What Is Peacebuilding? Gaining Clarity at the AfP Conference
Over the course of three days, I heard the Assistant Secretary General to the UN, the Colombian Finance Minister, the founder of Upworthy, and numerous experts from across the academic, NGO, governmental, media, and policy spheres come together to discuss peace. Though the titles held by panelists at the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s 2017 Annual Conference are remarkable, I came away from the conference with more than an increased arsenal of name drops. I left with a more crystallized idea of exactly what I’m doing at AfP and in the peacebuilding field.
Since beginning my Scoville Fellowship at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, I have been confronted with the question “what is peacebuilding?” and frankly, struggled to answer it. I can describe what I do at work, but can’t always articulate how it directly contributes to peace in the world. That’s not reflective of the efficacy of AfP, but rather a result of how nebulous the concept of peace can be. Is peace the absence of war? Not to women who experience an uptick in sexual and domestic violence after the cessation of armed conflict. Is peace economic prosperity? Not to a person who has a good paying job, but lives in fear of state sponsored terror. Is peace a stable government? Not to an ethnic group who remains excluded from political life and access to justice. Peace is not exactly concrete, so how do we build it?
Emily with one of her students, Srey Am,
during her Minerva Fellowship in Cambodia
As a Political Science student, I was drawn to peace and conflict studies in part because of its complex nature. I saw how conflict upended life and how peace was often unevenly applied or loosely defined. Following graduation, when I completed a fellowship in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I observed firsthand how people experience the ramifications of this quasi-peace, where violence has largely ceased but injustice, corruption, and oppression persist. I became certain of one thing: true peace, and not just the absence of war, is a precondition for human rights and security, for social progress, and for good governance. My interest in the field is driven by this certainty; I want to comprehend why conflict arises, how it can be prevented, and how peace can be sustained. My work at AfP has added a layer to that goal; identify methods that build what was absent in Cambodia, in other post-conflict and fragile contexts, and among some marginalized populations in developed countries; true peace. These methods are broader than I anticipated. In school, I grasped the relationship between inequality, injustice, exclusion, and conflict, but I primarily thought of peacebuilding as the processes that address these issues after a conflict. I have quickly come to realize that peacebuilding is more than post-conflict transition. This allows for interesting analysis and intellectual growth, but hasn’t exactly been helpful in my quest.
Emily with Laura Strawmyer (Scoville Fellow Fall 2016)
at the Alliance for Peacebuilding Conference
The AfP Conference brought me closer to understanding peacebuilding in practice. As I heard panelists discuss questions like “How do we translate nonviolent movements into normative change?” or “Are peace processes a mechanism for the return to the status quo ante, or are they intended to elicit a transformation?” and “What does meaningful participation look like for women?”, I was both fascinated and overwhelmed. That nagging question popped into my mind, “what is peacebuilding?” If peacebuilding is all at once gender equality, access to education, good governance, nonviolent action, and more, how do we get to a common framework and advocate for the necessity of the field? How do I tell my friends from college, who can describe their job in 15 seconds, what I do?
During his speech at the conference, Dr. Eric Rasmussen said, “we need to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.” That may sound slightly “let’s hold hands and sing kumbaya” to those not embedded in this kind of work, but it clicked for me, and I don’t think it’s unrealistic or naive. I began to think that peacebuilding is really about inclusion and a system of power equitable enough that any person can make change. When despair overwhelms hope, peace is unlikely. I know hope is not enough to end conflict and foster peace, but, if individuals, communities, and nations believe change is possible and have access to transformative tools, peace becomes more likely. Perhaps peacebuilding is creating space for diverse perspectives and room for change. Perhaps the connection between gender equality, access to education, good governance, media campaigns, nonviolent action, and more is that they each contribute to shaping societies sufficiently inclusive for all people to have hope. Peace still feels a little ambiguous to me, but after my first AfP Conference, I’m confident hope is a first step and I have the business cards of a few people far more qualified than me to lay out the next steps.