Forest Whitaker – artist, social activist, and peace advocate – was the featured speaker at our 2017 Philanthropy Awards ceremony, held on Nov. 14 in Pasadena, Calif. His remarks, which were presented after a video that introduced his Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI), challenged and inspired us all, and I’m pleased we’re able to share them with you.
Most of the young women and men you saw in this video are entrepreneurs of a unique kind – they are social entrepreneurs when they engineer mediation processes and economic entrepreneurs when they manage businesses to provide services their communities really need while employing and training local youth.
It is always moving for me to watch them because I know them and I know their stories. Many of these are tales full of the sound of machine guns and cries of desperation. Some were forced to flee their homes at age four or ten and walk for days before reaching a refugee camp. Some were forced to become soldiers and take part in combat. Even when they have not experienced armed violence directly, they have lived within its grasp. Such is the case for those who live in South Sudan. The world’s newest nation, it has suffered civil war since 2013. Whole parts of the country are now abandoned to military groups. The people of South Sudan feel that the world has abandoned them. And yet, there they are, working with us to make peace happen around them.
One main goal of this work is to connect the dots between peace and prosperity, security and the economy, which I see as the foundations of healthy communities. The programs I develop around young people aim to help communities that have been shattered by conflict and violence regain their capacity to rebound and to address their challenges by themselves.
When the UN Secretary-General appointed me as a Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Advocate, it was very clear for me that this agenda was different from previous ones because it did not presume that governments and international organizations are going to do everything and substitute themselves for individuals and communities. To me, the SDGs and their 169 sub-targets matter because they are a checklist of the needs of humanity to be met a mere dozen years from now, the year 2030 the moment we work toward to meet the ambitious agenda for humankind, and the planet. The SDGs are unifying and collaborative in their scale. They make room for private initiatives while ensuring philanthropic actors that their willingness to act for good at the most local level will contribute to results shared and measurable by many other stakeholders.
With three pillars, the economy, the environment and the social, the SDGs signal a unique recognition that global problems are everyone’s problems, and that everyone has something to do about them. A main point is leaving no one behind. We cannot hope to have thriving economies and ecosystems as long as poverty remains the reality for millions of lives all over the planet and in developing countries in particular. Vulnerable people and communities need assistance, but without incurring dependence. It is all about the old adage; “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” In the end, the drive for peace and development must come from within a community – especially when it has been through the trauma of deep conflict and widespread violence.
Through WPDI, I work with communities where armed conflict has become an entrenched reality, like in South Sudan, or in communities where conflicts from a recent past have left wounds that cannot close overnight, as is the case with the numerous child soldiers enrolled in Northern Uganda during the civil war of the last decade in the Lord’s Resistance Army. We work with communities of people who have lost their homes to conflict and live in camps where living conditions can be very severe despite the efforts of relief organizations. We also work in countries like Mexico, that are not engaged in traditional forms of armed conflict, but where whole neighborhoods are trapped in the crossfire of gangs that wage war often by enrolling young people and children as their foot soldiers. We also have a program with the Los Angeles Unified School District at Carnegie Middle School in Carson, teaching Conflict Resolution Education in their core curriculum.
Behind their obvious differences, these communities share the characteristic that conflict has become their chronic disease. Constant insecurity and regular episodes of violence create an environment of fear, which freezes their capacity for development. And the youth are deprived of their right to dream of a normal life.
We know that developing countries affected by conflict have few chances of achieving success in many areas, because war increases exposure to epidemics, reduces the supply of medical care, and destroys health systems. Conflicts destroy communications and economic infrastructures.
Conflicts destroy education. Thirty-six percent (36%) of all children who are out of school in the world actually live in areas of conflict; fifty percent (50%) of primary school aged and seventy-five (75%) of secondary school-aged refugees are out of school.
Displacement and refugee crises are another result of conflict. Armed conflict displaces millions of people, creating sometimes long-term humanitarian challenges, with refugees averaging 17 years in refugee camps. 4 million people have been displaced in South Sudan and close to 11 million in Syria.
It is clear that we cannot hope that peace will happen without economic resilience, and we cannot hope that shared prosperity will stem from chaos.
We live in a deeply interconnected world where this accumulation of pervasive violence creates an atmosphere of fear, helplessness and despair.
It is to rekindle the flame of hope that I have chosen to work together with young women and men.
I have created a program, the Youth Peacemaker Network (YPN), which seeks to respond to the needs and aspirations of young people from vulnerable communities. And the work that we are doing inadvertently touches on how the SDGs have worked on a practical level with my organization simply by following the needs of the people. The first step in our program is to bring together talented young women and men who are already engaged in humanitarian or public activities and teach them further life skills, conflict resolution, information and communication technology skills, and business skills. This takes one year of fundamental training and three years of intensive work. They do not just acquire new information. They go through a process of transformation. These are our primary partners in our peace and development efforts, correlating with SDG-17: Partnerships For The Goals.
