Wednesday 17 February, 2016
The Prince Albert, Camden Town
“I want to say thank you to you all – for coming out tonight – but more importantly for your friendship over all these years, for your trust and for confidence.
And for those of you who worked with CR – for your willingness to make sacrifices and take the risks, to work hard together, and to try – and keep trying, to support people living with violent conflict in making a difference. I know that my colleagues have poured their life and soul into this work – and for everyone it is much more than a day job – and that you have done it for lots of reasons and for lots of people, but in as much as you also did it support me and CR – thank you.
It has been an amazing 21 years
One of the many challenges in peacebuilding work, and also in getting older – is not forgetting. You all know that we were one of the first NGOs to focus on documenting and learning from peace processes. We had the idea of publishing peace agreements – on the ‘World Wide Web’ – and to capture people’s stories of how their conflicts were transformed. We went to work to work on our first issue of Accord on peacemaking in Liberia. It was 1994.
Nelson Mandela was elected President in South Africa’s first inter-racial election – and we all were given hope. Later, we worked with talented people from South Africa and published many articles on different dimensions of that peace process – and one of the challenges was getting South African authors to look through their timeline telescopes backwards – and not only to share their brilliant peacebuilding innovations (of which there were many)– but to remember and to remind us of how they worked for peace at a time when apartheid seemed here to stay and that real or significant change seemed impossible. And then it was: possible.
So I reckon that is one of the challenges of our nostalgia – that is not only to reflect back over all we have achieved – but to remember how unlikely or even impossible some changes seemed to be.
When we started, Captain Valentine Strasser was President in Sierra Leone – when the expression of SOBELs was coined (where combatants were both soldiers and rebels).
There were peacebuilders but no peacebuilding field per se.
There was not yet even a DFID.
We started with a vision – and we were forward thinking
Many – if not all of you – know the story that Conciliation Resources was dreamt up by a small nonviolent rebel group from within International Alert – our sister organisation across the river, where I started my peacebuilding career, and where I was one of the first staff. We thought there was a clear and unmet global need to do more, to support what we called “Community Peacebuilding”. Unlike in(the recently departed) Boutros Boutros-Gali’s definition we thought Peacebuilding was relevant at “all stages in a conflict. As it develops and threatens to degenerated into widespread violence, when violence has taken hold, and when a suspension or a peace settlement has been negotiated between warring parties”
Our big idea was to “help provide safe spaces in which local organisations can discuss and develop responses to imminent or ongoing violence”
We thought at the heart of the work we should focus creating trust and confidence – and everything else would follow.
We flagged four things that would define us:
1. That we should “follow and support the lead of local people” – sharing solidarity to sustain local leadership; offering new perspectives; and helping to unblock impasses.
2. That in order to deal with their conflicts, people needed understand them –they needed information and to have a process of enquiry.
3. Pay attention to power, exclusion, inclusion, how gender relations work, discrimination, and we would work with groups from across the conflict spectrum
4. Finally – our focus was to support conflict transformation that was proactive and preventive
CR was not set up by David Lord and myself alone – this was always a collective and seriously globally networked effort.
Yes it is true that we still owe thanks to Tony Borden and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) for giving us the space and a real organisational home in which we got started in their offices in Lancaster House in the Angel, Islington.
But with our earliest work in Sierra Leone & Liberia, Fiji, Somaliland, and Ukraine – we were never alone. We were always a group of people – this was never an ego trip. We started with volunteers and associates including Stephanie Loomis, Bruce Jones, Davin Bremner, Dylan Hendrickson and Diana Francis. We also had trustees and advisers – including Mark Hoffman, Theo Sowa and Christina Sganga and Guus Meijer. Our first staff included Francis Fortune, Jeremy Armon and Abi Onadipe. (and some of you are with us tonight).
20 years ago we had an income of just over 200K with 20 donors from the UK, Japan, EU, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the US and Mauritius!
Looking at the world today you might think that we have made little difference and we are only seeing the repeated and depressing cycles of war and peace followed by war. Coups followed by painstaking pro-democracy processes followed by another coup in Fiji, the glacial processes of change and reversal in the South Caucasus and in West and East Africa have been our bread and butter.
But all the messages I have had since announcing my leaving, all the emails and film clips have all brought home for me – if I ever doubted it that we have – Conciliation Resources has – touched people’s lives whether:
Lewis Alexis of JUPEDEC, who wrote thanking for the help to get him out of prison in Central African Republic when he was supporting young people fleeing the LRA,
Or our good friend and partner Paata Balian, who went from being courageous NGO leader to a courageous Minister in the Georgian government.
Ruairi O’Connell, who went from being our young Project Officer on the Balkans to the British Ambassador to Kosovo.
Lucy Akello in Northern Uganda, from NGO partner to MP
Or the lives of communities in Abkhazia, Fiji, Northern Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Philippines –
In working on conflict, we see trends and counter-trends, currents and counter currents – but we are not just guided by hope and wishful thinking. We know the media entertains and sells the news with graphic stories of violence. You have to look hard to see the stories of people preventing and transforming armed conflict. You could miss the fact that what we do matters – and what we do actually works.
I read recently an article by Andy Mack who is working on the international agreement on what governments will track to follow progress on the new Global Development Goal on Peaceful Societies. He wrote:
“Back in the 1990s, it was widely assumed, including by the UN, that the level of political violence around the world was increasing.
This was not surprising since about twice as many conflicts started in the 1990s as the 1980s. But few noticed that even more conflicts ended than started in this period—creating a substantial net decline in conflict numbers.
In fact it wasn’t until the early 2000s when access to the new conflict data became available, that researchers were able to demonstrate just how effective peacebuilding and peace negotiations had become in stopping wars.
Over the past decade, researchers have shown that while some agreements break down – if or when conflicts restart they are significantly less violent, so even “failed” peace agreements can save large numbers of lives.
Sadly – CR is needed now more than ever.
But you have the people, the experience, the knowledge, the relations with others, the reputation and the vision to go on doing extraordinary work that will touch the lives of millions of people and those of our closest partners.
I am very proud of what we have achieved together. It genuinely gives me even greater pride and a sense deep respect to see what it is that you all can, are and will go on to achieve. I know it will be creative, courageous and deeply impressive.
I will miss working with all of you, the banter, the downloads, the flipcharts, our travels, our starting and ending ever day together.
Thanks for making it possible for me to have twenty-one full and exciting years that seem to have gone by in a flash – and for enabling me to start out again – on another curve in my working life.
Thank you to all of you outside of CR – who have been just as much part of my life and part the changes we are working for. This has always been about connecting with others and being part of processes that are bigger than all of us – but only happen because of the good relations that we have.
And thank you to my family, Lucy, Sam and Molly – who if you ever wondered – are obviously at the heart of what made this all possible for me.
Thank you all for this wonderful send off. My kids have grown up, Conciliation Resources has long ago grown up and found its own life and will find its own future. I hope I will always be a part of CR and I know that it will always be part of me and my life.
Thanks for the dancing, the music and the words – thank you everyone and enjoy yourself!