"In this new paradigm of peace, there are many contributors," Phil Vernon explains. The organisation he heads up has nearly 30 years experience in the peacebuilding sector, but it's still only achieving about 5% of what could be done, he estimates, perhaps modestly. "Most of the work has to be done by people who don't see themselves as peace builders," he says, "Such as the artists here...."


We're chatting at the opening of #ART4PEACE, part of a month-long festival of art, comedy, music...put on by International Alert. The exhibition, "Peace from the street up!" invites urban and street artists to share their perspectives on peace and conflict from their cities, around the world.

"So, do you see yourself as a peace builder?" I ask Yola, who's exhibiting at the show.

"No, I don't, but I'd like to," she replies. "I don't know if it's really possible, if it's strong enough to touch people, to reach people, but you use the material in your hands. The stuff I do on the streets, it's usually in development time I was in Praga in Warsaw, when it was a derelict, criminal part of the city and it was dark... this guy came up and he had no teeth and there I was with these expensive cameras, I thought, 'F*** we're in trouble now!'...I showed him my work and he said 'Wow'. He made the sign of the cross and said, 'It's really beautiful'... So the art established a totally different communication and that gives me hope it is possible to speak to others with images.

I'm excited to be part of this project," she says, "I hope it will be part of a bigger collaboration... I like what they do...I'd like to go to the countries where they work and work with the people there... go to the local community...make a piece, take photos and put it on the wall in the local space so they are part of the piece and peace is part of their lives."

So the piece is part of the peace.

The other artists are equally committed and hopeful. "Art can play a huge role in building peace," says Goldie (Clifford Joseph Price). "It can relay and portray a message on the streets. The world is an open blank canvas."

"And we can look at peacebuilding as a tapestry... just as this exhibition is made up of the pictures in the room," Phil adds. "There are lots of people and organisations involved, whether they're the artists here, the local council in Tunis, local businesses, it's about public collaboration..."


While conflict and peace have preoccupied mankind for centuries Phil explains "Peacebuilding is a relatively new sector, defined by Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the 1990s. International Alert was founded nearly 30 years ago by the Human Rights activist, Martin Ennals. As Secretary General of Amnesty International, he saw conflicts which weren't being addressed and he formed an organisation where the focus was on conflict resolution/peacebuilding. Their first activity was during the Ugandan civil was just a small organisation using his Martin's contacts...which asked the question 'how can we live peacefully?' Now International Alert operates in over 25 countries and territories worldwide, including the ex-Soviet Union, South East Asia, Africa, the Middle we feel we've got a lot to offer in terms of training, guidance and support."

"So how does your organisation work?" I ask.

"We work with local people who are trying to make a difference or who could make a difference... so for instance an NGO set up in Congo to help people, which can benefit from our global knowledge...we can bring in funding etc. It could be a local council, where we hold a peacebuilding lens in front of their eyes. Then we work with institutions who are trying to make a difference, for example, the UN... We work with mining companies and oil companies... for instance oil companies in Nigeria have contributed to conflict, sometimes without realising... Sometimes they realise and want help - then we work on a long-term relationship basis, building conflict sensitivity, peace across their whole programme they can support peace. We build, for example, we work with others to improve their ability to reach across conflict get dialogue going across borders to build a bridge with people on both sides. Trade goes across these de facto borders so how can they build peace and build it into an economic model?

"Can you quantify success?" I ask.

"Yes, but it's hard. Most work is projectised, we submit a proposal to the EU etc. and mostly those are narrow...but it does provide a focus...For example in Congo we set out to improve local conflict resolution methods in the process of peace from the ground up. Out of 1000 conflicts, 60% were resolved. They were quite small conflicts - land, family, ethnic divides between communities. People start to think 'we can resolve this', it builds an ethos of peace...they start to see the methodology, so it can be replicated in other communities our agency can't reach. In that way we build positive peace...negative peace being where there is no fighting and positive peace being where there is less fighting or no fighting plus a culture, an attitude, a belief that when conflicts arise we do have the ability to resolve them."

He goes on to explain this is particularly prevalent in cities... "This year more than 50% of the world's population is living in an urban environment for the first time. Aristotle saw the city as a great enterprise, an endeavour but the rapid growth of development in cities brings alienation, poor government, gangs, mafia, all sorts of vices, especially during the transition period where people who haven't lived in cities are coming in. You don't need a lot of systems in a rural area...but in cities, you need positive peace systems, in London they've been built up over many centuries of political processes but that's not always the case in many cities we work in, so we take a very long-term approach...Take Lebanon...policies were founded on sectarianism, which sect gets which jobs in government, so it's an uneasy peace. It has grown into a more positive peace. We say let's discuss this from a wider perspective, not just Hezbollah/Jew. We work with all political parties... dialogue how to bring about peace...we work with the youth wings of the parties, as they're often more open and we start with really simple questions so dialogue is easy. For years we wouldn't discuss Palestinians in Lebanon but now that's part of the dialogue, as is the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon... They take the initiative and start to talk about issues that are difficult.


Look at the challenge of violence in cities," Phil continues, "Young people feeling frustrated, less empowered...the largest number of foreign fighters in ISIS are from Tunisia yet Tunisia has had 2 elections post-Arab Spring...ISIS is doing it's best to undermine that progress, as the bombing and shooting of tourists have shown...alienated young people join's an urgent problem. What if enough people from today's generation undermine the peace programme? It's important to ensure they have the opportunities they need...economic development, jobs, which are not sectarian...we're working with businesses on where to invest.... what's the peacebuilding solution? Economic development can be a force for peace whereas bad economic development can be terrible for peace as in oil in Nigeria, so the question is, as I am building my bottom line do I engage better relationships? Am I recruiting people who could be dissatisfied? It's not easy - it's a whole framework."

"Do you mean a kind of corporate peace?" I ask.

"Well, yes," Phil replies, "In as much as the baseline for companies when building their business and the way they evaluate their success is not just about profit and value to the shareholder, there's an intent to contribute to conflict resolution, to peace and stability, it's a whole new model."

I realise it's literally a paradigm shift. And I realise I can be part of this new reality, simply by building similar values into my life, even just in small, everyday ways. We can all contribute if we want to.

"Socially, personally...just be cooler. Be cool, don't treat yourself so seriously....that's the message I try to put int my art." Yola smiles.


Yola and Phil Vernon, the Director of Programmes at International Alert, were in conversation with Ali Lochhead.


Talking Peace Fesival
International Alert


The Talking Peace Festival is on until 3rd October 2015.

More pictures from the opening of the #ART4PEACE Exhibition can be viewed/downloaded here: