An Urge to Make a Difference: An Entrepreneur’s Personal Journey for Peace

Milt Lauenstein has had a long career as a top executive, a consultant, and a teacher.  He has been CEO and/or Chairman of several successful corporations and on the boards of over a dozen. Over the last 14 years he has provided funding for university-based research on political violence and supported numerous violence prevention projects in West Africa. The projects Milt funds, of which Purdue Peace Project is the most recent, share a commitment to prevention initiatives that are developed and led by local leaders and communities.

War is illogical and devastating. The challenge is to find ways to avoid it. With this in mind, I decided early in 2001 to contribute to meeting that challenge, despite having no education or experience in peacebuilding. I hoped that with objectivity, determination, and a focus on getting results, I might find a way.

After a couple years of groping for a way to contribute, I was still at sea. Needing guidance, I convened a group of 10 professionals in the field to brainstorm a path toward ending war that might actually be effective. The group called itself the Reducing Political Violence Action Group (RPVAG). RPVAG met five times over the course of a year and their advice was to find ways to encourage and assist local leaders to take the actions that local people believed would prevent threatened violence. We decided to support violence prevention efforts whose guiding principle was local leadership and local autonomy in decision-making.

Guinea Bissau Voters Building Peace Forum

Voters cast their ballots in a 2009 presidential election in Guinea Bissau.

RPVAG recommended initiating a test case to validate their proposal and selected the tiny West African country of Guinea-Bissau as the site. Guinea-Bissau had experienced a disastrous civil war five years earlier and, according to analysis from inside and outside the country, appeared to be on the brink of a return to chaos. Since few other outside organizations were active there, the effects of our efforts would be more apparent.

A member of RPVAG with extensive peacebuilding experience offered to run the experiment. He convened the heads of ten local civil society organizations to determine how best to prevent a recurrence of warfare in the country. At the time, an upcoming national election was expected to trigger an upswing in violence and the civil society organization leaders decided to launch a campaign for non-violent, orderly elections. I lent financial support to this effort and our international group lent ideas and suggestions, but the campaign was led, and all key decisions were made by, the local leaders.  This was, and continues to be, the guiding force behind the work I support.

The campaign started about ten weeks before the election and employed radio ads, t-shirts, and banners. The message of free, fair, and peaceful elections was carried throughout the country by individuals associated with the local civil society organizations we were engaging with. When election day arrived, it was entirely peaceful. However, when no candidate won a majority, a run-off was required about five weeks later. The local leaders revived their campaign and, again, the election was held without violence and an orderly transfer of power was achieved. The total cost of each campaign was about $10,000.  This sum is very small compared to what donors normally lend to democracy assistance, peacebuilding, and development efforts, but it was an efficient use of my small donation as I believe it contributed to the peaceful elections.

Building on our success in Guinea-Bissau, I then helped start a new organization called BEFORE, which focused on better governance as a way to prevent political violence. While so doing, we became aware of two situations on the ground which threatened the peace. In both cases, we supported local leaders to take action, and they averted violence.

With three successes validating the local leadership approach, I wanted to focus all of my effort on this method of peacebuilding. At about this time, Purdue University, my alma mater, contacted me. The school was interested in a local leadership approach to violence prevention, having followed a similar approach in blighted urban areas in the US. The Purdue Peace Project (PPP) was established in late 2011.

Berekum Peace Committee Building Peace Forum

The Purdue Peace Project facilitated the formation of the Berekum Peace Committee, a group of local citizens focused on solving chieftaincy disputes.

By supporting local leaders and citizens coming together and making decisions about how to prevent impending violence in their communities, PPP helped avert violence in two situations in Ghana. It is now supporting local efforts to prevent political violence in Liberia and Nigeria as well, and the outlook for reducing the potential for violence is good in every case. More recently, PPP is supporting a public awareness campaign around Monrovia to educate citizens about Ebola virus prevention and dismiss misinformation about the virus. The Pen-Pen Peace Network, a local network of motorcycle drivers, market women, police, members of the Ministry of Transport, and Pen-Pen customers is leading the campaign, which also created hand-washing stations around the city.

Enormous amounts of effort and money have been spent applying the theories of outside experts to preventing violence in developing countries. Results have often been disappointing. Other organizations are now relying on local leadership to reduce the incidence of warfare. Some of the organizations include Peace Direct and American Friends Service Committee. So far, especially considering the cost, the results are most encouraging. Results of PPP’s work can be viewed here.

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