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Forest Whitaker on conflict resolution

Octavian Report: When did you first realize that development and conflict resolution were fields of absolute necessity in the modern world?

Forest Whitaker: I would start by telling you that 408 million young people live in conflict-affected areas. But my interest in conflict resolution and development did not start with this figure. It has been a maturation process rather than a single moment of realization. Some of my earliest memories are of the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965; they happened about two miles from our home. As I got older, gangs became a stronger and stronger presence in our neighborhood. I lived in South Central for the birth of the Bloods and Crips. So many of the kids I knew back home got drawn into these lives of gangs and drugs and violence, and I saw how it robbed them of their futures.

Martin Luther King visited Watts right after the riots and captured very well the nature of the problem. He wrote, “The violence of poverty and humiliation hurts as intensely as the violence of the club. This is a situation that calls for statesmanship and creative leadership, of which I did not see evidence in Los Angeles.”

This is the soil from which I grew and from which many of my ideas grew.

Experiencing these things, it is not difficult to conclude that development and conflict resolution are an absolute necessity — that they always will be. This said, the modern world creates a new emergency because with the internet and worldwide transportation, a conflict somewhere can spread to many other places in a very short time. Preventing conflict and violence is more important because, I believe, the world is more flammable. This is why the message of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals that no one must be left behind is so crucial. Letting children live in poverty and hunger, letting women be exposed to discrimination and violence, letting young people stay mired in joblessness and purposelessness, letting our environment degrade — all of this creates embers of violence, conflict, and war that irrational people will be tempted to set ablaze.

OR: How did you get inspired to start the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI)?

Whitaker: I came to create WPDI for various reasons. Working to empower young people from conflict-affected places has a lot to do with my personal history. I think that I fully realized the extent to which these experiences and thoughts had shaped me when I met with former child soldiers in Uganda on the set of The Last King of Scotland. Their stories resonated with a strength that surprised me. I could not help seeing some parallels with the kids I knew back in L.A. The places, the countries, and the societies were very different, but I could see what they had in common: there was no energy in their eyes and hearts. When individuals and communities have been touched by darkness, when they have been shattered by violence or poverty, they lose their energy, their capacity to rebound. The issue is that such energy can only be rekindled from within. This is a classic problem in humanitarian and development action. People need assistance to get their energy back; they cannot be helped because in the end they need to help themselves — which does not happen because they lack energy. How do we break that negative circle? The idea behind WPDI was to mobilize youth to do the work. Empowering former child soldiers taught me a lot. In particular, it taught me that while young people from places affected by conflict and violence are often considered to be only victims or perpetrators, we should treat them as doers, as drivers of change. The daily work of WPDI is to train young people so they can become mediators and entrepreneurs or so they can find a job. We also help young women and men undertake peacebuilding initiatives and develop small businesses in their communities. Communities benefit from these actions and they witness firsthand that young people have an amazing potential that they can tap. This is my way of breaking the cycle of negativity, by taking young people seriously and giving them the tools to re-energize their communities.

OR: What are the biggest hurdles you and your organization face in your work?

Whitaker: WPDI operates in very complex terrain where there is a long history of conflict and armed violence. This is obvious with South Sudan, where we have been present since 2012. This is a country where conflict is chronic: it has experienced a form of open conflict for more than 40 of the last 60 years, not counting the colonial era. It is not that surprising that experts consider South Sudan to be the most dangerous place for aid workers. In Tijuana, our youth develop their projects in a city that has been rated the most violent in the world. One big hurdle is that many international institutions are actually very risk-averse and will not invest in such places. Most people will acknowledge that such places have serious needs — but, at the same time, they will shy away from stepping in for fear of risk. To some extent, this is inconsistent. To some extent, however, there is reasonable ground for this attitude. Their perception of risk is mostly informed by the assumption that peace and development activities are conducted by people who do not belong to these communities. This is where WPDI is different. We consider that our mandate for peace and sustainable development is universal and should, therefore, be implemented by local people and youth in particular. We have a very effective and efficient solution to drastically reduce the risks of working in such places — by trusting and training young people to do the heavy lifting.

Nevertheless, this is where we often run into another roadblock: training young people so they can be effective mediators, teachers, and entrepreneurs takes time — at least a year. This is a real investment that many international institutions are not ready to make. But short-term actions cannot hope to address the roots of chronic conflict. Our approach is to seriously invest in young people because they have a unique energy today and will be in leadership positions tomorrow.

OR: What is the organization’s chief mission and why are partnerships so essential to it?

