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Practical guidance for anyone who wants to build peace

March 22, 2018

Among the key features of successful peacebuilding, one often stands out. This is that contributions to peace are made in almost any walk of life, and usually by people who do not see themselves first and foremost as ‘peacebuilders’. They may be politicians crafting legislation to help reduce economic imbalances in their society, diplomats negotiating to restore international relations and overcome a crisis, teachers building relationships between children of different ethnic or religious groups, or members of host communities taking the trouble to welcome and integrate refugees fleeing a disaster. There are thousands of ways – often commonplace ways – people contribute to reducing tensions and improving trust and collaboration among and between people, and between people and those who govern them – the essence of peacebuilding.

But how do people wishing to make a contribution to peace know how to get started? Often they either have to make it up for themselves, or else they decide not to get involved after all, for want of some basic guidance, and they and their communities are the worse for it.

Building Peace Together, a Practical Resource, was  published by the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA) last month, and it was designed with just this challenge in mind. After a short introduction setting out some of the basic concepts of peacebuilding, it goes on to provide simple, accessible and practical guidance under 12 headings: diplomacy, democracy & politics, justice, security, communications & media, arts & culture, education, business, trade & economics, infrastructure & planning, agriculture & the environment, and healthcare.

For each topic, it explains some of the ways people can help build peace. Under Education, for example, this includes designing curricula that encourage critical thinking, or which include an inclusive and tolerant narrative of national history. Under Planning, it includes the need for urban planning to be done in a consultative way that builds fruitful relationships between citizens and the authorities, and for urban environments that minimise segregation and isolation. And under Media it suggests that responsible and truthful reporting can avoid inflaming tensions and even help to reduce them.

What’s also great is that each chapter provides specific practical examples, which hopefully will inspire non-expert readers wanting to give it a go. Each chapter also sets out some caveats and limits: for example, the need for thorough background research and thorough training for journalists, along with a reminder that politicians may resist or try to counter attempts to use the media for peacebuilding. This is important, because although all of us absolutely can contribute to peacebuilding within our own spheres of influence, we also need to understand where the risks and limits lie.

Another feature of Building Peace Together that stands out is its essential humility. The world is unfortunately awash with exhortations and commands: what we should or must do… By contrast – and perhaps this is in keeping with Quaker culture, or perhaps it’s simply a clever tactical communications approach, or perhaps a little of both – this book is careful not to be too sure of itself. For the truth is, although peacebuilding is usually successful, there are no prescriptions: each situation has to be taken on its on terms, and a suitable approach defined accordingly. Hence, the handbook suggests approaches, rather than prescribing a clear course of action. To take just one example, under Justice:

“If victims hear the testimony of aggressors, and have the truth of war crimes recorded, it may increase understanding of how violations came about, creating a basis on which future violations can be prevented.”

Note the use of the word “may”, reflecting that the authors are confident of their ground, but are responsible enough to know that the line of cause and effect in social change and peacebuilding is seldom a straight one, and that – to adapt a military maxim – no plan survives contact with the real world. Hence, they are offering the intelligent reader some decent clues and well-informed broad guidance, while quite rightly leaving it up to him or her to work out the right thing to in their particular circumstances.

The book is being translated into Arabic, Russian and French, and executive summaries are already available in Dutch, French, German and Russian. While the document is free to download, and is produced under a Creative Commons licence, I sincerely hope the QCEA has a sizeable budget for printing and distribution, too. Because this is the kind of document that ought to be physically available: in libraries, and on the desks of civil servants, business people, NGO staff, international agencies and – yes – even politicians, all over the world. Indeed, if I’m allowed a cheeky suggestion, anyone with a few hundred dollars or a printing press to spare, and who wishes to make a contribution to peace, might even consider offering to expand the print and distribution run.

This welcome practical handbook represents a genuine step forward for peace, and joins other important manuals such as Responding to Conflict’s still excellent Working with Conflict as a major resource for all those interested in making a contribution. Its importance cannot be overestimated. Congratulations to the Quaker Council of European Affairs for this initiative, and to Olivia Caeymaex, Darijn Dilia Zwart and Terri Beswick, who wrote it. I humbly suggest that all those in a position to do so, help spread the word.

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