January 24, 2006

OWW Forum Talk: Crisis Management

OWW Forum Talk: Crisis Management
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One World Week Forum Talk: “Crisis Management: Crisis Becoming Chaos”

Saturday 14 January 2006
Dr. Scilla Elworthy, Director, Oxford Research Group (ORG)
Ms. Charlotte Lindsey Curtet, Deputy Director of Communication, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Mr. David Woollcombe, President, Peace Child International
Dr. Maja Zehfuss, Department of Politics, University of Warwick

“I believe that young people are the future.” Says Mr. David Woollcombe, the adult at the lectern in front of us, and we all nestle down in cushy lecture theatre chairs, looking forward to an evening of ego massage. We were not disappointed. ou couldn’t help but feel smug as David, Scilla and Charlotte recounted inspirational anecdotes about the wonderful foreign aid and education projects led by compassionate, intelligent youths like ourselves. In fact when Scilla announced how “thrilled and honoured [she felt] to be amongst [us] this evening” she gazed at us with such admiration that I didn’t doubt it. After all, she continued with conviction, we invest our hope of a world free from conflict, “in you: the future generation here in this room”. We all beamed round at each other proudly and I began to feel that by simply by being young and present at this lecture surrounded by belief and enthusiasm, that I was already making a difference. However by the end of David’s story of the One World Moon, which symbolically demonstrated human unity through the image of us “all looking up at night sky and see the same moon”, my self-satisfaction had turned to nausea. And following the fifth or six gushing thank you for having been invited, my confidence in the speakers was starting to wane. It was not restored in the conclusion by the patronising reassurance that we didn’t have to “wait for adults and governments to tell us to act”. Really? Did he think this talk was organised by “adults” by which one must assume he means professionals as opposed to students? Did he really think we lacked encouragement or initiative? Everyone in the room had come on a Saturday night to attend a talk about conflict resolution. We were already sold, to find out how to make use of our commendable tolerant multicultural attitudes, not to be patted on the head for them.
However, regardless of David’s condescending phrasing, his point, is undeniable: young people do need to become interested and active in shaping their future and if the aim was to stimulate such motivation then it would have succeeded. However it was pitched at the wrong audience. The talk outlined much of what we already knew about international conflict: that they are inevitable in modern society, that they are incredibly difficult to resolve due to the combination of religious, political, economic and personal factors and that they are ultimately caused by the ignorance which breeds fear and hatred. That education is the best preventative strategy is hardly a new idea, yet I clung vainly to the hope that they might be leading to the part where they tell us how we can put our education to good use. It never came.
What these guest speakers seemed to be missing was that they were talking to Warwick University students, a fifth of who, (but probably more than half of this audience) are from international backgrounds, and are for the majority respectful of if not friends with foreign students. Even if you miraculously managed to avoid speaking to someone from another country, unless you barricade yourself in your room for the duration of One World Week each year, it is impossible to avoid encountering foreign culture. Cultural Forums, Arts and Sports events replace all usual ones and each day, dedicated to a different continent, bring the sights and sounds of all its countries to the campus. “Does that mean the union will be full of foreigners and fabric all week” moaned one of my less enthusiastic friends in the lead up. ‘Fraid so. You cannot step foot in union without being bombarded with the smell of Shisha and candy floss, the sounds of Asian music and clacking dancing sticks. The outside world is literally thrust in your face by people in traditional costume. Even at other universities these speakers might have visited, they must have encountered a similarly open-minded student body because that’s what university is about: meeting new people of different class, race, religion, and who are studying different academic disciplines, through the enforced intimacy of living together. It is interaction with each other which makes us confront our prejudices, not words on a page or in a lecture.
This is why the section of the talk in which audience members shared their own experiences and efforts at conflict prevention schemes was the most useful part, because it provided concrete examples of what we could do. Admittedly the talk illuminated the scale of the problem: I was shocked to learn that the money our government spends on conflict resolution is a less than one percent of that spent on civil defence, however it didn’t provide direction or solutions. So here’s an idea for next One World Week: a forum with each other, and without “adults”. We might achieve something
Better still how about we use the money which many of us spent on gap year holidays supposedly to “foster cross-cultural understanding and friendship” (Concordia- voluntary work camp organisation) to improve the “cross-cultural understanding and friendship” of the people who need it: those who are fighting and dying over it. Concordia’s right, we can promote peace through understanding and we do need to start with the young, but although it might take more than a story about the moon to convince an indoctrinated Cambodian child that this sworn enemy is as human as he is, or that he shouldn’t revenge the death of his ancestors, on the ancestors of those who killed them, it would be infinitely more useful than giving an privileged European twenty-something an opportunity to show off their languages and make exotic foreign friends. Countless organisations exploit the good intentions of this educated, rich generation of students, but Scilla, David and Charlottle, leaders of the genuine charities “Peace Child International” and “The Red Cross”, had a chance to intercept that, to harness these good intentions by recruiting us to action. An opportunity which was sadly wasted.

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