International trends in peace action and research — from south to north and into the future

It is time for the world to pay greater attention and learn not from the tragedies of the Global South, but from its growing initiatives for peace.

Both physicists and social scientists now agree that time and space are more fluid, malleable and subjective constructs than had previously been imagined. Yet, when asked about the proper length of training for a satyagrahi (a devoted practitioner of Gandhian nonviolence), Gujarat Vidyapith Vice Chancellor Narayan Desai paused for a moment, repeated the question almost to himself (“the proper length to train for nonviolence?”) and, with a slight twinkle in his eye, responded: “A lifetime!” One must plan for a lifetime of study and struggle of the strategies and tactics and history of justice and peace if one is to hope to achieve success!

As Co-Secretary-General of the International Peace Research Association, or IPRA, I am proud of our organization’s history as the premier global consortium of university and college-based academics from every corner of the world, with long-term association with UNESCO, consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and with Nobel award-winning and other distinguished members in our midst. IPRA was founded in 1964, in part by Johan Galtung — widely recognized as the “father of peace studies” — so we gather in celebration of IPRA’s 55th anniversary.

But it is also important to proclaim, in these times of apparent crisis, that there is an African-Asian-American connection — a South-South connection — which must ripple across the world if we are to survive and thrive as a species and planet.

The Asia Pacific Peace Research Association (IPRA/Matt Meyer)

We don’t say this because we have held vibrant conferences throughout 2019 on Asia, African and South American soil: in Jakarta and Sao Paulo, Cape Town, Catania and Winnipeg. We don’t say this rhetorically, because it will make for happy audiences or for good, conscientious headlines. And we don’t say these things alone: Elise Boulding, a founder of the global discipline of peace studies, wrote as an endorsement of my first book, “Guns and Gandhi in Africa,” that all educators the world over must stop simply learning about Africa, but must endeavor to learn from the vast array of merging African researchers and writers, activists and campaigners working so creatively to make a better world. Elise has since joined the ancestors, like so many greats among us. But her comment 20 years ago is no less poignant today.

It is time for the world to pay greater attention and learn not from the tragedies of the Global South, but from its staunch and growing initiatives for peace.

If we are to understand as a global community the important trends and future possibilities for peace action and peace research, south to north and back again, we must all be clear about the significance of Global South scholarship as well as grassroots resistance. We must take heed of this innovative work if we are to build effective global movements for lasting social change.

The long title of a book we launched last year is “Connecting Contemporary Africa-Asian Peacemaking and Nonviolence: From Satyagraha to Ujamaa.” It suggests a trajectory from the Indian movements of half a century ago to the unfinished movements of the Global South today. We had originally wanted to reverse it, with the sub-title becoming the title, but the publisher was afraid that too few people would know what “satyagraha” and “ujamaa” meant! So perhaps it is correct to clarify and provide some definitions.

First, satyagraha, was a concept developed by Mohandas Gandhi during the fight for Indian independence from Britain, with a focus on various types of disciplined nonviolence. It is very important to not make the mistake which many, many scholars — even in India today — continue to make about the Indian movements. Gandhi neither invented nor was a strict adherent of passive resistance or pacifism. The concepts of struggle without arms predated Gandhi, in Indian and all over the world, as both an ideology and as a tactical practice.

What Gandhi did, in coining and developing “satyagraha,” was to suggest that a disciplined cadre of followers had to develop — in themselves and in their strategies — an understanding that the force of truth and soul (or spirit) and love could be converted into a powerful tool to weaken oppression and win victories for the oppressed. This was always much more than a “turning the other cheek,” though Gandhi certainly relied on Hindu, Christian, Muslim and other spiritual teachings to build the soul force aspect of satyagraha. By doing unarmed battle with the very soul of the “enemy” Gandhi hoped to eliminate enemies altogether and to thus help render helpless the systems of injustice which were upheld by those insistent on creating poor and unworthy “others.”

This wasn’t a simplistic wish that all people would treat one another better, it was a strategic and calculated risk based on the belief that taking on the hardships of an oppressive reality without retaliating and trying to flip that reality onto the oppressor, slowly but surely the number of those willing to oppress would dwindle, the masses of those fighting for freedom would drastically increase, and the systems of oppression would weaken until rendered impotent. Speaking truth to power, building massive movements in every small town, village, city, neighborhood and street was absolutely essential. Firing a single shot in retribution for injustice was not. That is satyagraha in a nutshell. Consciousness is a central component to satyagraha, and even those who have taken up arms have echoed the most basic of Gandhian principles. I think of the great U.S. anti-slavery abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who single-handedly help free over 300 slaves, but commented: “I could’ve freed a lot more if only they understood that they were slaves.”

Satyagraha is based on a mass-based understanding, belief, and willingness to take action: if more and more people work seriously for peace and justice, then peace and justice will become an inevitability.

Let us then turn to the Swahili word and concept, ujamaa.

“To globalize the world, means to democratize it, and to democratize it means you give up powers to others”

Some decades after the independence of India, as the freedom movements were making their way across the African continent, using both armed struggle and nonviolence means, Julius K. Nyerere sought to bring as much unity, African-centered knowledge, and grassroots power as he could to the developing Tanganyika and later Tanzania. Though more literally translated to “extended family,” for Nyerere the term would become synonymous with social and economic enhancement through village-based socialism. For much more than simply Tanzania, however, the ujamaa concept inspired millions across the continent, who experiments in alternative economics continue to this day.

It is fashionable to suggest that Mozambique or Angola’s communism, or Namibia or Zimbabwe’s socialism, were dismal failures. But it is difficult to look on the continent or elsewhere and point to a great success in capitalist terms! If one it to look for some mix of democracy and economics, of freedom for the individual to earn and prosper as well as for the community to survive and to thrive, we must surely look to the health of the village to ensure that we are heading in the correct direction. A few super-rich men, at the top of society in this country or in mine, surely do not indicate that country’s basic economic or social health, just the opposite. Thus, our emphasis on ujamaa.

