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November 22, 2012

Can Gaza and Israel Make the Tough Choice for Peace?

swords-into-plowsharesFor now, no more missiles fly from Gaza to Israel – nor from Israel to Gaza.  The last several days of mutual-retaliation is now at its end.

I will not re-post here what can be read widely in the news:

  • Both sides are announcing victories.
  • Both sides are proclaiming their military superiority in offensive & defensive measures.
  • Both sides are celebrating in some way.

Egypt has itself been reshaped politically in the past few years and played a key role in brokering the current cease fire.  But the text of the agreement does nothing more than stop current acts of violence.  It brokers no real agreement of possible hope!

The fear I posit for the region, though, is the reality that no peace has been won.

  • Both sides agreeing to cease current hostilities in active campaigns of violence does not bring no peace – only the cessation of current conflict.
  • Both sides are burying the dead in their midst, with the high probability that the loss of life will only fuel future hostility.


  • NOW is the time for new conversations to emerge.
  • NOW is the time for abiding hostilities from combatants and enemies to seek out the possibilities of abundant hospitality from communities seeking equity.
  • NOW is the time for nations and powers – not just Israel and Gaza but from every region of the world – to provide support for vibrant life and thriving cities – not escalating armaments for the next conflict.

As an American, my sense is that this current contest will quickly fade into the background as just “one more time” when “those people” “over there” didn’t get along.

It is Thanksgiving as I write.  Americans are concerned about Football, Turkey and Shopping.  The next weeks will focus on the trivial issues of the latest technology “needed” under the Christmas tree and whether or not we’ve stock-piled enough Hostess Twinkies before that company’s bankruptcy.

It is too bad.  It is tragic.

Israeli men dance after ceasefire agreement Nov 22People, emboldened by the current ceasefire, could invest differently in the world – in politics and peacemaking, and in efforts at genuine conversation so the ideologies of war could be reshaped from Jerusalem in the near future.

  • If only people would find a way to talk genuinely and realize practically the need to turn our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning-hooks!  If we could stop building weapons and instead increase our fruitfulness!
  • If only people would find ways to build cities where old women and aged men could sit near the streets and watch as young girls & young boys play together in city parks.
  • If only we had the possibility the announcement, that today, in the region of Gaza-Israel – a message of good news for all people has come – to those currently wrapped in the cloth of war in some hospital room.
  • If only we believed that vibrant life is possible for all people in a world that could be saved.

Now is not the time to stalemate toward the next, inevitable future conflict.  Now is the time to strategize toward and implement a vibrant, life-giving, fruitful peace.

Reprinted here by permission from the author, Marty Alan Michelson.

November 17, 2012

America’s Elections – Peace Lessons for Africa

During the presidential campaign between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, I was glued to my TV screen everyday and most nights. I sacrificed hard earned US Dollars to DSTV in subscriptions just for the election, and I am happy to tell you I wasn’t at all disappointed. Yes, there were some complaints about how archaic or obsolete the American electoral system is, compared to others in Europe and South America, but my African experiences told me otherwise and, besides,  the excitement, cheer and merry were second to none. To me, that is how election time should feel.

US presidential candidates 2012First, the campaign itself went on smoothly, even as the catastrophe of Hurricane Sandy inserted itself into the lives of millions of Americans. The candidates were free to travel anywhere and campaign. There weren’t any No Go Areas, whether those were a particular candidate’s stronghold or the electorate had felt let down by the incumbent and did not want him anymore. Even as he saw Mitt Romney close the gap and threaten to overtake him in polls, Obama did not incarcerate his competitor. He did not manufacture some lie and order Romney’s prosecution. At one point, the two candidates took a break from the campaigns and shared dinner and jokes. Can you imagine that happening here in Africa, even in Ghana or South Africa?

Secondly, there was equal coverage of both candidates on TV and other media. I watched intently as BBC and CNN screened the biographies of the two presidential candidates. There was no ‘Obama TV’ or ‘Romney TV’ even though I am sure the two could afford it.  It was a joy to see some whites supporting Obama, and blacks supporting Romney. My eyes nearly filled with tears at that reality. The whites did not go hunting down fellow whites who supported Obama and kill them, nor did the blacks do the same to fellow blacks who supported Romney. No blood was spilled, as we often experience on our continent.

