Dissecting Protection and Peacebuilding—The Local and the Change

by: Mary Mumbi Wachira

“…More like an inquiry. Probing the theory and investigating your interests—for the moment and in time. Seeking the connection and the tension between practice and theory. A search for the location of the individual who is likely impacted and affected by violence and conflict. A rhythmic step toward the hope that the music strums on. An investigation into the connection between psychosocial wellbeing, support, and sustainable peacebuilding.”

This is how I would describe my internship. A curiosity of sorts and a learning process linking me to the work of protection and the relationships therein in a moment to moment movement towards peacebuilding.

I have interned with the Catholic Relief Services EQUIP (Equity, Inclusion, and Peacebuilding) department since July 2019. My focus was on protection and youth in peacebuilding. CRS is a relief and development organization that often works with local partners to promote transformative and sustainable change. Using the holistic approach of integral human development, CRS has programs in agriculture, emergency response and recovery, health, education, microfinance, water security, youth, justice and peacebuilding, and partnership and capacity strengthening.

Group of students, capitol building behind them
Participants group photo outside the US Capitol building during the US Peacebuilding Advocacy to inform lawmakers about the proposed draft Youth, Peace, and Security legislation. Photo courtesy of Alliance for Peacebuilding.

During my time here, I have engaged in both policy formulation around protection issues and advocacy on upcoming Youth, Peace and Security legislation while leaning a lot on my policy analysis lessons at the Keough School. I was based in the Baltimore CRS Headquarters and had proximity to Congress in Washington, DC.

An invitation into planning and design transformed to participation in formulating guiding principles for organizational and humanitarian response in protection and prevention from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA). We explored the role of language and culture in PSEA when working in communities. In a field that works with communities towards change, language and culture often determine the expression of violence and, consequently, the social transformation. What does this mean for organizations that choose to use the official languages in multilingual and multicultural countries? Or even the big four languages—English, French, Spanish, and Arabic—in global contexts? By creating a language criteria to promote inclusion, who gets excluded in the communication?

A drawing detailing local peacebuilding in a series of steps
A written image helping to distill conversations on local peacebuilding during the AfP Conference in Washington, DC.

I believe an anthropological reflection would give insight here. The outcomes of this process established the need for incorporating more languages into our roles in community engagement and a survivor-centered approach to acknowledge the asymmetry in agency and power for the vulnerable and affected communities. We must recognize the gender and resource interplay in the conflicts that can get hushed in the search for survival. Everyday. The discussions expressed the importance of focusing on prevention and indicated that when the focus is protection, the root cause is yet to be addressed. Ultimately, the policy called for the need to listen to the local, not just for “box checking,” but with the intention of yielding power and co-creating change to support the human security of survivors.

As CRS adjusted its strategic plan, I had a didactic experience reflecting on the visioning and implementation of peacebuilding into different programming initiatives. What would strategic peacebuilding look like, for instance, in health and gender focused initiatives? Given that implementers at the community level were involved in this process, the relationship and, in some cases, the tension between practice and theory was evident.

As the different actors held this tension with both curiosity and openness to experiment with an idea, I was encouraged. You see, as a learning peacebuilder, I am aware that we certainly do not have the answers or solutions to the violence and conflict in our world today. By all means, we try, we show up, we ask questions and seek to hear how communities and people envision peace. Then, we accompany the process and the people, we implement the ideas, and sometimes we build and inform the idea through feedback and functional relationships in that space. It sounds simple, but so does a surgical process on paper. Until you begin the dissection and realize that this is an intricate process needing attention, skill, listening, and presence with human beings—all at the same time and in an appropriate environment. And conflict and violence are not predictable.

When I began the examination of the implementation of the Singing to the Lions workshop, I found myself often interrogating the political, social, economic, and cultural contexts of the participants. Singing to the Lions is a psycho-education workshop to build resilience and foster social cohesion among children in contexts of violence and conflict. When noticing resilience in a community, we also need to look at the local and shared underlying structures making them resilient and reinforcing them toward sustainable peacebuilding. This provides the appreciative inquiry into how well the environment fosters the individual’s psychosocial wellbeing and possibilities of sustainable peace.

In this process, I found that although the target audience is children, depending on their context and needs, different implementers have “cherry-picked” what works for their contexts and other identities (age and role). Certainly, this modification impacts how the evaluation of such an approach works, even with a preexisting monitoring and evaluation process. What would contextual indicators look like from the perspective of the individual in this case? Please ponder with me here.

Finally, I wonder, “what, who and how” have I become as a nascent peacebuilder? I don’t wish to get lost in the process and emerge without a soul in the end. I am grateful for the community of colleagues that held me in the learning and the inquiry. I am present to the local communities where my feet journeyed for this transient time. As I reflect with hope for those who continually work and seek change, I join you all in the reflective practice, in the study, and in being.

Mary poses, arms crossed, next to a CRS
Me, at the CRS headquarters office in Baltimore, Maryland.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development

by: Novita L. Kumala

When MP Maisara Dandamun Latiph informed me that my internship would entail frequent travel to Cotabato City, Maguindanao, and Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, I said yes excitedly. I also could not shake my latent worry about traveling to Marawi City.

Marawi was once a thriving, picturesque city on a lake, and capital city to the Province of Lanao del Sur in the Philippines. Unlike the rest of the Filipino population, the majority of the people within Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), including Marawi, are Muslim. Hence, Marawi is also formally known as the Islamic City of Marawi, distinguishing itself within the Christian majority state of the Philippines.

My concern for travel to Marawi was due to the highly publicized Marawi Siege back in 2017. On May 23, 2017, Marawi was attacked and then overtaken by an ISIS-affiliated group known as the Maute group. The battle between Maute and the Armed Forces of the Philippines lasted five months, leaving a considerable portion of old-town Marawi in ruins and people fleeing for refuge.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
Marawi City, the most affected area.

Having now visited the city several times as a part of my six-month field immersion project, here is a glimpse of the story of Marawi from my observation.

