Faculty Spotlight: Alex de Waal

Our next profile by a Fletcher professor comes from Alex de Waal, who is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation and a Research Professor at the Fletcher School.  In addition to directing the World Peace Foundation, Prof. de Waal currently teaches Conflict in Africa.

ADWAn occupational hazard of my job as Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation is that, when I introduce myself, people tend to snicker.  In the twenty-first century, apparently, advocates of “world peace” seem to be beauty queens or practitioners of levitation.  It wasn’t always so.  A hundred years ago, when the World Peace Foundation was established, there was a strong movement for world peace, in America and many other countries.  It was perfectly respectable for political leaders to espouse resolving all disputes between nations by negotiation and law, not by force.  Fifty years ago, in his commencement address to the American University, President John F. Kennedy chose the theme of world peace, “a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived — yet it is the most important topic on earth.”  Our goal at the World Peace Foundation is to make world peace once again a regular topic of public discourse, and an accepted goal of public policy.

I came to the World Peace Foundation after twenty-five years of working as a reflective practitioner, mostly in Africa.  I was an advocate for and critic of humanitarian action in famine, an exponent of human rights but a critic of some of the activities pursued in the name of human rights, and most recently an advisor to mediation efforts in Sudan.  I was recurrently troubled by the way in which many international efforts to end suffering and promote human wellbeing ended up having unintended and adverse consequences.  And I was determined that critically analytic social science, grounded in the lived realities of people in these difficult places, could help remedy these shortcomings.

Political leaders and senior officials in governments and international agencies are rarely critical thinkers — they are simply too busy responding to the next problem to be reflective, analytical and creative.  Some years ago, I began to suspect that the key to solving the most intractable public policy problems is not to influence decision makers — who will adjust their actions only at the margin anyway — but to invest in building intellectual capital among young professionals and students, who will go on to change the world.  And in turn, I realized that the best way to attract the best students to the problems that concerned me, such as war and famine, is to make these subjects intellectually challenging — to fasten onto the most fascinating debates and dilemmas, and to have the courage of theorizing a complicated reality.

The World Peace Foundation and I joined The Fletcher School at the same time, in 2011.  In my twin roles as foundation director and professor, I have been trying to put this philosophy into practice.  I teach a class, “Conflict in Africa,” in which I try to make the subject intellectually exciting as well as relevant to the real issues of the day.  (For better or worse, the case studies I select seem to hit the news just as they come up in the class schedule.)  I also continue with my work as a practitioner, especially with the African Union’s peace and security initiatives.  The World Peace Foundation, meanwhile, has a growing array of research and advocacy topics, including the “how mass atrocities end” program (led by WPF Research Director, Prof. Bridget Conley-Zilkic), our “African peace archive” that documents the inner workings of mediation processes, research on the “political marketplace” and “political entrepreneurship,” and a new project on corruption and the global arms business.  I see this all as a contribution to making it possible to talk seriously about peace, not just in specific places, but in the whole world.

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