On March 14, 2022, I (Heidi Burgess) had the opportunity to talk at length with Shamil Idress, CEO for Search for Common Ground about his personal background, as well as Search's history, and his and the organization's thoughts about the current U.S. and world situation and the role that the peacebuilding field is playing and could play in improving the rather dire situations we now find ourselves. It is a wide-ranging and extremely informative and inspiring conversation. I hope many of our readers will take the time to watch it, or read the transcript. I promise, you'll learn a lot and will be left pondering a number of things you likely haven't thought about before.
He tells, for instance, how he rose from undergraduate intern to CEO of one of the largest peacebuilding NGOs in the world in twenty short years (with stints at the World Economic Forum and the UN in between.) He explains, also, how Search grew out of its founder's (John Mark's) epiphany that his previous advocacy work put him in a very negative space that did not leave room for the humanity of his opponents. But he realized, as he got to know some of them, they were honorable people, and the issues that Marks had previously seen as so black and white, were actually quite gray. So instead of continuing to tear things down, he decided he could have more of an impact if he worked with people on all sides to build new things--new collaborations, new ways of solving problems, that worked for everyone. And that was the start of Search--which began with about 10 people in 1982, and has grown to about 500 staff members now.
Search has, for a long time, been one of the most respected peacebuilding NGOs in the field. They have been a leader in peace media, having started soap operas that taught conflict and peace attitudes and skills in 1986 (and continuing to this day). They are a leader in the use of local people, rather than outsiders, delivering their programming, and designing that programming by listening to all the constituencies involved in a conflict, rather than coming in with their own agenda.
While many peacebuilders (including myself, I will acknowledge), call for the pursuit of democratic values, Shamil does not see that as important as pursuing five other goals: 1) building inter-communal trust and 2) institutional legitimacy, 3) reducing levels of physical violence 4) increasing people's sense of agency, and 5) to reallocating resourcing for more collaborative, non-violent approaches to conflict. He points out that we assume that democracies do that better than autocracies, but democracy's track record on those element, he says, is not good. On that I would certainly agree!
He has lots of other insightful material here, and wonderful stories! Please have a listen (or read)!
You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.
Heidi: I want to welcome today Shamil Idress, who is the CEO of Search for Common Ground. And we're very lucky to be able to talk with Shamil at such a fraught and busy time—I’m sure you've got a lot of other things to do. But we really value learning about what you do at Search and a little bit about your background.
I want to start in the way that we started in all of the other Beyond Intractability interviews by asking you to go back and talk about how you got into the field of peacebuilding and what your career path looked like before you got to Search.
Shamil: Yes. Hi. It's great to be with you, thank you for this. I didn't have much of a career, before getting into peacebuilding. I got in early age. I grew up, in some ways typical of children of immigrant parents. My father was born in Syria, my mother in Turkey, and I was growing up here in the US, where I was born. I had a lot of experiences growing up across cultural, national religious, political dividing lines. Nothing dramatic, but we would go to Turkey every summer for a couple of months and live with my mother's extended family, which was pretty poor. They lived a couple hours away from Istanbul, all of them lived sort of in one big compound.
And then I, but I was growing up in New Canaan, Connecticut, which is one of the wealthier parts of this country, and the US wasn't particularly diverse racially, in particular, or, sort of politically.
And then I went to college at Swarthmore College, which is a Quaker school. And I got exposed to conflict resolution there got trained outside of my classes in mediation, dialogue, and facilitation. I think it really appealed to my upbringing in a way, because I know growing up I crisscrossed a lot of different dividing lines. At least for me, I form very close deep relationships, loving relationships, with people who sometimes had stereotypes about one another, and it also made it very difficult for me to see all the good on one side, and all the bad, on the other. I tended to identify with different aspects, even in the same dispute. that people across dividing lines, so conflict resolution really got its hooks in, and I loved it.
Then, as I was looking for a summer job in 1993 as a junior in college, two things happened. One was the Oslo Peace Accords were signed, and that was a big deal at that time. And having grown up with family background in the Middle East, it was particularly interesting to me.
So my first sort of real foray into conflict resolution was trying to initiate a Muslim- Jewish dialogue group on campus around the Israeli, Palestinian conflict. I talked about this elsewhere publicly. It was pretty much a disaster on all fronts. I still remember to this day, the only thing that really sticks in my mind about that session was as people were leaving, I remember thinking that they all seem angrier than they were when they came in. So that wasn't exactly a wonderful success, but still, it definitely whet my appetite for this work.
And then I was looking for an internship that very summer and I found a two-sentence description about this organization called Search for Common Ground. They were applying what was new to me-- this whole field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding--and applying it to a part of the world, the Middle East, where my family background was from, and I was always sort of interested in, so I applied for an unpaid internship with them and got that in 1993. So, really, that was how my career started. And I loved it! I spent that summer with the organization, which at that time, was about 10 staff and one office in Washington, but all of the experiences there! It really left me with the impression-- I remember, leaving that summer thinking “Oh, this is, not something you just do when you're young and then you have to get a “real job”. This is something you could actually make a living doing! And that was very exciting to me.
So, when I graduated college year later, I came back to Search and applied, this time, for an entry level, paying job and was fortunate to get that. And, as my career evolved, I stayed at Search for about 10 years left for about 10 years and then did other work, all in the peacebuilding sector. And then I returned to Search a little over seven years ago, when the founder and President, as well as the executive Vice President were both stepping aside.
Heidi: Okay, so what did you do in 10 years you left Search?
Shamil: When I left Search after my first 10 years with the organization, I worked first with the World Economic Forum. I had gotten involved with the World Economic Forum from my position at Search when I was the chief operating officer, my title by the time I left in that first period. And I help the World Economic Forum set up something that at the time was called the Council of 100 leaders. That was pulling together corporate, political, religious and NGO leaders who were all concerned, particularly, with relations between the West and Muslim- majority countries around the world. (This was post 9/11.) I helped set up that program and was on the steering committee for that group. And I set up a funding mechanism through which organizations that were doing good work to improve those relations could get funding.
I then was appointed by Kofi Annan, who was Secretary General at the UN, to serve as deputy director of something called the UN Alliance of Civilizations. That was an initiative started by the Heads of State of Spain and Turkey, again to try to improve relations between Western and Muslim majority countries and societies. So, after the World Economic Forum I went to the UN and I really enjoyed my time at there and saw peacebuilding from a different perspective--more of a strictly political and diplomatic perspective. Frankly, they are so much more risk averse than what I was used to at Search for Common Ground--both at the World Economic Forum and at the UN. I think my experience at those places, where there was a much more elite level engagement, but also much more risk aversion, gave me an appreciation of the differences between those two different kinds of peacebuilding. And that really convinced me that the importance of what they call a more holistic approach--both top down and bottom up approach to peace building.
