It was an intense end to an intense week. The young woman – she couldn’t have been more than 15 – looked at my colleague and I, and told us with a trembling voice, “I don’t understand why peace should be such a big deal. Peace should be natural, like air or water.” We were sitting in a portentous conference room at the United Nations in Geneva, at a public presentation of the Conducive Space for Peace Accelerator, and a high school student on a class trip had just said one of the most important things we’d heard all week.
This young lady had hit the nail on the head; building peace shouldn’t be a big deal. But for those at the frontlines of the effort – citizens and communities in areas of conflict, and the local and national organizations created to support them – finding the resources to build peace is a very big deal. Not only do they have to work to address (and survive) the conflict dynamics in front of them, they spend their lives writing grant proposals, logframes and progress reports, telling their funders what they’re going to do, what they’re doing, and what they’ve done, often with little time in between to actually do it. They know better than anyone what is needed to build peace in their societies and communities, but when they succeed in getting funding and attention, all too often they are rewarded with less money than they need and time horizons that look laughable in the face of the complexity of the conflicts they’re trying to manage.
The initiative that brought my colleagues and I to Geneva aims to prompt some changes on this front. A four-way partnership between the Institut Malien de Recherche-Action pour la Paix (IMRAP), Interpeace, the Institute of Development Studies, and Humanity United, ‘Vestibule de la Paix’ is an initiative that aims to demonstrate that communities can build peace for themselves. Building on the pioneering work IMRAP and Interpeace have already done in conflict-battered Mali, helping Malians to establish a culture of inclusive, participatory and constructive dialogue, we intend to support Malian communities as they explore their own experiences, map out the dynamics they face, and start to address them collectively. If at first they don’t succeed, they will try again. Collectively, we will be there to support them, learn from them, and use a range of strategies to convince other peacebuilders to pay attention.
Why was the Conducive Space for Peace Accelerator useful for us? Firstly, we are a multiorganizational, multilingual team spread across three continents. We have a strong common vision, built over years of concept notes and workshops – but we all know that a few well-chosen questions can bring a host of untested assumptions to the fore. As we modeled our conception of our project out of Lego and faced a warm ‘question bath’ from our fellow Accelerator participants, we got the chance to see where we were really on the same page and where we weren’t. It’s hard for the elephant to stay hidden in the room when you have to decide collectively where to put it.
Just as importantly, we got the chance to situate our work within a broader network of passionate, experienced, and committed people, who know from direct experience that the peacebuilding system is broken. We emerged just as confident in our work and in one another as ever, but also fueled by the knowledge that we’re part of a bigger movement – from the Global South to the north, from trauma healers to institutional intrapreneurs – of people who are tired of seeing our collective efforts fall short of lasting peace. It felt like a big deal. (The good kind.) Peacebuilders shouldn’t need to fight as hard as they do to get the support they need to build their own change. If our high school-aged friend can see what’s wrong, I have faith that we can build together a broader movement to transform peacebuilding.
This piece is part of HU’s ongoing series exploring a new approach to peacebuilding. Follow the discussion at https://humanityunited.org/conducive-space-series