The United Nations is a polarising institution. Some people look to the UN as a trusted expert and moral voice concerning issues related to the environment, development and poverty alleviation, human health, and peace and security. Others see United Nations agencies, funds, and programs as highly bureaucratic, ineffective, and outdated. The United Nations might have weaknesses, but when it comes to the complex challenges of peacebuilding in some of the world’s toughest contexts, can we imagine a viable alternative if the United Nations were not to play a leading role? And what is the nature of that role? How does it relate to the work of other stakeholders in conflict settings, and what is life like for the diverse mix of international peacebuilders who choose to make far-flung countries their home in the pursuit of peace?
Joe Washington recently retired from the post of Chief Training Officer for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. His more than ten years of experience of working throughout the United Nations peacekeeping missions in Sudan and South Sudan spanned these countries’ historic peace process and partitioning into two separate states, and the subsequent violence that engulfed South Sudan in the years after independence. Prior to this Joe served for more than two decades as an adjunct or visiting professor, researcher, lecturer, or director of programs for various academic institutions in Europe and the United States in the fields of conflict resolution and human rights.
Joe’s personal warmth and acute sense for the human, relational dimensions of effective peacebuilding are matched by deep insight on the strengths and weaknesses of the United Nations. This episode will be of particular interest to people who are interested in this organisation or the broader challenges of peacebuilding working in a difficult context like South Sudan. For those that have experienced either, Joe’s words might be therapeutic! Some highlights include:
• Joe’s recollection of what motivated him to pursue an international career, and the role models and educational pathways that led him to a United Nations career;
• The need as a peacebuilder for reflective practice, whereby you try to realise that you see the world with different eyes and may have different priorities than your counterparts. Joe reminds us of the need for peacebuilders to have high cross-cultural sensitivity, especially when local counterparts have basic needs and livelihoods concerns that international peacebuilders don’t;
• The separation between local and international stakeholders in peacebuilding settings is again discussed in relation to the relative wealth of international people in poor countries, which can drive up local prices and reinforce divisions between insiders and outsiders that makes fostering local ownership difficult;
• Joe dissects United Nations infamous bureaucratic challenges, and argues that instead of finger pointing at other parts of the UN system, staff should focus on their circle of influence, and work more collaboratively in order to expand that circle;
• The reality of ‘camp life’ is laid bare, as Joe paints a picture of daily life living in shipping containers in a United Nations compound, and describes the lifestyle in remote areas in the midst of conflict;
• In response to Susan’s question on the value of the United Nations as opposed to other actors that could potentially use the same resources more effectively, Joe suggests – with good reason – that the peacekeeping mission might have prevented a genocide in this country in the last few years.
A fascinating man and life story – take a listen.