One other step in my career before I came back to Search I. lead an organization Soliya which is a pioneer in using digital technologies tO facilitate cross-cultural dialogue. It was a very similar mission again, but with a much more focused niche on how you use these interactive technologies to build peace.
So when I came back to Search, when the founder was getting ready to retire, I brought Soliya with me as a strategic partnership. So, they still exist, but they are legally part of Search for Common Ground. So, I returned to Search about seven years ago now.
Heidi: I was just interested [in Soliya], because I was following so it early on and was really interested in the things that they were doing and have to admit, I lost track of where it's gone since.
Shamil: Yea, well, they’ve been great. They've been growing their programming and they're doing lot of work between majority societies in the US and western Europe, as well as increasingly offering online dialogue facilitation skill sets and training, both in the corporate sector and in the nonprofit sector. So, they've been doing really wonderfully.
Heidi: I realized, I should have asked you earlier what you were doing at Search when you started at an entry level position and then ended up 10 years later, as CEO, I gather. It's quite a fast rise--how did you do that?!
Shamil: Well, two things about Search in those days: I came back to Search for in my first full time position, there in 1994. And I was working on the same programming I had worked as an unpaid intern the previous summer, which was the Middle East program. Search was established in 1982. And the focus of the organization from its founding was that 50% of the work would be domestic in the US and 50% would be international, and that was the case all the way up through that time that I interned in 1993.
Then, when I came back, but beginning in 1994-95 Search started establishing offices overseas. We established programmatic offices in Burundi, right after the Rwanda genocide and in Macedonia during to the Balkans conflict. And then in 95 we also established a European base in Brussels, which gave access to funding from the EU and from some of the governments that are the primary supporters of peacebuilding--the Scandinavian governments, the Dutch etc, etc. So once that happened in 94-95, Search’s programming began growing significantly overseas and the proportion of our work that was domestic here in the US really shrank relative to that international work.
So, when I came back to Search in 1984 it was just at the beginning of this growth spurt for the organization and this establishment of programming around the world. So, I I started working on the Middle East program in a support capacity, helping to do the logistics for the meetings and do all the organizing, invitations etc. I ended up moving up in my responsibilities in support of the Middle East Program. And I was very passionate about starting programming that might address the widening gap between Western and Muslim majority countries more broadly in the late 90s. The founder and President John Marks was very supportive of my efforts to do that, so I started a program on that. I did some support for our work between United States and Iran, which is very related to that broader field.
And then, an opportunity came up to be Search’s Programs Director in Burundi in 1999. At that time, the Burundi program was Search’s largest program and was doing some really ground-breaking work. So, I took that opportunity and really learned a tremendous amount. I was really privileged to work with my colleagues in Burundi. They were later recognized by Secretary of State Kerry for helping to prevent genocide in that country. So, working with them was an extraordinary privilege. It also connected a lot of the dots for me in terms of conflict dynamics that cut across regions. I had spent so much of my time working on the Middle East in Muslim-Western. So the experience in Burundi was really formative for me in a lot of lot of ways.
Heidi: Tell me a little bit more about that, when you say groundbreaking work, what was that? I think of the media work and the soap operas that I know about that may have been later, I’m not sure, but what were they doing at the time that was so groundbreaking?
Shamil: Well Heidi, you're exactly right in many ways. The genocide in was in Rwanda in 1994. I wasn't involved in this assessment, but when Search did an assessment in Burundi [about possible programming there] they came across some very dynamic and creative Burundians who said “the best thing that could be done here would be to use media, particularly radio in just as powerful away as it was used in neighboring Rwanda. In that case, radio, calling, infamously, for the murder of Tutsis, was really pivotal in organizing and mobilizing the genocide in that country. And the really creative idea of these Burundian activists was do the same thing, but in reverse.
But you would really need to have a multi-ethnic staff media outlet and that had never been done. They said “that's fine, let’s do it.” So ,the studio agenda was really the first multi-ethnic staff radio outlet in the Great Lakes region of Africa. And they created popular programming. There was a program--I will completely ruin the current Burundian pronunciation of the of the word, but in English it was “our neighbors ourselves.” It was a soap opera about Hutu and Tutsi families living side by side and the daily issues that would come up between them: neighborly disputes and romances and all the stuff that happens. But what has always been integrated into it was handling differences constructively. And, but there was also news programming--some of the most groundbreaking work were the teams there, journalists teams pairing Hutu and Tutsi journalists who were really quite courageous and innovative. One journalist would go to one community-- let's say there was a massacre somewhere. And one journalist could go and speak to the military and speak to the police and get one version of what it happened, and the other could go to the community itself and get their view. Oftentimes those journalists weren't welcome because of their own ethnic identity and background across those divides. But when they would work together, they could tell a much more accurate story about what happened by getting these different perspectives. Even though throughout those years, they would get a lot of pressure and sometimes very high-level pressure on them and even threats. We also had plenty of evidence that their programming was more listened to, including by people in the military and government, as well as farmers in the community than anything else. So, their all this was groundbreaking: it was news programming, it was so popular programming, it was call-in shows it was a comedy programs, it was music, it was it was all kinds of programming that really became a model for peacebuilding media.
Search teams in Liberia and Sierra Leone pioneered similar efforts which have now spun off to be totally locally-run entities\. In both Liberia and Sierra Leone, Search’s media work played really pivotal roles in those countries. We use radio in Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic and all over sub-Saharan Africa,
But Burundi was really the first place where that radio programming was pioneered by those very courageous Burundian journalists and producers and since then we've developed a range of television programming. Much of it was pioneered in the Balkans with Sesame Workshop, and then we expanded that to reality TV and now we're doing more and more.
Heidi: It's my understanding that the reason that you did radio in Burundi is that that was the main outlet for people to get information--they didn't have TV, watch and they didn't get newspapers Is that correct?
Shamil: Yes, we try to use media everywhere that will have the furthest reach. But our experience and perspective is that media tends to go abroad, but not very deep. So while we try to use media everywhere that we work, we don't just do media anywhere. Everywhere that we work, we try to complement that media programming with direct community outreach fostering cooperation between divided communities. So yes, in that case radio was by far the best medium, if you want to reach the most people in other cases it's increasingly digital. In some cases, it's TV.
Heidi: Great. We'll get back to that a little bit, but let me finish up your personal history first. How long were you in Burundi?
Shamil: Just a couple of years. After that I became Chief Operating Officer at Search. That role hadn't existed until then, but the organization was growing rapidly and John Marks, the founder, Susan Collin Marks, the executive Vice President realized it was needed.
John established the organization in 1982 and Susan largely built it, is how I put it, because John established Search in 1982. I can share if you're interested, the founding story of the organization--why he established it. Search was really the outgrowth of the US involvement in Vietnam. John was an American foreign service officer, but he quit the foreign service to protest to the war. He then joined the staff of the Republican Senator Case that was who wrote the legislation that cut the funding to the war which is, ultimately, what ended the American involvement in Vietnam.
