Expert on Africa Highlights Peace-Building Process


Former Congressman Howard Wolpe,  director of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

February 9, 2009

In a talk on February 4 called “Democracy and Peace-Building: Rethinking the Conventional Wisdom,” former Congressman Howard Wolpe identified strategies for sustainable peace-building and outlined false assumptions that can derail the process.

Director of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for
Scholars and a board member of Coexistence International, which sponsored the talk along with Gen Ed Now, the Global Affairs Table, and the Slifka Program in Intercommunal Coexistence, Wolpe described his work directing post-conflict leadership training programs in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Liberia. He noted that these programs, bringing together leaders from the government, military, and civil society in post-conflict countries, focus on building trust and relationships by helping participants understand the perspective of the other side.

“One of the watchwords of everything we do is to put yourself in the shoes of the other,” said Wolpe.

In contrast, he said many who seek to promote democracy operate under flawed assumptions, such as believing that getting leaders to forge agreements alone will solve the underlying problem. Yet, he contended: “You haven’t fundamentally altered the mindsets of the leaders who started the conflicts in the first place.”

In addition, he cited an “absolute fixation on elections adversarial programming,” which can serve to further divide societies as oppose to being a unifying force. Democracy, he said, depends on not only competition but on cooperation and common ground among the national community. Political competition is tolerable only when these conditions are in place, according to Wolpe.

In Kenya, for example, people were surprised when violence broke out during elections. Yet people who knew the country understood that it lacks trust and interdependence among its ethnic groups, he said.

His training attempts to bridge that divide, which he illustrated by describing his work in Burundi, where he has worked for more than five years. The country suffered from a protracted civil war and faced a polarized leadership and unequal distribution of limited resources, he said. In response, the program first spent several months identifying key leaders from a variety of organizations. Getting the right people involved contributes to a “national ownership” of the process, he said.

The training itself begins by focusing on simulations and interactive exercises before addressing substantive matter. This allows participants to see each other as individuals and not just members of ethnic groups, said Wolpe. The trainers then act as facilitators when participants confront the tensions behind the conflict. He described an exercise in which participants were asked to describe the concerns of competing parties in order to understand each other’s interests. “That was the psychological turning point of the whole process,” he said.

Wolpe emphasized that deep-seated problems cannot be fixed in the short term. But sustained efforts to build “collaborative capacity” can help to unite fractured societies.