Why peace building is a hurtful business (and what we can do about it)

All I want is peace.



My head is spinning because movements and initiatives supporting women are popping out everywhere, but also with them the cathartic confirmation that deeply ingrained behaviours and beliefs (colonialism, toxic patriarchal ways and racism) impend our best efforts to help.

And it reminds me that peacebuilding is a hurtful business.

That’s why I want to spend a few minutes thinking of the marks left by women fighting for peace through social movements, politics, and social enterprises that impact on people, planet, and the rule of law.

What if we learnt and took stock of the soft power that female activists, politicians and human rights defenders, such as Marielle Franco, Jo Cox, Berta Cáceres, have been using with great craft, albeit paying it with their life?

Peacebuilding requires a lot of… fighting. That’s the contradictio in terminis that sadly forms the basis of activism. Fighting to get heard, fighting to co-create with the voiceless a platform where they can follow up their aspirations and exert their rights in dignity.

Yet peace-building starts the moment you decide to nod and smile at your neighbour and understand how it impacts on their day.

In NGOs and social enterprises, peace-building efforts are embedded in every-day (well-run) governance.

Reflecting on the disrupting presence and actions of women in activism such as Marielle, Berta and Jo could be a pathway to progress, and whilst in your own context you might not risk your own life, it is nevertheless a mark of social leadership to use their tools for your greater purpose.

I want to hear what you make of their example and really want to read about your own experience in the comments below!

1- Fighting the forces that want to make you invisible

I am totally convinced we need more women in politics, but it’s not just that.

If we want to make this world a place worth living in, we need to look at our everyday connection with power and how it is used.

Your impact will be measured by how you made the invisible visible and how you create a space where they are valued and counted.

Brazilian activist Marielle Franco who emerged from her fight against homophobia, racism, poverty, corruption, and the intersection of it all, made it an obvious choice to grow as a human rights’ defender, a vocal challenger, a peace-maker, and ultimately run for election. This was a symbolic act but also an impactful act of leadership. As she became increasingly political, Franco joined Brazil’s new left-wing party, the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), and quickly became one of its rising stars.

Sadly she paid it with her life.

Journalist and Human Rights activist Rebeca Lerer, from Sao Paulo, says: 

“It’s not just about bringing more women in politics. Marielle Franco was not just a city councillor. She was a black, lesbian woman, born and raised in the favela, involved in the unconditional defence of the human’s rights agenda, and this is for this specific reason that her election was so symbolic, important and even revolutionary. And that is why she has been cowardly assassinated. Not all women in politics are involved with the Human’s Rights agenda, and for some of them, it is rather the opposite.”

Dying for the planet

Berta Cáceres, Honduran environmental activist, Lenca indigenous leader, human rights defender, and co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, once won the Goldman Environmental Prize (the equivalent of a Nobel for environmental defense), for “a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam” at the Río Gualcarque

In 2016, she was assassinated in her home by armed intruders, after years of threats against her life.  There is still to this day an obvious, concerted and evidenced effort to control, neutralize and eliminate any opposition from environmentalists and human’s rights defenders.

Why should you pay attention?

Berta’s work, as well as hundreds of other environmentalists, is about consent, survival and the rule of law.

International treaties compel their signatories to allow free, prior, and informed consent by indigenous peoples before development to take place in their territories.

In many places, people have no way to challenge individuals or companies seeking to control water, minerals, forests, and lands. Quiescence and compliance are key for profit-seeking mining and exploiting companies to grow.

Imagine for a minute not having any say in the access and sustainability of commodities upon which your life depend?

Imagine that for this reason, profit-seeking businesses can make or break peace?

Cities like Sao Paulo, Bangalore, Beijing, Cairo, Djakarta, Moscow, Istanbul, Mexico City, Tokyo, Miami, and London are the 11 cities more likely to run out of drinking water. That, added to pollution and lack of planning infrastructures, can be a major risk to peace.

Think for a minute that London is expected to require an extra 200 million litres per day of potable water by 2025. [London First]. This water will need to come among others from savings or reuse. As there will be more and more severe droughts, water restrictions lasting nine months or more, may be required. Recent calculations showed that a six-month drought order could cost businesses between up to £1.7 billion.

Civil unrest also can occur. This means that water security needs to become a top priority if we want to keep peace and sustainable living in London, like in other large cities. Not something you suspected would take place before long, is it?

Yes, Berta’s legacy is right in your kitchen tap.

Watch this interactive map of Global Killings of Land and Environmental Defenders 2002-2014 (actualised in 2016)  .

