The next part of our program that stands out to me is the sessions we had with Bridget Moix on how the international peacebuilding field is failing local peacebuilders and what can and is being done about it. Here is the situation in a nutshell: There is an international peacebuilding apparatus that consists of the United Nations, governments, international NGOs and other agencies that have a particular approach to peacebuilding, namely, to look at conflicts as originating at the level of governments and to work to solve them at the level of governments through a somewhat standardized recipe of democratization, elections, and free markets, also known as “liberal peacebuilding” (owing to the fact that it draws on some of the same assumptions as neoliberal economics). The problem is that conflicts do not always originate at the level of governments and they are not always (or often?) caused by a lack of democracy, elections, or free markets. Instead, conflicts have much deeper, more complicated causes, and they often simmer at a local level, the everyday life level of towns and villages, even though this level may interact with the national or international level in some ways that affect the conflict.
The key fact that is overlooked, that the organization PeaceDirect is based on, is that in the midst of any conflict situation, no matter how dire, there are people working to build peace, who are rejecting the use of physical violence and looking for another way, who are working to resolve the roots of the conflict.
Ignoring the existence of these local peacebuilders, the international peacebuilding apparatus designs programs for peace and exports them to conflict zones. In the US, programs may be created using a combination of what people in Washington DC think will work and what they know USAID will agree to fund. If their proposal is funded, they charge a local organization with implementing their (1-2 year) program.
It is not that the international peacebuilding apparatus should not exist, or that it has no role to serve. Simply, it is very hard to know what the real causes of conflict are and to come up with appropriate, creative solutions for reconciliation if you do not have ample experience in the community. It also seems logical to me that the creative ideas that arise from people working for peace in their own communities are likely to be right for their communities in ways no needs assessment could have predicted.
Additionally, there is the feature of moral authority: the most powerful leaders are those who are seen by the others around them to have a legitimate authority to lead – either someone whose actions are informed by their own experiences of conflict or violence or someone who works for peace out of a strong personal conviction and out of a sense of their own implication in the situation.
The way I see it is that there are people who do peacebuilding as a career, and those who do it as a calling, and the latter roughly correspond to local peacebuilders, the former, to those who work in international organizations and who work on conflicts to which they are not necessarily proximate, who work as cogs in a machine rather than agents in their communities.
This doesn’t mean those who work in international organizations are always cogs and never agents, or that the work they do is illegitimate or unhelpful, or that their jobs are not their calling. I think the work of individuals in international organizations could be incredibly helpful and necessary, and that some individuals in these organizations may feel that they have found their calling. But the lesson I’m drawing for myself is that I cannot work as a peacebuilder with authenticity and moral authority if I do not take a stand on issues in my own community and work to improve them. For me these issues are white privilege and racial inequality in the United States, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area where I am from.
It’s very difficult for me to come to this conclusion. I went to graduate school to get experience that would lead me to have a career and make enough money for a comfortable living. I am tired of doing jobs that mean nothing to me, and I long to provide for myself and my family with a job that feels worthwhile. I am soon to graduate with loans to the tune of $100,000, and I will have to earn a high enough wage to provide for my family while also paying for childcare and loan repayment, not to mention saving to buy and house and invest for retirement. If I’m in the United States, that means earning at least 2 to 3 times the cost of childcare, or $4,000-$6,000 per month. This means that I cannot devote myself full-time to anything that does not pay well. Additionally, I have put a lot of effort into learning French and Arabic. What point of learning these languages if I do not use them? I see myself working in France or the Middle East or North Africa, or at least on programs targeting those regions. How do I reconcile my allegiance to multiple localities, my responsibilities to multiple communities?
Maybe the point is that no conflict is really “someone else’s conflict.” If people are dying anywhere, that is my problem, too. Maybe the question is really how everything will come together for me, how I will work to improve racial justice in California and the US more broadly – which is my problem and my responsibility, and how I will improve the situation for refugees in the Arab world or Europe – which I am also called to do.