Ignacio Asis – AFE Blog – UNDP, Colombo, Sri Lanka

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The spicy taste of life in Sri Lanka

On Reconciliation, Head Waggles and Local Hospitality


A little over a month ago, I arrived in Sri Lanka with the sole objective of working for a couple of months at the United Nations. The goal: Contribute to the peacebuilding strategy in the country. It’s not my idea here, to write about the socio-political situation of the country, nor an economic analysis. On the contrary, in these following lines I’d like to share a bit about Sri Lanka, based on the eight weeks I’ve been living here. I will first talk about my professional experience, and then, move onto a more personal approach, as a “long-term” tourist.

On Conflict and Resilience

I came to Sri Lanka with a contract letter from the United Nations Development Programme, in order to work for the Peace Fund Pre-Secretariat, which is housed in the Office of the Resident Coordinator of the UN. This is the office in charge of coordinating the work of the 22 different agencies of the United Nations in the country, seeking to channel their individual actions in attention to a broader and strategic framework, previously agreed with the national government, and oriented towards the development of the country.

Working in Trincomalee with displaced families and resettled communities

Working in Trincomalee with displaced families and resettled communities

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, became a UN Member State in 1955.  Since then, over the last 60 years, the specialized agencies have provided technical expertise and financial assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka to assist the people during times of war, strife, natural disasters[i], and now on post-conflict reconciliation and peacebuilding.

Sri Lanka was embroiled in a civil war for 26 years. For 26 years the country was deeply affected by an ethnic-territorial conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils, which left an estimated balance of 70.000 to 90.000 deaths[ii]. Sadly, as a by-product of any war, there were scores of exiled people, displaced communities, and refugees – most of whom are nowadays resettled. As of today, the country still appears to be recovering from the ruins of devastated cities, crushed families and the remembrance of fear; not forgetting the fact that this has also led to a wounded social fabric and generalized distrust in public services and institutions.

Lessons on the relation between conflict and development - Written in Tamil, Sinhalese and English on a wall in Colombo

Lessons on the relation between conflict and development – Written in Tamil, Sinhalese and English on a wall in Colombo

It has been 7 years since the end of the war.  It was not a victory for “alternative dispute resolution” or for negotiated agreements. What prevailed, instead, were the strength of the weapons and the partial elimination of the adversary. The milestone was not a peace agreement but the mass killing of those from the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam; not to mention the death toll of the Government led forces and of the civilian casualties. On Tuesday 19th of May, 2009, the former President delivered a victory address to parliament, formally declaring the end of the war.

The following day, it seemed that a lot had changed in the country. Since then, Sri Lanka is picking up the pieces, rebuilding and restoring all what was lost. I will not dare to say it is the beginning of a peaceful era, but maybe an era of a significantly lower impact of armed violence. For those of us who study and work on the dynamics of social conflict, this was the kick-off of a new stage for “intervention”: a Peace-Building phase. What does this mean? I will say it is an organized, multidimensional, and slow movement towards the reconstruction of the social fabric – the strengthening of institutions, and the recovery of the economy in a wide sense, with the hope and endeavor that this will unfold an improvement on the living conditions of the citizens, their opportunities, security, and development factors

This is what I am working on. My previous work experience was mainly focused on Peace Making, i.e., the prevention and mitigation of conflicts through multiple tracks, where Peace Education, Negotiation, the Facilitation of Dialogues, and Mediation are some of the technical tools. Here, I am contributing and learning from the other side of the conflict curve, in the Peace and State-Building processes aimed at the development the country. This is materialized in projects on reconciliation, transitional justice, and governance with a conflict transformation approach. It is a model that attempts to set in motion processes to mend relations through the combination of national ground-based reconstruction programs and citizen mobilization in discussions and participatory planning. The idea is to shorten the distance between the different communities, and between people and the state, in order to eliminate mutual distrust and leverage a better response from the institutions.

It has so far been an incredible experience for me, challenging and enriching in equal parts. I’m surrounded by marvelous people, who are also very bright professionals. I am happy and grateful.

Living in Colombo

In a very different tone, I would like to tell a bit about my post-office and weekend life. Although I would like to talk about Sri Lanka in general, the shorts trips that I’ve done so far are not enough to have a holistic view, hence I cannot  speak with legitimacy about the country as a whole. I have been able to explore many of the most important cities, but I understand that my thoughts are mainly based on what I have seen so far, which is not much. Also my travels have so far been limited to the South and West of the country. Here are some of the things I would like to share:

Colombo, to me, is a faithful reflection of the diversity of the country. For example, talking about religion; even though 80% of the people are Buddhist, while you walk around the city it is very easy to come on Christian Churches, Hindu Temples and Mosques of different shapes and colors. This is explained by the history of the country, as the reign of Ceylon was a Portuguese, Dutch and British colony. I was lucky to arrive on a Poya Sunday[iii], on a weekend in which people were celebrating Vesak, which is the annual celebration of the main events of Buddha’s life[iv]. Streets were covered in colors, with hanging flags and paper lanterns. On the side of some of the main avenues, worship stations where families would show mock-ups made from different materials, and remembering the life of Siddhartha Gautama. As if embellishing the city were not enough, they would also cook food and tea in great proportions, which they would later share with the random walker, regardless of the religion (this is called “Dhansal”). It was an impressive welcome which, for what I have been told, was much smaller compared to previous years because many people were still mourning or putting their energy in flood relief efforts in the aftermath of the  floods that stroked a large part of the country during April, affecting more than 200.000 families.

Sri Lanka is a multi ethnic, multi religious, multi lingual, and multi cultural nation

Sri Lanka is a multi ethnic, multi religious, multi lingual, and multi cultural nation

There is plenty of life in public places, the reason why the streets of Colombo -and every other city I’ve visited- are packed with Tuk Tuk (also known as Rickshaws). These three-wheeled, covered vehicles are the cheapest transport after the public buses. Their big plus? Their capacity to maneuver between other cars and narrow streets during the traffic hours…. which are many and long.

Since I arrived, it was a self-imposed challenge to get used to spicy food. Rice is everywhere and it is generally served with different curries, being a very traditional dish of local cuisine. Generally mixed with eggs, fish or chicken; it is prepared in a way in which all people can easily eat with their fingers, without wasting anything, and mixing the different flavors in a display of nimbleness that I lack, but that I’m trying to achieve. Other very tasty specialties are the spicy scraped coconut (Pol Sambol), lentil curry (Dhal), rice noodles (String Hoppers), eggs served in a pancake (Egg Hoppers) and, one of my favorites, Kothu Roti, which is chopped flatbread mixed with whatever the person who is cooking wants to add.



Sri Lanka’s tropical climate, with mean temperatures of 30°C and a heavy rainy season, provides the country with crazy flora and fauna. Sri Lanka has the highest density of biodiversity of Asia, including a great amount of Asian Elephants, Leopards, Monkeys, and Whales. Nevertheless, what I personally like the most are the trees. I know, that is super boring. But let me tell you that these impressive, very old, specimens are spread not only in remote areas or national parks but also in downtown Colombo, painting in bright green and curvy shapes a landscape which otherwise, will be dominated by whitish houses.

Finally, a special mention of the Sri Lankan people. During the first few days in the island I wandered around the city with classic –but moderated- tourist distrust. Like an Argentinean from Buenos Aires, always aware of the surroundings and security. As weeks went by, and with more and more interaction with people, this “precaution mode” started to disappear up to the point in which I currently walk in very random places during late hours, looking for hidden places of the city. When I do this, 9 out of 10 times the result is the same: I meet WELCOMING and HAPPY people. This is one of my favorite “features” of the country. People I’ve met where I am living, as well as my colleagues at work, are a constant reminder of this. Generosity, hospitality and smiles everywhere. I must mentioned that, in a country where people live and breathe Cricket, Messi and football seem to be the first triggering topics to initiate a conversation with an Argentinian. For this reason, I have taken it upon myself to learn about Sangakkara and Mahela, the biggest stars in local cricket. Loved by everyone, they helped Sri Lanka win, in 2014, their first world cup in the T20 modality. Now you know too.

