Rachel Carson, in her book Silent Spring:
“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after the night and spring after the winter.”
The devastation created by Covid-19 is just a reminder of our vulnerability as humans while highlighting the importance of prevention and mitigation strategies. It also provides some insight regarding the possible economic shock the whole world will face if nations fail to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. As Vandana Shiva says:
“In nature’s economy the currency is not money, it is life.”
The shock expressed as ‘economic’ is, in fact, a “life and death” shock that cuts people’s bond with nature.
Humans have lived as social beings for ages and have been in communication and interaction not only with their society surrounding him/her, but also with ‘nature’ he/she lives in. Communication channels and interaction styles have changed over the years from civilization to civilization and from culture to culture, but humans have never lost their connection with the environment. As Jennifer Nini says:
“You can’t force people to care about the natural environment, but if you encourage them to connect with it, they just might.”
This connection starts from birth and continues throughout childhood and later periods, first in the immediate environment within the family and then among larger society which all humans belong. Throughout this process, which is intense during the development phase, people get to know ‘nature’ and all the living beings in their natural surroundings. Thus, humans begin to realize their own responsibilities towards their environment and society for an equal, just, sustainable and happy world.
A green environment could make important contributions to our life not only by providing clear advantages both to nature itself as well as for all of society. Living and working near green spaces improves our mental health, wellbeing and productivity. These benefits equate to a happier and healthier lifestyle for all of us. Greenery offers us (humans, animals and plants) clean water to drink, air to breathe, shade to sit in, and food to eat. Besides habitats for numerous species of fauna and flora, greenery provide places of spiritual, cultural and recreational importance.
Looking around us, what do we see?
What are we aware of?
What are we ignorant of?
What are the deficiencies?
What works regularly?
What goes perfectly?
What are the potentials?
And what can I do for the nature environment I live in?
People should constantly ask themselves these questions which help them go through an awareness stage and reach a sensitivity level. An individual should always start by exploring her/his environment with which she/he is in constant interaction. Next, they should observe their interactions between other people around them and their environment, while continuing discover society within the whole natural world around them. Thanks to these steps, she/he could begin to realize the differences among individuals, communities, and larger societies and gain a broader understanding of their human responsibilities. The concept of sensitivity underlies all these processes and all that remains is to take action.
Sensitivity is an important concept for a more livable world and could take different forms or meanings such as ecological sensitivity, environmental sensitivity, social sensitivity, cultural sensitivity, intercultural sensitivity, and so on. It is not easy to acquire sensitivity. People should be open to encountering related concepts and gaining related qualities at a young age. So, how will this take place? In fact, the process starts with the family and will continue throughout school life. For instance, parents being sensitive to environmental issues will encourage their children to participate in activities that support their sensitivity during their children’s development process. The important next comes with sensitive teachers whose responsiveness to environmental issues will be a significant indicator and support to children and youth. At this point, the degree to which teachers’ in-class or out-of-class activities along with their interactions with learners place an emphasis on such issues will determine the level of learners’ sensitivity to the environment and nature around them. The most appropriate activity is participation in social responsibility projects. Learners will both notice differences and strive to fulfill their responsibilities towards their society which includes a very important focus on their environment. Although it is not easy to understand, internalize and apply sensitivity, the earlier this process starts, the easier it will be. Thanks to each individual’s fulfillment of their responsibilities, steps will be taken for a more livable and happy world.
Developed and implemented social responsibility projects will be instrumental in this regard. There are five basic elements of engaging in such projects and all of them enable individuals to serve the society in a selfless way:
Mustafa Mustafa Öztürk – Turkey
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 31Read More
Thursday night was my favourite night of the week because my parents came home from work mid-afternoon and Mum would prepare a special meal of Afghan delicacies that I would eat after I finished a neighbourhood soccer match. I would go to school in the afternoon and finish at five. One particular Thursday I could not wait to finish school because there was soccer against a team from Kocha-e-Dash the street behind from our house.
We were excited. They had challenged us by saying ‘We are going to win.’ And as everyone knows, saying this to boys anywhere across the world in relation to soccer will always merit a competitive game!
Saqeb, my best friend and the captain of our team was in good form. Everyone listened as he prepared us for this important street match.
We all played hard and when the ball fell into the street gutter filled with grey water it was called out. That day I retrieved the ball from the gutter at least a dozen times without worrying about hygiene. I knew I had to focus fully on my play. To me, this match was the most important match of my life.
For the neighbours however, they were not happy about the match because we were very noisy. The match would stop as a car passed through. Yet, due to the lack of playgrounds and parks in our City, the street was the only place we could hold our matches.
During the first half, we played hard and scored a goal. The second half was dramatic because the other team equalised. This meant we needed to work harder.
Saqeb kept hollering out the strategy as our noble coach and we focused. Khalil saved us in the last five minutes by scoring another goal. Ecstatic about our win, we rushed to the mosque and gulped down water from the only available tap in our street and washed our hands and sweaty faces. We kept bragging about our win. Saqeb took us all to a milk shop where we enjoyed hot milk and roat – Afghan sweet soft bread.
Thursday was the only night that there were movies on the television and we all discussed what would be on that night. We rushed to the electrical junction and asked if it was our turn to get power. We were in luck. The operator said this Thursday was our allocation for electricity so I rushed home.
As I got closer to my home, I could smell the Bolani my mother was cooking, which was my all-time favourite dish. Mum was the best cook. We ate it with yogurt mixed with cucumber and dried mint.
As I walked in the door, dad said ‘Bismillah let’s eat’. This is an important saying to us because everything starts with the holy name of Allah, to show our grace and humility that for all He provides us.’ While we ate, I spoke to my three sisters about the soccer match and our exciting win against those who had teased and challenged us. My oldest sister was not so interested and said we were too noisy during the game. My younger sister congratulated me as she continued eating. We ate in the dark but the feeling on family and good food supported us to feel safe.
I couldn’t wait for the power to come on at eight thirty and everyone cheered as the lights came up. I was so excited that we would see the movie tonight!
My family knew that we would have to sit through the boring government reports before the movie began so we kept washing our faces with cold water to help us stay awake. Finally, at nine thirty, Murch Masala started.
This movie was a grave disappointment because there were none of the action and fighting that excited me. The film was long and tedious and the film did not have even one action scene. Tired from the day’s exploits and excitement from winning soccer, I fell asleep before the movie ended.
I was in a deep sleep when a loud bang woke me. I looked around and soon saw Mum and Dad at the west window. My sister woke in shock.
The explosions got louder and closer. Dad took the ladder and climbed onto the roof to see what was going on and I followed. Red, green, orange and yellow explosions lit the western sky. The noise got closer and intensified. The smell of smoke filled the air. I could taste sulphur and the ground shook. I looked around to see neighbours on each roof. All faced west.
Children cried and whimpered and the adults shrieked and yelled ‘God help us!’
I became more and more afraid. It felt like the bombs were exploding on our street.
Dad climbed down and called us all inside. The windows trembled with each explosion. My heart raced and my mouth was dry. My little sister cried and Mum soothed her but also cried out, ‘Khair Khudaya – God bless us’
The fire trucks shrieked as they rushed towards Qargha and my aunt and uncle rushed in to our house. Their faces were filled with fear. Their house was right next to the ammunition dump and they had run for their lives as their windows shattered and the roof began to fall on them.
The explosions continued and the noise raged for many hours but the night grew darker with only an occasional burst of light to the west. At four thirty we were still aware because of the noise. By five thirty am it had become quiet except for the occasional siren of ambulance or fire truck in the distance.
Our house was full and there was nowhere to sleep, which was fine by me. My heart was still pounding and I was too afraid to sleep. As the sun rose on Friday, our day of rest, we huddled together and talked about what had happened.
Later, we went to my uncle’s house to find all the windows shattered. Everything was covered in dust and it smelled of sulphur. It was still and deserted. People all looked on from a distance to survey the damage.
On Saturday morning, before dawn, I was woken from the sweetest sleep by the squeak of Russian tanks and trucks carrying ammo back to Qargha depot.
I was eight years old and will never forget either the intensity of joy at winning at soccer, the delicious food Mum made that night or the extreme fear of the night that followed. The extreme emotions I felt that day as a young boy have stayed with me for almost four decades.
I was born in Kabul in the mid-1970s. The Soviets invaded in 1979. I was raised in war and conflict; I don’t remember a time in my life when my country was not at war. As a kid, I developed resilience and the strategy to enjoy my life in the middle of a conflict, so we did things like other kids. We played soccer in the streets, we had friends, we had fun. I was a known as a very cheeky child and adolescent to my neighbours. I was a bit of a troublemaker. However, once the Mujahedin came, things really changed. From the day they arrived, every night we experienced aerial shots. Every night thousands and thousands of bullets were shot in the air.
Society changed. Schools never opened because of the security situation. Street fights started because of the stress to our people due to the civil war. I remember we would be playing and honestly, we could hear bullets in the air but we continued to play. We just never thought that the bullet could hit me or could hit my friend. Of course, they did.
When I was growing up. Kabul was a modern and open society. My teachers wore skirts. It was so normal for us. In the villages, people were conservative because of the influence of Mujahedin outside major cities. But in 1992 when Mujahedin came, all women had to cover their heads and skirts were not allowed. That was the time when we moved to Pakistan. My dad said, “For now I don’t think this is a place for us.” I was 15 years old.
We thought it would only be for two months, so we left most of our belongings behind, locked in our house. We drove. We went to Jalalabad, the border city, for one night and then took the bus. There was a lot of roadside mines so we were lucky we made it. We went to Peshawar and stayed in a hotel. From there we rented a place and stayed until 2003 – 11 years. We thought it was temporary, that things would change and we could come back but it never changed, it became worse.
