People-to-people exchanges foster long-term peace: examples from the Western Balkans

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Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Summer 2015. (Photo by the author)

Between April 10-13, QCEA partnered with the Conference of European Churches (CEC) to organize an exchange for youth from the Serb minority in Croatia and the Croat minority in Serbia. This was a unique opportunity for the youth to meet one another and discuss their experiences as minority groups as well as the wider issues of reconciliation between their countries. In Brussels, the young people met government and EU institution representatives as one group, engaged in mediation sessions, and cooked together. This type of people-to-people exchange enables communities to connect through a variety of activities which is, in the long-term, conducive to peacebuilding.

The QCEA Peace Programme research project is exploring a diverse range of peacebuilding tools, which can take on multiple forms and lead to different outcomes. People-to-people exchanges are one example that foster trust and solidarity between groups and can generate greater mutual understanding as well as internal reflection on one’s own reality and values. In conflict or post-conflict environments, social relationships are often splintered, and stereotypes and prejudices may hinder reconciliation. People-to-people exchanges can create a safe space to exchange life stories and foster empathy through active listening and storytelling. Individuals can safely discuss their differences but also realise commonalities that are the foundation for building positive relationships and generating new ideas.

Including youth in people-to-people exchanges is integral to long-term, multigenerational peacebuilding. Through consultations with local activists, in the 1990s and 2000s Quaker peace workers in the former Yugoslavia recognized the need to engage young people in dealing with the past, and developed open spaces for young people to come together and talk. This allowed for dialogue between groups who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to openly share their experiences. Realising that peace work cannot be a short-term project, Quaker initiatives took time to establish relationships built on integrity and trust. Therefore, seminars and peace academies focused on bringing youth together were not conceptualized as one time events but part of a comprehensive, multigenerational approach to long-term peace.

While youth engagement and dialogue are recognised by many policy makers and activists as foundational to long-term peace, few regional exchanges exist in the Western Balkans that bridge young people from different backgrounds. Three initiatives provide examples of this type of engagement. First, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) which was inspired by the Franco-German Youth Office set up after WWII and is a regional exchange programme with a mission to bring youth from the post-conflict countries of the Western Balkans closer together. It is led by young people and builds connections between youth in the region to engage them in the ongoing transitional justice and democratisation processes. Second, the Nansen Dialogue Network supports intercultural education projects. The Nansen Dialogue Center in Bosnia-Herzegovina gathers various people from politics and education together to discuss potential solutions and institutional changes that promote joint understanding and conflict transformation. Third, the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) is in the process of becoming an organization that will promote reconciliation and cooperation between youth in the region by establishing connections between governments and civil society to ensure youth are included in policy developments in the Western Balkans.

Responding to the lack of youth programmes in the region, in 2013 I co-founded the Mostar Summer Programme (MSYP) which brings together high school students from Mostar, city in Bosnia-Herzegovina that is socially, politically, and economically fragmented since the violence it experienced in the 1990s. The programme also welcomes participants from the Western Balkan region and internationals. For three weeks, young people interact both inside and outside the classroom through discussions, volunteering, field trips, practical skills trainings, and social activities. MSYP creates a safe, open space for young people to bridge barriers through socializing and learning. I have seen participants return to MSYP year by year, growing more confident in their public speaking and debating skills, and taking on leadership positions in the programme. For example, Emma* participated in MSYP for two consecutive summers, went on to become a teaching assistant, and now is a member of the volunteer management team. In programme surveys and personal conversations, participants revealed how MSYP positively transformed the way they see their city and each other, and how they have been able to form friendships with people they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to meet. In this way, MSYP strengthens social ties between young people and enables them to envision a common future that they can build together.

Lessons learned from youth exchanges in the Western Balkans demonstrate that this form of non-military peacebuilding has the potential to foster long-term peace through building social cohesion both within and between groups. Social cohesion and solidarity is much needed in the challenging geopolitical context not just in the Western Balkans but globally, as many young people face staggering socio-economic challenges. During exchanges, youth can discover common struggles in obtaining education, securing employment, or facing discrimination. This can be the basis for building relationships and fostering values key to peace such as tolerance and diversity. Furthermore, it can be an inspiration for youth to initiate projects that go beyond the exchange to positively change communities in the long-term.

The EU, as a high-level actor in peacebuilding, has the potential to encourage and support these exchanges and create a wider space for youth interaction. While the EU is already involved in people-to-people exchange through education programmes such as Erasmus+, the focus could expand to creating and sustaining safe spaces within communities where youth from various backgrounds can learn and work together year round. Erasmus+ brings young people together through formal education and international learning on a large scale. The EU could learn from examples of youth initiatives in the Western Balkans to expand its conceptualisation of youth exchange to include daily interactions that address root causes of conflict but also allow for youth to come together and envision a common future. Youth exchanges on local, national, and regional, levels could provide a set of building blocks for durable peace and greater mutual understanding amongst youth both inside and outside the EU.

*pseudonyms

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