Ep. 032: Graeme Simpson

Graeme Simpson , US Director of Interpeace

Graeme Simpson, US Director of Interpeace

Show notes

Graeme Simpson is the US Director of Interpeace and recently wrote a United Nations report on Youth, Peace and Security. Stephen says that his approach is extremely grounded, which is unusual for some of the peacebuilders that meet in New York and other large capitals far away from where violence is occuring.

How did he find peacebuilding and how did he get into the position he is now?

He is South African by background. He graduated high school in 1976, was a member of the National Union of South African Students at university, and obtained a Masters Degree in history and law. His practice was in anti-apartheid work. At the end of the 1980s, just before the transition to democracy, he co-founded an organization called the Centre for Violence and Reconciliation. He wrestled with the challenges of patterns of violence integrating into the new society. He saw this “model” for peacebuilding in the South African peace process, where the world saw this as the epitome of success, but he had a difficult time grappling with the incompleteness of the process. He gained his foundation for peacebuilding by wrestling with these issues within an organization founded at the crux of apartheid and the embryonic democracy of South Africa in the 1990s. The organization was extremely interdisciplinary (youth, gender, law, trauma, psychologists, etc. all under one roof). Everyday people could not separate their experience of the peace process from exclusion in other parts of their lives. The organization could not separate these experiences because they were so interrelated.

Stephen: Where are you working now and how did you end up as the lead author on a UN report?

Our ability to speak up is always based on our ability to listen down. You can’t work at the policy level without understanding the nuances of the grassroots. After working with his organization for 15 years, he needed to move on. He was a white, South African man leading an organization that needed to be led by black South Africans. He decided to move into an international lens and worked for the International Center for Transitional Justice. This organization had lost some of the messiness from the direct relationships and grassroots work of peacebuilding. He switched several years later to Interpeace, where he is now. He came back to think about young people because they cannot separate their lived experience from the violence and injustice around them. The UN passed a resolution that required a comprehensive study on youth contributions to peacebuilding and he “threw his hat into the ring” when they were looking for authors of the report. He was surprised, but thrilled about being able to write it.

His team presented the report to the United Nations General Assembly in April of 2018 and did his best to include the voices and stories of young people throughout the process. This was difficult within the bureaucracy of the United Nations because they limit how much you can present, so it was a challenge to work within that bureaucracy but still do justice to these youth stories. A longer version of the study will be out in September 2018. He conducted many interviews with young people to do this research.

Stephen: Our research and approaches in peacebuilding should not be solely extractive; we should focus on supporting and empowering the local communities we are researching because they will be responsible in the long run for building sustainable peace.

Here, now, there is a space for Graeme to share what he thinks is the most important takeaway from the report. He can be as frank as he’d like.

Graeme: The genesis of the study when it came right out of the Security Council, all Member States had extremely different objectives (giving voice and recognition to young people, the threat of terrorism/counter terrorism, and more). Until we address and include the concerns and voice of young people, we will never prevent violent extremism. Emphasis must be on young people’s agency and leadership.

How we conducted the study is almost as important as what the study says. We can’t only speak with the UN’s “usual subjects”: well educated, familiar with English, comfortably fit into the policy world. We have to speak to people who are hard to reach (young people actually said that they are not hard to reach, it’s just that no one is listening). He told the young people: When I present this to the UNSC and you can’t hear your voice, we have failed. This created hurdled because they needed to raise a lot of money and gain a lot of access to people in order to be so comprehensive, but they achieved what they set out to do.

If the first key message is to understand the exclusion of young people as a structural form of violence, the second is that of “policy myths.” Young people very often are more afraid of their own governments than of extremists groups. Governments often view young people as a problem to be solved, instead of assets toward peacebuilding. One policy myth is the assumption that societies with young people are more prone to violence when there is no evidence to support this. We are focusing resources on the tiny sliver of young people who are involved with extremist groups, when the vast majority of young people have no connections to these groups.  The second myth is that increased migration of young people drives violence, when really, it drives job creation and innovation. We need to overthrow these policy myths that demonize young people. There are alternative paths to investing in young people.

The way young people think about peacebuilding is challenging assumptions. They use an integrated approach. Peace and conflict needs to be imbedded the development process. Every United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is a youth SDG. The most important message articulated was that the issues related to youth violence cannot be solved by monocausal solutions. You can’t used simplistic solutions to address complex problems. For example, governments presume that youth unemployment leads to violence when some of the most highly educated and prestigiously employed people join violent political movements. This project taught him alot about the need to scrutinize assumptions.

