Monday, August 15, 2022

‘Saving the World’

For a really long time, I was completely enamoured with the idea of ‘saving the world.’
You could be forgiven for thinking that sounds unbearably pious, to the point of being a little nauseating. However, in my own defense, many of us fall into this trap of wanting to fix a broken world, perhaps due to the steady stream of bad news we hear about impending world doom. Anyway, for whatever reason, I was convinced that my purpose lay in healing the world or its people in some way; so I resolved to save people from themselves; to introduce them to a ‘better way of life.’

Initially, I studied law because I wanted to champion the rights of the helpless.

I lived for LA Law and dreamt of bringing corrupt politicians and heartless criminals to justice.
In my mind, I was a cross between Duma Boko and Lot Moroka, but unfortunately, shortly after I started practicing law, I realized that it wasn’t for me.

I couldn’t bear the adversarial nature of courtroom proceedings, so much so that the night before court appearances, my stomach would be in knots as I imagined an irate judge either figuratively or literally throwing the book at me.

I also found my clients uninspiring ÔÇô in my view, none of them possessed a cause compelling enough to warrant a heroic rescue. So I left; not in a heart-wrenching kind of way; I simply took a break and never went back.

Following a mercifully brief period of being rejected from just about every job I applied for, by default, I was forced to become clearer about what I wanted to pursue. While my precise path remained elusive, I instinctively knew that I wanted to be of service in some way.

I was captivated by politics, but doubted I was good enough to actually win an election. Following a lack of support, particularly from my family, my desires in that area were effectively squelched.
Almost naturally, I began to focus more of my attention on international politics; and how I could have an impact on a more global stage.

They say that when you are clear about what you want, the opportunities will appear; and soon thereafter, the perfect opportunity presented itself. I was offered a job working on the organization of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, the political negotiations aimed at ending the war between the Government and the rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This experience offered me many things, including first hand exposure to international negotiations and diplomacy. However, far more fundamentally, I learned that ‘saving the world’ would not be easy, especially because not everyone wanted the same things.

That notwithstanding, I still looked at life very much in black-and-white terms – I was determined to use the forces of good to overcome the forces of evil. After four years working on the Congo process, I left tired but not defeated.

Next, I moved to Sudan, where I worked on North-South peace implementation issues and on the Darfur negotiation process. Even before my arrival in Sudan, I suspect my profile fit that of the ‘perfect crusader’ – I wanted to reverse the terrible images of suffering I had seen on T.V. and win a moral victory for the people. It makes me cringe but it’s true. After five more years in Sudan, here’s what I believe to be true:

One – nobody needs saving, regardless of how helpless they may seem. If something is amiss, people are perfectly capable of saving themselves.

Two – even in places where war has broken out, local capacities to create peace exist; so external actors need to stop trying to export their visions for peace and put national actors at the forefront of their own peace efforts.

Three ÔÇô engaging only outsiders to broker peace tends to make members of the local population dependent on expensive international presences that cannot be sustained.

Four – the current approaches to forging peace are almost entirely negative. They involve dissecting what has gone wrong with a view to redressing historical imbalances and grievances. As a result, opposing parties become even more mired in conflict as they seek to blame each other for what went wrong.

The more powerful of the parties (usually the Government) becomes focused on political survival; and may make small concessions under international pressure that they have no intention of honouring. Freedom fighters, on the other hand, become so distracted by the injustices they have suffered, that they fail to form a vision of what they do want. In the end, their lack of a clear purpose may lead them to succumb to divide and rule and tactics.

Five – despite what many leaders claim, few of them actually represent the true will of the people. While many of us like to believe that we can deliver the oppressed, in fact, as human beings, we are inherently selfish and we can only ever effectively pursue our own interests.

Six – however appealing an ideal ÔÇô including global peace – might seem, it is never universal. The world is far too diverse for that; and there will always be people who have more to gain by waging war than by pursuing peace.

Trying to force everyone to want the same things is futile; and the more we try to coerce people into complying with ‘accepted norms,’ the more intransigent and powerful they become. Far better to say your piece and let those who will follow you.

Seven, the world is not broken and is not in need fixing. Even in countries at war, there are people who continue to live normal, even happy, lives; far happier than some who have never known war or live in prosperity.

The problem is our focus ÔÇô it has become so skewed that we fail to recognize or acknowledge any positive progress.

Next week, I will discuss more of what I think sustainable peace should be focused on ÔÇô a possible model for Positive Peace.


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