And then John went on to a career as an investigative journalist and he wrote to quite acclaim one of the best-selling exposes of the CIA, which got him in a lot of hot water with the US government. So he was he wasn't exactly a cult figure, but he was becoming a known figure in the whole anti-war, anti-government movements of the 60s and 70s.
In the late 70s, he had what he still describes, to this day, as a life-changing epiphany. It was two-fold. First, he realized his whole life was oriented around adversarial advocacy. He was always in a very negative space and, as he puts it, sort of everything was about tearing down the old system. He was beginning to realize it's not the same thing as building the new system.
And the second realization was that as black and white as these issues looked to him from the outside, when he engaged with them and met people across some of these dividing lines, he sometimes had to acknowledge that that some of those people who disagreed with him, actually, were people who had principled, people who he actually came to respect. That made it harder to put things in such clear, black and white terms. So, in 1982, he very explicitly left behind him that career of adversarial advocacy as an approach. He wanted to establish a place where, rather than choosing one side and go to war with the other side, literally or figuratively, he would actually bring the sides together. But he didn’t want to bring the sides together for some watered down, lowest-common denominator compromises. Rather, he believed that with the right trust-building, and relationship building, you might be able to generate high- common denominator solutions that nobody would have thought possible if they just stayed in their separate camps battling it out with one another. So, this is sort of the core idea when John started Search
His initial idea was that work should be done in the US, where the dividing lines coming out of the Vietnam era and Watergate were so profound, as well as internationally, with an initial focus on us Soviet relations—the Cold War was still raging in 1982. And that's what the organization did for those first 13 years or so.
He met Susan in the early 90s, who was a South African peace activist. And Susan and John were in many ways very complementary to one another in terms of their interests and ethics and how they committed their lives, but they also have very different strengths. And so, when Susan joined the organization after they got married in the early to mid ‘90s--93 or 94, the organization really started expanding largely with Susan's leadership and establishing these. That’s when Search started establishing offices around the world.
So I was in Burundi and 99 and 2000, by then the organization had grown a lot. I don't remember now, I think it was about 350 staff and they had offices in maybe eight countries. So, they not only wanted to establish this chief operating officer position, but they also wanted someone to oversee programming, because they were quite interested in moving themselves-- Susan and John to Jerusalem to take a direct hand and our Middle East programming.
And so that's what I did , in the early 2000s from 2000 2004.
Heidi: So why, then, did you leave?
Shamil: A couple of reasons. First, I got married. Before we got married, she had largely followed me around. She had come to visit me in Burundi, when I lived there. Then she landed a tenure track position in New York at New York University. And we lived a whole year of our marriage, our first year of marriage, going back and forth between New York and DC, which was not ideal. So, it was really my opportunity to support her, and I could stay engaged in this field, which I still really loved
I ended up at the World Economic Forum initially for a few years, then I got an appointment to work at the UN for Kofi Annan, which was really an extraordinary opportunity for me as well. But I always kept tied to Search and always was interested in Search.
And, as I shared with you, I think, honestly, that experience at the World Economic Forum and at the UN were very beneficial for me. Those experiences underscored for me, the value of highly adaptive, flexible, and risk-taking approaches to peacebuilding, which were not characteristic of the UN or the World Economic Forum. They have other strengths and benefits. The World Economic Forum has as its primary base in the corporate sector and the United Nations, which, of course, is the primary global, multilateral organization in the world. So they too had strengths, in terms of the peacebuilding practice in each of these places. But I came to appreciate all the more the sort of adaptability, locally-rooted nature, and risk-taking appetite of an organization like Search that could nevertheless still engage with and support high level processes. But they could also drive and support community-led peacebuilding.
Heidi: That makes sense. So, then you came back to Search, when?
Shamil: So, I came back to Search in 2014.
Heidi: And then you were CEO?
Shamil: Yes, I succeeded both John and Susan in the role of CEO and President. By that time the organization had grown significantly. the. staffing was maybe 750 people at that time. Search was in 28 countries or so, maybe even more, and it had a budget of about $40 million a year. So search had grown a lot but it still maintained this commitment to locally-led creative risk taking both top down and bottom up peacebuilding processes. I really love it!
Now Search has about 1000 people. We have offices in 30 countries. And our annual budget, I think our budget last year was about 65 million.
Heidi: Wow! One of the things that struck me as you told the story is that I could see the need and I don't know whether you agree with me on this, but I see the needle with Search coming full circle. Because you said early on, it had 50% of its work in the United States and I don't know whether you'd want to have 50% of your work in the United States now, probably not, but a lot of folks in the peacebuilding field are coming around to the notion that peacebuilding is really needed here too. And suddenly we just discovered that the Cold War, isn’t over anymore. So it seems like there's opportunity and need to go back to the roots and start working in those areas again, or is there any talk about doing that?
Shamil: Yeah absolutely. More than talk, we launched our, by far, most ambitious domestic program ever in our history, last year, Common Ground USA. We recruited an excellent leader in Nealin Parker out of the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton. She had previously served as Director of the Office of Transition Initiatives at USAID, so she's had experience with both supporting international peacebuilding and conflict transformation, as well as domestically looking at these dividing lines. So Nealin is leading a small foundational team that we're growing called Common Ground USA. I had always wanted us to be more active here in the US and, to be honest with you, in 2017, we took a stab at it. We wrote proposals and approached different foundations and just could not get the traction that we wanted. I remember, citing plummeting levels of trust between communities in the US both horizontal trust or inter-communal trust across racial, and especially, political lines. As well as vertical trust--trust for almost pretty much every institution, certainly government, but also the media. Even some of those institutions that had previously been immune from distrust--the military, religion--their levels of trust were plummeting across the board. And we were saying, “look we've seen this before we know where this leads” and we just couldn't generate the support that we had hoped, at that time.
But after January 6 of last year, we tried again. I don't want to say we just dusted off the proposals from 2017 but, really that’s what we did, and this time we able to get more support—a combination of private sector, foundation funding, as well as government funding. And it was a politically diverse funding base, which is important to us, given the political divides in this country, and so that programming is growing now.
In terms of your other point, I think we've been saying it for years that we really feel like the whole system that was set up after World War II to prevent violent conflict and foster international cooperation that that system is now obsolete. That system, represented, first and foremost by the UN, but other multilateral institutions like the EU and African Union, the Arab League, etc, that system was clearly faltering, if not collapsing. We were seeing for years, really with the turn of the century, you could even maybe say that the beginning, maybe before then, was the Rwandan genocide. You could see that the system was struggling. That whole system was not set up to deal with weak governments, and internal civil wars and conflicts within society, within countries.
