Back in a Familiar Place, Fellow Gains a New Perspective

After almost five years, here I am once again in Washington D.C. I feel glad to be back to this town that is the seat not only to America’s government, but also to numerous international organizations, and thus the center where many important decisions that affect global policy are made. But my relationship with Washington D.C. goes well beyond any interest in politics or policy. True, this was the city that first gave my professional career an international perspective. But this is also a place that I used to call home.

In many ways, D.C. feels very familiar to me, as I lived here for almost a year in 2007 and 2008. Its memorable sights are all there, like old companions: its solemn monuments and memorials, impressive government buildings, fascinating museums and pleasant, beautiful public parks. But somehow it also feels different. Maybe it is because after several months living in the Durham – Chapel Hill area in North Carolina, with its southern warmth, small town feeling, generous and welcoming people, I confess that I became a little unfamiliar with Washington’s fast pace of life, where people sometimes seem to be all about work and achievement, constantly busy and in a hurry. And, of course, there is always the Beltway’s traffic madness to remind you that you a living in a true world metropolis (although most of the time I commute using D.C.’s efficient metro line, with its beautiful stations)…

Anyway, it feels great to be back to DC for my Applied Field Experience, as part of my Rotary Peace Fellowship studies in peace and conflict resolution. This summer I will be working with the World Bank’s Legal Vice-Presidency and explore my interest in the role of institutions in promoting peace and development around the world. This is an exciting opportunity to learn from the inside how one of the world’s leading development organizations functions and, most importantly, generates and accumulates knowledge that can be applied to better advance public organizations in my home country and elsewhere.

Last week, I had the opportunity to gain a unique insight into how the process of generating cutting-edge knowledge works and can be used to promote better development practices. I attended a Bank event called “Innovations for Resolving Disputes in Development”. The purpose of the event was to look at innovative ways through which development practitioners around the world are predicting, preventing and managing disputes in complex development projects. That happens to be one of my major interests both as a Peace Fellow and as a justice system professional from Brazil, where increased economic growth over the last decade made it possible to raise millions of people out of poverty, but has become a source of countless environmental and social tensions. Whenever a new large infrastructure project is considered these days in Brazil, citizens are increasingly questioning the potential side effects of economic development, particularly in the upsetting of the local social and economic dynamics and the undesired outcomes such as increased crime and other socially harmful activities. How can Brazilian institutions better prepare to manage such risks and resolve legitimate social objections that inevitably arise?

A panel of seasoned dispute resolution specialists featured, among others, Dr. Larry Susskind, founder of Consensus Building Institute and the current director for MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. Through his professional experience and research, Professor Susskind concluded that organizations that are successful in working with dispute resolution have a few features in common. First, they empower street-level people (in other words, the professionals that are directly responsible for service-delivery, as opposed to the more distant and detached decision-makers) to actively engage in problem solving. Second, those organizations have created a safe environment for their people to explore “what if”, creative thinking solutions, before committing to a formal negotiated settlement of disputes. They also welcome the help of external mediators who act as facilitators and reward their people on the basis of their successes in achieving good dispute resolution outcomes. I believe that Brazil’s development process could benefit a lot from these and other relevant lessons on conflict management.

During my AFE at the World Bank, I will be helping assess the soundness and capabilities of Brazilian institutions to comply with the Bank’s safeguard policies, particularly as it relates to managing environmental risks, as well as the risk of fraud and corruption. I will be also working on Bank-sponsored mediation projects that target some of our poorest and most violent communities. Finally, I will be conducting research at the role of the Public Ministry Offices in Latin America (a key component in our justice systems) in promoting the protection of environmental and other social rights, from a development perspective. My hope is that one day our institutions will become more capable and efficient in serving the rightful interests of our people. That will be no small step towards the goal of achieving a more prosperous and peaceful society.

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