Peace has a PR Problem: How would you fix it?

September 21, 2018 11 By Duncan Green

Today is the UN International Day of Peace. You probably won’t have heard of it. Harriet Lamb, CEO of International Alert, explains why that matters.

Our dictionaries mirror what’s happening in society. And the words we use shape how we see events and how we act. So it’s a sad reflection that dictionaries are full of the words of war: from warmongering to terrorism, and yet ‘peacebuilding’ is so under-recognised that you won’t find it in a single English dictionary.

Luckily, it’s a joy of languages that they constantly evolve. Old words slink away, unused and unloved, to the back of the cupboard. Their place is taken by brash new words, springing up on our streets and in our tweets and richocheting around the world. Last year, for example, ‘hangry’ jumped into the dictionary – referring to people being so hungry that they become angry. Other newbies include ‘totes’, ‘adorbs’, ‘bingeable’ and, entering just last week, ‘instagrammable’. Peacebuilding is looking positively middle-aged at over 40 years, so what’s taking so long?

It is an oversight which 19 peacebuilding organisations have clubbed together to change. We’re campaigning to get peacebuilding recognised – supported by everyone from actor Mark Rylance through to the Middle East Minister Alistair Burt. We’re hoping for positive responses from the dictionaries to announce today, the UN International Day of Peace.

Sadly, the dictionaries are not the only ones giving the cold shoulder to peacebuilding, which we define as those activities that tackle the root causes of conflict and enable societies to resolve differences without violence. Politicians often don’t even know that such an activity – and so policy option – exists. They haven’t heard of peacebuilding in their daily lives, and so they don’t think about it when they get to power. Alternative responses to brewing violence overseas, such as sending in the fighter jets or ‘putting boots on the ground’, are well known levers to pull and have an appealing kinetic energy. When prime ministers want to look strong against dictators or jihadists, nothing looks quite as tough as a vast black machine taking off: Look at what we are doing, it screams.

By contrast, peacebuilding seems too fluffy, too much motherhood and apple pie, too weak, too big, too slow, too worthy. Peace, it seems, has a PR problem.

And we urgently need to fix that as the world slides ever deeper into violence. As we speak, a record 68.5 million people have been forced to flee war or persecution worldwide. More people being killed in battle. More civilians, especially women and children, dying than ever before.

So peace is needed more than ever. Yet only US$10 billion is spent every year on peacebuilding, compared to an astounding $1.7 trillion in global military expenditure.

Serious as peacebuilders are, we’ve built up our evidence base. We know that peacebuilding is effective, and cost-effective – and popular. A just released public opinion poll conducted by International Alert with the British Council and polling agency RIWI across 15 countries from UK to Ukraine, Nigeria to the USA, found strong popular support for prevention as better than cure. Across the world, given choices, people ranked ‘dealing with the reasons why people fight’ top of their list of ways for governments to promote peace – way ahead of military, diplomatic or humanitarian options. Governments can look strong and win popular support by backing peace.

Now we just need to win the argument with policy-makers. So it was that last week, I was sitting in the uber-trendy Lido Café in Herne Hill, surrounded by yummy-mummies, having a coffee with Duncan, both of us scratching our heads about peacebuilding’s low profile. What can we do to turn things round?

What have we done so far? First off, the world’s leading peacebuilding organisations have come together to put peacebuilding on the map by communicating better with the public. We know we have a problem that needs radical change to fix it. At a ‘Maniacal Business Attack’ (trendy US term for a two-day brainstorm) in DC last year, we looked at other transformative global campaigns inspired, for example, by how the gay rights movement won the day for marriage when they shifted from talking about equal rights to talking about love. Genius. So what’s the shift that we need to make to build a vibrant, modern, strong peace movement?

We haven’t yet had our breakthrough moment; we are still working away to find solutions. We know we need to tell our stories of impact better; to enlist the backing of the military; to engage the public better with our work; to bring in more celebrity support and more unusual voices. Duncan’s bacon buttie clearly getting the better of him, he suggested we enlist Jeremy Clarkson. I didn’t jot that one down – but I get his point: we need surprise supporters.

Duncan’s next bright idea was to write a blog, asking for people’s brightest and best ideas of how we could tackle peace’s PR problem. So here we are.

Credit: International Alert/Search for Common Ground

Meanwhile, as peacebuilders, we agreed to kick-off with getting peacebuilding into the dictionary. And today that step is at least partly accomplished. Harper Collins, MacMillan and Cambridge dictionaries have agreed to add the word. Harper Collins online dictionary are even making ‘peacebuilding’ their word of the day today.

Getting into the dictionary is just the first step. Next is to call on the UK government to step up its commitment to building peace, asking  Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to include concrete commitments to reducing violence in the ‘Global Britain’ strategy to be announced in March 2019.

We live in hope that, helped by your ideas, peacebuilding could hit the heights of ‘Word of the Year’. Recent winners have been fake news, populism, and austerity. Let’s hope peacebuilding can be next. That would be ‘totes adorbs’. And only possible if you get in touch with your ideas and offers of help…….

And here’s a short (2m) video summary of the public opinion research