Whitaker: WPDI’s chief mission is to help conflict-affected and vulnerable communities achieve resilience, peace, and sustainability. At the core of my vision is the idea that peace is not just the silence of arms or a signing of agreements among politicians and diplomats. Such peace does not last by itself. People must adhere to it — especially since today most conflicts are internal to states, which means that peace is more akin to reconciliation. In that sense, peace is a set of values, attitudes, and behaviors that everyday people practice in earnest. It is a culture. Communities are peaceful when they live by a culture of peace. In communities affected by long-term, chronic conflict, the culture of peace has been replaced by a culture of violence. Peace, in such places, must be learnt anew. This is where partnerships are so central in our mandate. We consider young people partners who implement our mandate on the ground. This is important, because we want to send the signal that they are on an equal footing with us. We do not think that we know everything better than they do — starting with their own country. By extension, we seek to work directly with local stakeholders — which is actually the most efficient way to obtain results. At the other end of the spectrum, we seek to expand the scope of our partnerships to obtain material support, of course, but also strategic support. We seek to learn from our partners, on the ground or at the international level.

OR: Where are its major geographical areas of focus at the moment?

Whitaker: I have mentioned already that we are present in South Sudan, where we cover the whole southern region of the country, and in Tijuana, Mexico. What matters to us is the kind of context where we intervene. In Uganda, we address the sequels of a civil war that generated thousands of child soldiers and we train and support young refugees. We have another program in Mexico: in Chiapas, where we aim to empower youth from indigenous communities. We also have a program in the United States, in Los Angeles, where we seek to infuse values of peace directly into the school curriculum. We also started a new deployment of our work in Cape Flats in South Africa.

OR: What are the forces driving the problems WPDI seeks to address?

Whitaker: These driving forces make for a very intricate skein. Some key issues are poverty and exclusion. Youth disenfranchisement is a deep driver of the problems we seek to address. Young people want to feel useful, to know that their potential serves a purpose. When young people have no economic or social perspective, they will turn to those who offer them such a sense of purpose — it can be a gang or an armed group. The is the reason why, for example, the rehabilitation of former child soldiers will always be a demanding process: their values and outlook on life have been shaped by years of living with violence.

Another deep driver is, as I stressed already, chronic conflict. It is important to stress that nuance when it comes to solutions. People and communities do not react the same when violence and uncertainty become pervasive dimensions of everyday life. There is a systemic dimension of repeated trauma. Some of the youth we work with have been through terrible ordeals — losing parents and siblings, being forced out of homes, being conscripted in armed groups and made to commit atrocities. Trauma must be addressed individually and collectively if we want to genuine peace to happen.

OR: Have they gotten better or worse in the time you have been working on them?

Whitaker: I am not certain that there is a single answer to this question. WPDI is still young and we operate at a very local level. But I do think that we make a difference in the places where we work. In South Sudan and Uganda, our youth manage to get tribes or villages that have been in conflict — sometime for years — to reach peace agreements. This is significant. There is an awareness, including among local authorities, that if WPDI had not been there things could be worse.

OR: What do you regard as your biggest success doing development and conflict resolution?

Whitaker: My biggest success is to have created conditions for young people to pursue their dream of giving back to their community, however challenging this may seem. From a strategic perspective, I think that the achievement here is to have combined development and conflict resolution. These two areas are often quite distinct. The organizations that respectively deal with them are usually very different because they are designed to operate in distinct contexts. My view is that, in the places faced with the biggest challenges, there is no such distinction of context. Proof of this is the fact that conflict-affected places — be they countries or areas within countries — are those that fare the worst against the SDG’s. If we want to leave no-one behind, we have to rethink our approaches and break silos when necessary.

OR: What lessons do those experiences hold for other people and organizations looking to get into this line of work?

Whitaker: One main lesson is that investing in youth, trusting their potential, and providing them adequate tools to undertake projects actually works. What you need is a good, solid starting package and the determination to patiently follow their progress. If you combine all of this, you have a very efficient model of intervention.

OR: What do state actors and other global influencers need to know about the issues WPDI works on that they currently do not?

Whitaker: They need to know that 408 million youth live in places affected by conflict and that the majority of conflict-affected regions are off-track to achieve the SDG’s. These numbers indicate the scale of the efforts needed in the coming years. Let’s think of the potential for transformation that we could unlock if we invested serious resources in projects developed by young people to promote peace and sustainable development in their communities. Governments should do it. Companies should do it. Foundations should do it. Young people want to be part of the solutions. We must do our part.