That system that was set up on the principle of national sovereignty, where you and I, if we're recognized nation states we get a seat at the table. And we agree to one principle which is I'm not going to invade your borders and you're not going to invade mine. And on that basis, we will try to work everything else out. But that system was really struggling to deal situations in which governments start turning on their own and with non-state actors--whether it's a ISIS ,or ideological, religious driver, or the Sinaloa cartel, drug cartels and criminal gangs that move well beyond urban phenomenon, they are now national, regional, global, networks. And racist hate groups that have inspired attacks from Christchurch, New Zealand to El Paso, Texas. The whole system that was set up after World War Two just really could not deal either with the collapsing states, on the one hand, or with these non-state actors that increasingly were every bit as destabilizing as state militaries. Because of Sinaloa Cartel doesn't have a seat at the UN, neither does ISIS. So, they don’t play by those rules. So we were seeing that for years, and a lot of people are saying, that we're seeing a 25 year high-levels of violent conflict, largely because of this conflict that the state diplomacy system just cannot deal with these kinds of actors. They move too slowly, these actors do not respect national borders. Now we're seeing, even, the very kind of conflict that that whole system was set up to prevent, which, in many ways, it was quite successful correcting with all the inconsistencies and the challenges of that system, which I don't want to gloss over. But now interstate war on the European continent threatens to engulf many, many countries well beyond Europe. That was the very kind of conflict that the multilateral system was set up to deal with and did largely prevent until now, for the most part.
So now we're seeing both of those kinds of conflict proliferating and the system is really struggling to deal with to deal with them. So, on your second point, the international system, in previous points in history you've had some world order that maintained relative stability for decades. And then those systems collapsed, and a new system come about. These changes have tended to come through the crucible of really cataclysmic violence. After the Council of Europe and the Treaty of Versailles, or whatever—the last time this has happened was World War I and World War II.
And so, in many ways, I feel like what we're seeing now is that old system that's been teetering for decades, a couple of decades now, at least, maybe collapsing. And the hope is, well, could we accelerate the emergence of a new or revitalized or evolved form of world order without having to pass through cataclysmic violence (which we're already starting to see in Ukraine and could spread well beyond that.) And it's terrifying and it's devastating in terms of human life.
So yeah it's to put it mildly, I think you're really right. But the best-case scenario is that this focuses the mind of political leaders sufficiently around the world, as well as activists, to really accelerate the emergence of a better system for preventing violent conflict and fostering cooperation, because the old system is collapsing.
Heidi: Do you see any proposals, or do you personally have any ideas, of what such a better system might look like.?
Shamil: You could look at the whole UN reform agenda and see plenty of proposals. And you can see plenty of things relating to the failings and the fault lines within that system. The problem of having permanent members of the UN Security Council that basically reflects who won World War Two. And that don’t have any representation from the from the entire continent of Africa and South America, some of the largest population centers in the whole world. The fact that that system is so reliant on state diplomacy, whereas non-state actors are increasingly influential. So are there ways to evolve that system, so it can better integrate and connect with and cooperate with the private sector, both nonprofit civil society-type activism, as well as the corporate sector. We need to correct the woefully underrepresented nature, and not just in terms of states, but in terms of gender. We've got to move beyond a system where it's mainly older, largely men cutting deals behind closed doors. You need much greater representation from women in decision making roles, as well as much greater representation and integration of youth voices.
All of these things--there's a litany of these things that have come out again and again, all of which are relevant. I'm not going to pretend to be smart enough to know what that next system will look like. But, to be more effective than the current system, it seems to me that all of those things that I just identified has to be integrated somehow or another in what in what comes next.
I think the other thing that's going to be hard--we have to recognize, that if the system is viewed by major powers like China and Russia-- two major nuclear powers--Russia is not nearly the economic force that China, the US or even Germany or many others are. But it's a nuclear power. It's the biggest nuclear power in the world. If major powers experience and generally view that international system is fundamentally antithetical to their interests, it is not going to be effective. So, what do you do about that? I do think that you try to foster a renewed political commitment from all countries, including all the nuclear powers, to a system that they really do feel like is in their shared and mutual interest.
Does that mean you're much more cognizant of not letting that system be utilized to erode the influence or the power of those countries?
Now, in the midst of the Ukraine war, it's hard to give voice to this, because the first and foremost preoccupation now for all of us has to be to end the slaughter. Coming out of that, we have to have some sort of new security architecture, or a new politics within the existing security architecture that, hopefully, Russia and China are as committed to as Western Europe and the US. And that’s not to mention greater representation from other regions of the world. It’s not simple!
However, I think we have learned some things. At Search, we developed a Global Impact Framework. We looked at the different frameworks for how you measure peacebuilding progress and impact. One of the things that's been holding our field back is that there is really no alignment on how you gauge success and how you measure that success. So, we looked at different frameworks that came out of the UN system, the scoring methodology that UNDP uses, for instance. We looked at the ones that are used by the Institute of Economics and Peace--their eight-factor Positive Peace Index. We looked at the different indices and different frameworks that are used to determine progress in peacebuilding and sustainable peace. And then we worked with the local communities and stakeholders in the countries where we operate around the world to translate those into a framework that we could utilize to design programming.
Right now, if I look at the Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index, for instance, I love the fact that it's looks at the global agenda. I like that the Economist reports on it. It starts the debate. People say ”Oh gee, the US fell eight points and Vietnam went up seven points, what does that mean?” I love all of that. I think that's really important. But it's not granular enough to be relevant to a to a peacebuilding implementing organizations like ours.
And yet, some of the tools that organizations like ours have been using are way too granular for policymakers to understand or to apply when they're making policy or funders are trying to make funding decisions.
So, you need a framework that is locally grounded and rooted enough to inform programming in different neighborhoods, but ideally generalizable enough across conflicts, so that it can inform policy decisions about peace and conflict. That’s a long-winded answer.
So, we developed this global impact framework that tries to do that. It tracks five themes: first trust, which includes intercommunal trust or social cohesion (as it is sometimes called) and institutional legitimacy or vertical cohesion (as that is sometimes called). Second whether the people have any faith or belief in the systems that govern and serve them. Third, levels of physical violence. Fourth, agency-- it's a very subjective measure of whether people think that what they do makes any difference whatsoever. Can they do anything to improve their children's lives or their community’s well being? And fifth, resourcing. Are our national budgets and other things going towards more securitized approaches? Or are they going towards collaborative nonviolent problem-solving approaches and social welfare of societies? So those the five themes.
And then for each of those themes, wherever we're working, we engage with a diversity of local stakeholders: community members, government people and others to define well in this context, what would an indicator of success be? So, for instance, in Myanmar, we looked at whether people were building with cinder blocks, rather than mud? Because building with cinder blocks is an indicator that they feel secure about the future, that they can stay where they are. Obviously, that's not the same measure that you would have in Texas, where we're also working.You’d have other measures there.
