By Derek Brown, Executive Director

Peace Appeal Foundation

In honoring Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank with the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee has for the third time in 4 years taken the stance that peace in our world is not merely defined by the absence of violence.  Countering the typical foreign aid precept that poverty cannot be addressed until peace is secured, in this year’s award the Nobel Committee has recognized how the two must be simultaneously interlinked.

By refraining from awarding this year’s prize to diplomats or political leaders, (the rumored front runners were Finnish diplomat, Martti Ahtisaari, who led peace negotiations in Indonesia’s ACEH province, or Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister who brokered the Cambodia peace accords), the Nobel Committee has highlighted what we in the US have come to know the hard way, peace and nation building is a far more complicated process than our government leaders have informed us.

The complexity of peacebuilding has long been recognized by a small but important segment of the philanthropic community.   Over the past three decades, many foundations have played both an open and discreet role in supporting peace initiatives, from South Africa to Northern Ireland, from Uganda to Cambodia.  But despite great advances, the record of peace initiatives is Take some of the supposed “successes” in peacebuilding today.  Angola hasn’t had a national election in 14 years.  Despite significant oil wealth, 70% of its population lives below the poverty line.  Bosnia & Herzegovina, as well as Kosovo to the south, are still deeply divided.  Ratko Mladic and others charged with war crimes, remain at large.  Corruption, violence, and intimidation of government critics are daily facts of life in Cambodia.  Only now, nearly a quarter century after the rule of the Khmer Rouge, are its remaining leaders being pursued for their crimes of genocide.  In East Timor, deep ethnic, religious and regional rivalries, coupled with economic uncertainty, led to rioting by soldiers this past Spring, sending 70,000 residents of the capital fleeing into the countryside.

South Africa, perhaps the most powerful beacon in the world today for the potential of nonviolent social change, remains a work in progress, despite its impressive political transformation and strong economic performance.  Earlier this month, the Reverend Desmond Tutu noted that South Africa sits on a “powder keg” requiring the country’s still entrenched poverty be addressed to avoid violent social unrest.

The unfinished business in even the “successful” cases of peacebuilding, let alone the world’s recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, is one of the reasons many institutions have shied away from grantmaking in this area.   The scale of the problem and the difficulty of measuring outcomes has often been perceived as too daunting for private grantmakers to make a substantial impact.  This year’s Nobel suggests that the sector may need to revisit these assumptions, and embrace a broader conception of peacebuilding that encompasses a significant role for private sector funders and institutions.

Understanding how a Bangladeshi economist and a bank whose average loan is $309 became this year’s Nobel Laureates is key to understanding the broader role the philanthropic community can and should play.  Grameen’s importance isn’t just because of its phenomenal success in helping poor women gain access to small loans allowing them to boost their household incomes.  The bank’s lending practices build social capital, helping women educate themselves and each other, nurturing civic engagement and growing women’s participation in not only the economic lives of villages, but in the political life of their country. Grameen’s over 6 million economically empowered women borrowers serve as fairly significant counterweight to religious extremism in Bangladesh, not to mention the often divisive and occasionally violent political culture of the country.

Grameen’s supporters, from its village borrowers who own a stake in the bank, to the private philanthropic institutions around the globe which have given and lent money to the institution deserve, and should see their investment in the bank as an investment in peacebuilding.

Lessons from Grameen are being applied on a daily basis in conflicts and post-conflict environments across the globe, from Afghanistan to Columbia. Rather than despair in the face of the current crises of Iraq, Darfur, the Middle East, etc.,  the Nobel award this year challenges us to see these crises in a broader perspective.  These societies need more than peacekeeping forces, globe trotting diplomats and emergency relief professionals.  They require a long term commitment from the international community to address the broad range of social and developmental needs.  Only with the help of the
Muhammad Yunuses and Grameen Banks of the world, as well as the UN and other governmental and multi-lateral institutions, will these societies be able to transform their own conflicts and build and secure peace.


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