In 2003, I returned to Kabul after the collapse of brutal Taliban regime. I started working with local communities in the areas of peace building and conflict transformation. I worked for eight years in Afghanistan and Pakistan in community peace building and education. I led a team responsible for designing programs addressing issues of local conflicts through asset-based community peace building initiatives in partnership with other local organizations. The program provided capacity building initiatives targeting key community leaders and members to become peace ambassadors and establish local peace councils to act as mediators in a situation where local conflict existed. The program was implemented across 16 provinces of Afghanistan. I loved my job. It was empowering to be a part of rebuilding peace and a stable country. It gave me a great opportunity to work with communities where I could apply strength-based approaches to building peace at local level in different areas of Afghanistan. I was always amazed at the strength of local communities to get to the bottom of complex situations and transform these situations into opportunities for collaboration.
In 2009, I came to Australia. A fresh chapter of my life started in a new society – different from the one I had to leave. I have been so lucky that my life has never stopped teaching me new and beautiful lessons.
Once in Australia, my career as a peace builder and community development worker entered a new phase. I started working with people seeking asylum. I was privileged to be witnessing amazing stories shared by people who escaped from persecution and eminent danger. Their stories were of hope, courage, resilience, optimism, separation and bravery. I was honoured to mentor and support them to develop and share their story as a powerful tool for change in their communities. I also mentored traumatised young people seeking asylum and their families to navigate the Australia and United Nations systems comfortably and with dignity. In line with this, I have provided voluntary translation and interpreting support for those in need, knowing the veil of language can be a limiting factor in driving and promoting peace in our communities.
Unfortunately, on 15 August 2021 Afghanistan fell to Taliban which put an end to 20 years of hard work for millions of people from all walks of life including the civil society sector. Afghanistan still faces an uncertain future after 4 decades of war and conflict.
Essan Dileri – Afghan/ Australia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 31Read More
I work as a public school cinema studies teacher with detained youth in the United States. As I prepared to begin the Rotary Peace & Development Fellowship, I dreamed about how my Social Change Initiative would inspire policy to end juvenile incarceration, or at least put an end to the horror it causes my students and their families. Twelve weeks into the program, I’ve come to realize I may have gotten lost in space. There are just so many things in the carceral universe that are out of my control. And while dreaming is arguably the wellspring of peacebuilding, what I’m getting most from the fellowship is the importance of gravity’s pull. Getting my feet back on the ground doesn’t mean I can’t dream. It means that change can happen, but not without checking back in with Earth’s base to gather the necessary skills that keep us steady, balanced, and clear-minded so where the initial peacebuilding can get done.
I’ve learned that no matter how good-natured I am, or how good I am at my job, I have limited resources. And that I need to protect those resources. I am only capable of so much each day before the quality starts to slip. So, I must learn to set boundaries to protect myself and my resources. And when negotiating any conflict, I’ve learned it’s important to practice tactics like using I-statements, stating the obvious, sticking to the facts, repeating back the circumstances, clarifying our expectations, and asking for an agreement. Remembering to practice these tactics will help me to remain emotionally balanced, save my energy, and maybe even walk away with a desired result. I also learned it’s important to keep my ego in check by asking better questions to problems, rather than thinking I have the solutions.
I’ve learned that when I’m stressed, there’s a greater tendency for my emotions to run amok. I might start to fictionalize my internal narratives, making me the author of my own untruths, which makes me more likely to make assumptions. Assumptions have the potential to violate peacebuilding because, when we make them, we risk throwing the facts out the window. When we make them, we may be mistaking someone’s good intentions for bad, or seeing situations worse than they actually are. We also run the risk of tricking ourselves. More than once during this fellowship I have assumed myself into thinkingthat a class session has little to do with my work. As we began a week devoted to conflict analysis in July, I went into class that Monday thinking, “What does this analysis stuff have to do with me? I deal in the arts!” Here I was, thinking I was above it all, until I realized halfway through the session (and after applying a finger to the tip of my schnoz to lower it down a few degrees) just how much analysis could be helpful in every aspect of my work. And, how creative conflict analysis could be! After all, isn’t every movie scene written with conflict at its center? Isn’t most important art based upon it? Aren’t all my students’ lives rife with conflict?
I’ve learned through my experience in this job, and it’s been reinforced by the fellowship, how working with people who’ve been traumatized can become my own trauma. To be in a locked facility everyday can be maddening, and it has the potential to drive any sensible person crazy. In this environment, conflicts arise out of the ether, pessimism spreads like a virus, and neurosis is always lurking around the corner. Working in this environment obviously requires radical self-care. But what I’ve learned in the fellowship is that self-care must be applied and practiced constantly in order to ward off becoming overcome by trauma myself. I cannot just expect that because I play tennis twice a week, or ride my bicycle to work every day, that I’m going to be hunky-dory on Friday. Or that because I meditate for ten minutes before breakfast, I will be OK throughout any given day. “As long as I do yoga five times a week, I should be fine!” I bragged to my Colombian fellow in a recent breakout session. “In your work environment, that sounds like bringing flowers to a dead marriage,” she replied.