Some other colorful info

Last but not least, here is some curious data about Sri Lanka. There is a still a lot to be written:

  • In Sri Lanka, when someone shakes their head from side to side with a slight wiggle, it generally means YES. I have to say this is very catchy. Watch this short and fun video so you can better understand the Head Waggle”: https://youtu.be/zjsDSQURekc.
  • Before Sri Lanka became famous for tea, it was famous for coffee – but the coffee fields of Sri Lanka were wiped out by leaf blight in the 1870s. Lipton Tea was originated here.
  • There are more than 7,000 wild elephants in the country. The great elephant migration, which takes place during the dry season, is usually known as “the big gathering”, and it is considered one of the greatest natural events worldwide.
  • If you go for drinks in Sri Lanka, you have to try Arrack. This is one of the typical drinks, which can be drunk with ice, or mixed with coke, gin or different fruits juice.
  • Sri Lanka has had many names, one of which was Serendip, given by the Persians. The term Serendipity, which means a fortunate and unexpected discovery, was coined after a traditional Persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip”, in which the protagonists were always solving their problems by accidental discoveries.

[i] The most recent being the Tsunami in 2004, and huge floods in 2010 and 2016.

[ii] It is important to clarify that, as it usually happens, this is still a disputed number, not accepted by everybody.

[iii] Term that derives from Sanskrit and means “fasting day”. In Sri Lanka, it implies a rite in which devotes celebrate and visit temples as a sign of worship. More information here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/kariyawasam/wheel402.html#ch3

[iv] More details of the celebration here: https://www.lanka.com/events/vesak-festival/

Ignacio Asis – AFE Blog – UNDP, Colombo, Sri Lanka – español

De-Gustando Sri Lanka

Sobre la Reconciliación, el “Head Waggle” y la Hospitalidad Local


Hace poco más de un mes que llegue a Sri Lanka con el objetivo de trabajar unos meses en Naciones Unidas. La meta: Contribuir a la estrategia de construcción de paz en el país. No es mi idea escribir aquí sobre la situación socio-política del país, tampoco hacer un análisis económico. Por el contrario, en las líneas que siguen quisiera compartir algunas de mis impresiones sobre Sri Lanka en base a las ocho semanas que llevo viviendo aquí. Voy a hablar primero de mi experiencia profesional y después, desde un tono más personal, como un turista “largo plazo”.

Del conflicto y la resiliencia

Llegue a Sri Lanka con una carta de contratación del Programa de Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, con el fin de trabajar en el pre-secretariado del Fondo de Paz, que está alojado en la oficina del Coordinador Residente de Naciones Unidas en el país. En otras palabras, para trabajar en la oficina que se encarga de la coordinación de las 22 distintas agencias de Naciones Unidas en el país, procurando encausar  el accionar individual de cada una de acuerdo a un marco de trabajo más global y estratégico, pactado previamente con el gobierno nacional, y orientado al desarrollo del país.

Working in Trincomalee with displaced families and resettled communities

Sri Lanka, anteriormente conocida como Ceylán, es miembro de la ONU desde 1955. Desde entonces, por más de 60 años, las agencias especializadas han brindado su conocimiento técnico y asistencia financiera al Gobierno de Sri Lanka para asistir a las comunidades durante la época de violencia armada, desastres naturales[i] y, más recientemente, en la post-guerra, con foco en la reconciliación.

Fueron 26 los años en que Sri Lanka estuvo en guerra civil. Por 26 años el país estuvo marcado por un conflicto étnico-territorial entre Cingaleses y Tamiles que dejó un saldo de civiles muertos estimado entre 70.000 y 90.000[ii]. Tristemente, y como sub-producto de la guerra, hubo exiliados, desplazados y refugiados. Al día de hoy, el país parece estarse recuperando de las cenizas de ciudades aniquiladas, familias destruidas y el recuerdo del miedo; ni hablar del hecho de que esto también dejó hubo un tejido social herido y una desconfianza generalizada por las instituciones y servicios públicos.

Pasaron 7 años desde el final de la guerra. No triunfó aquí la resolución pacífica de conflictos, tampoco los acuerdos negociados.  Primó, en cambio, la fuerza de las armas y la eliminación parcial del adversario. El hito no fue un acuerdo de paz entre las partes, sino la matanza masiva de los miembros de los Tigres de Liberación del Eelam Tamil, sin olvidar los miles de muertes civiles y de las fuerzas armadas lideradas por el gobierno.

El martes 19 de Mayo del 2009, el Ex-Presidente dio un discurso ante el parlamento declarando la victoria y el fin de la guerra. Al día siguiente parecía que mucho había cambiado. Sin embargo, desde entonces, Sri Lanka está reconstruyéndose y recobrando todo lo perdido. No me atrevería a decir que empezó una época de paz, pero sí una época de bajo impacto de la violencia armada. Para los que estudiamos y trabajamos sobre las dinámicas del conflicto social, esto significa el punta pie inicial de un nuevo periodo para la intervención… la Construcción de Paz… ¿Qué significa esto? Se trata de un movimiento organizado, multidimensional y paulatino hacia la reconstrucción del tejido social, el fortalecimiento de las instituciones, y la recomposición de la economía en sentido amplio, con la esperanza y el esfuerzo de que esto refleje una mejora en las condiciones de vida de los ciudadanos, sus oportunidades, su seguridad y sus factores de desarrollo.

Lessons on the relation between conflict and development - Written in Tamil, Sinhalese and English on a wall in Colombo

Este es el tema sobre el que estoy trabajando. Mi experiencia laboral previa me ha enfocado principalmente en la gestión de paz (Peace Making). Es decir, la prevención y mitigación del conflicto a través de distintas iniciativas, siendo la Educación para la Paz, la Negociación, la Facilitación de procesos de diálogo, y la Mediación, algunos de las herramientas técnicas. Aquí, estoy aportando y aprendiendo desde el otro lado de la curva del conflicto, es decir, sobre la construcción de paz (Peace Building) y el fortalecimiento del Estado (State Building) orientado al desarrollo. Esto se materializa en proyectos de reconciliación, justicia transicional y gobernabilidad, bajo un enfoque de transformación de conflictos. Es un modelo que intenta poner en marcha procesos que ayuden a recomponer las relaciones a través de la combinación de programas nacionales de reconstrucción en los territorios, con la movilización ciudadana en espacios de discusión y en procesos de planeación participativa. La idea es acortar la distancia entre las comunidades, y entre las personas y el Estado, a fin de eliminar las desconfianzas mutuas y forzar a que las instituciones respondan mejor y acorde a esta nueva realidad.

Hasta el momento ha sido una increíble experiencia, desafiante y enriquecedora por igual. Rodeado de personas maravillosas que son, a la vez, brillantes profesionales. Estoy muy contento y agradecido.

De la vida en Colombo

Con un tono muy diferente, les quisiera contar un poco de mi vida post-oficina y de fines de semana. Si bien quisiera poder hablares sobre Sri Lanka en general, mis breves viajes no alcanzan para tener una mirada global que me dé la legitimidad de hablar sobre el país en su totalidad. He podido conocer las principales ciudades, pero entiendo que mis reflexiones se basan principalmente en lo que visto hasta ahora, que no es mucho y mayoritariamente del Sur y Oeste del país. Van aquí alguno de los puntos que les quiero compartir:

Colombo, para mí, es un fiel reflejo de la diversidad del país. Por ejemplo, y con respecto a la religión; si bien el 80% de la población es Budista, uno al caminar puede encontrarse fácilmente con Iglesias Cristianas, Templos Hindúes y Mezquitas de diversa forma y color. Esto se explica por la historia del país, ya que el reino de Ceylán fue colonia Portuguesa, Holandesa y Británica. Tuve la suerte de llegar un día domingo de Poya[iii] , en un fin de semana en que se festejaba el Vesak, celebración anual de los grandes eventos de la vida de Buda[iv]. Las calles estaban cubiertas de colores, banderines colgantes y linternas de papel. A orillas del algunas avenidas principales, puestos de adoración y celebración, donde muchas familias exponen maquetas de distintos materiales recordando la vida de  Siddhartha Gautama. Y como si embellecer la ciudad fuera poco, preparan también comida y té en abundancia, a fin de compartir y agasajar al caminante desprevenido, más allá de su religión (esto se llama “Dhansal”). Fue una recibida impresionante que, por lo que me cuentan, fue mucho menor comparado a otros años porque muchas personas todavía estaban de duelo, o usando sus energías para ayudar en varias inundaciones que golpearon a gran parte del país durante Abril, afectando a más de 200.000 familias.

