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.

Kenya: An Opportunity to Learn Adaptability and Effective Engagement in Foreign Spaces

by: Loyce Mrewa

Working in Nairobi, Kenya, has been a unique experience with challenges I had not initially anticipated, but it has exposed me to various nuances which will be helpful in the future. This experience enabled me to travel to Kenya for the first time and to work in a country other than my own. It has also provided the opportunity to learn and witness firsthand the implementation of the peacebuilding concepts and tools I have been learning in class. Since I am a foreigner with limited familiarity with Kenya, its culture, and the local language, Kiswahili, I have been observing this implementation process from an outsider perspective.

A bottom-up approach

Being in Nairobi, Kenya, for five months has enabled me to witness and learn about the importance of having long-term engagement. My perspectives about how to engage Kenyans in peacebuilding work have shifted over time, with greater exposure and interaction with locals. Working with a local partner has provided space for interrogation and inquiry about the dimensions and nuances that influence peacebuilding work. It has made me realize the importance of engaging in peacebuilding work with the aid of locals who are more familiar with cultural and social practices that are important to analyze. The significance of the local turn in peacebuilding is being put into practical perspective during this field experience, at least at the individual level where, as a foreigner, I am working and being guided by a local partner with vast local knowledge and experience in the peacebuilding field. A bottom-up approach is an essential skill in the field, because at one point or another you will find yourself in a foreign land or space where you will have to learn from others. In such situations, one has to learn to support and trust in the capability and knowledge of persons from that particular context, and abandon initial assumptions one might hold.

I believe this process of trusting and supporting existing local structures and persons is what is meant by accompaniment and a bottom-up approach, concepts that I am currently learning firsthand in Kenya.

My trip to the coast of Mombasa, Kenya.

The immersion process into Kenya, its culture, and the peacebuilding interventions implemented by our partner organization has also provided space to practice accompaniment by learning from others through observation and providing assistance with projects. This has exposed me to strategies for effectively engaging in foreign spaces and working with persons from varying identity groups to enhance adaptability, social bridging skills, and cultivate an acceptance of differences. These traits are vital for relationship building and working in foreign environments, particularly since soft forms of power such as relationship building (social harmony) are utilized in making societies more peaceful and just.

Me, admiring the beauty of Naivasha.

Although immersion has been challenging for various reasons including language barriers, I have acquired valuable skills and have come to understand the practical importance of a local dimension in implemented interventions. Additionally, I am realizing the importance of working in foreign environments where one has limited familiarity and discovering the strategies for navigating these spaces. I now understand what Susan St. Ville, the Director of the International Peace Studies Concentration, meant in her advice to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” in the field: the lessons learned in the field make the awkwardness of initial engagement all worth it.

 

Touching Hearts in a New Cultural Environment

by: Aminata Karim

Studying at the Keough School of Global Affairs has given me an avenue to connect theory and practice. As a graduate student in the International Peace Studies concentration and now in the second year of my two-year Master of Global Affairs program, I have been able to acquire applicable knowledge and insight from both class and field work. These experiences have not only increased my academic and professional knowledge, skills, and competence, but have broadened my horizons through sharing and learning with classmates from 22 countries and opportunities to hear from notable global leaders. I have had the opportunity to network, learn, and seek answers to questions about threats to global peace in conversation with world-renowned leaders and peacebuilders.

As another measure to link theory and practice, I am currently serving as an intern at Near Northwest Neighborhood, Inc. (NNN) in South Bend, Indiana. During this internship, I have been able to relate the theoretical lessons from my first year of classes to the realities in my surroundings.

The Near Northwest Neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana.

Practically, my NNN field work involves getting to know my community through one-on-one interactions and door-to-door visits. Census tracts are geographical boundaries made by states to easily identify units of houses. Within these tracts in the NNN, we have blocks which encompasses groups of 100 houses as a “block.” As I have engaged in door-to-door visits with a teammate in Tract 6 and Tract 7 of our community, I have learned a lot about our neighborhood and the challenges that individuals are facing. Some of these challenges include:

i) poor management of homes by landlords

ii) the lead contamination in our neighborhood

iii) drug abuse and drug-related crimes

These issues have led to health challenges (especially for children and women), insecurity, and mistrust and suspicion among neighbors.