My fellow’s wisdom provided a revelation: Perhaps my work environment, with all of its arbitrary inconsistency and Kafkaesque absurdity that promote both direct and systemic violence, is simply not a sustainable workplace for me–or for anyone, really. However, in the meantime, I know I need to maintain activities and regimens that bring me energy and levity. If not, I may find myself at risk of falling into the DMA Abyss, otherwise known as the Dualistic-Manicheistic-Apocalyptic Thinking Hole–the polarized opposite to lifting off into space. This would not be good, for down there in that abyss reside the Twin Devils of Cynicism and Despair.
Even if we manage to avoid falling into the abyss, our lines of work can often render us teetering on its edge. And if we do happen to fall in, we must be armed with the necessary tools to climb out, and quickly. The Twin Devils, despite having each other for company, are lonely. They’d like to keep us around, put us under their spell, keep us far from rescue and far from the surface, where we need to be–steady, balanced, and clear-minded–to help others. Coming down from space is arguably easier than crawling out of the abyss, but either way, it’s important for us to stay grounded upon the earth so we don’t risk being lost above or below it all.
Geoffrey Diesel – USA
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 31Read More
Stories are often relegated to the realm of entertainment. Certainly, in a world focused on measurable outcomes, stories do not share the prestige of the measurable units in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects. Yet, the world’s most famous scientist, Albert Einstein, is reported to have advised a mother, who wanted her son to be a scientist, to read him “fairy tales … more fairy tales and even more fairy tales” (Zipes). The great scientist recognized that the imagination and creativity are at the core of science is the same that is nurtured by stories.
It is the same at the foundation of our freedom and democracy, as Salman Rushdie brilliantly illustrates in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Storyteller Rashid Khalifa loses his ability to tell stories in response to his son’s question: “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” In an allegorical world of language, Rushdie illustrates that language itself is inherently complicated, requiring constant attention and negotiation. Stories can be manipulated, foolishly or dangerously. Yet, stories are fundamental to our very being and to the way we negotiate our lives together.
Stories are essential to how we bring ourselves into existence. Reflecting on the motivation for the novel Things Fall Apart, writer Chinua Achebe spoke of recognizing the absence of the story of himself and his people, a void which he described as a gap, a missing book on a bookshelf. Achebe asserts that fiction can be true in a profound way, resonating with universal experiences even as it tells a particular story.
This week we reflected on the practice of storytelling in the context of peace with Dr. Jessica Senehi of the University of Manitoba (Canada). Storytelling can be an exercise in peace building as it can embody mutual recognition, awareness of self and context, and shared power and creation of knowledge. Dr. Senehi noted that storytelling requires no special skills, level of education or material wealth. It is simply the sharing of a story with someone else about something that happened. We discussed the Winnipeg International Storytelling Festival, a festival that celebrates storytelling in various forms and traditions, such as Spoken Word, Indigenous, Metis and French. In its own small embodiment of how stories can build peace, the Rotary Peace Fellows of Class 31, a group of once total strangers, continue to share bits and pieces of our own stories with one another as we try to build positive peace in our work and world.
We all have stories. As individuals, we have stories. As families, we have stories. As communities and nations, we have stories. Some of our stories are shared loudly, some quietly, and some are never told. Our stories connect all of us to ourselves and to one another. They hold what is immeasurable in our current, conflicted world. Our stories hold our humanity and collective wisdom. There isn’t a more hopeful place to look for peace!
Sonia Persaud – Canada
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 31Read More
During this week’s online sessions in our Rotary Peace Center course (September 6th -12th 2021), our professor Roxana Cristescu introduced us the principles of mediation ethics, such as impartiality, voluntariness, confidentiality, self-determination, honesty, informed consent and the principle of “Do No Harm”.
Our professor gave us a task to choose the three most important principles for us, personally. This task made me realize how difficult it was for me, as a professional mediator, to choose some and leave other principles. Each one of these principles plays a key role in the process and protects both the mediator and the parties from choices that might harm those who are involved, the mediator or/and the parties, on different levels.
With these thoughts in my mind, on the same day, I came across the work of an artist called Miss Buggs. Her Specimen Series (2021) was displayed during this same week in an art exhibition in Saatchi Gallery in London, England. It contained 21 unique PU resin medical lollipops placed inside of 9 cabinets. What intrigued me was that the lollies appeared harmless and colorful, even delicious from afar. But, if you looked closely, you’d realize their harmful content: syringes, blades and pills. Something that appeared so harmless, could actually do you harm, if you were not careful.