The reason I’m going into all of that is when we think about what's the next system is going to look like that might deliver more sustainable peace and prevent violent conflict, to me it would be systems that that advanced those five indicators. Those are not always what people would expect. So, for instance, there's a lot of push around democracy and democratization. I think we've seen really clearly that there can be liberal democracies and democracies that don't deliver on those five fronts. And there can be more autocratic systems that actually do deliver on those five indicators. For instance, The Lancet just published a major study of more than 150 countries, trying to assess what the factors were that explained a more effective COVID response. I sent this around to our leadership team, because it reflected exactly what our institutional learning team has baked into our global impact framework. And what they said, interestingly, if you look at the report in the Washington Post--this was widely reported, but The Lancet was the one that published the full study. It basically said that a lot of the things that researchers expected would correlate to an effective COVID response: wealth of the country, democratic systems (maybe democratic system would be more effective than other political systems). These things were actually not relevant in terms of correlation. The two most important factors, when they looked across countries that had a more effective COVID response were two indicators. One was interpersonal trust and the other was institutional trust.
People will oftentimes think that democratic system deliver more institutional legitimacy, because you voted for those people, and democratic institutions will deliver a sense of agency better. But actually no, they don’t.
The reason I'm going into all of that is, I think that we've grabbed on to certain proxies of what we think is progress and it isn’t necessarily. This is not a screed against democratic systems, but it's more a statement that it’s complicated.
I know when we look at impact at Search, we look less at some of the trappings, the proxies that are sometimes assumed to deliver greater health and sustainable and just societies. I look more at these indicators of trust--horizontal trust, vertical trust, levels of physical violence, sense of agency and resourcing. Those are the things that we look at, whatever we look at system effectiveness. So, my hope for the next system, Heidi, is that it will be a system that maximizes for those deliverables and recognizes that that those can come in different ways for different cultures. That is part of why, I think, when the UN system was established, the term that was highlighted was “self-determination.” It wasn't necessarily democracy. I'm doing deep on the democracy point just because it's one of many areas we need to adjust our thinking. We have here this notion that international system should be democracy-promoting. I'm not against democratic development, it was wonderful. But I think if you're looking at peace and conflict, you need to actually look at some of these other factors, and not so much on the governmental structure.
Heidi: So, I’m listening to you and thinking about a question and exercise I give to my students. I teach a class on reconciliation and I assert that in order to work towards reconciliation, you have to have some notion about what that is. So, we do a visioning exercise sort of like what you just did, asking what sort of society would we want to see. We imagine what reconciliation would “look like,” and then the next question is “okay, how do we get there from where we are? So, it strikes me that I agree with what you said that many dimensions and most places were very far from reaching what I would consider to be a good level of trust, a good lack of violence, a good level of efficacy or agency. And I'm asking this both locally and globally—how do you get from where we are, to where we want to be? We've got the UN, and we've got the state system that everybody realizes outmoded, but how do we move beyond it without cataclysmic violence? Or are we doomed to that?
Shamil: This is the question that literally keeps me up at night. And I’m with you, I think that is the question. Because we do not have a great track record. This whole notion that sometimes you need to break down to have a breakthrough, well that's all great if a breakdown is a minor little blip. But when a breakdown is millions of lives destroyed and 10s or hundreds of thousands of people killed, we can't abide by that. We can’t be sanguine about that. So, I think we are seeing that are hopeful, things we have never seen, before, I think—a truly global peace movement.
We've seen peace movements in reaction to wars and an effort to prevent wars. But the team in Sierra Leone did something really extraordinary--they were featured on the BBC and elsewhere for this. In the lead up to the elections there, I'm going to get the dates wrong, but it was like five years ago now, some time ago. They organized and became sort of the backbone organizing the largest collection of civil society organizations in the history of Sierra-- Leone hundreds of organizations across all the different ethnic and regional divides in the country. This was during the lead up to the elections, where people were nervous about what happened around the elections, and they developed something called a Citizens’ Manifesto. In this Manifesto they basically said to each of the political parties and the leaders who were running for office that “you each have your political platforms and you're selling us on them to get our votes, but we, the people, have a Citizens’ Manifesto, which says, no matter which of you wins, we have seven demands-- seven things that we all agree, you need to do. They went to transparency in the finances; they went to representation in the cabinet--women's representation; it went to a number of other factors—I won’t name them all because I don’t want to get them wrong. They went to each of the candidates and said “we want you to sign this. If you have any interest in getting our vote, you need to sign this.” It was a flipping of the script of really mobilizing collective opinion to set some standards on some things, despite all the differences, there were some things that everyone agreed upon that were non-negotiable. It's a very democratic approach. And I think that, globally, we do have the seeds and the ingredients of kind of powerful approach.
We have the largest youth cohort in history. Young people are inheriting really a hellacious situation. A similar process could bring climate and the security challenges that we're facing, our inability to prevent and stop the spread of pandemics, to the fore. In the anger that we are sensing and the fear and desperation that we're sensing from young people, there are the seeds of that a truly powerful movement. That, I think, gives me some hope.
On the other end of the scale, we have political leadership. I hope to God that that if previous wars didn't do it, that this current one Ukraine might spark efficient political will to go back to the drawing table and refashion, if not restructure, then at least evolve, the politics of how the multilateral system is being is being managed and. You asked me if I see it. On that front, I’m less hopeful, mainly because all of these issues that are playing out at the international level. Multilateral institutions are always as stronger or as weak as what's going on at the national level of their members. And all of these issues that are playing out at the multilateral level, or playing out at the state level within individual members states. The level of trust, the disillusionment with governments, the disillusionment with democratic systems, that you're seeing from populations. And that keeps leaders very short term. It's like they're surfing a hurricane—it is very difficult for them to look beyond the immediate situation to ask “how do you step back and look at the bigger picture?” And that's, sadly, why I think sometimes there those cataclysmic periods of violence that end up being the trigger for taking that that step back and refashioning.
But I do think there's hope. I'm hopeful that there's more a sense of interdependence now. In each era that this happens, there's a greater sense that the win-lose framework is, at the end of the day, pretty lose-lose. And I think you're starting to see more of that understanding. I think China's in a very difficult position now vis-a-vis Ukraine.
My biggest hope comes from the combination of an unprecedented youth movement that we have the seeds of, and the communication tools that have emerged now that we've never truly seen globally before. And I have some hope that at the level of political leadership, this will be enough of a wake-up call, hopefully, without this turning into an even broader war or one that involves nuclear weapons, to really reset the multilateral framework, and how its operating. But I agree with you, and I think you've raised, precisely, the question and I don't know the answer. I'm very worried, I think we all are.
Heidi: When we were scheduled to talk a couple of weeks ago, you said that you weren't able to because you were engaging on Ukraine, and that was right when the war started. I'm wondering what role Search, if any, is playing to try to influence what's going on diplomatically. Or is the peacebuilding field really on the sidelines and have no influence on this whatsoever?
