Misperceptions About Peacebuilding

Mohammed Abu-Nimer

Professor of Peace and Conflict Resolution at the School of International Service, American University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: What do you think are the most common misperceptions that people have about peacebuilding?

A: That it is magic. People ask, "Where are you going?" I say, "I am going to Israel-Palestine." They say, "You are going to solve this conflict." If I say, "I am going Sri Lanka," then they say, "Are you done with Israel-Palestine?" This is a type of cynicism that is behind the misperception and the assumption that peace building as an unofficial Track II can resolve the conflict in a short period, or even that it is aimed to resolve the conflict. Another misperception is that you are the one who is responsible for doing that as opposed to the people that you work with. It leaves out the responsibility of the people you work with. These misperceptions are not only from outsiders, but can also be from the people who sit with you in the workshop.

I was beginning to say that peace building as a second track, or an unofficial track, is a mechanism that makes the official track possible and monitors the dynamics of the official track as well as helping people deal with conflicts and the problems that the government cannot, did not, or should not handle. It becomes more of an alternative that is supplementary to the official negotiation track, as opposed to instead of a mechanism to replace it. These are some of the functions the peace building and conflict resolution tracks. or ways I look at it. The misperceptions of magic and so forth are unfortunate and in many cases because it really hinder the progress or become a challenge to overcome.

Another misperception I face usually is something that I think is more creative from the culture of the training and of the field of CR as it is developing, is that peace building is a matter of skills to learn. It is really the misperception of separating mechanically learning ways to listen and actual listening. We teach skills to many people and many people are satisfied with learning those skills, but have no connection to how to apply them.

One of the misperceptions that I see is that you go to trainings and interventions then they tell you, "I didn't learn many things. I want the skills and the manual. I want all the skills," as if once you have those skills then you are a peace maker and are going to be capable of working in a war zone area. The misperception I am pointing to is this assumption that peace building is a set of mechanical skills that you can learn by books, by charts, but I don't believe that. I think it is important to do that, but a peace building work is really and primarily an issue of internal awareness that is developed in the process, and in a way allows the person to learn some concepts and some ways that eventually will become obsolete in a few weeks, a few days, or a few months. The individual awareness is a skill that is not lost. I think that is where the crux of the peace building should be instead of teaching skills in a mechanical way.