We usually think of mediation as a process for peaceful conflict settlement. A process that has a positive impact on the parties involved. It gives them the freedom to decide for their case by themselves, it encourages and empowers them to do so, away from Courts, with minimum psychological stress and economic burden. But is it possible that mediation can do harm? In order to answer whether and when mediation can do harm, we have first to understand what the principle of “Do No Harm” means in mediation.
The principle of “Do No Harm” in mediation is borrowed from the Greek Hippocratic Oath doctors agree on before they are appointed in order to offer their services. Adapted to mediation, it requires mediators to conduct the process in a way that will not cause harm to the people involved or “add fuel to the fire” and worsen the dispute. People who choose to come to mediation are, sometimes, in a sensitive and vulnerable psychological state. They may feel insecure, worried, stressed, reserved and anxious as they engage in mediation in order to solve a serious and conflicting matter. A dispute, no matter how peacefully resolved is never taken lightly. A mediator has to be vigilant for signs and always try to empower the parties, enlighten them about the process and instill them with trust and security about their authority, impartiality and professional competence when handling their dispute.
Furthermore, harm may be caused by a mediator’s inapt handling of the conflict, resulting in the creation of undue antagonism between the parties involved. For example, a mediator may allow a party to overpower the other in a discussion, or realize their inability to handle a participant’s anger or breakdown in a divorce family dispute.
Mediation is definitely a process that offers participants a way to resolve their conflicts amicably and peacefully. However, it is the mediator’s job to know, develop and utilize the skills required, including their own personal and professional strengths, weaknesses, limits and biases, in order to help the conflict parties and to “do no harm”.
Theodora Syriou – Greece
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 31Read More
Days after finishing our sessions on Innovative Development Program Design in the Rotary Peace Fellowship at Chulalongkorn University, the words of Professor Kai Brand Jacobsen came to mind over and over again.
I was in Chocó, the jungle of the Colombian Pacific region. A territory historically marked by violence between guerrillas, drug trafficking, and illegal mining, but with a very high potential for social change. The area has one of the most biodiverse territories in the world, and its talented and friendly people are living by abandoning that history marked by violence to develop tourism and culture in their territory.
Any intervention or social program that we want to generate peacebuilding and a high social impact in communities must be carefully planned. It is necessary to know the history of the community, their interests, what they face in their day and day, and respect their culture and traditions so that they can take ownership of the program and the changes can be sustainable over time.
In the sessions we had with Professor Jacobsen during our program, we talked about how to carry out project planning, the logical framework, and formulate the theory of change in our social interventions for peacebuilding. And although many of these processes or tools are commonly used in our organizations, it was fascinating and enriching to study them from another perspective.
In this program, we discuss how the tools of design, implementation monitoring, evaluation, and learning in a project should be used not only to guarantee the efficiency of the activities that we are going to carry out in the territory but it is also essential to use them to promote a process of integration of the community, they should be the ones who come up with their solutions and who manage them. Only in this way can we strengthen the social fabric that, in the long run, will be what guarantees sustainable peace.
Before my experience with Professor Jacobsen and my fellow Rotary Peace Fellows, all these tools were a desk job for me; they rarely accompanied me to the territory, to day-to-day work in the community. Today I can see the integration between these processes and the value they have for us as social organizations, for our projects, and, most importantly, for our beneficiaries.
Maria Gabriela Arenas – Venezuela – Colombia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 31Read More
This week’s topic on Fostering Wellness: Transforming Stress & Trauma Through Self-Care & Resilience by Dr. Heidi Kar led the class to think deeply about how to best take care of yourself to promote mental and emotional health and wellbeing. The lectures and skill development exercises provided a wealth of information and ideas on how to build your own action that best works for you. The action plan consists of five simple steps:
Step 1: Grounding, Centering, and Rejuvenating Daily Activities to Keep Your Mind Healthy
Step 2: Awareness of Warning Signs That Something Is Wrong
Step 3: Toolbox of Coping Skills
Step 4: Identifying Sources of Social Support
Step 5: Professional Support
A sample plan can consist of daily activities such as grounding, mindfulness meditation (e.g. leaves on a stream exercise) and being in nature. Warning signs can be thoughts, feelings and/or behaviors that indicate your mind is not in the healthiest place. You may be ‘over-worrying’ or finding it difficult to unwind and relax at night. The next step in an action plan consists of creating your personalized toolbox of coping skills you can rely on to either take your mind off of negative thoughts and feelings or help you perceive and approach a situation differently. These can include evidence-based stress reduction techniques focusing on the present moment (e.g. progressive muscle relaxation to release physical tension and help you get out of your mind and into your body), physical exercise or challenging your thoughts and thinking of alternatives and new perspectives, among many others.