About my peacebuilding internship

I am currently the legal researcher for Attorney Maisara Dandamun Latiph, one of the 80 members of Bangsamoro parliament. She is a lawyer and one of the drafters of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, a Philippine law that provided for the establishment of the political entity currently known as the BARMM. She is appointed by the President.

In my role, I attend parliamentary sessions and listen to their debates on various issues, ranging from the dengue and polio outbreaks to Department of Public Works projects and annual budget planning. I then research issues for MP Maisara based on what the office needs and assist with the drafting of various documents from letters to resolutions to draft bills.

During our onboarding process, MP Maisara briefed me on several of her priority legislative issues, which ranged from education and Islamic banking to lake conservation and protection of vulnerable populations.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
Parliamentary Plenary Session, Shariff Kabunsuan Cultural Complex Hall, Cotabato City, Maguindanao.

Focus on Lake Lanao

As a member of parliament, one of the legislative priorities of MP Maisara is the rehabilitation and conservation of Lake Lanao. As a native Meranao, she has a cultural attachment to the lake, in part because the Meranao people derive their name from it. “Ranao” or “Ranaw” within the Meranao local vernacular means “lake,” so “Meranao” means “people of the lake.”

Numerous articles and pieces of research have highlighted the plight of Lake Lanao due to unsustainable water use by various stakeholders and industries, including the power industry, local agriculture, household wastewater from the surrounding settlement area, and, more recently, effects of the Marawi siege. Even hydropower plants, despite championing their cause as “green” and low carbon, pose a danger to the lake’s water balance and biodiversity. Compounded by the threat of climate change, there is a looming threat that the lake and its water tributaries will go dry.

If that happens, what happens to the Meranao people? What will the people of the lake become without their namesake?

My first visit to Marawi City was to assist MP Maisara in hosting her first-ever public consultation on the issue of Lake Lanao rehabilitation and conservation. Participants agreed that the best next step would be to establish a Lake Development Authority overseeing the conservation and sustainable use of the lake’s various resources. Since then, we have had several meetings with a technical working group to formulate a better bill, which establishes a Development Authority.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
A visit to Lake Lanao.

Marawi City: Now

It has been two years since the siege ended. Yet, the scars and trauma run deep for the people, even for Marawi residents used to the sound of daily gunshots from feuding clans. Marawi residents who lived in the most affected areas cannot return to their homes because the city is still closed and has not yet been rebuilt. The process of cleaning the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and demolition of some of the buildings is still on-going.

Rebuilding Marawi City: Linkages of Peacebuilding, Environment, and Development
A visit to Marawi’s most affected area with the other staff and Laguna Lake Development Authority guests from Manila—What expression should you make?

Even those who did not live in the most affected area have left the city to settle in Iligan City or Cagayan de Oro. The memory of that day still haunts them.

Marawi Rehabilitation: Opportunity?

The process of Marawi rehabilitation and protection of Lake Lanao showcases an obvious opportunity for a better and more sustainable development plan.

When it comes to post-conflict environmental peacebuilding, water has long been vital for building sustainable peace and for providing immediate societal benefits. I think Marawi and its proximity to Lake Lanao represent what long-term post-conflict peacebuilding should look like.

The location of Marawi City and Lake Lanao within Lanao del Sur.

The emerging notion in environmental peacebuilding is that by taking environmental issues into post-conflict peacebuilding policies it will contribute to sustainable peace. Instead of making the environment an afterthought in constructing post-conflict and development plans, the environment needs to be at the foundation of the framework.  The logic goes as follows: sound environmental governance, legislated and implemented during the transition period, will contribute to sustainable and lasting peace to minimize conflict over resources.

I hope that the people, the Government of Philippines, and the Bangsamoro Government do not fall into the common trap of sacrificing the environment in exchange for short-term economic development. Long-term planning is more crucial, as the threat of climate change is no longer near but here already. An integrated approach to the environment, conflict, and peace are imperative for the Government’s program and policy as well as incoming development projects to the area.

Multidisciplinary Approach in the Future

Environmental peacebuilding draws its body of knowledge from various disciplines. In this particular case, from environmental conservation, structural-institutional change, and post-conflict peacebuilding (trauma healing, etc.). As students of the Keough School, we will encounter more complex challenges upon graduation nowadays, especially problems exacerbated by climate change. With its interdisciplinary approach and mix of several concentrations, hopefully the Keough School can prepare students for challenging circumstances like these.

For me, Marawi rehabilitation represents the complexity and scale of challenges that environmental, peacebuilding, and development actors will increasingly face.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups

by: Nzubechi Pantaleon Uwaleme

How does one move from living “with” the people to living “among” the people without having one’s  “otherness” or “foreignness” amplified in everyday life? This and many other questions continued to occupy my mind the moment I began my field experience in Kenya.

I had learned in my Ethnographic Methods for Peace Research class various ways of navigating the field, taking conscious note of one’s positionality and reflexivity in research contexts. My experience in Kenya has been full of opportunities for reflections and making observations that help to understand how my identity in a particular context shapes events around me. I’m interning with the Life and Peace Institute’s Kenya Program in Nairobi. LPI is an international center for conflict transformation that works  in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region.

How Sustained Dialogue Prepares Youth For Change

As a non-Kiswahili speaker, I have struggled to interact  with young people, the constituents of my field engagement, given their preference for sheng or Kiswahili slang. This is one point where my identity becomes an opportunity for building relationships and friendships, as many of the youth participants at the Sustained Dialogue (SD) sessions (LPI’s pilot program for the youth as drivers of peace) are fascinated by the uniqueness of my name, opening space  for interaction and mutual exchanges. Most of my time at LPI is  spent listening  to young people’s  stories, issues, and challenges, and their hopes for a better future. The youth participants at the SD sessions get to spend seven months experiencing the five stages of Sustained Dialogue: The Who, The What, The Why, The How, and The Now! The SD session is designed to enable youth participants to become more aware of their issues, understand each other, and utilize the process of dialogue to transform tense relationships while acquiring skills that will help them shape their future.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
Meeting and discussing with youth moderators during a Sustained Dialogue session.