Third, the candidates had the opportunity to articulate main issues in open debates, and often side by side. I liked what one commentator said—that people in some countries are dying and killing just for the chance to argue and debate. Indeed, that is what most of us in Africa want. We realize full well that we cannot all be president or prime minister or even cabinet minister or high ranking government officials. All we want is the chance to take part in determining our day to day lives, and our future, even at the lowest levels.

I am not sure whether Hurricane Sandy had a role in the final result or not.  However, what I am sure of is that had a similar natural catastrophe happened here in Africa in the middle of an election, heads would have rolled. The hurricane would have been manipulated to suit different ends by the candidates.

Though I could detect an inclination towards Romney or Obama by some TV hosts and news anchors, I saw nothing like we would have had here. We would have expected the anchor to run away with the TV altogether. By the way, usually there is one TV Station, erroneously called National TV.

celebrating electionFourth, it was reported that Obama edged Romney with the votes of minorities and women. The minorities included blacks and Hispanics, among others.  Here is a clear case of a good policy paying off. Besides contributing immensely to the economic and social life of America, the minorities had the decisive vote. In most African countries, minorities are classified as aliens and have no voting rights. They are mostly employed in menial jobs on farms and in mines. In Zimbabwe, it was this subjugation of generations upon generations of migrant workers (some of whom had come to the country in the 1940s) that led them to vote for the MDC.  The ruling party reacted by taking over the farms in a bid to deprive them of their livelihood as punishment. And this led to a national food crisis and everything else that followed.

Another thing to consider is that Obama won in spite of the high unemployment figures and the economy being in bad shape. To be honest, at one point I gave him little chance and thought his country would ditch him. However, in Africa leaders are presiding over worse scenarios. My own country, Zimbabwe, for instance has more than 80 percent unemployment, and we threw away our worthless currency two years ago, adopting the US Dollar and South African Rand instead. American voters realized that while the economy matters, at least it was on the mend. Not many Zimbabweans carry that hope, yet the leaders hang in there and the people trudge on behind them.

romney-concession-speechThe icing on the entire electoral cake for me was not Obama’s speech, but Romney’s. He publicly conceded defeat and congratulated Obama. This happened on the day of results, in a matter of hours. Despite the huge personal and supporter resources expended in money, time and energy, Romney did not feel humiliated and did not incite his supporters to dispute the results, or wait until people had killed each other over those results. He did not form an army to fight Obama and his own people.  He was the first to accept Obama as his president, and wished both his family and him luck and goodwill. I really felt for Romney after that speech, and if that kind of gentlemanly attitude runs in the family. I bet my bottom dollar that one day the world will see a Romney become President of the United States.  Now, is it any wonder then that president Obama promised to sit down with him and see how they could work together for the American people? This is what we need for Africa.

November 16, 2012

Goodness Prevails in Our Stories of Hope and Hardship

On November 3rd, over 1,300 Rotarians, UN officials, representatives from worldwide international development organizations and guests gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York City to explore ways to advance world peace, conflict prevention and resolution.

This annual event celebrates the relationship between Rotary International (RI) and the United Nations, which dates back to 1945, when Rotarians helped to develop the United Nations Charter.  Today, Rotary holds the highest consultative status possible with the United Nations as a non-governmental organization. This year, as a Rotary Peace Fellow, I was invited by the RI representative to the United Nations to give a keynote address discussing my work and ideas about how to use the arts as a force for social change with my special focus on the idea that telling stories does matter in community development.

Despite transportation challenges, flight cancellations, and blackouts following the impact of Hurricane Sandy, news arrived that the UN event was to happen. I also managed to get word that I should find a way to New York City any way that I could. At the same time, I still had to finish preparing my UN talk that I would give that coming Saturday at the UN headquarters.

nyc hurricane sandy lights outNew York City – Light Out

As I flew into NYC that Thursday night, two days after the storm had hit, at first glance I thought that I was flying over the sea. But then I noticed the flickering lights down below and realized that I was not over water. I was flying directly over the outskirts of the city itself, blacked out by the storm. Down below I thought I could see candle lights flickering and I imagined people gathered together.

