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Giving peace a chance - Harriet Lamb gives MBG's Lent Lecture on the work of International Alert


Harriet LambHarriet LambThis year's Marlborough Brandt Group Lent Lecture has a title straight out of the headlines - "To bomb or not to bomb? - that is the wrong question."  The lecture is being given by Harriet Lamb CBE, who was appointed last year as the chief executive of International Alert (IA) - an organisation committed to helping people find solutions to conflicts.  

Her lecture is on Thursday, 10 March at 8.00pm in the Town Hall - free entry with a retiring collection.

In an interview, Marlborough News Online asked Harriet Lamb whether her lecture will be about more than the debate over bombing in Syria?  "Absolutely. Obviously the Syrian war is uppermost in everyone’s minds and is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time."

"So I will talk about the crisis in Syria and the region. But I will also discuss many other conflicts around the world. The key point is that across the world, we are too quick to reach for guns, or bombs to settle conflicts - when there are other solutions. We could - and should - invest much more in peace-building."
Right now, reading a newspaper at the breakfast table is not too much fun.  Is IA's job getting more difficult as the world seems to be slipping backwards from relative peace?    "Sadly that is all too true. From the end of World War Two, we saw years in which conflicts did in fact decline. There were approximately 30 armed conflicts in 2010, compared with 50 in 1990. But tragically that has now changed and in the past two years this number has risen again to 40 conflicts."

"Today, about half of all the world's poor people live in conflict affected states - conflict is also deeply entwined with poverty, actively undermining prosperity."

IA sees improving what we might call human infrastructure and governance - safety, education, legal fairness, wellbeing etc - as essential to peace and that inevitably involves political decisions.  Does IA ever get involved in initiating political change?  

"Obviously as a peace-building charity, we never get involved with any political party. However, we would agree absolutely that political change is critical to secure peace."

"But for example in Nepal our recommendations on increasing the time limit for filing sexual harassment cases and on minimum sentencing were directly incorporated into their Sexual Harassment Bill endorsed by parliament in 2014."

IA gets most of its funds from government aid budgets - Britain and Sweden are the most generous - but they do get some donations from the public. Founded thirty years ago it now works in 40 countries.

Rwandans beneath uncertain skies (Photo: Carol Allen Storey for IA)Rwandans beneath uncertain skies (Photo: Carol Allen Storey for IA)To give an example of IA's work, Harriet Lamb told Marlborough News Online about the kind of programmes it has been running in Rwanda since the genocide:  "We have been working since 1995 to reconcile genocide survivors and perpetrators through dialogue clubs and local business initiatives. In 2014, for example, 2,492 people attended our dialogue groups.  As a result, they were able to resolve 85 per cent of the 1,073 disputes presented to them – with the rest referred to other services."

"In neighbouring Burundi, we set up a grassroots network of women peace activists, which now has more than 9,000 members and whose efforts range from human rights protection to the fight against gender-based violence. Sadly, the situation there has deteriorated again."

"In fact, four out of ten of all signed peace deals fail to hold. Which is why we believe that building peace from the grassroots up is as important as the formal peace agreements."

"More recently, we have started working with local partners to support peace efforts in Syria and neighbouring countries, from peace education classes for young people and children, through to the use of the arts for reconciliation."

Harriet Lamb has interesting information about the causes of Syria's civil war.   We asked her what she thought had gone wrong with the international response when the fighting began:

Refugees at a health centre in Lebanon (Photo: Nadim Kamel for IA)Refugees at a health centre in Lebanon (Photo: Nadim Kamel for IA)"Where to start! The war started as a peaceful protest by Syrians for their democratic rights. In fact, if you go further back still, it was climate change that contributed to the problem."

"Syria’s 2006-2011 drought made the already fragile livelihoods of rural farmers untenable. With failing crop yields and falling incomes, many left to move to urban centres, such as Daraa, putting a strain on weak infrastructure and scant basic services."

"It wasn’t the drought in itself that caused the conflict, but it was a factor along with the existing social, political and economic tensions."

"Everywhere we work, we have been hugely inspired by the patience and determination on the part of those who live in conflict – and their ruthless optimism. Listening to our Syrian partners just last week talking about the positive activities they are undertaking in Syria was humbling."

"Peacebuilding takes time it is never easy to address the root causes of conflict. The next decade will certainly be a challenging one, but we can take inspiration from the amazing people who have built peace over the past 30 years."

Harriet Lamb, who as a child lived in India and later spent six years there working with poor landless labourers and low caste farmers, worked for the Fairtrade movement for 16 years, latterly leading Fairtrade International.

We asked her about Marlborough's bid to become a Fairtrade town: "Many congratulations to all those in Marlborough on their determination to get Fairtrade status. It is entirely thanks to people knocking on the doors of supermarkets and corner shops, churches, schools, cafes, and businesses that Fairtrade has become such a strong global movement."

"There are now 1.5 million farmers and workers able to sell on Fairtrade terms as a direct result of all those hours pounding the pavements and raising awareness. So I look forward to raising a glass of Fairtrade wine to celebrate the latest Fairtrade Town!"

There is much more about International Alert's work on their website.


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