In spending quality time with these youth, I have been exposed to the realities of being a struggling young person in Kenya. Many young people in Kenya are facing strained relationships with security forces, especially the police. Some of them emphasized the lack of trust between security actors and young people, which results in profiling, indifference, and extra-judicial killings. There is a high rate of crime involving or suspecting youths. As a result, it has become a norm to categorize the youth population as “unsafe” and “harmful” thereby creating prejudices and biases on the capacity of youth to be agents of change. However, it has become unpopular to look beyond these stereotypes and focus and assess whether every youth is unsafe or harmful as described.

When I look at the long process of SD, the seven months of activities, and how committed these youth have been so far, I wonder  why we can’t see the hope in them for a better future. These youth have learned the physical, social, and psychological dimensions of supporting one another. They’ve learned to cope with their peers’ stories of trauma and tackle challenges together. They have learned the process of dialogue and how to be accommodating, tolerant, and supportive of one another. I have realized that when you confront reality, abstract concepts become difficult to talk about but easy to understand.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
Participating in exchange, learning and reflection sessions in Nakuru with SD youth moderators.

Transforming Themselves To Transform Others

During this transformative process, I have come to know these youth as “hopeful”. The resilience they have shown through peace actions and community service is one that is born out of a conscious desire for constructive social change. Many of these youth have used the SD sessions to transform themselves from passive observers to active peacebuilders in their communities. They’ve transformed themselves to transform others. Given the diversity of participants, the process has led to changes in attitudes—between Muslims and Christians, different tribes, and the majority-minority divides—thus, building trust and relationships that transcend prejudice and generational biases.

I have participated in many of the activities organized by these youth. They have used graffiti messages to demonstrate  hope and encourage their peers to avoid crime; they have provided bins in public places that are targets for waste accumulation; they have planted trees to support climate action and to remind themselves that they are on a journey of growth; they have raised awareness and campaigned against electoral violence in various counties; they have coordinated dialogues for youth in the streets;  they have used theatre and other arts to make peace less remote to the local people; and they have equally been involved in resolving conflicts among youth from different communities.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
Taking the “change is in your hands” placard from a fellow youth during an awareness campaign in Eastleigh alongside International Day of Peace.

These are various ways the hope-filled  youth are driving the wheel of change, bringing their peers together and addressing the local dynamics of youth issues using a local response that propels others into action. Many reformed youth attribute their change of action to the very inspiration they got from the SD participants during their peace actions in communities. Many are expressing how they’ve been lured into the good life by their peers who are hopeful for a better future for them.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
An overlook of the Westlands neighborhood from my apartment in Nairobi.

Addressing Structural Violence within Transitional Justice Processes

by: Maria Isabel Leon Gomez Sonet

Given my current interest in the links between structural violence, inequality, and transitional justice, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Cape Town, South Africa, has been the ideal place to carry out research for my MGA capstone project. Initially, my inclination was to choose a Latin American country, given that all of my professional and academic experience up to that point had focused on Latin America, particularly on human rights and U.S. foreign policy in the region. However, I decided that, given the opportunity to conduct research as part of my Master of Global Affairs program, I should do so in a new context to compare, learn, and analyze solutions carried out by other countries for problems similar to those in my own region.

Understanding South Africa’s history

As I read about South Africa in a post-apartheid era, one thing was clear to me: the peace negotiations and the transitional justice process—mainly focused on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—were successful in stopping direct violence, leading to democracy and the creation of a new constitution. The constitution appears comprehensive and inclusive of all South Africans; however, the promises of change mostly remain on paper and the structural foundations of apartheid are still in place.

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. This inequality results in huge socioeconomic issues such as poverty and unemployment as well as limited access to basic services such as health, sanitation, and education for the majority of the Black population.

Dsitrict Six Suitcase, an example of the research into links between structural violence, inequality, and transitional justice
Visiting the District Six museum. District Six is a former residential area in Cape Town. More than 60,000 people were forcibly removed by the apartheid government during the 1970s and it was declared a whites-only area.

South Africa and Guatemala: Cases of Historical Inequalities unaddressed during Transitional Justice Processes

As I now study the South African case, I find connections with the Guatemalan case, a country where a comprehensive peace agreement was finalized in 1996 after years of civil conflict.

Prior to joining the Keough School, I worked in Guatemala and saw firsthand how, despite an inclusive peace agreement signed almost 25 years ago, the indigenous people (who were the main victims of the conflict) are still living in poverty, marginalization, as well as enduring criminal violence and militarization. Both countries have a deep history of embedded racism and inequality, which to this day remain unsolved behind promises of peace and reconciliation.   

My research is a case-study-based approach regarding South Africa and Guatemala. I focus on moments of missed opportunities, turning points, and failed policies that resulted in the inequality and structural violence still present in both cases—even after inclusive transitional documents. I would like to explore these questions for both cases, keeping in mind the economic and political contexts, as well as the international and external pressures both countries faced at the time of transition. As I collect my data in South Africa, I have five topics of emphasis that transitional justice processes fail to address: socioeconomic inequality, gender justice, security reform, mental health, and issues of land and other natural resources.

Protesting Climate Change
In front of the South African Parliament where youth came together to demand climate change action.

Comparative findings thus far

In the case of South Africa, the TRC’s narrow and legalistic definitions of justice and violence resulted in the recognition of only 22,000 official victims of human rights violations. The millions of people that suffered systemic structural violence during the apartheid years were not counted as victims. For instance, during apartheid, more than two million people were forcibly displaced from their homes and land. However, these displacements were not taken into account as violations and therefore not subject to policies of reparation. In Guatemala, promises from the State to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and to address historic inequalities remain on the papers of the peace agreements.

Both countries face ongoing issues such as violence against women rising at alarming levels. High levels of criminal violence and gangs leading to the militarization of poor and already vulnerable communities are present in both. Gender justice, as well as important reforms to the security sector, did not occur during transition periods. In both contexts, issues of healing, addressing trauma, and psychosocial as well as mental health problems stemming from violent conflict and structural violence have been superficially addressed by the State and seen mainly as the responsibility of civil society.

