Addressing violent conflict is complex and difficult, but one universally important aspect of any peacebuilding operation is to understand the unique context of each situation, said Dan Smith, secretary general of International Alert, in this interview with ECSP. International Alert is a London-based NGO that works in 23 countries and territories in West and Central Africa, the Southern Caucasus, Central Asia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.
The goal of International Alert, said Smith, is to help people “move from situations of danger and vulnerability…towards positions of greater safety.” In addition, the NGO tackles broader international policy questions, he said, such as how to manage and minimize the risks of conflict and hasten recovery from it.
Peacebuilding defies simplification, said Smith, but there are two broad recommendations to keep in mind. First, “going in with a preset form of analysis or of the action you will undertake, or the problems you will look at,” is the most significant mistake international actors can make. “If you’re a hammer, every problem for you is going to be a nail,” he said. “But there are many countries where you need screwdrivers or monkey wrenches… you’ve got to be open-minded about that.”
Second, “realize that the outsider, like us, is not going to make peace or build peace in a country – it’s the people there who are going to do it,” said Smith. The international community’s job is to assist.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as experience from other places,” he said, which can be provided by an NGO and transferred from one context to another. “As long as you don’t shove it down anybody’s throats – it’s always an assisting and a helping role.”