Upon entry into the city, I sensed an atmosphere overwhelmed with weariness. Faces tired but determined to get through it all. There was a sense of solidarity as city residents were returning home, having been stranded in other parts of the country or abroad. Two Brooklyn residents who had been stranded in Texas offered to share their taxi ride with me as the taxi driver revealed his own story to us.  He went on to tell us the stories of others he had given rides to that week—stories of being stuck on bridges for hours between Manhattan and Brooklyn and of city workers and volunteers desperate to lend a hand to others most affected by the storm’s impact. He relayed his own fears about not being able to work once his half empty tank ran dry.

Arriving two days after the storm allowed me to connect with strangers and become immersed in their community, connecting through people’s stories on personal levels. Businesses, shops, and cafes that managed to remain open welcomed people in as I partook in the day-to-day activities of life alongside others. I shared an evening meal in a Brooklyn apartment with new friends and we drank tea on their Brooklyn rooftop, the New York skyline encircling us in jagged lights.

The next day I ventured into central Manhattan and discovered my hotel was one of the places affected by the power outage. The hotel proprietors of the Americana Inn on 39th street, despite the loss of business, were kind enough to offer me suggestions for other hotels in the area, although they said it would be unlikely I would find anything. I offered my thanks and wished them well.

It seemed half of Manhattan had migrated to the areas with working power grids, and I was starting to realize that I might have to sleep outside that night. But eventually I found the last room left in the city, a room on the Lower East Side, powered by one generator.

Entering the Lower East Side felt like going from West to East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The contrast between the grids which had power and those without was drastically different. The storm had swept away houses and taken out power  to an extreme degree testing the human spirit, but what I saw was human creativity connecting people to people.

nyc sandy-taxis in flodded streetsNew York City Taxis in Flooded Streets

In the areas where there were blackouts, all communications went out and generators provided by volunteers powered cell phones. FEMA trucks lined parking lots, and kids took up the chance to skate down the middle of Broadway as NYPD officers looked on and smiled. Passersby would stop and ask, “How’s your family? Do you need anything? Can we help?” People with access to power, lights, and generators offered food, shelter, and clothing. Volunteers offered to be communication channels so messages could be passed between families. A diverse crosssection of the city’s people came together to share and distribute food, to clear debris off the city streets, and to help sort through the remains of devastated homes and local businesses. People worked through the night to raise NYC and the surrounding areas back to its feet.

As media interest starts to fade, we must also remember the people of this region, and remember all the regions of the Northeast and the Caribbean that continue to be affected by the longer term impact of this storm. We must remember them as they face further difficulties, lack of warmth, and lack of shelter as the cold weather of winter and sets in.

On Saturday, the day of the UN event, I woke up at 2:30 am and walked the streets of New York City, finally finishing  the final revision of my talk. Later that day, I spoke at the UN headquarters as planned, an experience I will never forget. I dedicated my talk to the people of the city who took me in and offered inspiration, truly Telling Stories that Matter. 

November 15, 2012

Remembrance Sunday: Thoughts on Peace

One of my first jobs after finishing University was a temporary post at the Royal British Legion in 1997. I was one of the few non-military people in the building, and this soon grew to be the basis of much of the ribald banter between myself and my colleagues, who were all recently retired from the three services.

I liked them, a lot, and still remember them more vividly than more recent work places. Partly because of the fantastically filthy jokes and terms they had for civvies, but mainly because they were some of the most genuine and warm people I have ever spent time with.

Peace and Harry-Patch-at-The-RoyalI remember Ron, whose hands still shook from the stress he suffered half a century before, aboard a submarine which had suddenly gone into an uncontrolled dive in the East Asian Sea during the Korean conflict. Had Ron and his colleagues not managed to get the vessel out of the dive at the last minute the pressure of the depths would have crushed it instantaneously. It had been very close.

I remember Ben, who had served on the cold war’s first front-line in Germany in the years immediately following 1945. Tensions were high between the former allies and the prospect of war erupting over what Stalin regarded as the intolerable capitalist presence in West Berlin, deep in his territory of East Germany, was very real.  Ben learned a few words of Russian and, being an enterprising man, soon had an illicit cigarette business going with his erstwhile enemies. All the while he knew that if conflict did come to pass, he wouldn’t stand a chance.

