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Matt Michels

Passion.  Reliability.  Experience.

Seasoned strategy specialist and program manager for education, youth, and peacebuilding initiatives at both local and global levels

My Notes

  • Writer's pictureMatt Michels

The Peacebuilding Two-Step

The 20th century saw a wide range of peace activists. Whether you were calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons, protesting the Vietnam War, or trying to thaw the Cold War, peace was a hotly debated topic. Since then, the conversation has evolved, and in recent years has become especially relevant in development.

If you ask people what they think about when they think about peace, most will talk about ending a war. I know because I’ve asked a lot of people that question for my work with PRYDE. But the opposite of peace isn’t war, it’s conflict more broadly, with war being a particularly horrific subset. Conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be physically violent, though, to do some serious damage to a society. Inter-group rivalries, poverty and inequality, and social injustice are just some forms of conflict that feed and reinforce social divisions.

Peacebuilding has thus taken on a much more comprehensive meaning than it used to. It used to be about, put simply, brokering ceasefires, developing equitably responsive institutions, and promoting alternatives to physical violence. Now it’s about fostering social cohesion and healing the wounds of the past. Including some old and deep ones. Building peace is now about actively building a society instead of just preventing it from fraying.

To their credit, many international development and aid organizations are recognizing this and adopting peacebuilding in their programs. What these organizations need to be careful about, though, is ensuring that peace and peacebuilding are weaved into all their programs. That they aren’t just additional programs running parallel to their existing work. In the same way as the development and aid community have worked to incorporate a gender perspective throughout their programs, they should also adopt a peacebuilding perspective. For two reasons: to do no harm and to actively promote greater peace.

Conflict by its nature pervades all aspects of society and all levels. As such, any program or policy initiative – addressing any aspect, at any level – can be, and usually is, viewed in society in the context of a given conflict. Development and aid organizations need to be aware of this. For example, if someone is working on access to clean water and improved sanitation, it may in some circumstances make sense to start in urban settings where there are more people, greater existing infrastructure, and more pressing sanitation needs. But what if two groups in conflict happen to break down along urban or rural lines? While the development workers have the best of intentions, it may appear to some communities as if the project is targeting or prioritizing the urban dwelling group, while not doing anything for the rural group. This can inadvertently widen divisions and worsen a conflict. Being aware of the conflict dynamics in a context and being sensitive to them in designing and implementing programs are thus essential for not exasperating conflict. This is what we mean by conflict sensitivity and why conflict analyses are so important in development and aid work. That’s step 1.

Being aware of and sensitive to conflict dynamics to avoid doing harm is important enough. But conflict sensitivity also opens up doors for organizations to significantly broaden their impact and the sustainability of their results. Social divides complicate development and aid programs, sometimes blunting the results sought. It thus serves an organization’s interest to design programs that address these divides, to make their work more effective. Doing so enables the organization to deepen its impact on its primary goals, making implementation smoother and results more sustainable. But it also introduces a secondary impact: helping communities build social cohesion and peace.

Peace is about getting people to come together. It requires people to identify with each other, empathize with each other, and work together for common purpose. Development and aid programs are an ideal context in which to facilitate this, and a supportive and complementary avenue to specific peacebuilding training sessions, community sensitizations, and widespread public education initiatives. Going the extra step of using conflict-sensitive programs for peacebuilding – even if they are not primarily about building peace themselves – is step 2.

As the world’s definition of conflict correctly broadens beyond war, the effects other kinds of conflict have on stunting communities’ and countries’ development will become ever clearer. Development practitioners and organizations need to acknowledge now the importance of conflict sensitivity and sustainable peacebuilding, not just ending war, for successful development and aid programs. They then must be strategic in designing and implementing their programs both not exasperate existing conflict and actively promote sustainable peace.

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