Including Community Members at all Stages of Peacebuilding. Member Spotlight: Abid Humayun

Abid Humayun is a peacebuilding and mediation professional who was born in Afghanistan, but grew up mainly in Pakistan and India for his education. In 2013, Abid returned to Afghanistan and immediately began doing social work focused on human rights with youth, woman, and other populations in need. From there he became more involved in the organized NGO world and civil society sector, and worked in advocacy and capacity-building. Abid had always felt particularly passionate about advocating for peace education, and a national education curriculum. Today, Abid is the Executive Director of the NGO Sanayee Development Organization (SDO) and continues to be an active human rights advocate and peacebuilder, helping to foster peace and understanding despite any challenges he may face.

Joining the Peacebuilding Field

“For me this job just continues to get every day more and more beautiful.”

Abid was drawn to the world of peacebuilding as he witnessed the rapid changes that have been occurring in society, in particular with the rise of technology. He recognizes that despite how many advancements we’ve made, the gaps in understanding, tolerance, and acceptance between people have only grown larger. Abid was driven to do something to mitigate the effects of growing mistrust and animosity between groups. Further than this, he wanted to promote peaceful conflict resolution, a culture of tolerance, and constructive dialogue. Over the years he’s seen many people who end up jumping between fields, but he has been so heavily involved in peacebuilding and mediation that there is nowhere else he could envision himself. For Abid, the job he does continues to feel more meaningful each day. Though he started out by getting involved in the more general social work field, as the current Executive Director of SDO, he is now able to pursue peacebuilding and create meaningful trainings and activities as a core part of his daily work.

The Prerequisites of Peacebuilding

“Paying attention to these prerequisites would help us to build a more conducive environment to mediation activities”

Abid has come to realize that one of the most important parts of peacebuilding is acknowledging the context that surrounds it. He believes that peacebuilding efforts have struggled in Afghanistan and beyond for many different reasons, but partly because people don’t recognize the prerequisites that are involved. According to Abid, just walking into a community and saying “Surprise! We’re going to build peace now” is unsurprisingly, never going to be very effective. For Abid, the main goal of going into a new community is to build resilience, so that they are able to effectively manage their own conflicts at some point. As a practitioner, he therefore believes that it is vital to make sure that the very basic needs of the community are already met. When he goes to a community with food insecurity, or where there is no education, or running water, Abid has noticed that a mediation activity’s success and effectiveness is immediately decreased. This is because the people of the community have highly different priorities than the peacebuilders, and will never be able to devote their full attention to mediation when it is not as relevant to their survival and daily life.

“Their priorities are not aligned with our priorities. Their priority is to feed their families. In this case, no strategy can help you divert their attention from food, or clean water, or shelter, to peacebuilding and mediation.”

 For Abid, the first prerequisite of mediation is to make sure your priorities are aligned with those of the community. In order to do this, Abid and SDO have moved to “nexus” thinking, in which peacebuilding, mediation, and the needs of the community are all interrelated. For example, they have delivered food to communities, and on the day of delivery, they run a full day training. In this way, they are recognizing and addressing the needs of the community and therefore better able to reach people in mediation and conflict resolution activities.

A second main prerequisite is truly understanding the communities. In Abid’s experience, he’s seen practitioners try to push one-size-fits-all thinking over and over again, with little success. He remembers one community that he worked with in Afghanistan, where the majority of the population was illiterate. The NGO workers could lecture on and on forever, while showing PowerPoint slides and presentations, but meanwhile 80% of the participants couldn’t read. Even though this approach could be highly effective in some circumstances, it was clearly not the right one here. That is why Abid believes it is key to also be aware of the behavior, inclinations, preferences, and realities of any community in order to tailor a peacebuilding effort to that context.

“Now just in Afghanistan but in Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Rwanda, the knowledge and understanding of the community is always ignored.”

 A third prerequisite according to Abid, is inclusion of community members. Whenever he designs peacebuilding and mediation activities, he believes that it is both unprofessional and unfair to prioritize their knowledge over that of the group of people they are aiming to serve. Abid has seen that once you get at least some of the community members involved with you in discussions about the issues, you get not only more ideas from them, but also legitimacy and a better perspective on what is going on. 

The fourth prerequisite to peacebuilding activities, based on Abid’s experience in Afghanistan is working in a context where there is no active war. Abid notices that very often people don’t draw the line between when they have to focus on mediation, and when they have to focus on peacebuilding, and therefore fail to tailor their activities to the circumstance. He believes that mediation work is effective, and highly necessary in times of active conflict. However, peacebuilding fits different contexts, in which the focus is on tolerance, acceptance, and fostering a culture of peace. Abid states that peacebuilding is not likely to be effective while there is still violence and death actively occurring, and rather should be the focus of later post-war efforts.  By confusing these fields and their priorities, Abid believes that peacebuilders and mediators may cause more harm than good.