As we have learned in the International Peace Studies concentration coursework, achieving peace is not only about stopping direct violence. We refer to this as negative peace (as per the work of Johan Galtung). Positive peace is inclusive of transforming oppressive systems that will address systemic injustices and inequalities.

The exclusion of socioeconomic issues, gender, land, trauma, and security sector reform from transitional justice is not accidental. Transitional justice processes have been historically important to document and disclose the truth behind massive human rights violations. However, these processes often aim for liberal constitutional democracy and market economy as their end goal.

Transitional justice should be a long-term process—rather than a truth commission with a deadline—and should focus on transforming oppressive and unequal power relationships and structures that are at the root of the conflict itself.

A comprehensive and holistic agenda for transitional justice processes is hard to deliver in practice, and we must take into consideration the economic and political contexts in place. However, we cannot dismiss the important connections between peacebuilding in post-conflict societies and socioeconomic and development issues. Otherwise, we run the risk that victims of direct violence will perpetually suffer from structural injustices, and that promises of a new post-conflict nation will remain only on paper.

A photo in Nelson Mandela's house
Picture taken while I visited Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg.

Nuclear Weapons and the Moral Imagination

By: Nate Van Duzer

Last spring in our Strategic Peacebuilding course, the MGA Peace Studies students learned about the concept of “the moral imagination” from peacebuilder and former Kroc Institute faculty member John Paul Lederach. I’ve been reflecting on this concept during my six-month field placement as a researcher with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in Geneva, Switzerland. It strikes me that, in the world of international advocacy, ICAN exhibits a clear moral imagination.

In 2017, ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its successful campaign that led to the landmark 2017 United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Underlying the campaign’s hard work was a simple premise: focus the conversation on the catastrophic, real-world humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, not on abstract political concepts.

ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. They let me hold it.

Nuclear weapons used to be the only category of weapons of mass destruction not banned by international legal instruments, but the 2017 treaty fills that gap. More than two-thirds of the world’s states support it; governments around the world have been engaging in internal processes to ratify the treaty, which will enter into force once 50 nations ratify it.

In his book The Moral Imagination, Lederach defines the title concept “as the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.” Developing a moral imagination is a community vocation, not just an individual one. With hundreds of partner organizations around the world, ICAN builds a shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Some critique the work for a future without nuclear weapons as being hopelessly idealistic or irrational. In her speech accepting the Nobel prize on behalf of ICAN, Executive Director Beatrice Fihn countered, “but we represent the only rational choice. We represent those who refuse to accept nuclear weapons as a fixture in our world, those who refuse to have their fates bound up in a few lines of launch code.” Later in the speech Fihn declared, “those who say that future is not possible need to get out of the way of those making it a reality.”

The main assembly hall at the United Nations in Geneva.

ICAN recognizes the challenges of the current moment in nuclear disarmament policy. Regular news headlines showcase what seems to be a renewal of the nuclear arms race among the nine states with nuclear weapons. But the organization remains hopeful in its outlook, believing in the possibility of an end goal that many cannot even envision. This belief, in my opinion, is the moral imagination at work.

In my first year after college, I worked for an organization called Sojourners. The head of that organization, Rev. Jim Wallis, often says, “hope is believing, in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.” As more countries ratify the 2017 treaty, as more financial institutions refuse to fund companies that produce nuclear weapons, as more parliamentarians in nuclear-weapons-supporting states sign a pledge to support the 2017 treaty, the evidence for how the world understands these weapons changes.

This fieldwork assignment at ICAN has proven to be a refreshing perspective shift for me. For almost a decade before enrolling at Notre Dame, I worked inside local government institutions. A lot of good work can be accomplished from within government, but it is easy in that environment to get stuck in existing paradigms and lose vision about what other futures might be possible. Effective civil society advocacy can remind us of those alternative futures–and give us a glimpse of the moral imagination at work.

Switzerland is very expensive, but also a magical mountain wonderland.

The Case for Rehabilitation: Peaceful Responses for Interrupting Violent Patterns in El Salvador

By: Jacqueline Shrader

When I first started sharing with my colleagues and community that I would be living in El Salvador working with ex-gang members, their first question was “Will you be safe?” This question was admittedly ironic, since my placement was with Creative Associate International’s Crime and Violence Prevention Project (CVPP). While the question was rooted in concern for my well-being, it reflects the ways in which the discourse around El Salvador is dominated by violence, gangs, and poverty. 

At the Keough School of  Global Affairs, many of our classes demand interrogation of themes like this. In contexts of violence such as those in El Salvador, there has been a tendency to rely on repressive tactics that risk exacerbating the problem. There are an estimated 60,000-70,000 active gang members in El Salvador. If each of those gang members is part of a family who could be affected by repression, then there is tremendous risk for creating more division in the larger society rather than addressing the original conflict. 

The CVPP is one of the first large projects to work on tertiary prevention, which is direct intervention with people looking to leave gangs. Focusing on rehabilitation of people trying to leave the gangs—already very challenging—creates opportunities to lower the number of gang members, decrease violence, and address original factors that lead to people joining gangs. Out of most of the ex-gang members I have spoken with, many reference wanting to feel like their identity is respected and that their well-being sustained. Due to contexts of unresolved conflict, scarce resources, classism and other issues that maintain violence, people who join the gangs seek alternative groups that respect their human dignity.

Ciudad Delgado - El Salvador
CVPP has focused on public space rehabilitation. This was a community painted mural that seeks to brighten the neighborhood and reinforce community building.

For example, there are two dominant gangs in El Salvador, both of which originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 90s. During these years, a surge of Central American immigrants fleeing civil war and conflict landed in LA seeking refuge. LA did not have the infrastructure to support the sudden influx of  people, which resulted in high unemployment and dense urban living situations. Existing gang violence and insufficient municipal infrastructure created an impossible reality, which led to the creation of new gangs for safety and community reasons. With high homicide rates and violence in LA, the US responded with heavy-handed incarceration and deportation policies. This response sent young men back to their birth countries, though many  did not even speak Spanish. The policy implementation could not have foreseen the violence that the US would export back to Central America, which in 20 years would create a new iteration of the immigration crisis. 

