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What could the new UN Secretary General learn from local peace activists?


As António Guterres takes over as Secretary General, we look to our local partners for inspiration on some of the toughest challenges facing the UN.

  • Published

    5 January 2017
  • Written by

    Alex Green

The new year has brought with it a new United Nations Secretary General. Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, took over the top position on 1 January, 2017, opening his leadership with an impassioned plea for peace. He cuts a different figure from his predecessor Ban Ki-moon: said to be more dogged, practised and efficient. Indeed, insiders are welcoming his appointment: “[he] could give the UN the kind of kick up the backside it needs”.

In a five page vision statement, Guterres has outlined just how he plans to give the UN that ‘kick’. High on his agenda: pushing for gender equality and women’s empowerment, cutting costs and trimming unnecessary bureaucracy, preventing conflicts before they break out, and tackling terrorism.

At Peace Direct, when facing these urgent issues, we take our inspiration from local organisations; individuals who turn simple, nimble action into meaningful impact in their countries. As he begins his tenure in the UN’s top spot, Guterres could be inspired by them too.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment

For the first time in the UN’s history, the new Secretary General might have been a woman. Strong candidacies from figures such as Christiana Figueres and Helen Clark have left many disappointed that the ninth Secretary General will be the ninth man to lead the UN.

So Guterres will be working hard to further gender equality in an organisation that is, in this regard, notoriously slow on the uptake. He could take his lead from women-led organisations operating in some of the world’s most restrictive, dangerous societies for women.

Take Aware Girls, a network of young volunteers working to save their peers from radicalisation in Pakistan. The network operates in the deeply conservative tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, and is run entirely by women. Their training programmes have reached 4,000 at-risk young people, encouraged women and girls to get involved in politics and inspired 223 youth activists to raise their voices.

If all this is possible in Peshawar, how much could Guterres achieve in New York?

Less bureaucracy, lower costs

Guterres is famous for his efficiency. During his time as UN High Commissioner for Refugees 300 staff positions were cut at the Geneva headquarters, while activities in the field were increased by 50%. This is promising for an organisation often weighed down by trundling bureaucracy.

One of the most direct ways to save costs and cut unnecessary bureaucracy is to tap into local talent. Hotspots of conflict and violence already have dedicated people working to defuse tensions and stop them escalating. And these local organisations can operate at a fraction of the costs: a local peacebuilder doesn’t need a plane ticket, a translator or training in local customs.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we work with a local organisation called FOCHI. FOCHI runs a network of village peace courts in the region of South Kivu, providing free access to justice for a population of 70,000. Many international agencies operating in this region use a system of mobile courts where each case costs around $3,000. Each case in FOCHI’s village courts costs just $27.

For inspiration on streamlining programming and improving cost effectiveness, Guterres need look no further than groups like this.

Conflict prevention

The UN has been attempting to build a ‘culture of prevention’ since 2005, and Guterres has noticed the lack of progress. He has put conflict prevention at the heart of his vision for the UN. Under his leadership the UN will act as a “forum for dialogue”, will create a “peace architecture” to tackle all aspects of conflict, and invest in “capacity and institution-building of States”, all with a mind to preventing violence before it erupts.

Guterres should also take encouragement from the success of locally-led early warning systems that sound alarm bells to stop deadly violence, and defuse tensions before they escalate.

In the past year, Burundi has been hit with horrific violence and international efforts to stem attacks have run into challenges. In this context, locally-led efforts play a unique and critical role in documenting and responding to violence, especially in hard to reach areas where outsiders have little access. INAMA, a network of local organisations operating throughout the country, monitoring flashpoints at the community level and taking action to minimise violence, is one of them.

Guterres’ focus on prevention is critical. The impact of INAMA’s early warning system shows that even in the most deadly conflicts, there are local activists working to stop violence and build peace. And we can all learn something from them.


Guterres is talking tough on counterterrorism. In his vision statement, he sanctions the use of force and speaks of a battle for values and the urgent need to counter ideologies that encourage people towards violence.

The debate about what motivates a person to carry out acts of terrorism is complex. And certainly ideology can play its part. But Guterres must remember contexts in which the path to a terrorist group is one of economic desperation.

In Somalia, people are being kept out of al-Shabaab not through countering ideologies, but through opportunity. One local organisation, SADO, is delivering vocational training, apprenticeships and micro-loans for young people at risk of being recruited by the militant group. It is by reducing poverty and alienation, not through military force, that the organisation discourages people from turning to extremism to earn a living.

The next Secretary General will play a critical role in addressing humanitarian crises, responding to the largest refugee crisis since World War Two, finding solutions to ongoing and emerging conflicts, and sustaining peace.

As Guterres prepares to step into his prestigious role, he would do well to take a moment to remember local organisations like these. Determined individuals working in intensely challenging contexts are delivering peace work with a powerful impact. A UN with such efficiency could be a powerful thing indeed.


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