If you still feel stuck after using your coping strategies, you might need to reach out to someone you trust, such as a friend or family member, to get support. Finally, if you cannot get the help you need from that trusted person, you might need professional support that is available to you, such as a counselor or therapist.
We learned that developing and implementing your personalized action plan can not only help us become more resilient when going through difficult times, but also increase our overall sense of wellbeing through daily self-care practices.
As Rotary Peace Fellows, it is essential to be attentive to our own mental and emotional health hardships as well as to the wellbeing of those we work with and serve, since we can often witness or respond to situations of conflict. Having these practical tools we learned this week to deploy when needed is of great benefit to us so we can better understand and be better equipped to help the communities we serve.
Laura Viana – Argentina
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 31Read More
When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic in March 2020, nations around the globe started closing their borders. In many parts of world, including New York City where I live, life for many became suddenly unrecognizable with partial to full lockdowns and restrictions of movement. The rapid spread of the virus across communities, cities, nations, made clear how interconnected the world we live in has become and how interdependent we are. As the virus started affecting us all regardless of borders or walls, this crisis reminded us of our common humanity and how our lives are so reliant on reciprocal support.
Despite this, COVID-19 has posed a great challenge to the social cohesion within countries and communities as its impact has reached deep into our society, well beyond implications connected to the health sphere. Increased instances of hate speech and stigmatization of certain groups unjustly perceived to be associated with the spread of the virus drastically increased. Similarly, violent extremist groups across the ideological spectrum appear to view this global pandemic and the “new normal” created by the crisis as an occasion to exploit. With a significant increase in online and social media engagement, some violent extremist groups have utilized this as opportunity to spread propaganda and advance online recruitment activities. With youth being particularly impacted as many are confined at home with no physical access to school while experiencing a radical reduction in leisure activities along with lost employment opportunities, extremist groups have taken the opportunity to exploit their feelings of uncertainty. Compounding dynamics, while governments struggle to cope and respond adequately to the effects of the pandemic, these groups have been increasing their spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories, ultimately further undermining trust and uncertainty in government authorities.
Addressing all this has placed nearly insurmountable pressures on governments already struggling with the challenges brought forward by the pandemic. In this context, an all-of-society approach is needed more than ever and the role of civil society is essential, particularly at the community level.
In my work, over the past years, I have had the opportunity and honor to work closely with civil society organizations around the world committed to preventing violent extremism and contributing to the reduction of sectarian violence. I have witnessed firsthand their essential roles in assisting vulnerable populations and adapting responses, often in creative and innovative ways, to the local community context. In many circumstances, by serving as one of the main communication channels, especially for marginalized communities, they have demonstrated the potential to support social cohesion in moments of crisis. During these trying times, it has been powerful to see how civil society organizations, including those led by youth, have quickly mobilized themselves through volunteerism, running awareness campaigns countering misinformation and hatred, and staying at the forefront of keeping communities connected and informed.
During the first months of living this “new life”, I remember reading an open letter written by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Laureate and the President of Liberia, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Reflecting on the current situation and lessons learned from the past outbreak she wrote: “Fear drove people to run, to hide, to hoard to protect their own when the only solution is and remains based in the community”. Through my professional work complemented by my recent engagements with my co-Class 30 Peace Fellows and the peace practitioner instructors with the Rotary Peace Program at Chulalongkorn University, my convictions and dedications are even stronger that CSOs at the community level are essential and must be supported as part of an all-of-society approach needed to overcome challenges posed by this pandemic.
Alessandro Girola – Italy
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
After ten years of violent communist insurgency, Nepal entered into a peace process in 2006 under international auspices and with domestic pressure. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) agreed to join peaceful competitive politics if a new set of rules, mutually agreed by key actors and endorsed by the people, were set. An alliance of seven political parties, which were in the parliament since 1990, agreed to set new rules, as a reciprocity to the Maoists’ demands. Thus evolved a new political course, the abolition of the monarchy, formulation of a new constitution through popularly elected assembly and restructuring of the state as a point of compromise. Some strong sectoral forces emerged in the meantime to exert pressure on the parliamentary forces and the Maoist insurgents to address Nepal’s ethnic and geographical diversity in the new state structure to ensure that every minority group is able to participate in the state affairs. The concept of federalism, in this way, was introduced in Nepal’s political discourse.
In essence, restructuring of the state through federalization was a tool adapted to Nepal’s political discourse as a compromise among the “People’s Republic” demanded by the Maoists, “consolidated parliamentary democracy” demanded by the democratic forces, “regional self-rule” demanded by the groups operating in the southern plains, and “ethnic self-rule” demanded by more marginalized communities. This compromise gave birth to “participatory democracy” in the place of the existing “representative democracy”. It was the mandate of the entire peace process that includes the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (Nov 2006) and other agreements signed by the parties in power with traditionally marginalized groups. I term it as the “software of Nepal’s peace process”.
