by 2.3% as a result of the conflict.

Moreover, there is a strong relationship between business enterprise and peace. In a 2008 worldwide study conducted by the United Nations Global Compact, 80% of senior managers felt the size of their markets grew with increasing peacefulness and 79% felt costs decreased with improving peacefulness. Yet, only 13% were aware of the metrics and tools that shed light on the peacefulness of the markets in which they operated. Businesses can play a central role in peace building, since they have an interest not just in profitability but the longer term stability of the markets in which they operate. Recognizing this, Daniel Suárez Zúñiga is developing a series of steps that the private sector in Colombia can follow in order to build peace. These include identifying ways to make business practices more transparent, resolving internal conflicts more constructively, and directing their attention to communities in ways more cognizant of social justice.

The Urgency of Now

Increasingly, peacebuilding is not just an economic necessity but a fiercely urgent one. Climate change, food and water scarcity, and the global economic crisis are all projected to exacerbate violent conflict in the years ahead as resources become scarcer, political instability rises, and inter-group tensions flare. For instance, a National Intelligence Assessment, prepared for American policymakers in 2008, predicted that the impacts of changing climate would emerge as a significant source of political instability over the next few decades, with water shortages in particular likely to create or exacerbate international tensions. Just this past July, there were community killings over water shortages in Bhopal, India when a family was falsely accused of stealing water from a pipe. Food shortages in Kenya and Nigeria are also of international concern, with Kenya especially on everyone’s watch list given its relatively recent tryst with election violence. Indeed, the US National Academy of Sciences published fresh research in November 2009 indicating that, across Africa, violent conflict is 50% more likely in unusually warm years and is often connected to depleting food supplies. As these forces make themselves felt with ever-pressing urgency, it is critical that we learn how to live and work together peacefully to overcome these challenges to our planet.

The Social Entrepreneur’s Response

When facing a society in conflict, social entrepreneurs respond very much like they would to other social problems. They identify the root of the problem and look for the levers and jujitsu points that they need to press in order to change the nature of the system. As Jerry White got involved in the global anti-landmine campaign, he realized that the most important voice of all was missing from the debate: that of landmine survivors, the vast majority of whom are civilians. Through this crucial (and deceptively simple) insight – that the most authentic and compelling voices against destructive weapons are the civilians who are maimed and left bereft by them – Jerry introduced a new player in the global battle to rid the world of weapons such as landmines and cluster bombs. At the same time, he transformed previously disempowered victims into a powerful movement of survivors. Survivor Corps currently runs healing and rehabilitation programs in 59 countries and has successfully organized global movements to change international norms and laws regarding the use of such weapons.

Far away from the negotiating tables of the UN, Neichute Doulo, the first ever college graduate from his village in Nagaland, understood that one of the biggest drivers of the Naga conflict was that young people had few options to channel their energies towards something productive – Indian security forces did not allow groups of youth to simply hang out. Furthermore, the local economy was being taken over by immigrant businesses from other parts of India, which exacerbated Nagaland’s unemployment problem and increased the frustration and resentment felt towards the Indian state. On the other hand, Naga culture had well-developed social institutions – churches and village councils – that could play key roles in mentoring and fostering youth activity but were prone to look at business and commerce with a jaundiced eye. Believing that socially responsible businesses were the key lever to unlocking many of these problems, Neichute’s organization began to recruit a corps of Naga business leaders to pool their resources and goodwill towards helping youth entrepreneurs get off the ground, all the while mobilizing churches and village elders to play mentorship and cheerleading roles.

Today, there are 80 Ashoka Fellows like Jerry, Neichute, and Daniel working to prevent violent conflict. From their innovations, patterns and principles are emerging, insights that can point us towards the best solutions for resolving conflict in our world. Like Jerry White, many social entrepreneurs understand that those most affected by violent conflict are often the best people to lead us away from it. Like Neichute Doulo, others approach conflict from another angle altogether: creating a mutually beneficial environment outside the conflict that indirectly provides incentives to all to refrain from violence. A soon-to-be-published paper by Ryszard Praszkier and Andrzej Nowak in Columbia University’s Journal of Peace Psychology argues that this approach, which they call the employing of “positive attractors,” is often more successful than traditional negotiation and conflict resolution processes. In other words, peace becomes a collateral benefit, sneaking up on both parties before they know it.

There is still, of course, a place for traditional conflict resolution. Indeed, many social entrepreneurs are devising innovations in the manner in which conflicts are negotiated and resolved within or between societies. But if there’s one characteristic that distinguishes the social entrepreneur’s response from that of many leading political voices, it is that you don’t build peace by carving out your ideological territories. Rather, you engage the very people affected by the conflict, harnessing and redirecting energy towards a better alternative. It requires a shift in the way we often think about conflict, a shift that one social entrepreneur likens to “kissing a tiger.”

Only by being willing to “kiss the tiger” will we ultimately reverse the predicted escalation of global conflict, replacing it with an increasing number of peaceful societies well positioned for economic growth and social development and, by extension, social enterprise.

This article was originally posted on the Ashoka Peace blog. We are reposting here as the Ashoka Peace blog has now merged with Insight on Conflict.

Roshan Paul, originally from Bangalore, India, now works with Ashoka in its Washington, D.C. global office. A graduate of Davidson College and the Harvard Kennedy School, he is especially interested in how to enable social entrepreneurship in the hardest parts of the world

Sarah Jefferson works in Ashoka’s headquarters in Washington DC, helping to conduct the global search and selection of social entrepreneurs. She received her BA from Lehigh University and her LLM in International Human Rights and Criminal Law from The University of Edinburgh, prior to joining Ashoka.