NNN has decided to focus on an agenda that can help to reverse these trends. The organization’s approach includes working on building a web of relationships, researching how to detect lead contamination, refurbishment of contaminated homes, and collaborating with other partners like Notre Dame and the Department of Health in South Bend.

My involvement in this work has challenged me to relate and engage with new cultures and value systems.

I have made it my priority and goal in the field to focus on how to contribute to addressing these neighborhood challenges. The actions and strategies I have adopted include: one-on-one meetings, understanding the motivations and self-interest of individuals that we can transform into mutual interests to move us to action, forming teams, moving from seeing problems to understanding issues, and engaging key decision-makers. I also capitalized on my previous experience working at various levels with organizations in Sierra Leone on behalf of women who had been severely marginalized and abused.

Aminata
Aminata presents to community members about building power.

In this new role with NNN, my key achievements so far include:

  • Having been able to build acquaintances with many people, I can now continue to build trust with them. Over time, this will elicit a more honest and open way to share their stories, understand their shared values and interest in social justice, and develop a cohesive vision for where we are going as a neighborhood.
  • I have met with at least 50 people in the neighborhood and heard the things that interest them. Now we are working on issues regarding problematic homeowners and landlords.
  • In the same vein, I have been engaging with the local code inspector to work with us and other good neighbors to see how we can best deal with these challenges. To this effect, I am hosting the first meeting between neighbors and the inspector to discuss these issues and forge a way forward.

In addition to community organizing, I am assigned to the Center for the Homeless this semester until mid-December. My role is to work with 10 women on how to solve their conflicts nonviolently. On the first Wednesday in September, we first met and started with brief introductions of ourselves, followed by a game. During the game, each person had to pick out a number of cards. Depending on how many cards were picked, each woman would tell us the same number of facts about herself. We had a wonderful time with one another, setting ground rules and asking everyone to think about what they expect from the classes this semester. At the end of the one-hour introduction class, we all had experienced a wonderful time.

I often reflect on these life-changing encounters as I retire to my bed at night and I feel so fulfilled, because I can see that I was able to touch the hearts of people, and particularly women, in a totally new cultural environment for me.

All of this is happening because of my time at Notre Dame, and I value the school’s contribution in my life.

Aminata and her husband at a recent Kroc Institute alumni event in Washington, DC.

One Day in the Life of a Newsroom

by: Oleksii Kovalenko

“Civility, respect, and a return to what’s important; the death of bitchiness; the death of gossip and voyeurism; speaking truth to stupid.”

This quote comes from HBO’s The Newsroom, the best TV show about journalism in my opinion. Six years ago, when I started watching the very first episodes of The Newsroom, I had not even embarked on a journalistic path, but I was impressed with the inner world of the journalistic profession as described by writer Aaron Sorkin. This world was about truth, credibility, and respect, three goals that I strive to pursue in my career.

Trying to find a perfect field placement to study ways of resisting Russian disinformation and propaganda, I focused in on international news organization Voice of America (VOA). According to its charter, VOA’s purpose is “presenting a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.” For the last 76 years, VOA has produced content in more than 40 languages. Luckily for me, combating disinformation is one of the principles of the VOA’s day-to-day work.

Newsroom research

VOA was founded during World War II to combat Nazi propaganda through unbiased and accurate journalism, and today, with the rising of a new propaganda evil and ongoing information wars, it’s probably the second most important time in the VOA’s history for the organization to live out its mission.

In today’s world, objective, truthful and bias-free information is crucial for sustainable peace and journalism itself can be seen as a form of peacebuilding. Sometimes it feels like “liberal peacebuilding” when journalism is used as a tool against crimes, corruption, disinformation and hybrid wars. At other times journalism can be portrayed as “sustainable peacebuilding,” when the truth is used for the purpose of healing and reconciling.