Sri Lanka is a multi ethnic, multi religious, multi lingual, and multi cultural nation

Aquí hay mucha vida en los espacios públicos, razón por la cual las calles de Colombo, así como en todas las otras ciudades que he visitado, abundan los Tuk Tuk (también conocidos como Rickshaws), vehículos de tres ruedas y cubiertos, que son el medio más económico de transporte después del colectivo público. Su gran ventaja es la capacidad de maniobrar entre los recovecos y estrechas vías de tránsito durante las horas de alto tráfico… que son muchas y largas.

Desde que llegue, fue un desafío auto-impuesto el acostumbrarme a las comidas picantes. El arroz está presente en todo momento y es acompañado principalmente por curries varios, siendo esta la comida por excelencia. Generalmente mezclado con huevo, pescado o pollo; este plato es preparado de forma tal que la gran mayoría de la población lo puede comer con los dedos sin desperdiciar nada y mezclando los distintos ingredientes, en una muestra de gran destreza que yo aún no poseo, pero que estoy intentando alcanzar. Otras especialidades son el coco rallado y picante (Pol Sambol), lentejas al curry (Dhal), fideos de arroz (String Hoppers), huevos servidos en un panqueque (Egg Hoppers) y, uno de mis favoritos, el Kothu Roti, pan trozado y mezclado con cualquier cosa que el cocinero de turno quiera añadir.


El clima tropical de Sri Lanka, con temperaturas medias de 30 grados y una estación de abundantes lluvias, provee al país de una flora y una fauna muy ricas. Sri Lanka tiene la densidad de biodiversidad más alta de Asia, incluyendo una gran cantidad de elefantes asiáticos, así como leopardos, monos y ballenas. Pero lo que personalmente me llama más la atención son los árboles. Ya sé, muy aburrido. Pero déjenme decirles que estos impresionantes, y muy viejos, especímenes están esparcidos no solo en zonas remotas o parques nacionales, sino también en el centro de Colombo, pintando de verdes brillantes y de formas curvas un paisaje que, por lo general, está formado por edificios bajos y de tonos claros.

Por último, un párrafo aparte merece la gente. Durante mis primeros días en la isla caminé por todos lados con una clásica -pero también moderada – desconfianza de turista. Como Argentino de Buenos Aires, siempre atento a los alrededores y la seguridad. Con el pasar de las semanas y a mayor interacción con la gente, este “modo de precaución” constante ha ido desapareciendo hasta el punto en que me meto en cualquier lugar y a cualquier hora a explorar pequeños recovecos de las ciudades que visito. Cuando hago esto, 9 de cada 10 veces se repite un patrón: me encuentro en las esquinas con gente BUENA y ALEGRE. Esta particularidad es uno de mis rasgos favoritos del país. La gente que conocí en el lugar donde estoy viviendo, así como mis compañeros de trabajo, son un recuerdo constante de esto. Generosidad, hospitalidad, y sonrisas por todos lados. Cabe mencionar que, en un país donde la gente respira Criquet, Messi y el futbol son la punta de flecha para iniciar una conversación con los Argentinos. Por este motivo, me obligue recientemente a aprender sobre Sangakkara y Mahela, las grandes estrellas del criquet local, amados por todos, y que en el 2014 le dieron a Sri Lanka su primer título mundial en la modalidad T20. Ahora ya saben.

Algunos datos de color

Para terminar, les comparto algunos datos curiosos de Sri Lanka. Habría mucho más para escribir:

  • En Sri Lanka, cuando alguien sacude la cabeza de lado a lado con un pequeño bamboleo, generalmente está diciendo que SÍ. Me encanta esto y ya empecé a hacerlo naturalmente. Los invito a ver este video cortito y entretenido para que puedan entender el Head Waggle”: https://youtu.be/zjsDSQURekc.
  • Antes de que Sri Lanka se hiciera famosos por el té (Té de Ceylán), era famoso por el café. Sin embargo, los campos de café fueron destruidos por manchas foliares en la década de 1870. El Té Lipton tiene su origen aquí.
  • Hay más de 7,000 elefantes salvajes en el país. La gran migración de Elefantes que tiene lugar durante la época de sequía, llamado coloquialmente “el gran encuentro”, es considerado una de los grandes acontecimientos de la naturaleza a nivel mundial.
  • Uno de los tragos típicos del país es el Arrack, que puede ser tomado con hielo o mezclado más típicamente con coca, gin o jugos de fruta.

Sri Lanka tuvo muchos nombres, uno de los cuales fue Serendip, antiguo nombre otorgado por los Persas. La palabra Serendipia, un descubrimiento o hallazgo inesperado que se produce cuando se está buscando otra cosa distinta, tiene su origen a partir de un cuento tradicional persa llamado “Los tres príncipes de Serendip”, en el que los protagonistas, unos príncipes de la isla

[i] Siendo los más recientes el Tsunami del 2004 e inmensas inundaciones en 2010 y 2016.

[ii] Es importante aclarar que, como sucede muchas veces en este tipo de situaciones, este es un número disputado y sin consenso entre entre las partes.

[iii] Término que deriva del Sánscrito y significa “día de ayuno”, que en Sri Lanka es acompañado de un rito en que los devotos celebran y visitan tempos en símbolo de adoración. Más información aquí – http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/kariyawasam/wheel402.html#ch3

[iv] Más detalles de la celebración, en Inglés, aquí: https://www.lanka.com/events/vesak-festival/

Gabriel Maisonnave – AFE Blog – Center for Conflict Resolution, Uganda and Children Peace Initiative, Kenya

“Is he purposely hitting every pothole on the road?”

As I try to hold on to something, anything, on the cargo bed of the pick-up so I don’t completely embarrass myself falling off, I couldn’t help but think that the truck driver was messing with this “mzungu” (white person), and just testing how far I’d go before asking him to let me get into the main cabin.



Depending on the conditions of the road, it takes around 15 hours to drive from Kampala to Kaabong and one more hour to get to the Ik settlement in the mountains. During the rainy season (April – October) the weather can change drastically within hours, and the lack of roads and infrastructure make it impossible to predict how long a trip will take or if it will be even possible to reach your destination.

We were bringing over 200 packed meals, composed of a boiled egg, some beef and a sort of fried bread, to the Ik; a community in the northern mountains of Uganda. My counterpart seemed unfazed by the bumps and jumps while my hands were hurting from clenching the metal rods on the side of the truck. As we got further away from town I could see the black clouds hovering above us. Rain was imminent. During the rainy season, any dirt road can become a river in a matter of minutes and leave you stranded for hours.

I managed to store my equipment inside the main cabin before it started pouring down. I closed my eyes and held my breath while the raindrops hit my face with the force of little stones being thrown from the sky. It was no longer just the driver, it was the universe testing my limits.

I wasn’t going to just give up even though every fiber of my body was asking me to. I didn’t want to show weakness during my first week in Uganda. After all, this is what I wanted out of a summer internship: to be out in the field. To see firsthand what it means to work in International Development.