Stephen says that one of the themes of systems thinking is looking for “patterns” not “problems.” You can’t just address one and expect everything to fix itself. Can he discuss the sense of disillusionment between young people and the multilateral/bureaucratic system that is searching for ways to engage youth? Young people are not recognizing these bureaucratic systems to be legitimate ways for them to get involved in peacebuilding. What are the implications of this disconnect? What does this mean for the long term relevance for some of these institutions?

Graeme: Governments are grappling with this is a sloppy way. People don’t understand the extent of this issue. The study tried to identify the enormous potential of the spaces youth are creating and occupying as alternatives to these institutions. We need to give voice and space to these alternatives. This is a creative set of alternative driven from the grassroots. Young people don’t like the word “inclusion” because it seems like they are being invited to someone else’s table. Maybe it’s not the institutions leaving youth behind, but youth leaving these institutions behind. This is a huge opportunity. At the heart this is a trust deficit between youth and their governments.

What are these alternative forms of organizing and promoting peace? What can we learn?

The study attempts to create a youth led initiative “typology.” Young people have invented sustainability as practice, instead of just something to try to incorporate into a project. Some are working in early-intervention models, some in violence prevention, some in violence continuation or escalation, some in humanitarian work. There is a really comprehensive approach to peace. Sometimes, young people are demanding access to post-conflict negotiations. Young people are interested in occupying all aspects of peace and conflict. They are also saying that working at multiple levels is essential: grassroots, government, institution, multigenerational, global, etc. Young people recognize that they are working with different types of violence (gendered, terrorism, extremism, criminal violence, etc.). There is a complex relationship between different types of violence. They are also identifying that traditional peacebuilders think about phases of violence too narrowly. Political/criminal/gendered violences etc. are malleable and the way we think about their beginning and their end changes.

Young people are using different tools: new forms of communication and organizing. They are crafting new forms of political participation because they feel that traditional forms are leaving them behind or not working for them.

Stephen identifies a consistent theme in integration: the policy word has segmented all of these things. The traditional phases of conflict overlap with each other. These distinctions are only serving funders and policymakers instead of those on the ground. What can we do differently if we see peacebuilding in a different way?

There is a powerful demonstration here that we have failed to understand the types of innovations, resilience, resourcefulness, and creativity necessary to make peace sustainable. There are huge incentives for youth to do this.

We need to shift from remedial approaches to preventive, and from investment in risk to investment in resilience. Partnerships are formed by young people that connect the local to the global, and they often work with new partners like local mayors and influencers. We have to be careful to not romanticize or patronize youth peacebuilding.

Graeme had mentioned the need to support endogenous capacities for peace. In practice, it’s hard for institutions and elites to let other people have agency because they would then lose control. Stephen asks: Do you have insight to how we can convince those who support peacebuilding to give more agency to the communities that need to be empowered?

The Youth, Peace and Security Agenda learned alot from the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. The roles of these people need to be changed within society. These truths have been repeated and repeatedly ignored. This is not about “giving” agency to youth. This agency will be claimed by young people because, eventually, young people will outgrow their youth. The lesson is to react to the innovation now, because it will eventually change the multilateral environment. We need to move beyond a “voice” to agency.” This is a long term transition and fight for influence. It should not be ignored that populations in Africa and Asia are getting younger and progress in these areas has been brought up through youth movements.

Stephen raises gender. The study discusses how youth movements are centered young women and can lead to the victimization of women and sexual minorities. This absorbs the need to cultivate nonviolent masculinities. Young men and women have different experiences of conflict and men are more likely to be recruited to violence and have access to drugs. However, the international community only understands gender and prevent violence against women, therefore ignoring the attention young men need due to this potential trauma. The study discusses this and Stephen would like for Graeme to unpack this more.

Graeme says the study had to incorporate gender throughout. The threat of youth violence is inherently gendered-- the young man and the gun. Young women are consigned to victimhood. This deprives young men and women of their ability to create peace. The “simple solution” is the recognize that the experiences of young men and young women are unique. The study argues that a deep understanding of the construction of masculinity has been missing from peacebuilding. Unless we engage in masculinity when it is formed, during adolescence, we miss an enormous opportunity.

Resources and Closing Comments:

Youth 4 Peace website: all documents used in the study are going to be available on a database on this website.

The study started a comprehensive list of organizations focusing on youth-led peacebuilding initiatives. (Mercy Corps, Interpeace, Search for Common Ground, Safer World, ACCORD, Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Conciliation Resources, and many more.

United Equity of Young Peacebuilders

Young leadership, youth led organizations, young authorship is so important to look for, for both resources and information.

Dissent from young people, which we often see as a conflict, are powerful tools of how young people drive peace.