Shamil: For the field as a whole, I don't know. I'm aware of some international negotiators who, who have made efforts. I don't know that any of them are having any influence. I don't think we have had any particular influence. I think it's frankly unlikely on this immediate crisis. There two things that we have been doing, because we play a very facilitative and integrative role in in the youth peacebuilding space. And we're very involved in the development of the UN Security Council Resolution 2250 on youth, peace, and security and then translating that into frameworks and funding and other kinds of support for peacebuilding. We have been, almost by default, working with a few other organizations to facilitate regular consultations online between on-the- ground youth activists in Ukraine, and increasingly Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. We will continue to support those dialogues and that sort of solidarity formation. So those happen regularly.
At the political level, we do have a lot of history with Russia. As an organization, we were, as I mentioned to you earlier, we started working on U.S./ Soviet relations. The first meetings that Search for Common Ground ever organized in 1982 were between see former CIA and KGB officials meeting, for the first time, in an effort to prevent nuclear war, basically. And some of those relationships still exist. Most people have aged out, but we also maintained and reinvigorated some of those networks from our own Track II process for Syria between Russian and American and other policymakers. We are we are planning this month to engage again and reinvigorate that network of senior Russian policy advisors. If we could have any influence on the current war, we would love to. But I think that our focus is a little bit further down the horizon, considering what would be the arrangements or the pathway to an arrangement that could enable us to come out of this less likely to start World War III. So those are the conversations that we're seeking to open up and facilitate and cooperate with others who are working in that space.I
A phrase that we've been using and i've seen other lot of other people use in print is that we need an “off ramp”--Putin needs an off ramp. Are there just isn't any clear way for him to get out of this system that, I acknowledge, he largely created. But okay, fine, that's water under the bridge now. There has to be some way to allow him to save face and step off without starting global nuclear war. And it strikes me that an organization like Search, particularly with ties to both US and Russian leaders might be able to play a role in coming up with a rough framework of an off ramp does that seems remotely feasible?
Shamil: I would love if that were true. William Ury, the international negotiator and mediation supporter. talks about envisioning the victory speeches that every key leader would be making, and working back from those victory speeches, not unlike the visioning exercise you talked about doing with your students. So what's the victory speech for Putin, or put another way, the face-saving “off ramp” that would enable Putin, Zelensky, the Europeans, the Americans all the major stakeholders here, to give that speech and enable an end to the violence.
I think, obviously, the fear that a lot of people have is that, absent that, what we might see is real devastation – the leveling of cities. So yeah, I would I like to see that kind of an offer clarified. The Chinese could be a key player in offering that off-ramp to Putin. Anyway, there are different parties that might be able to do that. I think one of the things that's difficult is that a result of this—and I understand it-- Germany's defense budget has doubled overnight and Finland is talking about joining NATO and Japan overturned decades of post-World War Two Defense policy etc, etc, etc, Sweden is arming resistance. And yet, in the bigger picture, I find it difficult to rejoice over these things. It's not the direction the world needs to move in. But it's very understandable, given what's happening right now, why these things are happening.
And if they can hasten the end of this bloody war. and open up a pathway to a better system that will prevent this sort of thing from happening again, and then great. But yeah, I think absent some sort of face-saving offer, that’s not going to happen. People fantasize about Putin being gone, but the indicators are that there is a very small circle of people--some people say fewer than five people--who are most influential in Russia. And Julia Yafoo (sp?), an expert on Russia and said that Putin is the moderating force in that group! It's not as if you can’t imagine worse. And that's always the case with violent conflict, where you say this is horrible but, unfortunately, it can pretty much always get worse.
So I don't want to claim that Search can have that influence--I wish we could. As we engage with people, if there's any opening to have any positive influence, we would grab it. In the meantime, I know others are trying to do the same.
Heidi: Let's redirect now to the United States, where I think you might, indeed, have more effect. Tell me more about the US Program.
Shamil: There are really two legs to it. One is around resilience and preventing violence, political violence, in particular, and the other is the longer term, but critical, element of building the more inclusive and just society.
On the resilience front, in hyper polarized societies, you could have an act of political violence and it might bring the country together. It might bring a community together. Something terrible could happen, and it would pull people together. We haven't seen, really, since the 60s, fortunately, we haven't seen political assassinations. And it's been more than 10 years since we had something at the scale of the Oklahoma City bombing, although there have been plots foiled
But our perspective is that's precisely the political violence that we are on the pathway towards given how arm the country is now divided. It is in the degree to which we are living, it seems, in different worlds of reality, depending on what media we follow.
So the first focus is how do you prevent political violence in this context, and if it were to happen, how do you limit it, keep it from spinning out of control? And so, a lot of our efforts on that front are focused on the predictable markers of elections. Those are moments, always, of heightened division understandably. And so, working with a network of other organizations we are trying to forge agreements and run scenarios and prepare different people who could be influential across the political aisle to either prevents political violence around elections and/or to mobilize very quickly should something happen.
So that's been the narrative vacuum that opens up when something like that happens. It's not filled by further divides. You can see with the January 6th events in this country, that those events did not exactly bring the country back together again. Rather, they accelerated and exacerbated the divisions. And that's what happens in hyper-polarized societies, when you have political violence.
The other side of the equation is building more a inclusive country, and societies. That’s where we do a lot of the work fostering and facilitating dialogues across dividing lines, and strengthening the role of youth activists to apply more what we would call “a common ground approach” that is not adversarial but quite effective. We are trying to stimulate activism across political, racial, and other dividing lines and really strengthen the hand of those who are driving change across dividing lines to serve all.
Tight now we have three major areas of programming that fit roughly into those two categories of work. We recruited, four months ago, Nealin Parker, who is adapting that strategy and building out more programming and we're very excited for where that's headed. We've formed partnerships with different local organizations and national networks. Where's a lot of activity going on in this country that was spurred after January 6th.
There's, a lot of experience in activism related to racial injustice and more inclusive societies that predates January 6th, so we're doing our best to really make sure we understand and collaborate, with rather than in any way duplicate, any of those. Efforts.
People can see Common Ground US on our website and. see some of the examples of what we're what we're doing, but that will be evolving a lot and growing. I get to spend a fair amount of time on this over the coming with two years.
Heidi: One of the things that I've seen with some of the folks who are doing this that worries me is that they're so focused on recruiting voices from low power communities that they are perceived by Republicans--I'm making a broad generalization here--but the Republican Christian Right as just working to “empower the enemy” against them. And if one side sees their activities that way, they're not going to be effective, as I see it, in actually bridging the divide between Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals together. How do we do both things at once--build trust with the current white power base so that they don't arm up against things that we're doing, but at the same time, become more inclusive?
Shamil: As you indicated, it’s a matter of perception. It’s not that reality isn’t important, especially in this era of alternative facts where even the most basic things are contested. Facts are important. But in terms of what drives behavior, perception is everything. And so, if people perceive a peacebuilding efforts as really a Trojan horse for the victory of one side against the other--and for the most part in this space, what we see is a perception that. that a lot of what is presented as peacebuilding in nature, is in fact advancing a liberal political agenda. Then we're going to fail to actually unite the country and move it forward on a lot of those issues. We won’t be able to move forward on racial and other kinds of injustice in this country. So, I think, to answer your question, my perspective is that you have to engage the diversity of constituencies in the agenda setting and in the issue framing to begin with. You can't frame the issues in the ways that you see them and then try to recruit a diversity of people to that issue. It just doesn’t work--it fails everywhere always.