After seven years of hectic negotiations in two consecutively elected Constituent Assemblies on the content of a new constitution, Nepal hastily promulgated the new constitution in September 2015 when the country was in a state of mental shock caused by the devasting earthquakes of April 2015. There was resentment in the southern plains that has been dominated by groups historically and culturally close to India. The post-constitution resentment was interpreted as a conflict between Kathmandu’s ruling class and Madhes’ ruling class. India tacitly supported the groups in the southern plains and imposed an un-declared economic blockade on Nepal, cutting all essential supplies through legal routes. The Madhes-based party’s call for the creation of a province stretching from east to west in the south was interpreted by Kathmandu’s powerful elites.
Because of the resentments felt in the southern plains, Nepal could not hold elections for federal, provincial and local governments for nearly two years. The conflict in the aftermath of the constitution promulgation was between Kathmandu’s ruling class that believed the political groups operating in the southern plains intended to control major supply routes via India as part of their control exercise, and the political actors in the south who believed they were being treated as second-grade citizens and denied any place in the national decision-making by confining them to a small chunk of land in south eastern plains. While crafting new politico-administrative structures, dominant Kathmandu-based political actors considered how to weaken the “capacity to control” of the groups operating in the south.
Several existing local units were merged to create new municipalities in the name of strengthening their governability and reducing administrative expenses. The number of representatives also were reduced remarkably. There were 54 elected representatives in the past in a Village Development Committee (VDC), but now the entire VDC has been converted into a ward with five representatives in most of the local government units. The creation of huge administrative units has made it impossible for small minority groups to get elected. When rooms are too large, voices are at times too small and cannot be heard easily. To ensure one’s voice is heard, one has to either shout or rise up from their seat and come to the center of the room. The act of shouting and rising from one’s seat symbolizes one’s revolt against the existing system. Nepal’s new administrative structures at the local levels have been crafted in a way that small voices are hard to lift up and be heard.
Now, given these dynamics, there are two methods for ensuring people’s participation in the government systems: 1) the creation of space, and 2) the formulation of an inclusive process. If space or the structure is not favorable for the participation of smaller groups, the process design should facilitate more inclusive participation. Electoral systems and systems for people’s participation during key decision-making can help people more effectively engage in decision-making platforms and outcomes. Nepal has claimed to have adopted an inclusive democracy to advance the goal of participation of the minority groups in decision-making platforms. However, this inclusiveness is limited to the reservation of a seat for a women’s representative and a Dalit woman at the lowest administrative unit. Local elections are held on the basis of the “winner takes all” type of electoral system, unlike at the provincial and federal levels. So, the local governance system in Nepal undermines the basic requirements of a participatory democracy. There are serious compatibility problems between the software or the notion of participatory democracy and the hardware or the space or structures of local government.
Major factors that led to the formation of structures incompatible with the mandates of the peace process agreement is a result of the absence of a conflict-lens in Nepal’s state restructuring, especially at the local levels. The main objective of introducing federalism was to address Nepal’s centuries old hierarchical socio-economic and political order that frequently gave birth to conflict, the latest being the communist insurgency from 1996 to 2006. When people are given the impression that their government is at their doorstep to hear their grievances, many root causes of conflict are addressed, with such causes being localized, spatialized and addressed locally. It stops the conflict from spreading to and escalating in other parts of the country.
Federalization has been used as a means of conflict resolution in many countries over the past decades. Nepal opted to utilize the federal system to end all sorts of discrimination and to promote inclusive democracy. The end of discrimination and the promotion of inclusive democracy are meant to address the root causes of conflicts while managing any existing conflicts. However, federalization has been interpreted through the lens of governability or the lens of good governance. If only governability and good governance were the key objectives of federalism, there would be no need for terming the local and province administrative units as “governments”. The term “government” offers psychological security and helps localize and spatialize the conflict and apply a local remedy. So, I have been looking at our federalization process through peace lens.
While in the rural areas of Nepal, interacting with traditionally marginalized groups, I often used to grapple with a question: “what did the political change in Kathmandu deliver to people in far-flung villages?” My question was natural. They are neither counted as stakeholders within the entire political change process, nor are they entitled to any peace dividend.
While engaged at Chulalongkorn University as a Rotary Peace Fellow with Class 30, I was almost naïve in theoretical aspects of peace despite nearly two decades of direct or indirect work in conflict management. I could hardly relate my experience with the conflict world view and did not have an idea of how peace processes globally have tried to address the concerns of individual citizens. The theory and tools of conflict and development analysis, community-level peacebuilding, inclusive peacebuilding, identity, religion and ethnicity in peacebuilding, means to address violent extremism and media’s role in peacebuilding were only some of the issues that we have explored. The Peace Program has exposed me to more global experiences, and has provided me with an extra lens with which to analyze Nepal’s peace process as successful on the political front and how it has yet to deliver a dividend to rural citizens.