For the last 10  years or so, the popular rhetoric assigned to gangs and gang members in Central America has been one based on violence and fear. The violence perpetuated by gangs is harsh and inexcusable, leaving several communities in El Salvador struggling. Through extortion and other forms of violence, the gangs in El Salvador pose threats to the Salvadoran social fabric that increase instability, migration, and lower chances of success. With every new iteration of repressive mano dura, or Iron Fist policy, gangs adopt a more formal infrastructure and presence. 

Gang members may commit violent acts, but the questions need to be asked in order to think about gangs origin and historical trajectory. Why did they end up in a gang in the first place? How did the public institutions, international policies, and social fabric fail people enough that they would join a gang? How do gangs provide a sense of safety or security to involved people that they may not feel otherwise? Applying an anthropological lens reveals more answers that may not excuse behavior, but offer hints for disrupting and transforming violence. 

Chapel painting
This painting hangs in the Chapel at the University of Central America, San Salvador. It depicts the military’s violence during the civil conflict, which eventually led to the murder of 6 Jesuit priests in 1989 by the military.

As a peacebuilder from the USA, I come home every day with new questions, information and experiences to think about. My country not only deported the original gangsters, but also policies that provide quick answers without addressing root causes. Scholar-activist John Paul Lederach’s reflections resound daily: “To speak well and listen carefully is no easy task at times of high emotions and deep conflict. People’s very identity is under threat.” The starting question may still be, “Will you be safe?” But as practitioners, we must reframe the question to “How is this person not safe due to underlying structural and historical causes that threaten the dignity of the person in front of me?” If practitioners do not, we risk replicating historical patterns of violence towards current and future generations, compounding the root causes and contributing to future insecurity. 

Pupusas
Pupusas are a famous Salvadoran food.

Voices of Hope Amid Complexities

By: Ephraim Bassey Emah

To what extent should outside peacebuilders (or newcomers) display optimism for positive social change despite the presence of protracted conflicts in an environment? This is a question that I struggle to answer as I engage my Master of Global Affairs field experience in Myanmar.

Based on my interactions so far, it is clear that as long as local populations, who are the most affected by the conflict, demonstrate optimism, then outside interveners should keep the faith and continue to show solidarity with them. This attitude, I would argue, should be part of the professional ethics and individual responsibility of [outside] peacebuilders, and shape how we engage with conflict-affected populations. The strength that communities need to transform conflict relationships, achieve long-term social change, and thrive is often embedded in their collective display of resilience, positive attitudes, and belief that violent conflicts will de-escalate or disappear.

Overlook of Yangon from RAFT Office.

Myanmar is a beautiful country with a rich culture, substantial mineral deposits, and a friendly people. Despite these endowments, different complex issues continue to drive conflict escalation and frequent clashes between the country’s military, called Tatmadaw, and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in different parts of the country. Continued conflicts in Shan and Rakhine states are just one of the major conflicts that occur around the country. The continuation of fighting in locations like Rakhine State reveals the complexity of contextual issues and how the outcomes of the conflicts shape relationships among citizens. Ethnonationalism, ethnocentrism, demand for political autonomy and resource control, and the weaponization of religion to incite hate are some of the factors that sustain the conflicts. A continuous polarization of identity and broader national security by different armed actors, including the government, threatens social cohesion and the possibilities of achieving integral human development, a core principle and goal of the Keough School.

Achieving sustainable peace and human flourishing in environments affected by high-intensity conflict is difficult. As I engage in deep reflections about opportunities that exist amid the complexity in Myanmar, interactions with youth help me realize that outside peacebuilders’ emphasis should be on integral human development and integral peace. Pursuing both goals emphasizes the importance of “carrying everyone along.”

However, the optimism of many groups who are working beyond narratives of hate and stereotypes demonstrates significant hope for peace and conflict transformation in the country. This optimism is further amplified by the existence of civil society organizations, like RAFT, whose organizational make-up reflects a dynamic mix of technical capacity, contextual awareness and sensitivity, firm resolve and commitment to collaborative peacebuilding actions, and a desire to build peace across various identities. My immersion in Myanmar, through the guidance of RAFT, enables me to more deeply understand the ethics associated with engaging local contexts, being sensitive to different dynamics that exist, carefully triangulating information, and maintaining the best attitude and poise that is required to manage conflicts.

It is evident that because the sources of conflicts often emerge from local populations, they are better placed to develop locally-owned and locally-driven solutions for transforming their problems. Therefore, as a peacebuilder and participant-observer, it is my responsibility to interact cautiously within this space. Because we do not wish to do harm, peacebuilders should recognize that we are not “saviors,” but “facilitators” of positive social change. We may be experts with technical capacity, but may never be experts of local solutions. Therefore, supporting local populations to identify and leverage available resources and utilize their agency to build peace is one of the greatest gifts that outside peacebuilders or interveners can give in any context.

Program Coordination Meeting with some RAFT colleagues.

The growing level of hope for a peaceful Myanmar among young people stirs their resolve to display group solidarity regardless of their ethnic or religious inclinations. I remember Min Nyan Shwe, a young colleague at RAFT, telling me one time that “even though there is fighting everywhere, we know things will change one day.” This hope expands the space for mobilizing collective action towards reducing discrimination, strengthening the agency of youth to pressure conflict actors to end violence, promoting social cohesion, and transforming narratives that have divided citizens for decades.

My interactions with many young people have also opened my eyes to the paradox of a peacebuilder’s position. Although the positionality of peacebuilders provides power, legitimacy, and increases access to resources, our work will be more effective when we channel our resources toward sustaining the optimism growing among local actors, regardless of the difficulties that they face. It is not “what” peacebuilders offer to transform conflicts that often matters; it is “how” these resources are transmitted that sustains peacebuilding.

A Display of Youth Solidarity.