It is worth telling a story here of when I was blessed to spend some time with Mwalimu Nyerere, at his simple home in Butiama, north of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Mwalimu, by the way, is the respectful nick-name which the Tanzanian people bestowed upon Nyerere and he accepted. It simply means “teacher,” which Nyerere was before he became a master statesman. Nyerere insisted that no title such as “Mahatma” — which means “great soul” in Hindi — would deify him or make him more than the hard-working man he sought to be. So, I sat in Mwalimu’s living room, surrounded by books and some African art, and listened spellbound as he discussed his years as president, as leader of the Organization of African Unity, and his years in retirement. I remember distinctly as he sweetly explained that he had nothing against the people of the United States but had absolutely pledged never to set foot inside my country, not even to speak at the U.N., while conservative leaders occupied the White House and other leading positions of power. He would not enter the United States, despite his many friends from there, while that country-empire waged wars and served as policemen all across the globe.

Mwalimu’s reflections on ujamaa were clearly not about past successes or failures, but about the ways in which the concepts of grassroots communalism remained relevant for today. Our talks took place some years after Nyerere had resigned from all political life, but his wry wit and broad, embracing smile only softened slightly the obviously serious ideas he still had on the issues of our times.

“There is a movement in the world that is quite good,” Mwalimu noted, “questioning the powers of the nation-state. But at present the relationship of peoples in the world is through the nation-state, the defense of the nation-state, etc. Why doesn’t the international community move? Inevitably we are globalizing relations, why don’t we globalize governments also? But the big powers don’t want to globalize governments because they want both.”

This Nyerere stated five years before the advent of WiFi and decades before popular usage of laptops or the modern mobile phone!

“They want to be able to control the world and not be controlled by it. To globalize the world, means to democratize it, and to democratize it means you give up powers to others,” Nyerere continued.

“For ujamaa, I was thinking of an existing African system to build on — I did believe that you don’t have to absorb things from outside. Society is a living thing, you can grow, you can develop, you can use ideas from the outside, but you have to have a base because you are a people. Being a people, you have to have your own base and on the basis of that base you continue developing yourself. If you are building society in terms of equality — even from a purely Marxist point of view (and I was not a Marxist) — all basic societies (what they call primitive societies) build upon the individual, but an individual in society … Why don’t we build ujamaa on the basis of the attitudes which we already have here?”

For Tanzania, in Nyerere’s viewpoint and that of my pacifist Pan African mentor Bill Sutherland — a close friend of Nyerere’s for whom we are currently celebrating the centennial year of his birth — the experiment of ujamaa in Tanzania was never given a chance to get off the ground. This was mainly due to Tanzanian politicians and bureaucrats in fear of giving up just the types of petty power which Mwalimu discussed with us. The vision of ujamaa, however, lives on — as we showcased in the recent book on “Connecting Contemporary” people’s movements.

Indian scholar Vidya Jain and I wrote in our introduction:

“Social change activists, academics, and pedagogues talk, write, and push for change whatever the historic time period. But there can be little doubt that the second decade of the 21st century has given rise to a rapid rate of intense movement building and powerful attempts to create a full social transformation. The crisis of capitalism has generated great economic and political turmoil, as well as environmental devastation thereby affecting every corner of our planet. In addition to the heightened oppression and repression that inevitably arises in its midst, we have also seen tremendous opportunities for grassroots social change practitioners to intensify their efforts by creatively pressing for a lasting peace centered wholly on justice and pursed largely through nonviolent means.

Although there is much experience related to this dynamic emerging from the slums of a divided Europe and the favelas of Latin America (for example, Brazilians protesting in record numbers when the world tried to watch its Olympic games oblivious to the situation), this book is deliberately focused on new movements, as well as new questions and answers, created by a new generation of peace practitioners in Asia and Africa. While not officially sponsored or published by the International Peace Research Association (IPRA), there is no getting around the fact … that many of the papers in this volume were originally presented in preliminary form … at the inaugural conference of IPRA’s African Peace Research and Education Association.”

It is not surprising, looking back, that the first Nobel Peace prize awarded to a person from the Global South (aside from the nod to League of Nations President Carlos Saavedra Lamas) was to an African: African National Congress leader Chief Albert Luthuli. Today, Luthuli’s daughter, Ambassador Thandi Luthuli Gcabashe, graced our new book with a foreword, echoing the theme of today’s talk and our Afro-centric assertions.

Writing about the historic inter-play between peace-force and the continuing struggles against colonialism, neocolonialism, re-colonization, cultural imperialism, militarization (and Africom), capitalism and the multinationals, patriarchy, male supremacy, white supremacy, homophobia, religious intolerance, and all forms of oppression, Ambassador Luthuli noted: “The significant African organization against western colonialism and oppression, combined with African resistance, indicates that the power of LOVE has invariably made the difference and helped us to rid ourselves of institutional and individual oppressions. It is important that people from all over the world understand this significant reality.”

These trends and this reality should be heartening to us all in the dark days we still face, and dark days ahead. There is no mistaking that we have much work to be done — theoretical and practical, academic and activist, research-oriented and grassroots resistance action-oriented. But the examples noted in this essay and in this book show that not only is another world possible, it is also possible to build it with balance and equilibrium between means and ends.

Build it we must. Together we can!

This story was produced by IPRA Peace Search


Founded in 1964 to advance research on the conditions of peace and the causes of war and violence — with five regional associations covering every corner of the planet — the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) is the world’s most established multi-disciplinary professional organization in the field of peace, human rights and conflict studies.

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