The unseen value of peace assistance

When I first heard about peacework three or four years ago, all I could picture was a group of experts getting off a helicopter in a conflict zone. Silly as it sounds, back then my mind thought of peace as something built in a very specific moment in time by people with a very specific set of skills. A spectacular intervention in times of crisis, peacework was all about implementation: get there and ‘make’ peace. What I did not know is just how much of that peace is actually made in the shadows, or from the desktop.

Let’s look at that helicopter for a second. When you think about it, a helicopter is basically a flying mess of steel, titanium and what else. I do not know the first thing about engineering or aerodynamics, but I can imagine it takes quite a bit of work to make it stable in the sky. The same thing happens with peace: I wish peace was easier to achieve, but the fact is that it takes great effort to make it durable and stable — a group of fancy people in a helicopter is just not enough. Peace is the result of a conjunction of efforts. A colleague and friend of mine often illustrates this with a different vehicle: a wagon.

  A society in which peace is being built is like a wagon with four wheels, each of which is important to keep the wagon stable and moving in the right direction. Brendan McAllister in mediatEUr’s Mediation Brief N.1.

I think the fact that peace depends on different factors is well accepted today, but I also think some of the work that goes into achieving it often goes unseen. While most people are comfortable speaking of the many components of peace and the great effort that it takes to build it, sometimes those involved in peace work forget about one of its key elements. I am thinking specifically about peace assistance, or the time put into preparing, supporting and accompanying peace and mediation efforts. It is quite common for those involved in this kind of work, often junior staff sitting behind a desk, to struggle to see how their work contributes to the (re)construction of peace. And that is problematic.

In 2012 I joined mediatEUr, a young organisation working on international peace mediation. Here, I assist different initiatives, and support the design and implementation of several projects. My work includes tasks such as background research, accompanying meetings — and when possible mission trips —, editing, writing and drafting, and touches on human relations and social media. I also take care of design issues and try to make a contribution to the development of our organisation. In essence, I do what every entry-level professional does: I juggle tasks.

The great thing about having such an open portfolio is that it gives me an opportunity to learn from every aspect of the work, including the purely operational (reach-out, communication or logistics), the process-related (process design, project management or project thinking), the writing bit, and the more abstract concepts (peace and justice, their relationship, and the complications involved in reaching both). All in all, it is a highly rewarding learning experience, but one that can get very messy if I lose sight of what I am doing it for. My typical Monday task-map looks something like this:


Map of tasks for a Monday morning

Looking at this mess of tasks, I sometimes struggle to see what and how we are contributing to peace. I think there are two ways of looking at it:

Thinking of it as a stage:

after all, this is learning process to get to something bigger. It is about personal development. Taken the wrong way, however, this can turn into nothing but a sense of  longing for the future, a sort of ‘this is just a stage’ mindset. Looking at it this way hinders your capacity to do good work here and now.

Thinking of it as part of the process of peace:

there are many steps in a process of peace, and every step you take is making a contribution to it. This view is about your role in peace, and it is the ‘here and now’ component.

The two ways of looking at peace assistance: personal development and contribution to peace

The second part is difficult to see, so I am going to develop a bit on this. There are several reasons why I think the work of an assistant is important for peace and mediation efforts (you can check the UN Guidance on Effective Mediation for some background on what good mediation practice means):

  1. Because peace efforts need to be specific and well adapted to the context, and that requires research. A mediation/peace expert will typically not have enough time to delve into deep research, and will usually require the help of an assistant.
  2. Because peace efforts need to be flexible, and can benefit greatly from preparation and support. The work of an assistant can help design a process that is ready for the changes on the ground, and offer support in times of need.
  3. Because peace is a human exercise that affects relationships and requires empathy, care, and dedication. (See mediatEUr’s Case Study from Kosovo 2013 to learn more about this.)
  4. Because peace needs to be inclusive. This touches on both reasons 1 and 3: a dedicated assistant can do research on stakeholders and help reach more people, thus making the effort more inclusive.

When I get to think this way, my Mondays become a bit clearer, and so does the rest of the week.

Assistants' contribution to peace

Project assistants and junior staff usually come with a spark of enthusiasm for the future —  the future is exciting! — that mostly results in dynamism, motivation and liveliness at work. Employers really appreciate that. However, if that enthusiasm comes only from the perspective of the future (that is, if it only comes from the idea that maybe one day you will be making peace off a helicopter), it can easily go to waste. I think it is important to look at the broader contribution we already make. In order to prevent losing that spark, we need to take pride on what we do.

I do not mean for this to be call for project assistants to be arrogant; our contribution is only as big as our capacity, and there is a lot out there we still need to learn. Neither is this an invitation to be content and accommodated to what we are doing — there is always room to increase our contribution to peace. What this is is a call for us to value what we are doing here and now, and to long a little less for the future. Looking at the value of our work is essential to increasing our own potential, and to boosting our contribution to peace.

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Miguel Varela Rodríguez

Author Miguel Varela Rodríguez

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