Sun 26 May 2019

Stephen Colegrave interviews Dr Scilla Elworthy about her business approach to peace, and the qualities of feminine intelligence for building a safer world.

Scilla Elworthy, founder of the NGO Peace Direct and co-founder of Rising Women Rising World and FemmeQ, is not the idealist you would expect for someone who has spent her whole life as a peace builder.

Instead, Elworthy has a steely determination which began when she was 13 when she was so upset about Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 that she wanted to leave home and do something about it.

Elworthy has been nominated three times for a Nobel Prize for her work.

Fortunately, Elworthy’s mother persuaded her not to go, but offered instead to help her acquire and develop the skills needed to be more effective in conflict situations. True to her word, two years later she sent her daughter for two weeks to work in a holiday home for concentration camp survivors, to get first-hand experience of victims of conflict.

This was followed by stints working in an orphanage in Algeria and across Africa over the next 10 years. This led Elworthy to be convinced that there is a better way of preventing war and conflict.

Since then, Elworthy has been at the forefront of peace-building and nominated three times for a Nobel Prize for her work with the Oxford Research Group, which she co-founded. That work included developing effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers worldwide and their critics.

Three Most Effective Ways to Build Peace

Where others would give up because the sheer scale of the task of building peace and preventing war on a global scale, Elworthy takes a practical and analytical approach. She has combined her experience with thorough research for her book The Business Plan for Peace whose title alone distances itself from our expected image of peace builders.

As well as reviewing 25 different ways of building peace, Elworthy calculates that the cost of preventing conflict would only be $2 billion over 10 years, as opposed to the $1,789 billion spent each year on war.

Elworthy calculates that the cost of preventing conflict would only be $2 billion over 10 years, as opposed to the $1,789 billion spent each year on war.

Of the 25 ways to build peace considered in the book, Scilla considers just three to be the most urgent methods of preventing conflict:

Firstly, the armaments industries need to be treated like the fossil fuels sector, which would give investment funds good reasons to divest them from their portfolios.

Secondly, more budget and focus needs to go into conflict prevention rather than post-conflict resolution, especially to ensure that all NATO countries have a conflict prevention budget in addition to their defence budgets.

In many ways, the third solution is far more fundamental. War and conflict has been very much a male creation and preserve. A critical part of the solution is to enable and ensure that more women gain powerful and senior positions to prevent conflict as well as to build and create peace.

The Power of Women

Elworthy cites UN figures that in 2009 only 2.5% of people involved in peace negotiations were women and the average length of peace agreements negotiated was five years. Today when women account for even 10% of negotiators, peace agreements can last for more than 15 years.

From experience Elworthy has spotted the reason: “Warlords at peace tables are vying for power, resources, money and positions in a future government, while women bring to the table the needs of orphans, the injured, the widows and those with PTSD. This means that the cycle of violence can be broken, and people can move from revenge to rebuilding.”

Scilla Elworthy – photo by Pal Hansen

The increase in the number of women involved in the testosterone-fuelled world is definitely a powerful agent for change and is happening, albeit from a low base.  “Persuading investors to stop supporting the armaments trade in the same way that environmental groups are targeting fossil fuel producers will take time,” Elworthy told Byline Times“but watch this space….”

Hope for the Future

Significantly, of all the UN Sustainable Development Goals, number 16 for Peace, is the least invested of all the SDGs. This is largely because the concept of peace is vague in most investors’ minds, and they have been given have few measurable examples. Elworthy and her colleagues are now busy changing that.

Moreover, Elworthy is not afraid to open dialogue with the arms industry directly, including at the world’s largest defence and security event which takes place at London’s ExCel centre every two years.

We see huge shifts happening at the grassroots, below the radar of the media, in locally-led initiatives to stop armed violence all over the globe.

Scilla Elworthy

In terms of prevention budgets and plans the signs are more hopeful. As in healthcare, the really powerful intervention is to prevent conflicts happening in the first place. NATO members including Britain, Germany and Holland are beginning to discuss prevention budgets alongside defence budgets. Elworthy is regularly invited to talk to the Armed Forces and respects the skills they bring to preventing and avoiding violent conflict.


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Elworthy self-published her book because she was in a hurry and didn’t want to wait for the conventional publishing route. The Business Plan for Peace takes a complex and seemingly intractable problem and examines in detail how it could be transformed. It also shows the local reader how anyone can take actions to build peace locally or nationally, as well as describing how to learn the skills to do that. It should be required reading for all politicians, military, investors and arm industries.

Elworthy, herself, is optimistic that change is coming: “We see huge shifts happening at the grassroots, below the radar of the media, in locally-led initiatives to stop armed violence all over the globe,” she says. “Of course, this change must involve not only local communities, but industry, multi-nationals and governments.”

Elworthy takes comfort from the way Extinction Rebellion has pushed the environment up the agenda and reckons that something like this is the next step for peace-building.

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