As peacebuilders enter new environments, we automatically become a part of the context and its issues. Our vocation is one that requires us to identify and create solutions constantly. Solutions are easily recognized through genuine and deep reflection, respect for context, awareness of sensitivities, developing and maintaining the right relationships, and a display of humility to learn through the processes that shape us.

Peacebuilding is a conscious journey toward identifying opportunities for inclusive and sustainable solutions, despite the existence of structural and institutional complexities. Solutions are not always created. Sometimes, they are already available at our fingertips. We only need to reflect, visualize them, and overcome the fears and constraints that the environment may create towards implementing them.

Journeying in While Journeying Out: Cultivating a Reflective Practice

by: Parusha Naidoo

Photo at top: My classmate and I attending peace rallies in Nairobi, Kenya, on the International Day of Peace. 

I have spent the past six months navigating through the streets, people, and places of Nairobi. To assure you (and my professors), this navigating did not entail abandoning my internship and research to become a matatu driver (although that may have made for more interesting blog material).

Instead, I say “navigate” because my daily journeys between my place of work, the grocery store, and my home necessitated the skillful maneuvering of my limbs between cars, boda bodas, and uneven or non-existent sidewalks. I also say “navigate” because I have been required to continuously reorient my personal and professional truths, often performing mental gymnastics as I stretched myself to see, feel, and think in ways that I had never been required to before.

So how does one make sense of these navigations?

Reflective practice

What I thought would simply be a supplementary aspect of my semester living in Nairobi and interning at the Life and Peace Institute gradually became the central component to how I made sense of the many worlds I found myself needing to traverse.

I spent my first few months in Nairobi largely frustrated that I could not follow a blueprint to aid me in my physical and mental voyages. I soon realized that not only did this blueprint not exist, but it was also impossible to pen down for the inherent reason that there was no one single version of the Nairobi I was experiencing. First unconsciously and then consciously, I found myself turning to the internal process of reflection as a way to name and make sense of my surroundings.

Reflective practice can be understood as a sustained and indefinite process of holding an awareness of both what happens around you, as well as within you. With no clear end and beginning, this practice allows us to untangle our observations, sit in contemplation of these observations, and potentially move towards action in response to the many things we see, feel, and think. In its simplest form, it is a two-way commitment: one to continued learning through a deliberate decision to be vulnerable and another to uncovering a kind of visceral knowledge we hold through mindful presence.

Mindful mobility

Nairobi is anything but one-dimensional or static. Rather, it is a place textured by multiple worlds that overlap, contradict, and co-exist. The most tangible example of this description can be observed in the spatial layout of the city, where Kibera – one of the largest slums on the African continent – is surrounded by Lavington, Kilimani, and Kileleshwa – some of the wealthiest suburbs of Nairobi.

Through my internship at the Life and Peace Institute, I was able to enter spaces of Nairobi that someone like me, the mzungu, would otherwise not have been expected to be found. Whether it was attending town hall meetings with community leaders in Mathare or Sustained Dialogue sessions with youth in Eastleigh, these experiences cultivated a sort of internalizing, which left me always “switched on.” By engaging with reflective practice, I was able to discern what my presence meant in these spaces, as well as the privilege of my mobility to traverse between the worlds of Nairobi’s slums and suburbs.

Eastleigh Nairobi Kenya
Participating in a peace action march in Eastleigh with Life and Peace Institute’s board members and community members to raise awareness of the need for better schooling support.

There is an immediacy of physical and mental presence that you cannot escape when you walk through the streets of Kibera or share a meal of sukuma wiki and ugali with youth leaders, or have someone you barely know invite you to their humble home in Kawangware to make chapatis on a Saturday afternoon. Through the sharing of meals and laughter, the stark realities of structural violence demanded an intimate solidarity that pushed me closer to the worlds I would otherwise never be exposed to, even if only for a few hours.

Mathare Nairobi Kenya
Mathare at dusk. This photo was taken on a visit to my colleague and friend’s home.
Closing the distance

Despite the close physical proximity of unequal worlds, Nairobi, like many cities, allows for distance and disconnect. This is because so much of the worlds we have created employ distance from the “other” so that we are not required to actively engage with the injustices we see. The distance allows us to not stop and see our role in both the atrocities and achievements of humanity. This distance dehumanizes us. Choosing to reflect means closing that distance and going beyond the dualistic thinking of victim and perpetrator, rich and poor, or peaceful and violent.

Reflection demands we see our agency and the structures surrounding us as a struggle against a world that would otherwise tell you to not feel, think, and see. The daily practice of capturing my observations and thoughts through writing prompted me to find the language for experiences I would otherwise not have been able to articulate. In some instances, it also forced me to step away from the sometimes clinical and technical phrases we can throw around when operating from the stance of a peacebuilding practitioner or academic.

But the power of reflection is not so much in the act of writing down words, but in the recognition that we cannot accept what we see in front of us and rather that we must journey internally and address the very questions we would rather not grapple with on a daily basis.

Nairobi Westlands
The daily commute: a short walk at the end of the day for me, but for many of my fellow pedestrians this was the first part of their long journey home.
Reflection as resistance

I have come to embrace reflective practice as liberatory and an act of resistance: going beyond the binaries, refusing to be detached, and humanizing the experiences of the worlds we traverse. It is an active decision to sit in the uncomfortable and difficult space of untangling an encounter that we would prefer to normalize and not acknowledge. Reflection is a practice of daily resistance that is demanded of everyone, regardless of professional inclination or geographical location.

It is the realization that things are not simply the way we see them to be at first sight. It is a practice that requires us to recognize we don’t in fact know it all or have a full grip on what it means to be a peacebuilder. Instead we must recognize that we are constantly learning and unlearning our ways of being in the worlds we traverse.

Reflective practice provided with me something. It was more than a map. It provided me with an internal compass to make sense of the many things I was seeing, feeling, and thinking as I developed within my vocation as a peacebuilder.