In that moment I couldn’t help but wonder if I was cut out for this or if I had chosen the wrong career path.

It takes about an hour to reach the Ik settlement from Kaabong, one of the last towns before crossing into South Sudan. Kaabong, Kotido, Moroto, are all part of the Karamoja region. Karamoja is still one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions of the world. A 2011 report from Mercy Corps estimated that “Cattle raids, theft, poor agricultural productivity, illiteracy, abysmal maternal and child health, aid dependency, and the breakdown of traditional semi-nomadic livelihoods combine to prevent the estimated 1.2 million Karamojong from living secure and productive lives.” [i]

The Ik, currently settled in Kaabong district, are regarded as the most marginalized of all ethnic groups in Karamoja. Located between rival tribes such as the Dodoth in Uganda, the Turkana in Kenya and the Toposa in South Sudan, the Ik have been victims of constant attacks and violence.



Members of the Ik community await the delivery of the packed meals, following a community meeting to address the issues of cattle raiding.


A raid the night before we arrived to their settlement had resulted in a member of the community being shot and killed.

And here I was, in the middle of nowhere with my camera, my zoom recorder and my big headphones. Around me, a community was grieving. I never felt more like a fraud in my life. I came to Uganda to use media as a tool for peacebuilding but there was no amount of footage, audio or photos that could fix what had just happened. A man had just died. His body was laid down in front of me, covered in flies. A few feet away men were digging his grave. Next to me was his mother, covering herself from head to toe with a blanket, and I could still hear her crying. I couldn’t even tell her that I was sorry for her loss; the Ik speak their own language.



Cattle roaming around in the streets of Kaabong.


A quick Google search of “cattle raid in Karamoja” will give you a series of different statistics and numbers of people killed every year as a result of the raids. Statistics are important, they help us make sense of any given situation, but they also make us forget that behind those numbers, there are sons, fathers, mothers and daughters.



Infographic developed for the Center for Conflict Resolution regarding cattle raiding in the Karamoja Region.




I came to Uganda and Kenya looking for stories. Stories that would shape the way I see the world and allow people to connect with each other in a more humane way.

I can’t say with certainty that I was successful in my quest so far, but I was lucky enough to meet Rarcad and Awi (not their real names), two refugees now living in Kampala. Rarcad is a refugee originally from Burundi. He left his home village three years ago after his house was attacked because of his father’s involvement in politics. He is now going to school during the day and working as a security guard at night. He sleeps an average of three hours per day.



Even as he talked me through the hardships he had to overcome to be where he is right now, the smile on his face never faded. Nor did his optimism.

Awi’s expression on the other hand was stoic, as if she had relived her memories so many times that her skin had grown thicker, preventing any emotion from surfacing. She came from South Sudan 13 years ago. Afraid for her life and her children’s future, she parted ways with her family and, while pregnant and carrying her three kids with her, she started her journey to Uganda.




The hope of a better tomorrow is what keeps most refugees going, even when everything seems to go wrong.

That’s my intention behind stories like these. That maybe someone out there who listens to them will find the hope they need to overcome a problem they are facing. To know that someone, maybe next door, or all the way across the world; someone like them, has overcome the same feelings of desperation, hopelessness and fear.

Communication for development is not a new concept. In the early 1950s, UNESCO and other international organizations saw how rapid mass media, and in particular television, was growing and realized that a free flow of information and the development of local information agencies would be key in the development of a more peaceful world.[ii]

If the rapid growth and massive reach of TV was enough to catch the attention of those trying to influence behavior in the 1950s, you would think that the emergence of the smartphone, internet and social media would have revolutionized the world of development. And it did, but for the wrong reasons.

Organizations everywhere started to see how far their messages could reach and the impact those images and stories from the field could have. People’s hearts were touched by the image of a child with a distended belly in a faraway village somewhere in Africa. Donations came in and organizations began to see the power that media had to raise money, forgetting the power that media could have to create sustainable change.

Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to go into any international development organization’s website and not find mention of storytelling or a compelling testimony of one of the beneficiaries of their projects. What it is hard to find is an organization that uses media as an integral and fundamental part of their projects.

In its early days, the aim of communication for development was to affect behavior using mass media. Any international development project that claims to be sustainable should, in one way or another, try to influence behavior. And yet, finding a project that includes a comprehensive communication strategy as part of its methodology to achieve whatever the project’s goal is, seems to be as difficult as finding real love on Tinder.

Both organizations where I’m doing my internship this summer – the Center for Conflict Resolution in Uganda and Children Peace Initiative in Kenya – are no strangers to this practice. Through no fault of their own, they are in need of funding to be able to run their programs, and they see in those appealing videos and stories a way to attract funds. In the five weeks I was in Uganda and with the three weeks I have left in Kenya, I know that I won’t be able to change that. But my time here has shown me that even if I can’t find my place in an organization yet, I can still get those stories out and hope that someday the world of international development will stop looking at their bank accounts and start looking at the impact they can have on people’s lives.

Before starting a journey, the Ik, toss a shoe in the air and they interpret the results[iii]:

  • If the tossed shoe falls on the same line with the one on the ground, it means that one is going to meet another person on the way and it is safe to travel
  • If the tossed shoe falls and crosses over the one on the ground, it means a good travel and one is likely to be successful in his/her mission
  • If the tossed shoe falls opposite the one on the ground, it means death and a person intending to travel is likely to meet enemies
  • If the tossed shoe falls on top of the one on the ground, it means a grave and a person intending to travel is likely to meet enemies/death
  • If a tossed shoe falls upside-down, it means a gun and a person intending to travel is likely to meet armed enemies

I didn’t toss a shoe before starting my trip but even with all the ups and downs, surprises and disappointments, I can certainly say that if I had done it, it would have fallen and crossed over the one on the ground. As to Communication for development’s fate, that shoe is still up in the air.



[i] MercyCorps (2011). Cattle Raiding in Karamoja: A Conflict and Market assessment https://d2zyf8ayvg1369.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/karamojaconflictmarketassessment_june_2011.pdf

[ii] McAnany, E. G. (2012). The History of Communication : Saving the World : A Brief History of Communication for Development and Social Change. Urbana, US: University of Illinois Press.

[iii] CECORE (2011). The Ik of Kaabong district. http://cecore.or.ug/wp-content/downloads/Ik%20report.pdf.



Divina Sabino – AFE Blog – Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, Barbados

Building Capacity through Regional Coordination Mechanisms in Small Island States


Over 230,000 human lives lost, 1.7 million people displaced, an estimated US$ 9.9 billion in losses and damages, and a long and expensive recovery process to build back better that is still ongoing. Fourteen countries buffered the waves and paid the ultimate price. In them, the already vulnerable and marginalized populations were the most severely affected. The impacted countries suffered the loss of decades of development. If only effective early warning systems were in place, to evacuate people into shelters on time. If only we believed that an eventuality of this magnitude could happen, we could have stockpiled food and water. If only we had planned and prepared better. If only funds were set aside to help us recover faster. If only… In the history of disasters, no other event has forced the world’s leaders and international developmental aid organizations to rethink their approach towards disasters. This was the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26th, 2004.

I woke up to the news of reports on a tsunami and widespread flooding. Seychelles heard rumors that the tsunami was on its way to our islands. “Impossible”, I thought. Seychelles was paradise on earth and my paradise. Everything bad happened only on TV. A few hours later, 3 Seychellois were dead, a bridge had collapsed, a yacht was on a building, water was everywhere and our economy incurred US$30 million in losses and damages.

The UNISDR Terminologies for Disaster Risk Reduction (2009) defines a disaster as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources”. In the past, governments were, as much as possible, responsive to disasters. Today, most governments have adopted an integrated, comprehensive, all-hazard approach to disaster risk reduction and management. In other words, any eventuality that threatens human life, well-being and the economy, not limited to natural phenomena, should be assessed for risks, worse case scenarios should be highlighted and prevented through proper planning and policy. Disasters were a necessary evil and they will continue to be a necessary evil until we are all convinced that climate change is real, and failure to observe best practices in development means that we will continue to endure the consequences of our actions and inaction.

