Tired of war? Since the end of the Cold War, there have been more than 125 recognized armed conflicts around the globe. Most have been civil wars that escaped the attention of the Western world.
Occasionally, snippets of those conflicts flicker across a TV screen, with a glimpse into social and economic collapse brought about by a campaign of terror _ until the next sensational something replaces it. We took a moment in January to celebrate the Sudanese peace agreement, but it quickly was “out of sight, out of mind” until this week, when the rebel leader’s helicopter crashed. Now will the peace hold?
Having a marriage certificate doesn’t mean you’re going to have a healthy marriage. And a successful peace agreement is no guarantee for lasting peace. In the past 15 years more agreements have been signed than in the previous 200 years. That’s progress. But half of those accords failed as conflict resumed. Sound bites suggest peace arrives with the politicians’ smiling handshake over their peace-accord signatures. But that only signals the need for peace-building to begin.
We’re more active in stopping deadly conflict, but that peace isn’t persistent. Simply ending violence guarantees nothing long-term. For sustained peace, we must identify root causes of war. Thankfully, there’s a growing peace-building effort in the international community. World governments should support creative local leaders working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to resolve conflict and restore community among combatants and civilians.
Established in 1986, International Alert has become one of the world’s leading NGOs specializing in peace-building. Today it’s active in more than 20 countries and territories around the world.
Dan Smith, secretary general of Alert, finds new challenges in each country he visits. But he notes one constant: social and political fragility. Liberia, for example, has been plagued by violence more than 25 years. “It takes tens of thousands of Liberians working with U.N. personnel and organizations like Alert to keep the peace,” said Smith. “But it would take only a handful of warlords and a few hundred unemployed young men to plunge the country back into war.”
Seventy percent of Liberians are unemployed, and the average annual income is $130 _ what many Americans spend at Starbucks. Without opportunities for education and employment, it’s easy to see the attraction of rebel groups offering food or shelter.
“If these young guys come back from the forest and into the village, the job prospects for them aren’t good,” said Smith. “They remember when all they needed for respect was an AK-47 and the willingness to use it. So you have to look behind the horror that they have perpetrated and engage with their humanity, embracing them into the community.”
Smith said we need more accurate and comprehensive mapping of conflict. We perceive a world where every inch of land is claimed and crisp, colorful maps show us where different territories lie. Yet, dozens of today’s civil wars are regional, with soldiers and refugees moving across borders every day. “When you approach conflict resolution on a country-by-country basis,” said Smith, “you’re not going to succeed. The answer lies in finding ways to knit the powers together.”
Once we understand an area of conflict we can address the causes of instability. As those in the peace-building business can attest, that can mean months, even years, of building schools, training farmers and providing business loans. Said Smith, “If you are not making progress on human rights and good government, then you will probably undermine everything you’re trying to do with poverty eradication and security. The loss of any single element can undermine the rest.”
If we can dedicate international military forces to end conflict, we can bring together international efforts to build lasting peace for our world neighbors. Organizations like International Alert are doing this kind of constructive and creative political engagement with marginalized and radicalized groups. By following their lead, we just might do as well with peace-building as we are with signing peace agreements.
(Swanee Hunt, former U.S. ambassador to Austria, teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is author of “This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace.” She can be reached at response(at)swaneehunt.org.)