People Peace

by: Malalai Habibi

Upon my arrival to DC, I started working to lay the groundwork for the Afghanistan Peace Campaign (APC). This campaign is not officially launched yet, so I have been doing in-depth research and news analysis on the peace efforts to end violence in Afghanistan, known as Kabul Process. Because I wanted to experience organizational fieldwork as well and I found many interesting opportunities, I ended up taking on two organizational field placements. So, with the APC I can now say that I am completing three internships!

The first organization I work with is the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) which is focusing on women, peace and security, and the second is Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), where I can put my focus on anti-corruption compliance.

For this blog, I wanted to focus on my personal experience with ICAN. ICAN is a small organization, but a very professional one. When seeing their office, one cannot believe that so many creative and professional programs and projects are improvised, planned, and implemented in two small rooms. Their office is situated in the Brookings Institution’s building, so it is a small tworoom organization at the heart of one of the biggest think tanks in Washington, DC: what a contrast!

ICAN has an established relationship with small women-led peacebuilding organizations in many countries affected by conflict. Their relationship is not like a donor-and-receiver one, but like two collaborating entities with the same mission: successful peace and sustainability.

As part of my internship with ICAN, I am supposed to contact the Afghan partners and facilitate work and collaboration. I have been going through proposals and working on their monitoring and evaluation.

I started corresponding with the founder of one of the Afghanistan NGOs to inquire about her activities. While speaking with her a few times, and as it is the case with nearly all Afghans, we were trying to find a mutual relation or friend. Again, as it is the case with all these attempts, we were successful! Her son-in-law who is living a few minutes from us is a mutual friend of my husband. The NGO holder was coming to the U.S. for a visit. I decided to visit and welcome her in a friendly manner, another Afghan tradition. And to my surprise, I found her to be a humble woman working for the improvement of Afghan women. Nearly unaware of all those theories of peacebuilding, deradicalization, integration, preventing and countering violent extremism, bottom-up approach and above all ‘Do No Harm,’ she is implementing and practicing these ideas impactfully and in highly committed ways.

Since meeting this woman, my mind has been preoccupied with her and with wondering what all other activists are doing in such societies. I have learned more from her than from any event, seminar or symposium I have attended in DC and those theories and books I have read. She spoke with me about her experience very briefly, but each of those experiences was very informative and educational for me.

My new friend told me how she could mobilize 11 groups of Taliban. While the majority of INGOs and NGOs are working in the urban areas of Afghanistan and do not dare to go and work in the rural and remote areas, she is among the few who dared to go to those areas where mostly the Taliban and other insurgent groups reside. She believes these areas need the deradicalization and educational programs more than any other place. Her NGO provides training and workshops for the people in those areas without differentiating between Talib or not-Talib families. This made her very popular, especially in the remote areas. She said she has a picture of a Taliban Commander who is distributing hygienic kits among women.

This woman uses different tactics, from approaching the wives of members of the Taliban to be intermediaries and speak with their husbands, to providing them with short-term funds to launch entrepreneurship activities. She is very strategic and is able to identify and use these points of entry with the conservative people in remote areas in order to deradicalize them.

Her activities remind me of mediation theories and the importance of using local potential to solve problems. She provided a sewing machine for a Talib wife with funds out of her own pocket so that the wife could sew as a bread-and-butter job. She tried to provide the sewing machine before the recent Afghanistan parliamentary election. When she was asked why she was in a rush to buy the machine and could not wait for funds, she answered that she was going to provide it before the election in the hope that it might aid in deradicalization. For instance, if the woman’s husband possibly was going to jeopardize the election, he might decide not to when he sees that there are people who care about their family and try to help them. It reminds me of the importance of identifying potential dangers and root causes and trying to tackle them before they become chronic and out of control.

This woman told me about a Talib who came to her and asked for help to start a small shop for selling dung (which people still use as fuel in rural areas). The Talib promised her that if he could have a small source of income, he would never continue fighting.

She also spoke of many challenges as well. She said that after conducting workshops and entrepreneurship training for many women in the rural areas, the Taliban wives came to her and asked for the same programs for themselves. She tried to persuade other international NGOs to conduct such programs for them, but they refused for fear that if something threatening happened, they would be blamed for letting the wives of the Taliban in amongst other people.

While reading some of the proposed projects at ICAN, I was surprised to see that nearly all the proposals are written very eloquently, professionally, and effectively. NGOs have successfully implemented programs from making documentaries about women to holding focus group discussions, capacity building training, doing research, and promoting national dialogues.

As I think about the principle of the local turn, I now am able to see that truly the people on the ground can identify the root causes of conflicts, know how to address them, and improvise very professional solutions to tackle them far better than any professional outside intervener. At first it seemed to me that someone with a very extensive background on peace and conflict might have written the proposals: someone who either has studied this field for many years or worked in the highest position within this discipline so he or she could address these issues so elaborately. But as I get to know the NGOs and their workers more, I understand that this level of proficiency and expertise has been gained by being in the field, working on the ground, and collaborating with locals and taking them into account.

One of these activist women with whom I spoke once told me that people are tired of hearing the rhetoric of “political peace” and that they want “people peace.” It was so interesting to me that these activists, many of them nearly unaware of all peace studies theories, can still identify the exact problems facing their communities. And above all, that they take the initiative to tackle the problem themselves. I wish that they could have more support in order to start a durable and inclusive peace from the bottom up.


Photo at top of story: Advancing the Women, Peace and Security Agenda: Understanding Masculinities at USIP with ICAN and its partners, from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka.

From Ouelessebougou to Baltimore

by: Djiba Soumaoro

In Malian French, we have an expression: “Le cordonnier est le plus mal chaussé,” or “the shoemaker wears the worst shoes.” The English equivalent might be: “The plumber fixes his own pipes last.”

I got to thinking about these aphorisms during my daily commute on foot from my apartment in Baltimore’s upscale Mt. Vernon neighborhood to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) headquarters near the seedy Lexington Market. As I approach, beggars ask for spare change, the homeless huddle in doorways, alcoholics congregate around a liquor store, and drug-addicts wander aimlessly or are occasionally sprawled on the sidewalk. This despondency is the face of America’s violence.

