by Shamil Idriss
Chief Executive Officer
Search for Common Ground
2019 seems like a lifetime ago. Back then the organization I am proud to lead, Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest peace building organization, was determined to adapt and evolve our core peacebuilding mission to new conflict dynamics: movements powered by social media, a surge in authoritarianism, the rise of non-state violent actors, the perils of climate change, and unprecedented levels of youth activism.
We built a powerful, long-term strategy based on our convictions of how the world is changing. Within months it changed even more and even faster than we had anticipated.
COVID-19 is a global challenge like few others in human history. Seemingly, the pandemic presents the world with a binary choice: fracture and perish, or find new ways to collaborate to survive and, perhaps, thrive together.
Humanity’s response to-date both inspires and disappoints. Many people have reached out to support one another, forging community and cooperating for the greater good. But the pandemic has also exposed and exacerbated our divides, causing long-simmering social problems to explode and heightened distrust to undercut an effective collective response to the pandemic.
We, like other organizations and businesses, have shouldered the effects of COVID-19 in multiple, significant ways. We have evolved and adapted our programs for a socially-distant world, leaning on our decades-long expertise in media; working on the frontlines of conflict to coordinate the immediate response to the virus; weathering financial uncertainty; and through it all seeking to support staff who are feeling the weight of the pandemic every day. We are focusing on what ties us together—as peacebuilders, citizens, and human beings, united in the vision of a safer, healthier, more just world. Confident that when violent conflict is transformed into peace and stability, everyone can build better lives and stronger communities.
So, on this International Peace Day, what have we learned and what can we share? Frankly, something that is somewhat intuitive:: collaboration really works in an era of shared fates and extreme vulnerability.
From Nigeria to Tunisia to Kyrgyzstan, we have led peacebuilding programs that involve thousands of people and influence millions of lives. We have paved the way for healthcare workers to battle COVID-19. And we have used the shared challenge presented by the pandemic to foster unprecedented cooperation across political and community-level conflicts: mobilizing police and communities that were clashing just two months ago over the enforcement of COVID curfews in Kenya to work jointly on public health outreach; and turning the mutual challenge of combating the pandemic into an opportunity to reinvigorate and expand participation in the peace process in Myanmar.
COVID-19 has deeply and negatively impacted our world. Yet, despite the appalling tragedy, it has brought the world closer together in empathy and action.
Movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have moved us to tears and inspired mass participation worldwide. Yet with every step towards progress, we can see even more clearly how far we have to go to achieve full lived freedom, justice, equality and equity.
It’s in this context that we should be more determined to live out our values. We know that the road to justice is long, requiring hard reflection and action, but it is exactly this taxing, uphill path, that we as peacebuilders have chosen, that we are seeing more and more people — especially young people — taking. We should acknowledge pain, lean in to listen, confront biases, rethink peace, and champion our neighbors.
We cannot deny it: the future is uncertain; to many, it’s frightening. Yet there is hope through more collaboration. Hope inspired by the unshakeable belief—grounded in decades of frontline experience transforming conflict—that what ties us together, will save us.
Beyond the false choice of win-lose thinking is a future that can work for us all, but we can only get there together.