We nurture their leadership as peacemakers and as entrepreneurs who can make a difference in their communities. The idea is to build a network that is going to be animated by a first group of highly talented and motivated youth, trained by us, then replicate the training with other young people with whom they will promote peace and development locally. This connects with SDG-10: Reducing Inequalities.
These trained mediators take initiatives to mitigate potential or declared conflicts. They develop educational projects to promote values and attitudes of tolerance, openness and dialogue, which meet the expectations of SDG-4: Quality Education. In Tijuana, Mexico, for example, our youth visit prisons to train young inmates; they go into schools to fight against bullying, they develop agricultural businesses.
In South Sudan, our youth are increasingly recognized as a force for peace. In two States of this war-torn country, officials have enrolled them as mediators with the skills and the will to address volatile situations. Some have in the midst of the current civil war negotiated to move soldiers out of schools so that children can return to their classrooms, which aligns with SDG-16: Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions. One of our female peacemakers was invited to train high-level officials in conflict resolution, which is nearly unbelievable in a country where men still occupy most of the public space. Our female peacemakers are probably amongst the first generation of women who can exert such leadership. They are well aware of the image they project as role models for their peers, be they male or female, which ties in with SDG-5: Gender Equality.
This is especially evident in their activities as business entrepreneurs. In South Sudan and Uganda, we have established ourselves as an incubator for small businesses that our trainees develop and manage all by themselves. With the help of our partners, we provide them with knowledge, assistance and funding – they bring their ideas, their enthusiasm and their sweat equity.
In Uganda, one of our youth is a former child soldier. When we first started working with him, he couldn’t even stay in a room alone. Now he’s established a chain of electrical repair shops and trains other young people how to take on this profession. Another one of our youth founded a series of beauty-shop hair salons where she trains hundreds of girls in this profession while she continues to grow her business, connecting her with SDG-8: Decent Work & Economic Growth.
In South Sudan, we are currently developing a number of community businesses, mostly in agriculture, to help bridge with SDG-2: Zero Hunger and SDG-12: Responsible Consumption & Production. This is extremely vital in a country where power shortages and looming famine have generated a humanitarian situation of dire magnitude, calling on the necessity of SDG-1: To End Poverty. Here again, the feedback from the youth is amazing. They are proud to be able to create something and to make a living out of it. Some of the local youth who were hired to help on the projects used their stipend to go back to school or create new endeavors. We feel it is a victory that our program can revive a sense of the future in their minds.
These young people remind us that learning is the cornerstone of the future. There is a huge demand for learning in the remote communities where we work. To meet their aspirations, the deployment of the YPN often includes the establishment of a network of Community Learning Centers. These are places where children and young people in general can access computers with connectivity; they can take courses in literacy, ICTs, business skills, local arts and crafts; they can benefit from library services and participate in peace education programs drawing on sports and cinema. Since 2015, we have established 11 CLCs in South Sudan and two in Uganda. I expect these numbers to grow as we continue to open more centers and, through community, people hear from their peers about the CLCs and what they can bring to them. This touches on SDG-9: Industry Innovation & Infrastructure. To me, success is met when a center becomes a community hub, a place on the peoples’ map where they know they can positively move the world.
All the activities we undertake aim to strengthen the fabric of communities. It is a complex task because there is no single entry point to engineer peace and development. In practice, we need to have a wide array of partners who provide very different things. Partners provide funding. They provide expertise in the form of trainers. They also provide in-kind resources like computers and mobile phones or sports equipment. This diversity of partners to achieve our objectives takes us back to the issue of the SDGs. The individual 17 goals and 169 sub-targets are important because they help organizations from all over the world identify priorities that have been sanctioned internationally after consultations at the national and local levels. But the SDGs are not solely about targets. They are clearly about working in partnerships. We are again furthering the drive of SDG-17: Partnerships.
For an organization like mine, which works on very intricate and complex situations, the SDGs offer a unique platform because they allow us to connect more easily with partners in different sectors. In education, we have a program in the US with the Los Angeles Unified School District at Carnegie Middle School in Carson, teaching Conflict Resolution Education in their core curriculum.
We also have partnerships with alternative fuel organizations supplying solar panels to equip our learning centers in communities that are not on the grid, a focus of SDG-13: Climate Action. The SDGs also allow establishing a common language for people headquartered in New York and UN mission offices with other industries, for example farming communities striving to improve their livelihoods in a remote location a continent away. In other words, the SDGs help build a web of solidarity across the world. This is key to making the world better because philanthropists, private sector executives and grant-makers can be more effective in their impact and more relevant in their targeting by aligning and coordinating their actions within the framework of the SDGs. We all have a stake in advancing the noble Sustainable Development Goals, and meeting the worthy targets by the year 2030, because in the age of growing interconnectedness, the adventure of humankind cannot be complete if we ignore our very humanity.
Thank you for your attention.
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