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Magic dragons can’t build peace. Leaders can.

January 5, 2018

A central conceit of Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s wise and beautifully crafted novel The Buried Giant (Faber and Faber, 2015) is that an uneasy peace between the Saxons who had migrated to the British Isles in the fifth and sixth centuries, and the British people they found there, was maintained as long as a magical dragon remained under the spell placed on it by Merlin, King Arthur’s court wizard. To say more would be to spoil the plot for future readers. But a common thread in the novel seems to be about the difficulties of coexisting peacefully, whether for an ageing married couple, within and between local communities, or between ethnic groups – and how magic dragons can help.

But peace is not the natural order of things, and can’t simply be switched on – by a magic spell or any other means. Violence all too often results when people compete over limited resources and power, or when they fear others have designs on the resources and power they hold. So peace has to be built – and then continually sustained, as there is always a risk it will be eroded. This applies to families, communities, countries and internationally.

Stepping down last month after over a decade as director of programmes at peacebuilding NGO International Alert, I reflected on what I’d learned about peacebuilding – an area of practice in which I’ve been involved since 1994, just two years after Boutros Boutros-Ghali set out his Agenda for Peace, an international vision for peacebuilding.


The complex ecology of peacebuilding

Peacebuilding as a discipline has been evolving apace since then. Much has been learned, and I think it’s fair to say that there’s considerable agreement that peace is more sustainable when people and peoples have functional, trusting relationships; transparent, fair and accessible mechanisms for making decisions which reflect all parties’ interests; and when they have fair access to economic opportunity, security, justice, education and the means to stay healthy and well. This way of framing peace permeates the peacebuilding sector, from the programming methodologies of NGOs like International Alert, to the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals associated with the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding and the New Deal for Building Peaceful States, to the UN’s current Sustaining Peace Agenda.

What’s less commonly agreed – not the least because it is less clearly established – is just how to build and sustain peace. There are a plethora of frameworks out there, providing practical guidance and/or setting out different sets of norms and principles: from Responding to Conflict’s essential  Working with Conflict, through sets of guidance linked to various religions, to Alert’s recent (and secular) Redressing the Balance report. All of these contain different takes on how to improve the prospects one’s own peace, help others improve theirs, or contribute to a wider global, mutual, shared peace. Most are probably mostly right, and taken together they reflect the reality that all of us can make a contribution to peace, therefore the methodologies and approaches need to reflect the different capacities, instruments and tools we each have or can aspire to. The complex ecology of peacebuilding, in which many valid and complementary niches co-exist.

I won’t attempt to improve or add to these. They all bring a useful addition to the body of accessible knowledge, and contribute to the understanding of how to make progress towards a peace which transcends the interests a particular, dominant group. But is there anything I’ve learned, that’s worth putting on record as I make my personal transition from long-term NGO employee to freelance consultant?

Alongside all the very useful knowledge and guidance about dialogue, training, conflict-sensitivity, gender, conflict-mapping, root causes analysis, political settlements, stabilisation frameworks, citizen-state relations, prosperity for peace, structural peace, connectors and dividers, political economy analysis, centre-periphery relations, post-conflict reintegration, peacebuilding pyramids, positive and negative peace, reconciliation, security sector reform, inner peace, conflict transformation, social orders … and all the merry rest (the list could go on and on), one thing above all stands out: the importance of leadership.


The order of things

Renaissance writer Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, his book on governance, that ‘there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things’. To that, I would add that at times, the peril and difficulty comes from trying to prevent a negative change in the order of things. In either case, the point is that standing against the tide takes a combination of vision, courage, practical ideas about how to proceed, and the ability to inspire others: in a word, leadership.

Many years ago, I took part in a meeting to discuss how a group of NGOs might contribute to peace in Northern Uganda, where for year after endless year, up to a million people had been held hostage by the conflict between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Our discussion was underpinned by our common frustration that for years, we had been able to do little more than provide inadequate services to people stuck in concentration camps, while the war continued to undermine their livelihoods, and taint or terminate their lives.

We were making little real progress in our well-meaning debate, until my neighbour – a humble man I did not until then know well – stood up, brusquely interrupted proceedings, and told us that we were wasting our time. “Until we are able to discuss the real causes of this war, and talk honestly about finding political solutions to the issues which have caused it, we won’t change a thing”, he said. His own daughter had been abducted by the LRA, so he had a very personal stake. And he was right: we were – albeit for understandable reasons – swimming with the tide by avoiding some of the difficult political issues until he spoke up. His  intervention stopped us in our tracks, and from that pivotal moment the discussion took a more useful turn. His intervention led to the formation of an advocacy group – Civil Society for Peace in Northern Uganda – which I am convinced made a significant contribution, through its advocacy with political leaders, thought leaders and members of the international community, to bringing that conflict to an end. Leadership.

During my time at Alert, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with many others who, like my neighbour at that meeting in Uganda more than fifteen years ago, have stood their ground to make a change happen – or prevent a bad change from happening – in the order of things. Some were Alert colleagues, others Alert’s collaborators and partners. Not all of them exercised their leadership in the classic, leading-from-the-front way: indeed, some were happy to play a quieter leadership role. I will not embarrass them by naming them here, but it is actions such as theirs, underpinned by courage, vision and ideas, which make the world fairer and more peaceful, brick by painstaking brick.

Some have stood up for the moderate, middle ground – and risked having both extremes unite against them. Others have stood up for the rights of women, or particular social groups, to be accorded the dignity afforded to others, and to have a say in their future and a say in how to create that future. Some have acted very locally, while others have worked on a broader national or international canvas. Some have found new, creative ways to frame the context and show where the opportunities for change lie. Some have focused their attention more on people than ideas, while others have done the opposite. I have seen some hang their heads in tired defeat, exhausted, before recovering their energy and returning to the task, perhaps approaching it in a new way, learning from their previous experience. But they’ve all combined courage, vision and inspiration with an idea of how, practically, to move forward.

So if there’s a lesson for international agencies like International Alert from this, it’s that their role must surely be to continue trying to get to know and support the people – the leaders – who wish to bring about or prevent a change in the order of things, and thus contribute to making their world fairer and more peaceful. If there are any magic dragons out there, by all means let’s work with them too, but a key component in building peace is always, surely, going to be leadership.

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