Interview with Nancy Lindborg President, US Institute of Peace

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Written by Aubrey Fox

Nancy Lindborg has been the President of the United States Institute of Peace since February 2015. She previously served as Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance as well as President of Mercy Corps. In a wide-ranging conversation, Nancy spoke with Aubrey Fox, Executive Director of the Institute for Economics and Peace-USA, about the challenge of translating rhetorical support for conflict prevention and Positive Peace into practical reality, the refugee crisis as a peace issue, how the US military can be a critical peace partner and her plans for USIP in the years ahead.


AF:      If peace were a stock, is its price rising or falling?

NL:      I think the stock of peace is very up. Peace has become inextricably intertwined with development and human rights. This new normal of unsettling crisis around the world serves to underscore how important it is. And so it gives urgency to create understanding that it’s not just the absence of violence but also a fuller set of factors that creates conditions of peace.

AF:      What are two or three specific interventions most likely to build peace in the next decade?

NL:      I’m quite optimistic that despite this uptick of conflict and violent extremism we have moved positively around shared values and norms. After a lot of historic wrangling, we were able to secure the inclusion of Goal 16 (in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Framework). The fact that all the member states signed on starts the journey for those 50-70 countries that are struggling with poverty, conflict, and big disease outbreaks. So if we had unlimited resources I would focus on development that equips people and institutions at every level with the knowledge, tools, and approaches to manage conflict so it doesn’t become violent and to resolve it when it does.

AF:      I’m glad you mentioned Goal 16. I think certainly it is very symbolic as a milestone of success for the peace field.

NL:      It’s a victory; it’s critical but not the whole package.

AF:      So what do you see as the range of possible outcomes from Goal 16 in terms of its implementation and what would worry you?

NL:      Well I think success five or ten years from now will be positive movement in your Global Peace Index. There is also a big effort to put together indicators for Goal 16 that I hope will enable us to understand when we are having progress. What would be worrying for me is if it’s languished in the corners of international conversation.

AF:      Lets talk about prevention and Positive Peace for a moment. Rhetorically it seems that there has never been a better time.  You have the Secretary General and the World Bank talking about it. At very high levels, at least rhetorically, people are hammering away at how to prevent conflict.

NL:      Like never before, it is amazing.

AF:      Having said that though, the available resources for prevention investments are at risk. For example, you have these grand humanitarian crises that might squeeze out the money available to invest in prevention.

NL:      Well I think we are still in the early days. USIP is working the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and Center for New American Society on this issue of creating a shared framework on how to tackle fragility within the US government. We are convening a senior study group of about 25 advisors to make recommendations for the next administration. We have not had a shared understanding of how do get from this level of chaos to our goal. Frequently the short-term security objectives undercut what you need for that longer-term realization of peace. It is bringing the evidence base to bear and working on shifting some of the institutional arrangements and practices that we all need to work on. It will not be fast, because we are talking about some gigantic bureaucracies. Nobody should think that this rhetoric is going to translate into wild success tomorrow.

AF:      Are there other things stewards of the field should be working on? What are some priorities in your mind?

NL:      I think one of the big priorities is the Humanitarian Summit that is coming up in Istanbul, as well as a whole series of summits underway. We need to bring together our various tools so that we are not doing humanitarian assistance over there and peacebuilding in this corner with development over here and security over here. Instead, we have to bring these approaches and perspectives together. This was apparent in Afghanistan, where we had three separate efforts underway – military, intelligence and humanitarian – and that undercut our ability to make progress.

AF:      You spent 14 years at Mercy Corps, so you are someone who cut your teeth by running an NGO. Does that experience bring a special perspective?

NL:      I recently learned that Landrum Bolling, one of Mercy Corps’ most important supporters, gave the first $25,000 grant around the United States creating an “Academy of Peace” while he was at the Lily Endowment. Isn’t that incredible? I had another wonderful colleague named Ells Culver who would share stories of standing on the border of Ethiopia as people poured across in that terrible famine. He had the recognition that you can’t just do this Band-Aid work. It’s almost an inevitable trajectory that you become focused on how do you deal with the conflict. How do you move these places so that they can mange these conflicts and transform it into something that looks like peace and development?

AF:      Since you mentioned it, I thought I would ask: should the refugee crisis be understood as a peace issue?

NL:      It is completely a peace issue.

AF:      Do you want to give me your argument?

NL:      I’ve been saying that we have a refugee crisis but what we really have is a fragility crisis. Because you have 60 million people on the move in search of a better life free of oppression, better economic opportunities—whether they are a migrant or a refugee. We need to be looking at why they are leaving these places and how do you make investments so they don’t need to leave. The million or so that have turned up in Europe are a tiny faction of the pipeline of misery. That’s where we need to be thinking more about peacebuilding and development and security as a package.

AF:      How do you create realistic expectations about what a peacebuilding approach can accomplish?

NL:      USIP is an extraordinary platform and I feel unbelievably privileged to have this opportunity. Everyone has a responsibility to build peace and it is a function of who you are internally as well externally—it can’t seem like this thing that just happens in the halls of the UN. One of my favorite quotes is JFK’s quote about peace as process and you have to work on it each and every day.

AF:      So let’s talk about USIP for a moment. How do you define your key challenges? What do you most want to accomplish?

NL:      USIP works best when we link together field programs with training, research, and policy recommendations, both for the conflict affected countries and our government here. Our challenge is leveraging our resources and skills broadly enough to have an impact.

AF:      Are there things you think that as a peace building institution USIP should be doing better?

NL:      One important goal is to make sure that we are able to provide an evidence basis for a new approach to conflict. There are some real fundamentals around peacebuilding, negotiation and reconciliation, and we need to get them more broadly recognized.

AF:      Who would you say are some of the more unlikely partners you’ve come across who can help solve this problem?

NL:      One of the most unlikely is the US military. They get it. They are huge champions. They understand that once they leave the field it isn’t over. To consolidate whatever military gains have been made you need to work on the social cohesion, on reconciliation, on facilitation.

AF:      That’s an interesting point and something we’ve been thinking about, how do you best take advantage of that relationship?

NL:      We are often in the same places at the same time. So often they see first hand how important it is. When you are working on a complicated problem with a process-oriented set of tools, you have the challenge of proving that it is making a difference. It is not like giving a bed net or getting a vaccine. And yet you can experience it at a very tangible level when you are out in a community and they’ve just successfully negotiated among themselves.

AF:      Our goal as an institution is to measure peace through indices and empirical analysis. And so what advice do you have for us? What can we be doing to make we are getting the messages to the right people?

NL:      I start with great appreciation for what you are doing. And I think going back to where we started, there is a lot of conversation around fragility and resilience is often offered as the positive alternative, but it doesn’t quite capture the fullness of what we are all striving for. So I like the idea of Positive Peace as a concept. I think we will collectively need to work to ground it more broadly and deeply in people’s understanding and awareness. So what I would say is thank you for putting us on that path.