As I’ve got more involved in environmental issues, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the community and neighbourhood level is where the action is. There are big international conferences and ambitious government targets, but they usually end up being mostly talk. Then there are all the personal actions for ‘greening your lifestyle’, when individuals take responsibility for their own ecological impact.
Both of those are important, but the biggest impact comes when people collaborate at an intermediate level, when friends and neighbours get together and choose a new way forward.
If that’s true of the environmental moment, perhaps it’s true of conflict resolution too. There are international efforts to negotiate peace settlements, and there are always individuals who choose not to engage in the violence. Surely the biggest and most visible difference would come at the community level here too?
That’s the theory behind the charity Peace Direct, who support local peacebuilders in conflict zones. Out on the front lines in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan or Sri Lanka are dynamic individuals and small grassroots organisations building peace in their own communities. Peace Direct seeks them out and offers whatever support they can.
Perhaps that involves paying the travel expenses of a negotiator as he moves between aggressive militias and local civilians. It could be providing education for former child soldiers, rehabilitating them back into society. It might mean training local mediators in negotiating techniques, or sharing strategies for community-led disarmament.
The great thing about this sort of approach is that is assumes that local people are best placed to understand the conflict, and that they have the greatest incentives to find peace. “Local people are the key to preventing, resolving and healing conflicts” say Peace Direct. “They are the best way to break recurrent cycles of violence and make peace last. And increasingly they want to move away from depending on outside help, towards building their own futures.”
Another benefit of this intermediate approach is that it makes much better use of resources than most forms of intervention. A few hundred pounds wouldn’t pay for canapés at an international summit, but could go a long way on the ground in a conflict zone.
This community level peace-building doesn’t need to be limited to conflict zones either. Imagine a community in the US coming together in the wake of a shooting like the one last week, and deciding that in their town, they weren’t going to carry guns. No change of law, no arguing over the constitution, no standing on rights. Just people choosing for themselves and for their children, that they won’t own guns any more. It’s that kind of bottom-up change of heart about gun culture that will change the national debate.
By nature, community-led peacebuilding is always going to be under the radar. It’s not glamorous or dramatic, and it’s easily overlooked. But I think Peace Direct might be onto something.
- Find out more about Peace Direct
- Insight on Conflict lists grassroots peace organisations around the world