My six-month internship with CRS, part of my Master of Global Affairs program at the University of Notre Dame, has afforded me an extraordinary opportunity to learn about peacebuilding. For the past six years I’ve lived in the U.S., but I was born and raised in Africa. My wife is Malian, like me, and we have a lovely baby girl.

CRS Headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, USA
CRS Headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

I like my hometown of 20,000 people in rural southwestern Mali. From a distance it looks like a large village at peace with itself on the rolling savanna. Up close, however, it’s violent. Girls do not graduate, we don’t trust each other, we suffer chronic food shortages, malaria kills our young and old, youth no longer respect elders, and religious leaders fail to inspire. Corrupt, despotic government is normal. When I left Mali, I didn’t understand the inherent violence in these realities. I knew nothing about modern peacebuilding, but I knew some traditional peacebuilding strategies.

I count myself fortunate to have landed on CRS’ Equity, Inclusion and Peacebuilding (EQUIP) team. EQUIP consists of a handful of staff dedicated to improving life conditions for overseas youth, women and girls, and anyone who is marginalized and oppressed. EQUIP members are experts in governance, protection, gender, and peacebuilding. Within EQUIP, I was assigned to the Africa Justice and Peacebuilding Working Group (AJPWG), which focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa. Its five members–three of whom are based on the Continent–provide technical assistance to CRS’ field offices, to the Catholic Church and its networks, and to local partners in Africa. They develop tools and methodologies based on lessons and best practices. I find this work interesting and stimulating.

When I arrived at CRS, I had many of the traditional worries of an intern: How could someone like me do anything useful? Would CRS benefit from my internship? But I soon had little time for such preoccupations.

I began drafting an annotated bibliography for case studies involving CRS’ youth, elections, and peacebuilding projects in Ghana and Liberia. I conducted research on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) in Mali. I developed an outline for my capstone project on youth and religious leaders in Mali. I became so busy that when it happened, it took me by surprise. I was poised to experience an epiphany.

Soon after my arrival, my CRS mentor invited me to attend the AJPWG’s annual Institute for Peacebuilding in Africa (IPA). The IPA was a week-long workshop that covered the basics of peacebuilding—Peacebuilding 101—all the things you would want to know if you were thrown out in a conflict zone and asked to design a project. Nearly 500 people have taken the workshop since 2009. This year it was going to be held in La Somone on Senegal’s Petite Cote, about 600 miles from my hometown. Twenty-three development professionals representing a dozen countries in Francophone Africa came, and I would be able to visit my family after the workshop.

My group was the first to use the Peacebuilding Fundamentals Participant’s Manual, a document comprising the basic IPA curriculum. It was full of helpful tools and exercises. That was the good news. The bad news was that I had to stand up before my peers and lead sessions. Among other things, my job was to explain the John Paul Lederach triangle! Despite my fears, I discovered that teaching is the best way to learn and practice new skills. Fire hardens steel as they say. It prepared me for what was to happen in the coming days.

As I travelled across the Sahel, I reflected on “learning by doing.” I had survived the scrutiny of my peers. It felt exhilarating. In Baltimore I had already begun to reflect on conflict in Ouelessebougou, Mali—my community. How could I get involved? What tactics and tools would be appropriate? How would I use them? At the beginning of my internship, I never imagined what occurred to me now. I had the tools I needed in my backpack: the Peacebuilding Fundamentals Manual. I could get started.

I needed to act quickly. I only had one week. Representatives of 10 youth associations and the largest women’s associations in Ouelessebougou gathered at the Youth House. Using the “Conflict Tree,” the participants identified two major issues and mapped their root causes and consequences. The participants linked the mismanagement of schools and a dysfunctional school system to extreme youth poverty. We found that a lack of education was causing high youth unemployment which self-serving politicians were manipulating to create insecurity in our community. Young people no longer trusted each other. Relationships were broken. Parents were apathetic about their children’s education.

Peacebuilding conflict tree
The conflict tree we created at Youth House in Ouelessebougou.

Emboldened by their progress, the women and youth suggested follow-on activities. How about a connector project? What about a youth entrepreneur program to create jobs and discourage political opportunism? Could I return to conduct three trainings or workshops per year? Why not use the Conflict Tree to analyze problems in the household? The region? At the national level? Participants later approached me and thanked me profusely. It was the first time that women and youth had come together to discuss common issues and solutions.

The following day, Ciwara, our community radio station, featured me as a guest. How could young people be inspired to pursue higher education and change their lives in positive ways? How could parents be encouraged to care about their children’s education? Many young people quit school to make quick money panning for precious metals and stones. Few got rich and some returned with disease, pregnancies, and divorces. Awareness-raising and education were needed. Like a tree, education would offer a long-term investment bearing fruit and nuts over time. I gave examples of people who had struggled, who made such investments, and how education had changed their lives. They had been children of farmers, blacksmiths, and well diggers. A child born in lowly circumstances could become an ambassador or a minister.

Radia Ciwara Mali
Me at Radio Ciwara in Ouelessebougou, Mali.

After the broadcast, several people greeted me at my family’s home. Some parents told me that my radio talk had opened their minds. They were persuaded that they needed to care far more about educating their children. Some people were so taken by the discussion that they called the Station Director to request weekly programs on this topic. I reflected that the IPA had motivated me to take action and enabled me to make a real difference in my home community.

I returned to CRS in October and resumed my daily routine. I saw the police handcuff someone on the streets. I saw the drug addicts, and I read about mass killings. I asked myself: Why are Americans unable to solve gun crimes and drug problems in their own country? Why do they spend so much money to solve violent conflict overseas? Could the federal government and the City of Baltimore work together to resolve violence? How is it that a power like the United States, able to help other countries reduce violent conflict, cannot stop police brutality, drug abuse, and mass incarcerations on its own shores?

I have no answers, but I wonder how long it will take for public places to become safe and peaceful in the U.S. Could the same social cohesion and conflict analysis tools I used in Ouelessebougou help identify the root causes of gun crimes and mass shootings in Baltimore? Malians and Americans share the same sense of urgency regarding social problems, and maybe the tools and solutions are not that different.