And so, in the work that we initiated, we are piloting in Tarrant County, Texas we've been working with the Baptist Association of Tarrant County which is a primary partner. We’re working there with the Christian right, evangelical Christian leaders who are concerned about the divisions in in the Church, the politicization of the Church and the degree to which conspiracy theories and other things are pulling the church apart. We have been working with them, first and foremost, to do listening tours in the community. really do hear how people, themselves, see these issues across racial, political, and other dividing lines. This will help us to frame the issues accordingly. So the word “extremism” might not end up at all in the framing that people have that we will bring people to the table.
I think this is, in some ways, anathema to people who say “no look, you have to name things, you have to call a spade a spade, or say that there’s injustice here.” But our experience in divided societies everywhere in the world, not just in the US, is that people come to the same issues from very different perspectives. And the really powerful work that really transforms conflict begins by setting that agenda collaboratively with people who have constituency. People who have constituency might not be people who you like, or whose views you agree with. They could be people who make your blood boil.
We will be critiqued-- and we have been at Search-- and so have other peacebuilding organizations that take this approach will be critiqued for talking to anyone. But our main criteria for who we will engage with is anyone who has constituency. Oftentimes that is underrepresented communities, as you were just alluding to, who have constituency, but sometimes not power. And sometimes those are people who have constituency and over-exaggerated elements of levers of power that they control.
One of my concerns with what's happening right now, I think, is too much faith is being put in dialogue for dialogue’s sake. In really divided societies, I think dialogue is absolutely necessary, but usually totally insufficient and, in fact, if you put too much faith in dialogue, over time, people get very burnt out and cynical about it. In the same way that people across Israel and Palestine think that the peace process is sort of a dirty term there. When you put too much faith in processes that don't deliver on the very core drivers of conflict that are destroying lives--over time, those processes lose any legitimacy or any support,
So we're not against dialogue, it's great to see all this effort to foster interracial dialogue, red- blue political dialogue. But, in our experience, you have to translate dialogue into cooperative action, and the way you translate dialogue into cooperative action is listening for those areas of common ground, wherever they might be from. Listen to those who have constituency. And in a very divided society, sometimes that area of common ground is really small and seemingly silly. I don't know the number of soccer tournaments we organized between police and youth in different countries. Because that's the one thing that would get them together when they've been clashing in the streets. whether in Nepal, the Congo, or whatever. I can't tell you how many times we’ve done this, but those are used as an opening of a relationship that then enables for the areas of common ground to be identified and mobilized collaboratively around.
At Search, we have a three-step process: humanize, mobilize, systematize. It starts at that very human level where you're really listening to people across these dividing lines not inviting them to an agenda that you frame but, listening to them and then framing the agenda based on what you're hearing across dividing lines. So you're looking for that Venn diagram overlap. In a really divided society, that overlap area might be very small. But that's the thing around which you're going to organize some collaborative action. That’s where mobilization comes in. You actually move from dialogue to people across dividing lines working on something together--collaborating on something that meets their shared interests, that addresses concerns that they both have.
And if you do that effectively, then it can expand. It deepens the trust and can expand the area of common ground where people will do this work. They’ll think about other things they could try. But it systematizes--and that is a really critical thing. And that's really where we try to move from just reconciling communities to actually driving enduring change. And, in our experience, change becomes really embedded and sustainable, it grows without external facilitation or funding or support when have either triggered a change in institutions, how the police force polices, or how the education system educates, how a network of radio stations covers a divisive topic, so as not to inflame violence. You either change institutions or you change social norms--the way a critical mass of the population talks about and deals with its differences. This is where a lot of our dramatic media programming comes in. It popularizes new social norms. Or you change market forces. There are market forces that fuel conflict and there are market forces like our current social media environment, the business models, I think, largely fuel disruptive conflict. And there are market forces that fuel collaboration-- like when you see the in the mediation industry, people can actually make a living mediating disputes. And so, once you get to that level of change, where you're talking about system change, either in institutions, norms, or market, it all sounds very theoretical. But it always starts with that very human level--humanizing across those dividing lines. So, my answer to your question would be that we have to first, in my view, we have to start by asking what are the key constituencies we're talking about here, so the cross-racial dividing lines, the political dividing lines, and then really listen. Really listen to people and work very hard as we listen to people not to sell them on an idea, but to listen to where they're coming from and identify where there are areas of overlap.
I think there are substantial areas of overlap where you could foster collaborative action in this country. Across all kinds of dividing lines. Oftentimes they won't be in the spaces, where the the national media narratives have already completely bifurcated the country. We won't be on those big, national issues, but more on local issues, issues that affect people's lives, where they live, where they send their kids to school, etc.
So that was a long-winded answer, I think, to your question. But I think we have to start by engaging those communities and getting them to setting the agenda themselves, rather than having us set the agenda than trying to invite a diverse group to our agenda.
Heidi: Great answer! One of the things that I was thinking about when you were talking: I was thinking back to something you said before when you said that you talk to anybody and that you're different in that respect from other some other peacebuilding organizations. Would you engage with a non-state actor--what we would call terrorist actor, such as ISIS in this way? Or would you deal with them either not at all or totally differently?
Shamil: One of the biggest challenges to our field is that the field is largely funded by Western governments and multilateral institutions dominated by Western governments. And those governments have put legal restrictions on who you can talk to, who you can engage with. They all these materials support laws that prevent you from giving “material support to terrorists.” So, the annoying realistic answer to your question is, we have to be really careful because of that. That is not a mission-based reason, though. To answer your question and from a mission perspective, we absolutely would engage with any group that has constituency. You engage with them to learn where they're coming from. You engage them to understand. Also, where there are fissures within groups that from the outside, might seem monolithic or impossible to work with or beyond the pale.
We have done this kind of work. It's part of the value of a non-governmental peacebuilding organization. Part of our value is our irrelevance. Our political irrelevance, I mean. If I'm an ambassador of a country and I go meet with an ISIS representative, then they're all kinds of questions about legitimizing them, and recognizing them, whatever it might be. But nobody really cares very much if Shamil Idress, or one of our directors in any of the countries where we work, meets with whoever. That's part of the power of being an organization like ours -- a non- governmental organization. So to have that power undercut, or stripped, by law, saying that you cannot even engage in any way, with some of these parties, is devastating,
Heidi: And there's no way around that?
Shamil: It’s challenging. There is a way, I think, to engage with different parties, where you can signal to the relevant governments and ensure that they are okay with what you were doing. But you have to always ask yourself whether you're putting the entire organization at risk if you're going to do something like that, without first, getting some sort of clearance. So that’s a real problem.