My internship with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency’s Coordinating Unit (CDEMA CU)

 My internship in Barbados coincides with the Caribbean’s “Hurricane season”, where Caribbean islands are on “high alert” for emergency response, due to the potential and unpredictable disruptions and destruction brought about by the weather this time of the year.  Similar to the Indian Ocean and Seychelles, our “wet season” from October to March is when we ensure all emergency mechanisms are in place and that we are as ready as possible for emergency response and coordination. These would be the times when the sound of heavy rain wakes emergency responders up while everyone else in safe homes fall peacefully asleep. This is not to say that we should not always be prepared but there are specific seasons where natural phenomena increase the probability of catastrophes.

What is CDEMA?

The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) is a regional intergovernmental agency for disaster risk management within the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Currently, it consists of 18 Caribbean participating states. There are 4 sub-regional focal point countries, each responsible for participating states within their region. The Coordinating Unit (CDEMA CU) is headquartered in Barbados. CDEMA is responsible for mobilizing disaster relief, supporting participating States to coordinate emergency response, and developing and encouraging participating states to adopt best practices and policies in disaster risk reduction and management.

CDEMA Staff are from several of the participating States, namely Barbados, Belize, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, St. Lucia and Guyana. I enjoy hearing the various Caribbean accents on a daily basis and feel privileged to be exposed to different Caribbean cultures and talent.



CDEMA Map of Participating States (Source: CDEMA CU)

CDEMA Map of Participating States (Source: CDEMA CU)



Sub-Regional Focal Points and Participating States they are responsible for

Sub-Regional Focal Points

CDEMA Headquarters, Barbados

                                                                                CDEMA Headquarters, Barbados


Regional Disaster Risk Management Platforms: Why did I choose CDEMA?

My interest in CDEMA stems from regional projects I have been involved with back in the Seychelles. With the help of the World Bank and the UNISDR, we have been looking into ways to build regional capacity across the Indian Ocean islands towards disaster risk reduction and management through financial protection mechanisms for disaster recovery, training of trainers programs, investing in public education, sensitization and awareness, improving our laws and policies and beefing up our information and communication systems.

The importance of involving government is developing accountability and credibility for member states.  The platform will ensure that no member state is left behind and that we progress together.


My work with CDEMA

“Excuse me everyone, is this the bus I take to CDEMA?” I asked. I had entered a bus, full of people and announced this question as if I were addressing a classroom full of students. This approach I took was one that a bus driver from another bus told me to take. A friendly man reassured me that he knew where I was headed and that he would stop the bus when we got there. I had become one of the many “lost tourists” I used to see around back home in Seychelles.

“Shake! Shake! Shake!” I heard over the intercom of the Deputy Executive Director, Ms. Elizabeth Riley’s office. She was briefing me about the CDEMA strategy no later than the first hour of my first day of the internship. They were conducting an internal Earthquake simulation and I had ended up under the table being told to “drop, cover and hold”. I knew then that these 10 weeks would be challenging but in the most enjoyable way.

My main task for the 10 weeks in CDEMA CU is to support the Education and Training Specialist in developing products to consolidate their Regional Training Center, mainly to enhance their media training program and to conduct a training needs assessment customizable for all 18 participating states. In addition to the work assigned, I also partake in activities organized. In Disaster Risk Management, practitioners wear various hats depending on whether it is “normal time” or “emergency time” and preparing for these “times” require staff involvement in all preparedness and drills so that in any eventuality, staff are equipped with at least the basic know-how of the emergency. It is crucial that there is no lack in knowing what one’s role is during an emergency and being able to plug-in to the gaps if one’s colleagues are not present. I have already benefited from radio training, the opportunity to observe the Regional Security System training at Barbados’ Paragon military base and other emergency simulations.


Training Police force from Various Caribbean Participating States, Regional Security System at Paragon Military Base, Barbados

Training Police force from Various Caribbean Participating States, Regional Security System at Paragon         Military Base, Barbados


How will this benefit my career?

After graduation, I will resume working with the Seychelles government and fulfil our Disaster Risk Management Strategy which is in line with my interests regarding the potential establishment and development of an Indian Ocean Disaster Risk Management platform.


Visit to the Rotary Club of Barbados

Rotary International mural outside Bridgetown's bus terminal

Rotary International mural outside Bridgetown’s bus terminal


Thanks to a wonderful network of Rotarians in North Carolina and Barbados, I was introduced to and invited for lunch with the Rotary Club of Barbados. I delivered a short presentation on my journey as a Rotary Peace Fellow so far and enjoyed the questions they asked about Disaster Risk Management.


President Jedder Robinson, 2015-2016 President, Rotary Club of Barbados

President Jedder Robinson, 2015-2016 President, Rotary Club of Barbados


Much appreciation goes to the entire CDEMA CU team for their incredible support and guidance with regard to my internship. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center for supporting my decision with much enthusiasm, the Rotary Foundation and Rotarians for allowing us this incredible opportunity. I would also like to extend my thanks to the Division of Risk and Disaster Management, Seychelles team who have played a crucial part in the development of my vision for the future of Disaster Risk Management in the Indian Ocean Region and for Small Island Developing States.



Oxfam. (2014). The Indian Ocean tsunami, 10 Years On: Lessons from the Response and Ongoing Humanitarian Funding Challenges. Oxford.

United Nations Environmental Programme. (2005). Seychelles Post-tsunami Environmental Assessment. Victoria: UNEP.

UNOCHA. (2006). OCHA in 2006: Activities and Extra-Budgetary Funding Requirements. Retrieved June 20, 2016, from unocha.org: http://www.unocha.org/ochain/2006/chap6_1.htm

Siddharth Dixit – AFE Blog – World Bank, Washington DC

Inequity is often the cause of conflicts small and large, whether it is reflected in the denial of basic rights and privileges to marginalized populations or the lack of institutions and structures which prevent these groups from climbing up the socio-economic ladder.

As a child growing up in Raebareli, India, I often accompanied my mother to work. She worked with the state government for the implementation of development programs. I witnessed poverty and illiteracy that riddled the backward areas she visited. Through the experiences of my father, who is a farmer, I was exposed to the struggles of farmers in the country. Growing up, I realized how many of these issues were casualties of poor policies and government programs, and instilled in me a life-long interest in the role of badly designed public policy in propagating or reinforcing inequity.

I am particularly interested in agriculture, a sector which still employs more than half the working population of India. In India there are approximately 600 million people, 53% of the total population are engaged in agriculture. A large portion of them are either small and marginalized cultivators who have less than 3 acres of land or small producers engaged in other related activities. Deep rooted fissures in the society have given rise to numerous conflicts between urban and rural populations, between farmers and the state, and between different communities. Moreover, these conflicts are further exacerbated by the changing economic structure, expanding roles of the private sector, and the changing development discourse, and changing priorities of state. The situation of farmers is not very different in other parts of the world, especially in middle income and poor countries. According to the World Bank, two-thirds of the working population is engaged in agriculture, and approximately 750 million or two-thirds of the global poor work in agriculture. (World Bank Group n.d.)

Through my past experiences, I have come to understand that it is the policies and institutions which inhibit the growth of agriculture. Therefore, when I started my graduate studies at Duke University, I was very clear that I wanted to pursue my internship in an area of agriculture that focused on the legal framework, regulations and policies affecting agriculture. Through my research I found out that in 2013 the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group published a report for ten countries which was based on the laws and regulations for sectors that affected agriculture like seed, mechanization, fertilizer, land, finance, markets etc. The report was published by a group at IFC called Enabling the Business of Agriculture (EBA). The idea behind starting EBA was to benchmark laws and regulations in agriculture across different countries in the world. Indicators were created for these sectoral areas of agriculture which were scored between 0-100 (0 being the lowest score and 100 being the highest score). Based on these indicators, each country was scored on each of these sectors, including seed, fertilizer, finance, mechanization, etc. These scores tell us how the laws and regulations are helping or impeding the growth of agriculture in a particular country. It also helps in formulating correct policies to promote the growth and development in the agriculture sector. I found the work performed by EBA relevant to my interests, therefore I applied and was accepted for the internship position for the summer at EBA.


Source: International Finance Corporation



Source: The World Bank


In 2015, EBA expanded their research to 40 countries (the report can be found at: http://eba.worldbank.org/). This year they are benchmarking laws and regulations for around 60 countries from across the world and the findings will be published early next year.  I mainly work on mechanization topics with the EBA group, but I have also helped other teams, focusing on fertilizer, seed and ICT (Information and communication Technology). Currently, I am involved in researching laws and regulations for India and many other countries in Africa. The next phase of my internship will involve scoring different indicators for various countries. Hopefully, I will get a chance to work on the report for next year as well before the end of my internship in August. It has been a very fulfilling and intellectually stimulating experience for me. I hope to continue to expand my knowledge about agriculture and the impact that laws and institutions have on its growth.



International Finance Corporation (IFC)


World Bank Group. n.d. Enabling the Business of Agriculture . Accessed June 19, 2016. http://eba.worldbank.org/about-us.

Barbara Santibañez – AFE Blog – Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France

Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education (EDC/HRE) – Council of Europe

History sometimes seems dangerously cyclical and as fallible human beings we are likely to repeat old mistakes. Past episodes of civil or political conflict become part of the collective memory of a society, marking the lives of thousands in one way or another and leaving the newer generations to deal with the consequences. However, knowing what happened does not always preclude the possibility of going the wrong path again.

I was born in the last years of the military dictatorship in Chile, and lived the transition to democracy first-hand. I grew up in a society divided by the recent past, where some people would rather avoid talking about what happened and others would speak up to claim for truth and justice after living the horrors of torture and exile, or the disappearances of their loved ones in the hands of the military. I would only hear and learn about the political events from my family, because at school it was not a matter of discussion; even history books would finish their pages right at Allende’s election in 1970, and what happened after was omitted so as to avoid the conversation about the Popular Front government (1970 – 1973) and the subsequent military coup and dictatorship (1973 – 1990).

However, at some point it was time to start talking again, to unearth the painful memories, and to face the traumatic experiences the Chilean society suffered through during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Civil society organisations had done an intensive work to put forward the defence of civil and political rights through several initiatives, and progressively the omission made in history books would give way to the first attempts to “tell the story” of what had happened in the last 30 years in our country. I remember vividly the year in which Pinochet was arrested in London, in 1998: it was a moment of social agitation, of debate, and a bit of a catharsis as well for many. At school, our history teacher would organize debate sessions, the first that I have memory of in an educational context; it was a great experience, but also a revealing moment. I realized how powerful it can be to give others the chance to speak, to express their views, and to try to use education as a tool for generating dialogue and change.


Graffiti on the walls of the European Youth Centre in Strasbourg, France

I could tell you many stories in which I had an enlightening experience related to education as a means to generate social change. All of them fall into place when I think of what I am doing today at the Council of Europe, working at the Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education Programme (EDC/HRE). I will tell you why I sought to come to work for this organisation and what has been my experience so far.


Front of the Palais de l’Europe, one of the buildings of the Council

Why the Council of Europe?

The Council of Europe (CoE) was founded in 1949, way before the European Union became a reality. The organisation focuses its work on promoting democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Europe, and includes 47 member states (almost twice the membership of the EU). Sometimes there is a little confusion between the CoE and the European Council (an EU body), but if you want to remember it right, just think of 1) the European Court of Human Rights, and 2) the European Convention on Human Rights, an institution and a legal framework that have been put forward by the CoE. The headquarters of the CoE are in Strasbourg, France, and there are also country offices across Europe.

I decided to apply to the CoE because of their longstanding experience in the field of human rights, but in particular because of their programme in citizenship and human rights education (EDC/HRE); to my knowledge it is one of the oldest and most popular programmes out there that directly addresses this theme from a policy and practice approach. As part of the Directorate General of Democracy of the Council of Europe, education policy is an important area of work as a tool for developing democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Thus, within the education department there are several programmes and projects that promote an active participation and engagement among youth and children in particular; some of these are the Pestalozzi Programme (training for the professional development of teachers and educators), the Explore and Act for Human Rights project (“intended to enable European secondary school students to become familiar with the key principles of European law relating to human rights and to understand how the European Court of Human Rights and other important CoE monitoring bodies” ), and the Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education Programme (EDC/HRE) – which is where I work.

A second reason why I wanted to work here was because a few years ago I had participated in a training for trainers in EDC/HRE co-sponsored by the CoE, which I absolutely loved because of the approach and methods used during the training activities. On that occasion, I discovered some of the publications produced by the Council related to teaching about human rights, such as Compass (a manual with activities for human rights educators). After that experience, I had the opportunity to apply what I had learned through some of the youth organizations I am involved with, by organising workshops or acting as a trainer. Hence, my desire to fully dedicate myself to work in EDC/HRE became even stronger, which also led me to apply to the Rotary Peace Fellowship as it was a great opportunity to specialise in this field.

Why Human Rights Education?

As I mentioned earlier, I do believe that education is a means for generating social change – or as Nelson Mandela put it so wisely “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

At the time I’m editing this blog post I have learned the awful events that took place in Orlando, where 50 people were killed and another 53 were injured in a heinous crime. In moments like these, I feel not only saddened and angry, but also my conviction grows even bigger with regards to the need of mainstreaming human rights education in formal and non-formal education settings. Only when human rights become part of the fundamentals we learn while growing up, things may start changing towards a more tolerant, peaceful, and diverse society.

Human rights education is closely related to peace education, citizenship education, and intercultural education, as it seeks to promote a universal culture of human rights in which peace, tolerance, respect, and human dignity are seen as fundamental values. It’s a wider notion that is used as a tool to foster the development of a democratic culture by engaged citizens. It’s also the awareness – the consciousness – about our individual and collective rights and responsibilities, and of what that means for our everyday lives. Rather than memorizing the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the practice of HRE seeks to involve learners, engage them in the conversation, and to make them actors and leaders of their own learning process.

Paulo Freire said that conscientization is “the process of developing a critical awareness of one’s social reality through reflection and action”. Human rights education is closely linked to this process as it brings to practice this idea through the learning, understanding, and practice of human rights at the most basic level – beginning with ourselves and our immediate environment. Furthermore, HRE demands action as it fosters an active engagement of the learner beyond the learning experience based on a multiplier effect, such as trainings for trainers for youth workers.


View of the Strasbourg Cathedral, completed in 1439 (!)



A view of the historic city centre on a Sunday afternoon

Strasbourg, ville Européenne

I must say that before coming to Strasbourg I didn’t really know what to expect. I only knew it was really close to the border with Germany, on the banks of the Rhein, and that it was known for being a very “European” city. I have to admit – the city lives up to its fame: the diversity of people and cultures added to the efforts made by the local authorities to enhance the European vibe, make this city a great place to be if you like interacting with foreigners and learning about other cultures.

Another interesting feature of this city is that at least 90% of its inhabitants use their bikes as a means of transport. Not only are distances relatively short – which makes it easy to get anywhere by bike, but also cycling paths are well-marked and the drivers actually respect them! The good thing is that there are many parks and green areas, making the ride to work a pleasant experience.

In general, I really enjoy living here: there is a mixed heritage from Protestant Germany
and Catholic France, visible on the architecture, the urban planning, the food, etc. Since it is also a student city, there are a lot of cultural activities and things to see and to do, most of them open to everyone or at a very affordable price. The only downside is the weather – sometimes it is quite unpredictable and it may start raining in the middle of the day, and it may continue for several days…

If you have read up to this point, thank you! And if you are interested in knowing more about this topic, I invite you to visit the Resources section of the EDC/HRE programme of the Council of Europe, and the online platform Human Rights Education Network, curated by yours truly with articles, opportunities, and information in general about this field.

[i] www.coe.int

[ii] http://explorehumanrights.coe.int/?lang=en

[iii] http://www.freire.org/component/easytagcloud/118-module/conscientization/

Maja Muminagic – AFE Blog – Institute for Conflict Research, Belfast, Northern Ireland


The Thanksgiving Statue (nicknamed: Beacon of Hope), public art metal sculpture by Andy Scott, Scottish figurative sculptor, located in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast


Names in different places

“See, that’s my real name!”

I am a child in war-torn Bosnia, showing my birth certificate to my friends. On it, I crossed out my real name, and put a different one – one that would be more acceptable than mine. That was the last of my attempts to singlehandedly change my identity; at first, I tried squeezing in different letters to get to an acceptable version, but then I ended up changing it altogether. I was a young girl, desperately wanting to belong, and after countless questions asking if that was my real name, followed by looks of mistrust, I concluded that a) my name was not welcome in the ethno-national milieu I lived in, and b) that I should simply change it; this way, no one would be suspicious of me or my family. They would no longer see me as an intruder, someone who is possibly, but not certainly, a mixed breed that will eventually side with the enemy. It was as absurd as it sounds.

Today, the birth certificate story is just a funny story my mom sometimes recounts. In essence, it is a sad story. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the vast majority of cases, people can tell simply by your name, and often times especially by your last name, what ethnicity, and then by default, religion, you belong to and more importantly, if it differs from theirs. Unlike in the times of conflict, as well as fresh post-conflict period, in many parts of the country it does not matter what people can tell by your name. In some parts, however, it still does matter a lot. It is less common to have a not-so-sure name like mine, so that people can guess, but never be completely sure whose side I belong. The difference today, however, is that it’s just the way I like it.

While the only thing I wanted as a child was to belong, the only thing I wanted as I grew older was to run away from Bosnia, as far as I could. I despised it: nationalism, othering, divisions, politics, the never-ending narrative of them and us. I hated that there were so many people who lost a loved one. I felt bone-crushing pain whenever I thought of a loved one I lost. And so I did run away – and what followed through my teenage and young adulthood years was a life in all the other places that weren’t Bosnia. Today, I am in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

In Belfast, names matter too. It is in most cases relatively simple to determine whether someone is a Catholic, and by extension, Nationalist/Republican, or a Protestant, meaning Loyalist/Unionist, just by knowing their name. Nationality, ethnicity, religion, and political allegiance are all intertwined and co-dependent, creating a very clear sense of belonging either to the Union, meaning the United Kingdom, or the Republic, meaning the Republic of Ireland. At the same time, the two different identities emerging from that predetermined belonging are contested and conflicted.

It seems that I was running away from the same thing I was running towards.

I could have chosen any other country for my Applied Field Experience (AFE). I could have chosen any other field rather than divided societies to research. And yet, here I am, in a place with very different culture, tradition, and history than my own, but a place where everything still somehow reminds me of home. I suppose that perhaps on a subconscious level, I hope that by understanding division somewhere else, I will be able to better process the divisions that have been part of my life.

So let me introduce you to Northern Ireland, it’s past and present, and let me introduce you to Belfast, a beautiful city despite all of its imperfections, where my name, apart from being a little bit exotic, means nothing and does not signify exclusive and excluding belonging – just the way I like it.



“The International Peace Wall,” Falls Road, West Belfast


Northern Ireland: context, history, and present

Northern Ireland is a semi-autonomous constituent unit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, situated in the northeast part of the island of Ireland. Often variously described as a province, region, or simply part of the United Kingdom (UK), it is home to approximately 1.8 million people, constituting about 3% of the total UK population and 30% of the island’s population (“Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency,” 2015).

Northern Ireland formally came into existence in 1921, under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act that partitioned the island into North and South. Following the partition, Southern Ireland became the Free Irish State, after the Irish War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but the six counties in the North, today forming the province of Ulster, remained part of the UK (O’Leary and McGarry, 1993). Prior to the island’s partition, there had been three attempts to introduce Home Rule, a rule that would establish extensive regional autonomy within the UK for Ireland, but Protestant Ulster Unionists, who constituted a majority in the North, resisted them. The Unionists saw themselves as a community clearly set apart from the rest of the Ireland with unique economic, political, and religious identity and interests, and profoundly distinct from the Catholic South (Dingley, 2012). The South was culturally, religiously, socially, and economically homogenous – in contrast to the North which was divided from the start.

To clarify and outline all the sociopolitical and ethno-religious affiliations in the North: the main division was between the Unionists/Loyalists, who mainly self-identified as British and/or Protestant and were determined to remain part of the UK, and Irish Nationalists/Republicans, who mainly self-identified as Irish and/or Catholics and preferred establishment of a single, united Ireland (Calame and Charlesworth, 2009). The same ethno-national divisions are still prevalent today.



Nationalist/Republican mural, Falls Road, West Belfast




Loyalist/Unionist mural, East Belfast


There is no Joy in Belfast’s Division

John Conroy, an American journalist, lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the 1980s and wrote about the street-level view of the city’s areas most affected by the turmoil of the conflict, which came to be known as the Troubles (1969 – 1994). The result of that endeavor is a book called Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life, published in 1987. It is a vivid picture of daily life in conflict-torn Belfast and sympathetic description of how ordinary life had changed as a result of the violence.

Conroy (1987) wrote that while living in Belfast, he could never tell when or where the next attack would take place – the conflict in Belfast had no front. It was impossible to tell who would be arrested next – at the time, one did not have to commit a crime to end up in jail. The paramilitary groups could have knocked at the door and inform at gunpoint that the house was being requisitioned for an ambush at any given time. His most interesting account of life during the Troubles, however, was normalcy  of violence and acceptance of war simply as a way of life. For an outsider, it was difficult to comprehend that absurdity. “I spent a lot of time looking out the window,” wrote Conroy, “I watched children go back and forth in their school uniforms. Sturdy women in old coats went past lugging groceries. The postman came up the footpath twice a day. The normality of it all nearly drove me crazy” (p. 51).

A lot has changed since Conroy’s accounts of Belfast, but not everything. There are no random attacks and bombs going off. The paramilitary ceasefires in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 marked a much more peaceful era in the history of Northern Ireland. Today, Belfast looks like any other city in the UK – on the surface at least. The division of society into the Catholic or Nationalist/Republican and Protestant or Unionist/Loyalist camps is still very much present.



City Hall; the city center is completely different from Belfast’s interfaces


I am doing my AFE at the Institute for Conflict Research. It is an independent, non-for-profit organization that has been based in Belfast since 1996. It specializes in working on issues related to conflict, human rights, social transformation, and social justice. Its office is situated in Duncairn Gardens in the area of North Belfast, notorious for its patchwork of opposing communities living next to each other, but divided by either visible or invisible barriers. The street of Duncairn Gardens is actually one such invisible dividing line, so each working day, I get off the bus at the bus stop where the sidewalks are painted red, white, and blue, representing the colors of the British flag, and on the other side of the street, I face the Irish tricolor on my way to the office, flying high on the nearby buildings or lamp posts. I spend half of my day, every working day, right in the middle of an interface, the topographic-ideological boundaries that physically, psychologically, and symbolically demarcate one community from the other.



Peace Wall in Duncairn Gardens. The gates are usually open during the day and closed at night.


If not war, then division is still a way of life in Belfast. The interface areas are areas that embody that division. They mark safe places for each side of the divided community and provide a sense of security by belonging to the others who share the same religious and political identity, creating a strong feeling of shared culture, community, and solidarity within it – but while they provide safe and secure boundaries as well as a sense of unity, they are nothing but uniting. Belfast today may be peaceful, but it is still like the segregated Belfast of the Troubles. Therefore, one of the research projects the Institute is currently conducting, and the one that I am involved in, is a project that focuses on developing new ways of studying and explaining activity space segregation over time with the goal of informing local initiatives to create more diverse, accessible, and inclusive public spaces.