I have spent some time (ok, too much time) trying to figure out the format of this blogpost. But, as you may observe from its title, I focused in on one day in the life of the VOA’s Ukrainian newsroom. In the best tradition of VOA’s blogs, I’ll try to keep this blogpost short, but thoughtful. So this is a 4-minute read. Let’s get started!

Oleksii in DC

8:30–9:00 a.m.: The bright and totally over-air-conditioned office is filling up with journalists. I have a feeling that coming from Eastern Europe, I can adapt to everything except AC levels in the U.S.

At the entrance of the federal building, employees are welcomed with John F. Kennedy’s quote: “The Voice of America…carries a heavy responsibility. Its burden of truth is not easy to bear.” Meanwhile, the building itself has five stories above the ground floor. The last one is a mess of hundreds of studios and broadcasting rooms where one can get lost.

Newsroom research

9:00–9.30 a.m.: Normally you have two goals for this half hour: you need to find a story (if you haven’t found one yet) and stay caffeinated.

Web journalists are looking for the stories to be published on the website, TV journalists are choosing topics which will go on air after less than 5 hours, so time is ticking.

Summer is a perfect time for most of the interns to fill the gap and show what they can do while staff members are on vacations and VOA might need your help more than any other time. Since the very first day when I finished my paperwork, I’ve been treated as a full journalist, working five days a week from the first cup of coffee in the morning to the time when the work is done. I feel lucky that I have had a chance to participate in every single level of content production. From browsing the servers and watching incoming news feeds, to doing in-depth research about the most important ongoing investigation in the United States, from providing a voice-over for someone’s soundbytes and on to spotlighting disinformation in Ukrainian media.

9:30-10.00 a.m.: It’s a time to pitch your stories.

During the editorial meeting, you have a few minutes to pitch your story, answer tough questions, and prove that the story is worth the team’s time. If the topic is strong enough, after the editorial meeting you will start working on content production, trying to meet the deadline. The deadline is everything. Deadlines differ for different stories, but for web news stories (which is most of what I write), the deadline is always “now.”

10:00–2:30 p.m.: Work like crazy.

These 4.5 hours are really varied for the different teams in our newsroom. TV journalists are working on their stories for the air and content and video editors are trying to make these stories look perfect. Someone is often in the field, shooting new content. Someone is adapting Reuters or Associated Press stories. Someone is making voiceovers. But at 12:00, it usually becomes hot. You must be on time and you must produce meaningful content with broadcast quality sound and picture.

The web team normally has a reasonable time to publish news articles, but it’s breaking news, it’s all about time. You can’t wait, you can’t hesitate, and you can’t be slow. After just a couple of minute,s the story may lose all its value. But even in breaking news situations and even if you are a journalist with 10 years of experience, you cannot press the “publish” button without your editor or another person in the office fact-checking and proofreading your story. This is how you earn your audience’s trust.

Newsroom research

2:45–3:05 p.m.: On air

It’s the most stressful time of the day for editors, journalists, and producers. Everyone feels equally responsible for any problem that arises. When the hosts and the producer are going down to the studios, anything can go wrong: equipment isn’t working, the picture freezes, the network connection is slow. But, at the moment the anchor says, “Good afternoon. This is VOA Ukrainian’s daily show, Chastime,” usually everything flows as it should. None of the viewers can feel the tension on the other side of the blue screen. No one except an intern, who now feels more engaged than just a regular observer.

3:05-5.00 p.m.: A time to breathe

When the most stressful part of the day is over, both for the TV and web teams, you have time to work on your in-depth articles, feature stories, and anything that does not fit under the deadline “now.”

During the first month of my internship, I mostly worked for the website, producing analysis, news pieces, and infographics. I covered the topics of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections, Kremlin disinformation and hacking attacks, and the Mueller investigation. And a solid multimedia story written by me about the Ukrainian side of the Russian interference investigation was recently published.

But I guess my 4 minutes are over for now, right?