I just come back from Afghanistan, where a party that supposedly no one is supposed to talk to or support for two decades is now running the government. And it's going to have a massive impact on the lives of 40 million Afghans. One of the Afghan civil society leaders was saying to me, “you know, for 20 years civil society here was supported and funded and developed in opposition to these people. Not to reach out to any of the folks who support them in any particular way, but actually to be in opposition to them as the enemy. Now they're in charge, and so now, we have to find ways to work with them and work under the rules that they are setting. He expressed the challenge of doing that, when for 20 years, the last thing they were supposed to do was engage these people in any way.
I came out of meeting with over 150 civil society leaders--men and women, UN agencies, as well as senior Taliban officials last month, convinced that there is really great peril and danger and fear in the country. That is in addition to this humanitarian catastrophe. But there is also real opportunity for a wide range of programs. One of the big challenges in getting things done, though, is just how. devastating the current international sanctions regime is. So that even activism that international parties want to support, for instance, a woman running a center that gets international funding and but is then told, “you can't use any of your salary that we pay to you for to pay taxes.” Because the government was the Taliban. So now you're putting this Afghan woman in a position, literally, of having to be a tax evader vis-a-vis, the Taliban authorities or not take your support. That's just one tiny example of the self-defeating things that happened as a result of this. That got pretty far afield, but to answer your fundamental question, from the point of principle, we see part of our value being our willingness to talk to, and maybe more importantly, listen to anyone who has serious constituency in a conflict setting.
Heidi: We only have a few minutes left, I want to ask a couple of broader, linked questions. One is, what do you think are the strengths of the peacebuilding field as it currently exists and the opposite is, what are the challenges facing the peacebuilding field and how do you think peacebuilding needs to grow and develop in order to become more effective?
Shamil: Well, some of the strengths of it, when Search was established in 1982, there weren't a lot of dedicated peacebuilding organizations, nonprofit organizations. At that time, peacebuilding was mostly diplomats negotiating behind closed doors. Or it was once- in-a-lifetime movement leaders like Mandela or Dr King. And there were some religious movements such as the Quakers.
Now the whole field has really grown significantly. There are many more dedicated peacebuilding organizations with peacebuilding, as their prime or sole mission, as well as most of the major development agencies and humanitarian agencies, almost all of whom dwarf even the biggest peace building organizations. Most of them have integrated, at the very least, conflict sensitivity and some of them, much more so effective peacebuilding into their programs. There is now the recognition that conflict really is important. You can have decades of hard-won development gains that will be wiped out within weeks of mass violence. Not only infrastructure destroyed, but also trust systems of governments, people’s livelihoods, and so on. So, there's a bit of recognition over the last, at least 40 years that Search has been around, and that really accelerated over the last couple of decades--that conflict is really a primary or a first-order issue that we need to deal with well. Our inability to deal with conflict well threatens every other aspect of human progress. And the peacebuilding field, I think, needs to take some solace and some appreciation that we collectively have helped to make that case. I also think the collective field has learned a lot of lessons over the last 40 years in terms of what works and what doesn't work.
But, unfortunately, I think the field is very weak, too weak, than we need to be right now. Too many small efforts that are advancing mostly ad hoc. I know that Margaret Mead quote “never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. That's the only thing that ever has.” I totally agree with that, and believe that so it's not about whether small efforts can make big changes—they absolutely can.
But they can be so much stronger if they work collectively in how we're addressing these issues. If we take the question that you asked about “how are we going to accelerate the emergence of a more effective world order -- a world order that's more effective at both preventing war and fostering the cooperation we need on things like climate, pandemics, etc. I don't see sufficient strength in the collective peacebuilding field to help drive that. In the US, the field is not entirely but largely, informed by and dominated by the political Left. I think that presents a problem of representation constituency and credibility when engaging on a lot of the issues that we deal with.
I am not somebody who believes that you can, or you should, be neutral in conflict settings. But there is a difference between being neutral, in my view, and being impartial. Increasingly, people talk about being “multi-partial.” That is, believing that there are oppressive systems, particularly when power is at play, where the political alignment becomes really salient, you have to stand with the oppressed. I agree on the importance and the value and the moral necessity of standing with, and supporting, those who are on the receiving end of the power dynamics. But I also believe, very much, that what James Baldwin said about racism in this country, what Gandhi said in India, what Mandela and Tutu said, that oppressive systems really do trap everyone. And the real breakthrough for us, is to get to an understanding of that. It doesn't mean that all suffer equally--saying that would be obscene. I’m not saying that You can't look at Ukraine today and say well all people are suffering equally. But those are oppressive systems that limit everyone. The place that we're trying to get to, is not a victory of the oppressed over the oppressor, but more just space where everyone actually will benefit. I don't think that's a naïve thought. Rather, I think effective and principled peacebuilding is incredibly subversive to injustice. If you go at conflicts by naming and shaming the injustice, which includes the perpetrators of that, and hoping that strictly adversarial or pressure-based approaches, let alone military approaches, to that oppression are going to get us to break through to that future space, I don't think that's going to work. I think that's a pathway to mutual destruction.
And so, I think the peacebuilding sector needs, both domestically here in the US when looking at issues of injustice and peace, and internationally, to really revisit and, I would hope, reaffirm those principles of peacebuilding which begin with listening. Which begin by recognizing that where oppression occurs, it's a trap for all. And to take what we've learned -- and I shared with you some of what we've learned at Search -- between the two major frameworks, I think, are really key here. They the ingredients of enduring change. And you've got to change. It is not enough to reconcile communities; it's not enough to foster dialogue. You have to change institutions, norms, and market forces. Those are the three things that lead to self-perpetuating and scaling change that doesn't rely on external funding or external intervention. And to get there, you need to do five things. You need to be building inter-communal trust. You have to be building institutional legitimacy. You have to be reducing levels of physical violence. You need to increase people's sense of agency. And lastly, you need to reallocate resourcing for more collaborative, non-violent approaches.
And you can do all this within, pretty much, any system -- democratic or less democratic, those where there were historical injustices and those with less historical injustices. Those are the things that that we're very committed to. So, we would make the case for the peacebuilding sector should be more intentional and explicit around achieving those kinds of goals. And also measuring results. We need to be very wary of getting caught up in peacebuilding that will feel to many, many people like a Trojan horse for their sides to lose and another side to win.
Heidi: Beautiful way to pull it all together—it leaves me thinking “wow that really makes sense!” I think this pretty much covers the questions that I was thinking about asking. Is there something in your head that you're saying, “boy I wish, she would have asked…”but I didn't?
Shamil: Heidi, no, I really appreciate it, and I really appreciate your and Guy’s leadership for so many years now helping drive this this field forward. So it's totally my pleasure. I enjoyed this time together.
Heidi: Well, I enjoyed it thoroughly and 'm delighted that you were willing to do this. Thank you!