To learn more about Berta Cáceres’ extraordinary work, Watch the video below from AWID.

or look at her profile as a Goldman Environmental Prize winner.

2- Have patience, nerves and consensus

Women in the public eye, especially politicians, are constantly submitted to hideous comments about their looks, to threats of death, rape, or the rape of their children.

Even within her short life dedicated to British child poverty, overseas aid and development, and then to politics, Member of UK Parliament Jo Cox managed to make a strong impression. She died at the hand of a man connected to neo-nazi groups, shot and stabbed outside a library in West Yorkshire, UK, where she was about to hold her surgery. Interviewed by the Huffington post about which one thing she would change about UK politics if she could. “A more consensus style of politics looking at problems and getting the best brains involved in them to find solutions,” she said.

“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than that which divides us.“ Jo Cox

Consensus as a peace-building tool is not about compromising and losing ground, it’s a construction principle.

3- Choose “Power With” against “Power Over”

“I think there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea that governance should be ‘power-over’ and abusive rather than 'power with’ and collaborative.” Louise Van Rhyn, CEO Partners for Possibility in South Africa.

Partners for Possibility are connecting good school leadership and educational outcomes. Education outcomes are critically low in South Africa. Most school principals in South Africa have not been equipped with the skills & knowledge for their critically important leadership role. So Partners for Possibility’s daily practice is about building collective leadership capacity. They provide principals of under-resourced schools with a business leader and a development plan alongside tailored support, which address the school’s specific challenges. In a co-productive and collaborative way.

“We have discovered that this is the essence of work. We have discovered how to make cross-sector collaboration work because we have figured out how to move from patriarchy to partnership. I have seen this in action in 741 schools.” says van Rhyn.

Following biomimetic principles, Partners for Possibility don’t source expensive experts to overturn school’s performance, but rather source brilliance from a wide pool of well trained local business people and the magic happens when these worlds collide and create a collaborative recipe of care and compassion.

CEO Louise van Rhyn explains what it takes in practice to move from patriarchy to partnership:

“Partners for Possibility deliberately enables and supports a non-hierarchical process by providing principals with a “Thinking Partner” who:

- Cares deeply. “We think this is the “magic sauce” of Partners for Possibility”, says Louise van Rhyn

- Is in their corner and committed to creating a “safe space” for them.

“These business leaders join PfP and partner with a principal because they want to, and they show up at training courses and community of practice sessions because they don’t want to let their partner down.”

“Traditional aid into Africa has never had an impact because it has been patriarchal & 'Power over’. The only way we will see development work in Africa is when we can work 'with’ other and realise that we all have something to contribute.”

When executives go “on a visit to a poor country to do good work”, there is sometimes a lot of “grinning and bearing” that happens:

For example: “Recipients” bite their tongues when they experience visitors as condescending, particularly when they know the visit will be short-lived. On the other hand, “Visitors” who are on company-sponsored development programmes, where they have an opportunity to shine, can sometimes focus as much on themselves as on the beneficiaries of their input.”

The measure of success is respect, empathy, the right to “divorce” from the process when things don’t go to plan, however through a series of authentic and brave conversations.

Partners for Possibility’s coaches are here to help participants reflect upon the learning acquired. Every single time.

To me, this “Power With” trajectory, as opposed to Power Over, is a robust peace-building process that leverages talent and opportunities. It requires discipline and authenticity.

4- Participants not beneficiaries

“Promoting peace is about justice, inclusion, voice and power.” Cecilia Milesi. 

Born in Argentina, Latin America, Cecilia Milesi is a professional and activist whose work is inspired by the vision of co-creating an equal and just world in which all human beings live in dignity and freedom.

Cecilia considers that this transformation will only happen if the Global South countries and their people play a leading transformational role in local-global politics and if societies are respectful of human rights and citizens’ participation.

Cecilia is now Senior Adviser South-South Cooperation on Peace and Development at the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation.

Cecilia makes a point to talk about participants in programmes she works on. She finds it odd and misplaced to use words such as “beneficiaries” or “clients”. It comes from her dialogue-focused approach and whilst bringing her professional tools about and ensuring that the space is open and safe enough for all to participate, when she supports programmes she insists on respecting the collaborative design approach.

What do you make of these approaches?

I haven’t got any solution to prevent murders, in fact, evidence shows that keeping your head high and your voice loud will get you killed especially if you are a woman. The techniques, values and principles Marielle, Jo, and Berta campaigned for, and that Louise or Cecilia still use today, can be implemented and pushed forward at all time.

Intersectionality in your thoughts and behaviour, as well as respectful and non-condescending participatory decision-making being two of them.

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