An Irish rock-star seeks justice for the poor in Africa; Indian and Pakistani businesspersons use economic investment as an incentive for peace; two computer engineers build the world's largest charity to alleviate human suffering. These developments are indicators of a growing trend of leadership by individuals not conventionally associated with peace building.
In 2005, Irish musician Bono of rock band U2, was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to "make poverty history" in Africa. He teamed up with Bill and Melinda Gates whose Foundation gave him a grant to start the policy-advocacy group DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa). TIME Magazine named them 'Persons of the Year' (2005). Bono and the Gates have set out goals that are indeed ambitious - to save the lives of the two African children that die every minute, the nine people who are infected with HIV in that same minute; and the thousands who die of hunger. They are using their public profiles, their celebrity status and the world's largest charitable foundation - the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with an endowment of US$ 29 billion - to accomplish these goals.
In 2005, Bono's campaign to lift the world's one billion out of poverty received a major boost when the G-8 approved a US $50 billion aid package for the world's poorest countries. His efforts also led to the G-8 cancelling the debt of the 18 poorest African countries, many of which are ravaged by armed conflict.
The fact that public figures lend their names to social causes is not new. What is refreshing is the consistency with which they pursue their cause and the sheer impact of their efforts on policy-making (as seen in the case of Bono). In addition, the vast resources that they are willing to invest - for example, to prevent the outbreak of a life-threatening disease in a refugee camp - is what has propelled many political leaders to dialogue and partner with them.
This trend assumes significance in the context of the findings of the Human Security Report 2005 (published by the Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia, Canada), which exposes a complex and messy relationship between conflict, hunger, poverty and global health. In many regions of conflict, people die not from bombs and bullets, but from war-exacerbated disease and famine.
For example, in pre-war Rwanda, only 1 per cent of the population was HIV+; in 1997, 11 per cent were HIV+. In 1994, cholera and dysentery killed 50,000 refugees in the first month after they fled from the Rwandan genocide. These 'indirect causes' of death do not receive the type of media attention that the 'direct causes' do. World attention wanders once the guns go silent, even though people continue to suffer after the cessation of hostilities. Public figures such as Bono and the Gates have been quick to notice this relationship between poverty, health and conflict, and have invested huge amounts of resources to reverse the trend. In so doing, they have addressed one of the most complex challenges that the field of peace building faces today: namely, the 'indirect' consequences of armed conflict.
Also significant is the leverage that these public figures - not conventional actors in peace building - bring. They employ unique methodologies derived from their own lived experiences. For example, Indian and Pakistani business leaders are making the argument that if they are allowed to invest in each others' countries, they can help create an environment where the desire to 'bleed' the other is subsumed by a recognition that one's own prosperity is inextricably linked to the growth of the other.
For instance, the recently launched Friends Without Borders initiative, which seeks to build relationships between Indian and Pakistani schoolchildren through letters of friendship, has received support from diverse sources, mostly corporate and media - Mahindra & Mahindra, Godrej, Parle G, CNN-IBN, NDTV, Ten Sports, DNA, Mumbai Cricket Association and Camlin.
While profit might remain the primary objective, the true significance of this trend lies in the fact that they recognize their ability (and in some cases even a responsibility) to contribute to peace building.
Similarly, Salman Ahmad, co-founder of the Pakistani rock band Junoon, conceptualized 'Ghoom Taana', a musical short film that seeks to transform long-held enemy images. The product of a cross-border collaboration between Ahmad, Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal, and Indian actors Naseeruddin Shah and Nandita Das, the film has been used to initiate dialogue between youth groups at various forums in the two countries. 'Ghoom Taana', with its potential for mass-level impact, is a good example of how actors and approaches not conventionally associated with the task of peace building can play a valuable role.
How do we make sense of this growing trend? Due to information technology, we now know about communities that are not as privileged as us. We have full knowledge of the stories of individuals who have lived in regions ravaged by violent conflict. This, along with a growing awareness (particularly among young people) that we live in an interdependent and interconnected world has propelled several individuals and groups to contribute to peace building.
Commenting on the growing number of people involved in peace building efforts globally, the Human Security Report draws attention to the power of ideas - the idea of 'a war-averse world'. It suggests that there is a gradual normative shift against the use of violence in human relationships and a greater focus on dialogue and reconciliation (reflected in the large number of 'truth and reconciliation commissions' that have been set up in the last decade).
Further, the report notes that ideologies that glorify violence are notable by their absence (Nazism, Xenophobia) or receive widespread condemnation (if they do exist). Almost simultaneously, the world has witnessed the rapid growth of a 'peace industry' (NGOs, peace departments within governments, educational programs at schools and universities) with the UN spearheading a phenomenal rise in peace building activities.
This trend is also reflective of a growing belief among individuals that social change begins with the self. Each person can take responsibility for transforming attitudes and behavior patterns that perpetuate violence and intolerance. Sometimes, all you need is conscience to transform a personal conviction into an altruistic action.
(Manjri Sewak works with Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace, New Delhi.)