Both Ben and Ron had lived in the Twentieth Century’s first half which was obliterated by global conflict and economic depression, and a second half which existed for the most part under the constant shadow of nuclear annihilation. Understandably they thought that conflict was just one of life’s constants, and you had to make the best of it. The Poppy Appeal, held every year as a means of raising money for the Legion and a way for the nation to mark its respects to the fallen, was a practical affair which didn’t change that underlying truism about the nature of our world.

Perhaps Ben and Ron were right. Looking around today we see easily where the spotlight happens to shine, such as on Syria. But in the shadows there are far larger human tragedies unfolding daily such as in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Along with other national remembrance days, there is now an International Day of Peace, marked by the United Nations every September 21st. The emphasis is less about honoring the memory of war dead, and more on what needs to be done to promote genuine peace. One of the ideas behind the day is to promote a global truce in all armed conflicts to mark the day, which is promoted by the PR campaign behind Peace One Day.

Peaceful former warriorsBut wouldn’t it be better if we were aiming just a bit higher than a single day? And how about dealing effectively with the causes of each conflict rather than its symptoms, which is basically what a truce is about? You wonder sometimes about how limited the human imagination can be when faced with its biggest challenges.

Remembrance Sunday is about symbolism and it feels right that we honor those who gave their todays for our tomorrows, but I wonder if in future we could combine a mark of respect for the fallen with a mark of hope for a better world to come, and a determination to think big to achieve it. After all, the alternative, as the last British Tommy Harry Patch once said, “…is organized murder and nothing else.”

Ron and Ben would roll their eyes, laugh out loud and scoff at that idea, but secretly, I bet they’d agree.

November 10, 2012

Getting Peace on the UN’s Post 2015 Global Development Agenda

Can the peace, development and environment sectors work together to ensure a comprehensive and holistic post-2015 global development agenda?

Approaching 2015

As we approach 2015, the world is slowly realizing the importance of the next global development agenda.  Three important deadlines are scheduled for 2015.  They are:

  1. The deadline for the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals
  2. The deadline by which countries at the 2011 Durban Climate Change Conference plan to adopt a Universal Legal Agreement on Climate Change
  3. The deadline by which governments at the recent Rio+20 Conference in June 2012 agreed to establish Sustainable Development Goals

The development and environment sectors are working together to ensure that the framework has both a poverty eradication and an environmental sustainability focus. A key challenge for the peace sector is to work collaboratively with others to ensure that peace is included in this agenda. Peace was a part of the UN Millennium Declaration but was left out of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which focused on poverty, hunger, education, health, gender equality and, to a lesser extent, the environment and the Global Partnership for Development. Because of this omission, peace is too often left out of the development discourse and practice, and those most affected by conflict are left behind.

Millennium Development Goals

UN Task Team

There is a high level recognition of the need to include peace in this agenda. The UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda suggests that violence and conflict have become the largest obstacles to the MDGs and that the new framework should be based on four dimensions: 1) inclusive social development; (2) inclusive economic development; (3) environmental sustainability; and (4) peace and security.


Promising signs

Organizations like Saferworld, International Alert and others have started engaging with the process relatively early, to good effect. Saferworld recently produced an excellent article suggesting that “The post-2015 framework should be one around which those promoting the aims of peace, human rights, gender equality, environmental sustainability and equitable poverty reduction can all agree.”

Recently, some 50 organizations issued a joint statement supporting the suggestions of the UN Task Team, calling for “A post-2015 framework that builds on the vision of the Millennium Declaration and upholds the right of all people to enjoy peace, security and human rights as essential elements of sustainable development.”

Such organizations are also engaging in discussions about peace and security goals following the New Deal agreed to at Busan in 2011.

The five goals below are now being piloted in seven states (governments), and are being further developed via the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding.

a) Legitimate PoliticsFoster inclusive political settlements and conflict resolution

b) Security – Establish and strengthen people’s security

c) Justice – Address injustices and increase people’s access to justice

d) Economic Foundations – Generate employment and improve livelihoods

e) Revenues & Services – Manage revenue and build capacity for accountable and fair service delivery

This is a welcome development, but more needs to be done to ensure that this work is taken forward in the post-2015 global framework.

Action Needed

Those passionate about peace and conflict resolution need to grasp the real danger that peace will be left out of a global development framework, sidelining once again those most affected by conflict.

