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Is Peacebuilding Concrete Policy or Abstract Theory? The Answer is Both

When I was a little kid, maybe six or seven, I obsessed over sharks.

Angel sharks, hammerheads, bull sharks, lemon sharks: I loved them all, although I reserved special reverence for great whites. At the library, I checked out marine encyclopedias and learned, for instance, that sharks never stop swimming, not even when they sleep. The aquarium was a paradise. Jaws was a tragedy. My commitment was so intense that when friends asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had a fancy answer: “oceanographer.” Most first-graders didn’t know that word, so I received a mix of awe and confusion.

I’ve traveled a far way since then—although not as far as tiger sharks, who travel up to 5,000 miles during yearly migrations. Thanks to the Scoville Peace Fellowship, I’m working at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, a hub for over 100 organizations around the world. Still, when I describe my job as “peacebuilding,” I get a familiar reaction: wide eyes, an uncertain grin, and the inevitable question, “What does that mean?”

Actually, I’m glad they asked. One of my early projects at the Alliance for Peacebuilding was supporting a campaign to get “peacebuilding” in the dictionary. For over 40 years, peacebuilding existed as a field, just not in the English language. In September, a global group of organizations launched a publicity campaign to change the situation. So yes, for those wondering what “peacebuilding” means, Cambridge, Collins, and MacMillan Dictionaries have a formal answer: “the application of measures to maintain peace in an area that has previously been affected by conflict.”

Sam at a New York City event celebrating the inclusion of “peacebuilding” in several dictionaries

This definition is useful and accurate but fails to capture the excitement of the field—just as, for example, a text description of a great white fails to capture the dangerous beauty. (I really could continue these references forever.) The reason that peacebuilding matters to me—that I feel inspired at my desk at 9 AM—is that the word implies a total moral view. Peacebuilding suggests how we ought to treat ourselves, others, and the world. It links abstract morality and concrete policy. At day’s end, I can leave behind my peacebuilding work, but in the most important sense, I can never leave behind this work. No one can. We all have an obligation to build peace through our lives.

Still, what does “peacebuilding” mean? The answer depends on what you see as “peace.” For many in the field, peace opposes violence, which comes in many forms. We all recognize direct violence—a dropped bomb, a fired bullet, a thrown punch. But what about a government that denies housing, employment, or health care to an oppressed group and thereby shortens lifespans? You might call this “structural violence.” And what about a society founded on the myth that men must dominate women, Hindus must dominate Muslims, or the rich must dominate the poor? You might call this “cultural violence.”

These terms aren’t original. Johan Galtung, the Norwegian godfather of peace and conflict studies, theorized a multi-level definition of violence. Peacebuilding organizations have taken up his vision with gusto. As a field, peacebuilding aims not only to stop the most obvious horrors—the civil wars, violent extremism, and religious conflicts—but also the factors that underlie these horrors. Peacebuilding organizations advocate for non-militaristic policies, fight intergroup bias, and strengthen communities by engaging local priorities. Consequently, successful peacebuilding does not stop wars; it prevents wars from occurring in the first place.

Sam at the Alliance for Peacebuilding office.

Alliance for Peacebuilding supports and connects organizations that do this work. We forge partnerships for campaigns, advocate for sustainable policies, and promote an evidence-based culture. Personally, I spend much of my time supporting the Peacebuilding Coalition, a recent group of organizations determined to raise the global profile of peacebuilding. Other assignments include a “Narratives for Peace” project that blends psychology and peace studies, research articles on current events, and management of working groups on nonviolent action and countering violent extremism.

My work comprises only a small part of Alliance for Peacebuilding. But the overall stakes for peacebuilding are huge. One life ended by violence is far too many, and in the past few years, levels of violent conflict have reached a 25-year peak. Military battle is only one form of violence. Other forms include polarization, nativism, racism, and a dozen different modern ills. Unfortunately, the challenge looms as large as the stakes. Peacebuilding requires a fundamental re-imagining of flawed societies—an excavation of roots, a blossoming from the ground up. As a Scoville Fellow, I’m drawn to peacebuilding because it’s important and because it’s hard.

More than anything, I’m drawn to peacebuilding because I believe that it’s right. Love yourself, love others, and love the world: This three-part manual suggests approaches for most daily dilemmas. I may not always succeed (in fact, I rarely succeed), but the simplicity of the approach sits well with me. As a field, peacebuilding elaborates this basic morality into complex strategies and policies. Promoting cross-cultural dialogue rather than violence—this is what it means to love others. Advocating for funding to create sustainable economic structures—this is what it means to love the world.

Fifteen years ago, I probably envisioned myself in a shark tank by now, somewhere at sea. Well, in many ways, I am at sea. Careers are long, life is complex, and I have so much to learn. The Scoville Peace Fellowship has given me an extraordinary opportunity to practice an approach that I value above all others. If I had to pick one word to describe how my experience has gone so far, I’d choose “fantastically.” If I had to pick a second, I’d choose “swimmingly.”

Sam Danello is a Fall 2018 Scoville Fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding.