Former congressman expounds on conflict resolution

    Former U.S. Congressman Howard Wolpe spoke to an Experimental College class in Tisch Library yesterday about the process of building peace in post-conflict regions of the world, drawing specifically on his experiences directing initiatives
in Africa.
    Wolpe emphasized the importance of cooperation for creating sustainable peace and democracy, pointing out flaws in conventional attitudes toward peacemaking. He discussed general keys to creating lasting peace before describing in greater detail the conflict resolution program he directed
in Burundi.
    “The essential task of [conflict resolution] … is building a recognition of commonalities and interdependence,” Wolpe said. “In divided societies, people have figured out how to compete. That’s not the problem — it’s figuring out how to cooperate.”
    Wolpe serves as director of both the Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is a former presidential special envoy to the Great Lakes Region in Africa and a former seven-term member of the U.S. Congress. As a congressman, he chaired the House Subcommittee on Africa for ten years.
    Wolpe began by speaking briefly about his participation in politics, touching on his initial experience with conflict resolution. “I ended up as President [Bill] Clinton’s special envoy for five years in the Great Lakes Region of Africa,” he said. “That set of experiences led me to come away feeling very disillusioned … [about the way] the United States and the international community in general goes about building peace.”
    The traditional method of building peace treats conflict resolution as “a kind of template,” according to Wolpe. This method assumes that the essence of democracy is competition, that the challenges of peace-building are rational within a Western framework and that social and political pressure combined with legal sanctions is the most effective means of deterring crime.
    Criticizing these conventional assumptions, Wolpe said that traditional peacemaking does not give divided societies a common ground on which to negotiate. “It mistakes differences in perceptions for conflicts over values,” he added.
    Instead of the traditional approach toward conflict resolution, Wolpe believes the process should be human-based rather than institutionally based. He said peacemaking should focus more on recognizing the value of collaboration and on restoring fractured trust among the leaders of societies in conflict. “In some cases … it’s a case of building [relationships] in the first place,” he said.
    “A key challenge is to strengthen the communication and negotiation skills of key leaders,” he added.
    Wolpe spoke specifically about his cooperative approach in the Burundi Leadership Training Program (BLTP), which came out of a proposal he presented to the World Bank. The program was established in 2002 as part of the Africa Program.
    Burundi, a small African nation that borders Rwanda, is divided by ethnic hostilities between two groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis.
    In Burundi, the BLTP held participant-based workshops involving role-playing and simulations, which allowed civil and political leaders to improve their cooperation and negotiation skills, as well as their abilities to analyze and resolve problems.
    The program has witnessed much success, Wolpe said, citing political party leaders who participated in the workshops as an example. After these leaders first received training, “they asked for the media to be present for their training so the media could see them collaborating instead of fighting,” he said.
    Although Wolpe has directed resolution work in post-conflict settings, he would like to expand his workshops to also aid in conflict prevention. “My hope is that … we’ll begin to get to the stage where we can do more of this on a preventative basis,” he said.
    Wolpe’s presentation occurred as part of a weekly speaker series run in conjunction with an ExCollege course entitled “The Role of Leadership in Conflict Transformation.”
    This class, which counts toward the peace and justice studies major, hosts a high-profile speaker each week to discuss human-based approaches to conflict resolution. Executive director of the Project on Justice in Times of Transition Ina Breuer, founding co-chair of the Project on Justice in Times of Transition Tim Phillips and the classics department chair, Professor Bruce Hitchner, teach the class.


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