We must take action to highlight the inherent links between peace and social, economic and environmental development certainly to governments and to the UN, but also to colleagues in the social, economic and environmental development sectors. In this way, we can help build a more collaborative global movement to create a more comprehensive and holistic post-2015 global development framework.

So, how to do this? Two suggestions:

  1. Ensure a coherent discourse around positive peace (removal of underlying causes of violence) rather than just negative peace (absence of violence or fear of violence). This will strike a chord with the development sector, which talks about removing the underlying causes of poverty and injustice, many of which are the same causes identified by the peace sector as underlying violence, inequality, lack of political rights and more.
  2. Engage more fully in the discussions which are happening about this NOW. It will be too late to do this in a year’s time, as too much of the early running will have been done. Organizations focusing on peace need to take high level, strategic decisions as soon as possible to link with the development and environment sector on this agenda to ensure that a post 2015 agenda is as holistic and as comprehensive as possible.

A good way to do this would be through the Beyond 2015 campaign.

International Alert  is already coordinating input into the UN consultation on peace, security and fragility, but more peace organizations need to come on board to make their voices heard and ensure that peace is fully included in the post 2015 development agenda.

Note: Leo Williams wishes to thank Chris Underwood of International Alert for his comments and assistance in gathering information for this post.

November 4, 2012

High Stake in the American Election

H2012 presidential election old on to your hats!  November is here. As we round the corner to what has increasingly deteriorated into a vitriolic and polarizing campaign cycle, it behooves us to step back and consider what exactly is at stake when Americans go to the polls this Tuesday, November 6th.

The US presidential election cannot be squarely pegged as a referendum on the performance of President Barack Obama’s administration over the last four years. Granted there is a deep rift between many policies endorsed by President Obama and Governor Romney, policy differences are just the icing on the cake of what is at stake in this year’s American election.

More profoundly, this election is about two candidates with fundamentally different philosophies about the role of the state, individual rights, and the global commons. The ideological incongruence of President Obama and Governor Romney, in turn, makes this election a zero-sum game where the stakes are particularly high for the losing party.

One fundamental issue on which the candidates are diametrically opposed is the appropriate function of the state.  Consider the contrasting interpretations of public versus private goods espoused by each presidential candidate.   Healthcare, education, and social security are generally considered public goods that the state is responsible for overseeing. Yet, President Obama and Governor Romney have vastly different views on the degree to which states should be responsible for providing these goods. President Obama passed a universal healthcare plan; supports increased federal funding for Pell grants, making education more affordable; and staunchly opposes social security privatization. At odds with President Obama is Governor Romney who vows to repeal Obamacare, advises entrepreneurial students to borrow money from their parents to kick start businesses, and chose as his running mate Paul Ryan, the architect of the most comprehensive plan to date to privatize social security.

Within the social sphere, the election has prompted debate over what constitutes pliable versus fixed social norms. Should rape, for instance, be viewed as an inevitable part of life? Should we, like Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, resign ourselves to the idea that rape is an act of God? Perhaps a reflection of the near historic gender gap in this election (according to statistical guru Nate Silver, President Obama holds a 9 point lead among women), social conservatives have also made this election about women’s rights. More to the point, they have made this election about restricting women’s rights, most notably by revamping efforts to challenge Roe v. Wade.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the consequences of this election will spill over beyond US borders. As a US student studying in the UK, this is all the more clear in the attention the US election receives in the news media and the interest in American politics by British people in general. There seems to be a common understanding that US elections matter, particularly since the US rose to become the world’s most dominant global actor after the Cold War.

Collective problems that transcend borders, such as global warming or terrorist cells, require international resolve and cooperation. While President Obama and Governor Romney have prioritized US interests in foreign affairs, both candidates differ substantially in their approach to global governance and, more fundamentally, on the sorts of issues they deem relevant. For instance, President Obama has been adamant about the need to restrict certain human activities that cause global climate change, while Governor Romney denies that global climate change exists, let alone that it is caused by human activities.

presidential election candidates 2012In sum, this November 6th is not merely a referendum on policy decisions made in the last four years. Rather, this election is about choosing between two largely incompatible philosophies that will have broad implications for the role of the state, individual rights, and our global commons. The stakes are high no matter how you flip the coin.