Division as a Way of Life

A human chain of soldiers who took up position between Protestant and Catholic crowds on August 15, 1969 was actually the first constructed barrier in Belfast. On the same day, the British Army was sent onto the streets of Belfast. One month later, the troops were ordered to construct defense structures in flashpoint areas as a security response to sectarian violence and disorder (Ravenscroft, 2009; Gormley-Heenan et al., 2013). The first material barrier was established between Republican Falls Road and Loyalist Shankill Road (Ravenscroft, 2009). Over the years, many more security barriers and forms of defensive structures have been established. Today, there are approximately one hundred barriers existing across the city (Belfast Interface Project, 2011). It is important to emphasize that one third of them have been established after the ceasefires in 1994 (O’Hagan, 2012; Geoghegan, 2015). In addition to the material, visible barriers, many areas have an invisible dividing line that only local people are aware of (Jarman, 2004).



Peace-line, Alexandra Park, North Belfast


Belfast’s barriers are contained within thirteen different clusters of defensively used space within the city – the interface areas, flashpoints, or peace-line/peace-wall communities – that are predominantly situated within the realm of public housing and are primarily a facet of working-class urban life in the North, East, and West parts of Belfast (Murtagh, 2002; Jarman, 2004; Belfast Interface Project, 2011).

Contradictory to the original intention of physical partition as a security response to violence, the division by peace-walls generated new problems and, in fact, only intensified the sectarian antagonism. The divided territories in Belfast have become flashpoint communities where intercommunity violence and intimidation still occur. In addition, these communities are today marked by high levels of social and economic disadvantage and restricted access to services and facilities perceived as being located in the other community and are in the top 10% of the most socially and economically deprived electoral wards in Northern Ireland (Belfast Interface Project, 1998; Shirlow and Murtagh, 2006; Byrne, Gormley-Heenan, and Robinson, 2012).



Loyalist/Unionist and Nationalist/Republican symbols and murals

What does the future bring?

The powerful narrative of the need to constantly protect one’s place by securing segregation by material barriers to avoid violence even at the expense of social and economic prosperity is still a factor that makes overcoming sectarian division in Belfast extremely challenging. The surveys conducted in peace-line communities show that there is an overwhelming feeling of the necessity of walls in maintaining security (Gormley-Heenan et al., 2013). Such findings challenge any possibility of the future in which the walls might come down.

However, some of the normative-based questions in conducted surveys provide an interesting insight: more than a half of peace-wall residents would like to see the walls come down – at some point in the future. The problem, however, is that even though they would like to see this happen, they couldn’t imagine how it could ever happen (Gormley-Heenan et al., 2013).

Belfast, along with the rest of Northern Ireland, continues to distance itself from the violent struggles of its recent past. However, the city’s working-class residents remain burdened by the weight of that very troublesome past (Calame and Charlesworth, 2009). They live by the walls that hamper their access to services and mobility, as constant reminders that behind them are those who only want to harm them.

Just a few months ago, one peace wall owned by the Housing Executive was demolished – it is the first wall to be removed. The demolition is deemed as a positive outcome of the relationship building both within and between communities living alongside it (Black, 2016). However, there remains a significant degree of pessimism about what the future physical landscape might look like in Belfast (Byrne, et al., 2012). The government does not plan to build new peace-walls but the future in which 109 peace-walls remaining across Northern Ireland are brought down – still remains uncertain.



Political mural, The International Peace Wall in Belfast



Belfast Interface Project. (2011). Belfast Interfaces: Security Barriers and Defensive Use of Space. Belfast Interface Project

Black, R. (2016, February 26). One peace-wall down, 109 across Northern Ireland still to go. Retrieved June 2, 2016, from http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/one-peace-wall-down-109-across-northern-ireland-still-to-go-34486822.html

Brown, P. (2002, January 3). Peace but not love as Northern Ireland divide grows even wider. Retrieved June 1, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/jan/04/northernireland.paulbrown

Byrne, J., Gormley-Heenan, C., & Robinson, G. (2012). Attitudes to Peace Walls. Jordanstown: University of Ulster.

Calame, J., & Charlesworth, E. (2009). Divided cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar, and Nicosia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Conroy, J. (1987) Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life. Boston: Beacon Press.

Dingley, J. (2012). The IRA: The Irish Republican Army. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Geoghegan, P. (2015, September 29). Will Belfast ever have a Berlin Wall moment and tear down its ‘peace walls’? Retrieved June 1, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/sep/29/belfast-berlin-wall-moment-permanent-peace-walls

Gormley-Heenan, C., Byrne, J., & Robinson, G. (2013). The Berlin Walls of Belfast. Macmillan Publishers Ltd., British Politics, 8(3), 357-382.

Jarman, N. (2004). Demography, development and disorder: Changing patterns of interface areas. Belfast: Institute for Conflict Research.

Murtagh, B. (2002). The Politics of Territory: Policy and Segregation in Northern Ireland. New York: Palgrave.

“Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.” (2015, June 4). Retrieved June 1, 2016, from http://www.nisra.gov.uk/archive/demography/population/midyear/MYE14_Bulletin.pdf

O’Hagan, S. (2012, January 21). Belfast, divided in the name of peace. Retrieved June 1, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/jan/22/peace-walls-troubles-belfast-feature

O’Leary, B., & McGarry, J. (1993). The politics of antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland. London: Athlone Press.

Ravenscroft, E. (2009). The meaning of the peace-lines of Belfast. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 21, 213-221.

Shirlow, P., & Murtagh, B. (2006). Belfast: Segregation, Violence and the City. London: Pluto Press.

Read our latest Rotary Center Review

Our Spring 2016 Newsletter is available here. Read about our spring conference and follow links to watch the presentations. See where all the Class 14 fellows are interning over the summer. Also, read about the latest news and events from the center.


spring 2016

Spring Conference – April 9

2016_Conf_Graphic_Website Header

On April 9th, nine graduating fellows will host Rotarians, faculty, staff, students, and local participants as they present their research on a wide range of issues affecting peace around the world.  The 13th Annual Rotary Spring Conference will take place at the FedEx Global Education Center on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, from 8.30 am to 4:00 pm.

The theme this year is “Peace and Development: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals”.

  • Cristina Andoni, Moldova: “Ukraine: The Re-Emerging Breadbasket of Europe. Minimizing Disruptions in the Wheat Value Chain”
  • Rebeccah Bartlett, Australia: “Could Social Media Technology Increase Reproductive Health Knowledge Among Female Refugees in Europe?”
  • Romi Brammer, South Africa: “The Challenge of Accountability in Africa”
  • Jean Lambert Chalachala, Democratic Republic of Congo: “Is There a Link Between Intimate Partner Violence and Current Modern Contraceptive use in the Democratic Republic of Congo?”
  • Carlos Juarez, Mexico: “A Local Strategy for Addressing Corruption in Mexico”
  • Jae Ryul Kim, South Korea: “The Challenge of Linking Humanitarian Assistance and Development Cooperation”
  • Osborn Kwena, Kenya: “Capacity Building Enhancement in the Water & Sanitation Sector: Translating Training Indicators into Practice”
  • Elohim Monard, Peru: “Reducing Local Level Crime and Violence in the Northern Coast of Peru”
  • Vanessa Uriarte, Mexico: “Rethinking the Prevention of Violence and Crime Policy in Mexico: Should we Focus on Early Peace Building with Children and Youth?”


We look forward to welcoming you on April 9th.

If you are traveling to our conference and are looking for hotel accommodations, consider staying at one of the area hotels, in which we have made special arrangements for the weekend of April 8-10th. Reservations must be made by mid-March to receive this special rate.

Washington DC Trip – 2016
















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