Importantly, the theory
linking practice instructors and resource persons who are strategically engaged
to facilitate the program have shared examples from dynamic contexts globally,
from the Philippines, Northern Ireland to Colombia. In complement, the Class 30
Peace Fellows from different backgrounds have provided me with a wide range of
lenses from which to analyze conflict, peace and development. Exploring non-violent
peace movements, the power of storytelling and transforming stress through
selfcare has equipped me with some additional skills as a peacebuilder. Now I believe I can use these various lenses together
to look at a conflict and apply my skills for peacebuilding accordingly in
better way in Nepal.
 Upreti, B.R., Töpperwien, N. and Heiniger, M. (2009), Peace process and federalism in Nepal: Experiences, reflections and learning. Kathmandu: NCCR North-South.
Yuvraj Acharya – Nepal
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
As a media academic and researcher, I have travelled to few countries on various continents of the world, including Thailand, Turkey, Portugal, USA, Greece, Finland, Canada, Italy, Ethiopia, Scotland (UK), and France. During my visits, other academic’s, researchers, students and others asked me one unique question: “Are you from Gandhi’s country? Are you from India? It’s great, Gandhi’s country”. I replied: “Yes”. During those times, I had mixed feelings: Gandhi has created an entirely new movement in the world. He has developed a strong weapon that does not kill anyone. He has created a new lifestyle. His style is loved by everyone. Yes, I am from Gandhi’s country. That’s why we call Gandhi the father of our nation. Gandhi is called as “Mahatma” (Great Soul). These feelings made me feel proud.
Why is Gandhi known and remembered by people from all over the world, even today? Because, he offered us a wonderful weapon called “non-violent action” so that we may achieve greater peace. Without violent actions, he achieved many great things including independence for India and also religious cohesion. In addition, he taught this new opportunity to many other societies. After Gandhi’s life, many countries, societies, groups, communities are following (except a few) this non-violence style to achieve their peace and development goals. Mahatma is considered as one of the greatest promoters of peace and non-violent activism in the world. In-line with Gandhi, many other great leaders like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, etc., also promoted non-violence movements. In India, it is called “Ahimsha” in Hindi and “Arap Porattam” in Tamil.
The Saint Vallalar of Tamil Nadu said: “vaadiya payirai kanda pothellam wadinen.” This means: “I would shed tears on seeing the crops which are withering for want of water.”
Another Sangam Poet Kaniyan Poongundranar’s “Yaadhum Oore Yaavarum Kaelir” is depicted in the purpose of the United Nations. This means: “All places are ours; all are our relatives.” If every human being thinks and behaves like this, there will be no violence and peace will prevail around the world.
Non-violent actions like peaceful non-cooperation, strikes, boycotts, marches, rallies, demonstrations, sit-ins, wearing black badges are popular. During challenging times, protestors may follow these unique non-violent actions even when they are being agitated and attacked by government agencies like police or military forces. Now, these actions are followed by many groups, communities throughout the world. They are also used to inspire peaceful dialogues.
Non-violent actions are inspiring protestors and government agencies to seek more productive means to solve their problems in a peaceful manner, without damaging public property, and threats to life. Such actions also help to mitigate and reduce the feelings of hate among different stakeholders. Many international agencies, particularly non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) are also involved as intermediaries for peace keeping, conflicts resolution and transformation. More and more universities are offering peace related programmes and trainings for students and professionals. Research and development activities are also happening in many places.
But, still in many places around the world some governments and groups are using violent and extremist actions which degrades our modern civilization and humanism. It also damages the economy, environment – natural resources, as well as causes the loss and grave impact on human lives. We lose our humanism, we forget our good deeds, we forget peace and act uncivilized. That’s why there are bigger challenges before human beings. One very important challenge among them all is: “The greatest challenge for human beings is to behave as human beings.”
In the name of caste, community, religion, gods, we hold many biases. So, these biases contribute to violence and full-scale war. More than all of these biases, humanism is very important. If we want to develop a humanistic approach in all that we do, we must be rational thinkers and approach our lives thoughtfully. Civil society should not believe whatever they hear, they must check the truth / facts, non-humanistic scenarios and apply them to our understanding. This thoughtful and rationale thinking will contribute to non-violent actions and peace in our world.
As Rotary Peace Fellows, we can play an important role in changing the most challenge to worse things in the world. We can learn, practice and implement non-violent actions. Also, we can demand that our governments—through dialogue, advocacy, lobbying, etc.— utilize the positive non-violent tools like peace dialogues and more humanitarian approaches.
Peace studies should be included in more schools’, colleges’, and universities’ curriculum and encourage students to follow non-violent actions from a young age. Young people certainly can and are changing the world in a positive way. If we are promoting seeds of peace among our youth, they will grow bigger and become taller trees that promote peace in the future of our world.
Dr. Arulchelvan Sriram – India
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More