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Health through Peace; Peace through Health

November 5, 2015

Next week, long-time peace activists Medact are holding a two day conference exploring Health Through Peace, in collaboration with a number of other organisations including International Alert. The conference runs through two days: Friday-Saturday 13-14th November and it is not too late to sign up. A great line of speakers is expected, exploring the links between health and peace in the modern era.

It’s pretty obvious if one takes a moment to consider it, how peace enables improved health outcomes: health through peace, as the conference frames it. A country at war, whether civil war or internationally, puts people in harm’s way, diverts resources from health services and some of the other services which keep people healthy. Physical and psychological health suffers.

But peace is not simply the opposite of war. Peace activists these days most often base their activism on some version of the idea of positive peace. By this they mean that peace is not just when armed forces and militias lay down their arms, but when societies possess the mechanisms, institutions, culture and habits needed to anticipate and resolve or at least manage the kinds of conflicts which are bound to occur within and between nations as they do their best to survive their present and improve their future. This means not just “war”, but other kinds of violence, especially chronic violence which affects people and communities: it includes violence against women and other vulnerable people. It also includes the violence done in the name of or because of organised crime: Mexico is not at war, but neither is Mexico at peace.

Looked at this sense, no nation in the world is completely at peace. Perhaps no nation ever will be truly at peace in the fullest sense: but that does not mean we should stop trying to move our societies ever close to this notion of positive peace. Oddly, perhaps counter-intuitively, this way of thinking about peace is rather empowering, compared to the simpler definition of (“negative”) peace as the absence of war or fighting. In the latter case, individual citizens rightly feel they have limited power to influence things, even in liberal democracies. In 2003 huge numbers of UK citizens demonstrated against their involvement in the Iraq invasion. But they failed to prevent it. Whereas if one takes the notion of positive peace seriously, one can see that it can only be built incrementally through a network of efforts: there is no way one can implant through simple government actions alone, the ‘mechanisms, institutions, culture and habits needed to resolve or at least manage conflicts’.  Ergo, they can only be built, incrementally, by a web of people and institutions working at different levels of society in different and – taken as a whole – complementary ways. So although we may be frustrated at not being able to wave a wand and make (say) a newly democratic Myanmar or Tunisia, an economically depressed and divided Bradford or Paris banlieu, or a chronically insecure Somalia or Afghanistan, positively peaceful, what we can do is ask, what can I/we  contribute here?

And if one digs into positive peace a little deeper, it quickly becomes clear that the health through peace idea works in the other direction, too: peace through health. At its simplest, a physically and psychologically healthy person has more options: she can attend more school, earn more, save more, and have more control of her life. So she (or he) is less susceptible to being manipulated into violence, to being a victim of violence, and more likely to be in a position to stand up for peace and against violence and war. If one scales this up to think of a “healthy society”, one can see that this is also a resilient society: resilient to the kinds of mechanisms which lead people down the spiral into violence, from which it is so hard to return.

International Alert is contributing to some of the sessions at the Medact Health through Peace Conference, and I look forward to learning more through the discussions we will have there.

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