Reflections on Peacebuilding

            Our field research for our just published book, Peacebuilding through Community-based NGOs: Paradoxes and Possibilities (Kumarian Press, 2012), took us to three sites of long-lived conflict: Northern Ireland, Serbia and Haiti. Each left lasting impressions on us in different ways.

            In Belfast, we undertook a series of interviews with representatives of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland as well as delegates of Foundations for Peace, a global network of philanthropies actively engaged in peacebuilding work in multiple nations. We learned much during our visit and interestingly, one central lesson of our interviews was strongly underpinned by our forays around the city. Our visit coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Accord that formally ended the decades of the “Troubles” whose violence had literally torn the province apart. We imagined that the city would evidence some healing due to persistent peacebuilding efforts at all scales in the decade that had elapsed since a formal peace had been negotiated. And this was so in some ways, but to our surprise, no one among our interviewees believed the city’s population was yet ready to see the so-called “peace walls” separating neighborhoods and parts of the city and originally aimed at controlling violence and protecting innocents, removed. And now nearly 15 years after the Accord, the city is more segregated than ever and its many walls remain a continuing and ubiquitous hulking presence whose borders and boundaries define the warp and woof of resident’s daily life and activities. If we needed an object lesson in how long it may take societies once rent asunder to begin to build trust across their previous divisions, despite the good efforts of many, we witnessed it first-hand in Belfast. Peacebuilding requires steadfastness, a vision that must be ready to encompass decades and courage to have any hope of success. We explored the work of an NGO in the province that has demonstrated the pluck to continue questioning discourses of conflict deeply ingrained in Northern Ireland society, while challenging standardized and “short cut” approaches to peacebuilding by fostering ongoing intra-communal engagement opportunities concerning peace and its distributive effects.

            Our fieldwork in Serbia took us not only to Belgrade, but also to Srebrenica. We visited the latter site on the day of commemoration of the tragic genocide that made that isolated beautiful valley with its now abandoned and dilapidated United Nations compound and row upon row of neatly tended gravesites, infamous. As we write, the international community continues to fund forensic efforts to identify the victims of the massacre near the site. One central feature on the commemoration day of our visit was the honoring and interment of the remains of several hundred newly identified individuals. It was at once an unforgettable and deeply moving spectacle underpinned by the knowledge that all sides in that conflict continue to construct warring narratives that implicate the “other” in genocidal actions. This tit-for-tat mentality and its accompanying partisan social constructions of the past conflict have marred efforts to secure progress to address still fresh enmities. We also could not fail to note that one avowed aim of this mass killing was to “ethnically cleanse” what was for decades a mixed religious and ethnic community. Srebrenica is today a single ethnic enclave. This situation teaches that violent human fear and hatred of “the other” are likely to have enduring and deeply lamentable consequences, and those may not be safely predicted in advance. Most international organizations and NGOs, by focusing on the memorialization of war victims, end up reinforcing political dynamics rooted into war identities, rather than opening the way for new possibilities for intra-communal relations.

            Our work in Haiti found us visiting not only that nation’s capital city, but also traveling to its mountainous and still relatively inaccessible plateau region. The long-lived conflict and associated regime changes that have beset the nation in recent decades, some born of native political conditions and movements and others imposed by the international community, have essentially eviscerated government capacity and left a population to fend largely for itself. This, it continues to do and with amazingly good grace and sheer determination, but the immiseration of the island’s people has left a nation in tatters and an international community, deeply complicit in that condition, seeking ways and means to address the population’s multivalent suffering. International strategies of peace building in Haiti have focused on “building institutions” while de facto diverting funds from that nation’s government to NGOs, thereby further eroding local economic capacity and social capital. We were heartened therefore to study a nongovernmental organization that has taken as its aims not only the provision of necessary services, but also the development of accompanying government capacities in its areas of interest and a commitment to try to foster virtuous circles in the local economy.

            Taken together, our work for this book left us humbled by the complexities that social conflict occasions as well as by the need for sustained engagement among all relevant parties and for rethinking current international approaches to peacemaking, if an alternate social vision (or visions) that result in peaceable coexistence is to be constructed and broadly accepted in communities previously riven by conflict. Peace is not born of “an intervention,” but instead of the sustained efforts and commitment to learning of all involved (especially those in position to control resources and devise intervention strategies) to create fresh conditions for trust, economic sustainability and possibility amidst enduring fear and, often, acculturated hatred. These are not challenges either for the cocksure or the faint of heart. We came away with enormous respect for those engaged in peacebuilding efforts, even when we disagreed with their adopted strategies.