What Is Peacebuilding?

Letter from the President

Dear Friend,

Catholic Relief Services had its beginnings in the crucible of World War II, when the U.S. bishops were asked to assist refugees fleeing violence in Europe. Our mission quickly expanded to helping poor people all over the world when they faced disaster or were simply trying to improve their lives.

In our years of carrying out humanitarian relief and sustainable development programs, we have reached into and across the societies of the countries where we work. And we collaborate in partnership with the Catholic church, local governments and many local agencies.

About a decade ago, after deep reflection, we at CRS came to a realization that while we were focusing on development and relief, we were not addressing the situations of conflict in the societies and communities where we lived and worked. If our goal is to help people and communities to develop the resources they need to sustain themselves, we found that situations of conflict and violence threatened our work of relief and sustainable development.

It was during this time of reflection that the massacre in Rwanda was unleashed in a country where CRS had worked for decades. We lost friends and family members in the violence and it shook us to the core.

Since that time, we have begun to look more profoundly at how situations of conflict can be transformed toward sustained and lasting peace. With Catholic Social Teaching as our guide, we have made peacebuilding an essential focus in the 99 countries where CRS works.

What, exactly is peacebuilding? It is not peacekeeping, which is the work of a third-party military force, that tries to separate armed forces in conflict and maintains cease-fires. Nor is it peacemaking, those activities that move belligerents toward a settlement of armed conflict. Rather, CRS defines peacebuilding as a process of resolving violent conflict through changing unjust structures and establishing constructive relationships at local, national and global levels. What does that mean in practice? Some examples will help.

On a recent trip to Kosovo, I visited the CRS office in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica. The office overlooks Mitrovica Bridge, which is guarded by NATO-led international Kosovo Force troops who keep the Serbs in the northern part of the city separated from the Albanian Kosovars in the south.

When a group of high school seniors and college freshmen from both sides of the city arrived at our office, they were full of life, enthusiasm, expectation and certainty that what they were doing was right. There were high fives and slaps as those from the north side of the bridge met their friends from the south.

CRS had been trying to find avenues that could span this physical, religious and historical divide. The bridge, with its obvious symbolism, was not the connector it could have been. But in 2001, CRS began working with high school students on both sides of the Ibar River, the waterway that divides the city. Together, they came to a realization that the concerns they had were almost exactly alike. Yes, there were tensions between the communities. After all, they had just experienced years of war – and one group won and the other lost. But for the teenagers, the issues were not about the war, but about other things. They were concerned about safety in their school, cleanliness of their campuses, the opportunities in terribly overcrowded buildings for extracurricular activities.

Initially, CRS began working with youth in 7 of Mitrovica's 10 ethnically segregated high schools. Over the course of months, through face-to-face meetings and frequent communication by cell phone and Internet, they came together around what they felt was a common agenda and a plan of action for the betterment of Mitrovica. Today, the City Wide Youth Council is made up of high school students representing all ethnic groups, who were nominated by their respective youth councils in 9 out of 10 Mitrovica high schools.

With CRS' guidance, they drafted a plan, discussed it with their teachers and principals and launched this initiative. Their efforts initially concentrated on improvements to the high schools in Mitrovica. They secured a grant for sorely needed equipment and supplies. And they agreed to a system of house rules in schools and committed to clean up schoolyards. They presented petitions to the UN's police force and the Kosovo Police Service, and now both have begun patrolling high schools. The CWYC convinced community leaders and the municipality to renovate a school's sports facility on the north side of the city. Their next project involves improving access to and the maintenance of the city's cemeteries. In a cruel irony, each side – the largely Orthodox Serbs in the north and the Muslim Albanians in the south – must cross over into hostile territory to visit their respective dead.

Many other examples of peacebuilding abound. CRS is promoting global solidarity by building “cyberbridges” between young people in American classrooms, schools and youth centers in Palestine, and the Diocese of Thanjavur in southern India. Through e-mails, web postings, discussion groups, newsletters and the hope of face-to-face meetings, participants engage in dialogue, information sharing, collaborative activities, training and projects that work towards a shared vision of social justice and peace.

In Colombia, where an insurgency has raged for four decades, resulting in 200,000 killed and 2 million displaced, peacebuilding has become a vital task. CRS supports the Escuela de Paz y Convivencia (School for Peace and Coexistence), which has more than 1,200 participants, over half of them women. The school brings together Catholic religious leaders and laity to respond to the needs and problems related to building peace at the community level. Graduates make the commitment to act as community mediators and to train other members of the community to analyze conflicts and use practical strategies for conflict resolution.

In the Philippines, CRS is working to rebuild relationships divided by fighting on the island of Mindanao, a conflict that has lasted for decades but intensified in the last year. We are focusing on building right relationships between the region's indigenous peoples, as well as Muslims and Christians, while also addressing economic issues that underlie the conflict.

These initiatives, and many more being implemented around the world, show us that peacebuilding is possible, that it is practical, and that it can change lives.

Thank you for your continued support and your prayers.

Ken Hackett

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