Highlights of Mediation

Despite facing many challenges in his work, Abid has many experiences that still bring him joy to look back on. One of his favorite memories was several years ago in a province of Afghanistan in which there was very low accountability for government corruption. Security forces in particular enjoyed a high level of impunity. So, to combat this injustice, Abid came up with a network of volunteers. The network of volunteers was comprised of young people, most of the highly educated college students. Abid and his organization spent a year training them, and then they were assigned to document and record corruption in any way that they could safely. After the investigative work of the network, they convinced the head of the police department to have a meeting with the volunteers once a month. In these meetings, the volunteers were able to directly communicate with the head of the police and bring many instances to his attention. They were able to spur action and create large-scale change in their community, and also to build a lasting personal relationship with the head of the police. In these meetings, watching the head of the department tell these young people exactly how he was going to address the problems they had taken so much personal risk to uncover, Abid thought, these efforts to make a community safer, more accountable, and more peaceful, are really working.

Another experience that Abid remembers that always brings a smile to his face is a peace education training that he did with 240 school teachers. The goal was to implement a peace education curriculum in schools throughout Afghanistan for students from years 1 -12, but the first step was to train the teachers. On the last day of this 8-day training program, one professor stood up to speak, but he couldn’t get through his sentence. The man had started crying uncontrollably. After a few minutes, the professor managed to get up again and tell the group that this training had been both the more amazing and the most saddening experience of his life. He said that every day of the training had been torture for him, as he had realized that he had been teaching students completely wrong for the entire last 25 years of his career. After this training, he was horrified at the ways he might have harmed his students, but also amazed to feel like he could be a brand-new person teacher going forward.  

Tips for Future Mediators

 Abid is very pleased to see that today peacebuilding academics have very much grown. Now it is possible to study peacebuilding, mediation, and conflict resolution at universities and receive high level trainings and knowledge on the subject. Abid thinks that pursuing this education is one of the best things that people can do if they are really interested in the field. He believes peacebuilding remains one of the very few fields for people who are truly interested in social and political work to make a truly meaningful impact. In peacebuilding Abid thinks you can do work that matters on a daily basis, and really enjoy what you do despite the challenges.

“This is one of the very few fields where you can still have a truly meaningful impact.”

Abid believes that one of the most important things is to make sure that you really have the passion for the job. Without this, he thinks it might not be the right fit. He thinks mediators and peacebuilders need to have deep courage, and the unbreakable knowledge of what is right and wrong. There is always a risk of doing more damage than good to people if you are not in it for the right reasons, and see it as a business or simply an activity to check the boxes. He says that at every step of a peacebuilding process there is a chance of causing harm, and that those who are interested in joining the field need to be extremely sensitive to the complexity of each situation. Further, a new mediator needs to have extremely solid commitment and personal strength to be able to stay in the field.

“It takes a lot of courage to become as neutral and as fair as possible. You need to have the courage to listen, but also to tell communities what they’re doing wrong.”

Future Hopes for the Field

Today, peacebuilding is more important than ever. Abid has worked the Sanayee Development Organization (SDO) for over a decade, and has seen the field, and the organization grow and develop. SDO has worked on several different key areas over time, but their main focuses have long been peacebuilding, education, civil society development, and community health. The organization has been part of almost every big national development project in Afghanistan, and despite all of the challenges they still are the main development organization in at least two provinces. Abid hopes that in the future, peacebuilding will be more recognized, and valued.

According to Abid, the lack of recognition of the field means a lack of resources. He believes that mediation is undervalued around the world, which can lead to terrible misconceptions and thoughts about peacebuilders themselves. Without the right resources, whether they are financial, technical, or even human resources, peacebuilders are not as able to effectively do their job. In the past in Afghanistan, Abid notes that peacebuilding was treated as a cross-cutting issue, but since 1989 since Afghanistan began to receive international aid, there has not been a full-fledged peacebuilding process. Afghanistan’s growing dependence on international aid has created many different damaging preconceptions about mediation and peacebuilders, as many assume they are just “agents of the West”. Abid hopes that more resources and recognition can be attributed to the field in the future, as they continue to fight stereotypes and judgements from peace who don’t know it well.

Abid recognizes that a lot of social phenomena are controversial, and in every line of work there is disagreement over everything from best practices to basic knowledge. However, he thinks that in the future of peacebuilding, the international peacebuilding community needs to learn to put these things aside. He believes that if there was more unified action and connection between peacebuilding organizations, a lot more could be accomplished. Considering that different organizations have different specialties, they could bring this together and leverage collective knowledge. Despite the fact that countries around the world spend trillions on wars, they barely spend millions on peacebuilding. Abid thinks that collective action is the only way to really push back. One of Abid’s dreams for the future is to see this kind of harmony on the larger scale between peacebuilders around the world. He thinks that even if they couldn’t accomplish everything, they would surely be able to accomplish something very powerful together.  

Article by Elise Webster, MBBI Writer