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Rocking the Peacebuilding Boat

Shackleton cleaning the decks with his crew (Photo: Manchester City Council, Flickr, CC BY NC ND 2.0)

To help ensure any boat is sustainably seaworthy, a little rocking is required. I believe wholeheartedly in much of what this boat represents and what the crew can do, does, and have done.

However, Like so many, I've always been conscious of rocking this precious boat because if you do, it is likely to ‘close ranks’ and sail away without you. This is often why criticism is rarely voiced, and why, as a Latvian Minister on a well-known international news channel explained, it's not until they (the peacekeeping decision-makers) retire, move on, or leave for other reasons, that they tell the truth about or acknowledge the systematic problems or failures within the sector and its convoluted agenda.

Let's talk about that boat I am hesitant to rock.

On the outside, the peace boat looks shiny, honourable, sophisticated and purposeful, there are many that queue up and often jostle to crew it.

The crew all know the pay is good, they have studied a long time in prestigious institutions to meet the boarding requirements. The kudos is flattering and the crew are respected. Yet beneath the valiant veneer, the vessel seems spoiled in places, unhealthy and disjointed, the structure in some areas appear to creak under unsettling stresses ( If not checked, this could affect overall integrity), a pressure which resonates from inner fiefdoms, workplace gossip, suspicion, bureaucracy and complacency, amplified by internal politics, competition and inequality.

Inside these fragile parts of the vessel, there is a stifling air of hierarchy, privilege and unease, an atmosphere that promotes affected behaviour that distracts the outward focus and points its inwards.

I have often found that the atmosphere is at its ugliest within the ranks of the international middle-management, many finding themselves drawn into alliances, gossip and scheming for P3, P4 and P5 positions and the sort-after locations. An attitude that seeps into the local staff’s mindset eventually. ‘The locals’ are less paid, less informed from an organisational perspective and yet they are essential. It’s not long before they become dependent on reading alliances and eventually, become hopeful that they too will earn the perks that a permanent contract can provide. However, it's not long after that, when some local staff re-read the context of power-plays, cronyism, alliances, capacity, exclusion and fragile integrity. Whilst the internationals have management meetings behind glass walls, the nationals feel excluded, secondary and slowly realise the true nature of organisation within the peacekeeping community, which is cynically fed back to the local population it serves.

The boat docks and before its arrival, the harbour is fortified ( us and them separation), many of the international crew never leave the confines of the ‘harbour’ ( A few do but it's in an armour-plated convoy, it's during daylight hours and with security) most only interact with the ‘local staff’ who have been selected from the nation’s upper classes. The local staff then go out and find a quantifiable amount of everyday locals (the donor needs M&E figures). Local people are selected to represent the area and form a ‘Community Engagement Team’ (CET). Despite this (never admitted) disconnection and unfamiliarity with the local population and its culture, the international staff build their ego and feed their humanitarian persona with social media images ( helmet and flack jacket pics are amongst the favourite ), tall tails, flexing about time-in and field missions, military-speak and adopted anecdotes of evacuations, power cuts, checkpoints, risks and regional post-conflict rhetoric.

No one wants to question the direction of the boat or those that are at its helm ( unless it's in private or within cliques and self beneficial). It is often difficult to know who or where to contact leadership and offer useful feedback, even if you are of a mind to.

Wherever the boat docs there is local excitement, expectation and hope which is quickly followed by rivalry for attention and funds, convoluted lines of communication struggle to build trust and acknowledgement. Frustration soon seeps in (on both sides), contempt grows, a feeling which eventually leads to a lack of respect, often encouraging negative activities of manipulation whilst developing a context susceptible to greed and opportunism.


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