[NOTE: This post was written 2 years ago. I have my reasons for waiting until now to publish.]
I won’t bore you with lengthy backstory, nor will I give away the location just now. But I’m currently in the midst of a thinky-strategery kind of process for my employer in a very recently post-conflict place. Even to say that it is, in fact, post-conflict is a matter of debate by some. There is a very tentative and uneasy calm in place, but everywhere I see the signs of churn just beneath the surface. This place is textbook “fragile context”—a term I dislike, but am, for the moment, stuck with.
A few days ago I visited a settlement for internally displaced persons (IDP). This is a community of people who fled, together, as I understand it, on foot, from their original home more than one hundred kilometers away. After a lengthy series of mishaps that involved essentially being held prisoner by an insurgent armed group (basically local terrorists), and a couple of failed attempts by the aid system to “help”, they ended up there. It was a decent enough (considering the overall state of affairs in that place) settlement, close to a market and a road, with houses, a meeting space/Mosque, and a few other miscellaneous buildings constructed at better than Sphere standards, but following local styles.
At each corner of the settlement were elevated guard posts where, I was told, UN peacekeeping soldiers would stand watch at night to protect the IDPs from the local community. Then apparently, a week prior to my visit UN mission in that place determined that the situation had stabilized enough to no longer post guards in those posts. The first night that there were no UN soldiers standing guard, people from the local community came and stole all the metal doors from the latrines.
When the local Imam showed me, it was actually pathetic to see: blocks of constructed latrines, standing wide open with no doors. No chance to go relieve oneself in private. It seemed very demeaning and dehumanizing.
Yes, of course I get that the surrounding community was also abjectly poor. And yes, I do get that it often creates tension between local and displaced communities, when the displaced receive especially international help and the local do not.
But still. What kind of asshole steals the bathroom doors from IDPs?
Hardly one hundred meters from the edge of the IDP settlement, we came across the local chief of police and the senior religious leader from the local community, having a couple of mid-day beers. They pumped my hand enthusiastically. “Thank you, [MY ORGANIZATION] for everything. Yes, the situation in [THIS COUNTRY] is still very bad. Let us all pray for peace.”
Pray for peace? How about stop stealing stuff from the IDPs?
Then, yesterday I learned that during the height of the recent internal conflict it was rather common for people to murder their neighbors—people against whom they held a grudge, or to whom they owed money, as examples—with machetes (or whatever), and then toss the bodies down wells. Apparently this practice was prevalent enough that it negatively affected the statistic on access to potable water nationally.
Not to dramatize or overstate the problem, but just so you’re clear on the implication: There are so many wells contaminated by the rotting corpses of murdered villagers that it is statistically significant in a nation-wide data set.
And once again, it was the energetic handshakes, and the effusive thanks, and the solemn invocation: “We must all pray for peace.”
I have most definitely had my moments of extreme internal ethnocentrism while on this assignment. I mean, they’re talking and in my head I’m thinking: “Friends, you’ve thrown so many dead bodies into wells that you now need emergency water interventions in areas that previously did not. And the best solution you can articulate is ‘pray for peace.’ For real?”
I’ve [EXPLETIVE DELETED] had it with, [EXPLETIVE DELETED] “pray for peace.”
But those thoughts quickly give way to extreme jadedness with the aid system. (Not cynicism, jadedness. The difference is important.) I’m jaded because I already know how this is going to go. Over the next couple of years, the aid system is going to pour untold resources—cash, human hours, travel, workshops…—into “innovative peace-building solutions,” or variations on that theme. Books will be written. Experts will sit on panels. Working groups will be formed. Jargon will be created. Niche/boutique NGOs and INGOs will come into existence. None of which/whom will do much more than add complexity and perhaps some more specialized jargon around a central basic question:
How do we persuade people to not hack their neighbors to death with garden tools?
Okay, of course it’s never really that simple. And in this particular setting, you don’t have to scratch very far below the surface to realize that things here are actually very, very complex. There are multiple layers of perception and multiple layers of reality that do not align; there are national and regional, and even global entities with vested interests in what happens here, and in some cases vested interests in keeping this place unstable. That’s right. There are global entities who benefit when the villagers kill each other, and who use their power and influence to keep that happening.
And in this setting, with this knowledge, thinking through what needs to happen, and then, what an organization’s role is in making it so, all becomes very daunting. I do not think it really possible to honestly identify what it might take to move the needle on any issue of consequence at any kind of scale, and not come away feeling terribly insignificant. The question of where to begin is tough enough. Worse still, the question of where to focus capacity. You can’t fix everything. Hell, you can’t really fix anything. So what do you do?
Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow. But for today, all I can come up with is:
1) Help where you can.
2) If you can’t help, at least don’t hurt.
3) Pray for peace.