Building Peace in West Africa

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, violence and civil unrest continue to dominate the daily headlines. The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo cry out for an end to their suffering. Our own country is engaged in two wars. The birthplace of Jesus remains a troubled region.

In this Christmas season, the question haunts us: Is there hope for peace?

Some years back, as Catholic Relief Services reflected on the horror of the genocide in Rwanda, the devastation that occupied Somalia and the upheaval unleashed in the Balkans, we set in place a new theme in CRS programs: peacebuilding.

For CRS, this was a new outlook. For years, CRS did its relief and development work and did it well. We dealt with the symptoms and results of injustice and conflict: burned-out houses, food shortages and refugee movements. What we were not prepared to do was make peace.

Today, we continue to respond to the evils that people heap upon their neighbors. But now we do so with a knowledge that our work in relief and development must be focused on the relations between people and groups that have become imbalanced and unjust.

CRS engages in peacebuilding because it is a constituent part of our Catholic faith and the mission of CRS. Overseas, millions of people are affected not only by actual fighting but from war-exacerbated disease and malnutrition that are born from, and contribute to, further poverty and violence. We cannot sustain humanitarian and development assistance without addressing the causes of conflict and violence.

Is there hope for peace? In fact, a fragile peace holds in many parts of the world after years of conflict. Two of those places are neighboring countries in West Africa: Sierra Leone and Liberia. Both are recovering and rebuilding after years of civil war.

But as experience has taught us, peace is not just the absence of violence. Rather, it is an ongoing work, one that must be continually reaffirmed. True peace means justice must prevail. True peace means right relationships between people and groups must be built up. This is the work of peacebuilding.

Peacebuilding is an important part of the work of CRS. As we saw in Rwanda, conflict between ethnic groups can destroy in days what it took years to accomplish. Our peacebuilding programming around the world strives to transform the way people live, heal and structure their relationships. In 115 projects in more than 50 countries, our aim is to change structures, attitudes and behaviors to promote peace, justice and reconciliation.

We helped to foster this reconciliation in Liberia by collaborating with local partners to conduct “training the trainers” in peacebuilding. Through a series of workshops, these people have learned reconciliation and peacebuilding skills, equipping them to carry out training in the same skills on a grass-roots level.

We also support the National Catholic Justice and Peace Commission there. With our assistance, this group launched the Justice and Peace Forum, a radio program that has educated Liberians on human rights and democracy issues.

And in an effort to support regional peace initiatives, CRS was a major sponsor of the peace programs of the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia. With substantial support from CRS, this group led consultations with regional leaders and leaders of warring factions in Liberia to engage them in dialogue. These consultations have contributed significantly to the current improved security environment in the country.

In Sierra Leone, one of the creative approaches to peacebuilding helps former combatants adhere to the regulations of their new livelihood. These former Revolutionary United Front combatants now operate motorbike taxi services, a popular mode of transport in the larger towns and cities. But many of them either didn’t know of or ignored national licensing and insurance regulations, and risked having their motorbikes seized by authorities. They were also vulnerable to police extortion and exploitation.

CRS has supported the Justice and Peace and Human Rights Commission of the Makeni Diocese to launch an Access to Justice Community Legal Aid project. This legal aid effort informs these motorbike entrepreneurs on their rights and responsibilities, educating them on the risk and consequences of not registering their motorbikes.

The program also provides them with the legal assistance required to enable them to comply with the regulations without being exploited. In addition, the commission has successfully advocated for a reduction in license fees and facilitated bank loans to enable motorbike taxi operators to obtain their licenses. A good number of these young men have now registered and operate their businesses with little or no harassment. Over the last two years, this project has helped these former combatants to live in their communities as peaceful citizens.

These are just a couple of our many efforts at peacebuilding. They may not operate on a large scale, but they all contribute to building up that biblical ideal of true peace called Shalom.

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