Over the past 15 years, more than 5 million people have been killed in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). More than 400,000 women are raped every year and about 2 million people are internally displaced. The international community has responded by sending the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world.
Amidst the violence, however, one group is often overlooked: courageous local social innovators who risk their lives while endeavoring to build peace, one person at a time.
Peace Direct, a London-based nonprofit which launched a US affiliate this week, is one of the few organizations to systematically support the work of these local peace builders. In doing so, it is pursuing a sharper strategy than the conventional approach. Rather than have outside experts or consultants parachute into conflict regions to advance peace, Peace Direct seeks to strengthen and augment conflict resolution initiatives developed by people within their own communities.
One of the organization’s partners is Henri Ladyi, the coordinator of the Centre Résolutions Conflits () in the DRC. Based in North Kivu, a region in the east that has been deeply affected by the ongoing violence there, Mr. Ladyi runs programs that include demobilizing militia members, rescuing child soldiers from the bush, and helping internally displaced people return to their homes.
The center provides social and economic support to women who’ve experienced sexual violence. It has established cooperatives to generate income for former fighters and task forces that bring together church leaders, doctors, women’s groups, police, army, and ex-combatants to gather ground-level information to prevent further conflicts.
In 2010 Ladyi and the task forces convinced more than 1,000 rebel fighters to lay down their weapons and freed more than 400 child soldiers. They also trained 2,600 children to resist recruitment into armed groups, according to Peace Direct.
This work can be extremely dangerous. Ladyi, who was once a militia member himself, has received numerous death threats. But he says his vision for peace does not allow him to walk away.
“I like to say to myself, 'J’ai pris des engagements,'” Ladyi said, meaning, "I have made commitments."
“These are for my supporters, donors, beneficiaries, staff. All of this encourages me.”
Under his leadership, and with support from Peace Direct and other donors, CRC has grown from an annual budget of $4,000 in 2004 to about $300,000, Ladyi said.
Peace Direct was established in 2004 by Carolyn Hayman and Scilla Elworthy and currently works in nine regions. The group's aim, said Ms. Hayman, the UK chief executive, is to help strengthen local groups run by people like Ladyi that seem to be making real progress on the ground.
“We’ve tried to grow them so that they have a reach comparable to the size of the conflict,” she said.
Establishing Peace Direct in the United States is an effort to increase the organization’s impact, both by tapping into a large donor base as well as influencing policymakers and leaders in the field of conflict resolution. Peace Direct finds its partners through recommendations, research, and leads that come in through its website, Insight on Conflict, which provides information about local peace building efforts around the world.
“It’s the locals who decide what needs to be done,” Hayman said, “and then we try to help them make it happen.”
Robert Wilkinson, a founding member of the US board for Peace Direct, learned about the organization several years ago while working for Britain's Department for International Development. He had to determine if the British government should award Peace Direct a grant, and to do so needed to be convinced of its effectiveness on the ground. Ultimately, he was.
“They kind of cut to the chase. They found the right people and gave them money,” Mr. Wilkinson said at an event in New York recently. “They cut through the nonsense. And their ability to find change agents was impressive.”
Out of Peace Direct’s roughly £1.1 million ($1.8 million) budget for 2009-2010, 88 percent went to finding and funding peace builders and promoting their work.
This work usually begins small but grows with the needs of the partners, said Hayman. Peace Direct helps partners raise money from other organizations so they can become self-sustaining. It also seeks to convince larger entities, like the United Nations, to recognize the value of local peace builders.
Fostering relationships between outside experts, who wield considerable power, and locals is a key element of the strategy. Too often, local peace builders – those with the most intimate understanding of the problems on the ground – are left at the margins.
Peace Direct is a small organization, but it has already received some key recognition. According to a survey conducted last year by Keystone Accountability, a group that helps organizations plan, measure, and report their work for social change, Peace Direct ranked highest in partner satisfaction out of 25 nongovernmental organizations.
The report is good news, but many who support Peace Direct, like Mark Rylance, the well-known British actor and a long-time backer, were already convinced. The way Peace Direct empowers local voices for peace, enabling them to be heard by the broader international community, is an important achievement, he says.
“The local voice is too quiet right now,” said Mr. Rylance, who is currently starring in “Jerusalem” on Broadway and who has performed a moving reading of a script about Ladyi's life. “This organization has given the local voice a megaphone.”