At a talk on Thursday evening, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations for Peacebuilding Support Judy Cheng-Hopkins highlighted the crucial role of the international community in stabilizing war-torn nations.
Addressing a crowd of roughly 30 audience members in the Davenport College common room, Cheng-Hopkins — who previously served as the United Nations’ Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees — spoke about challenges that international institutions face when managing post-conflict societies, common misconceptions that people have of peacebuilding and the ways in which small, stabilizing changes can lead to economic development.
Cheng-Hopkins explained that peacebuilding entails building sustainable economic and political foundations, such as establishing land commisions to redistribute land and setting up more inclusive political processes.
“There are few things more important than restoring a country that has been wrecked by civil war,” she said. “Not only is economic progress often reversed and infrastructure destroyed, but it creates entrenched divisions within a country.”
Cheng-Hopkins criticized the international community for often prematurely abandoning the “long process of peacebuilding.” If the underlying factors and disagreements that lead to civil war in the first place are not addressed, she said, violence will relapse even after UN peacekeepers leave — and these nations may become “safe havens for terrorism and drug trafficking,” which threaten the larger international structure.
Citing studies measuring the number of violent conflicts around the world, Cheng-Hopkins pointed to more than 20 countries — mostly ones in Sub-Saharan Africa — that are mired in cycles of violence and poverty.
“If we don’t stay in for the long haul, we’re running the near-certain risk of having to intervene again and again in the future,” she warned.
Cheng-Hopkins said that in addition to impatience, the international community’s peacebuilding efforts can fail if policymakers lack an understanding of the culture and history of the specific country they are helping to rebuild.
Although peacebuilding is a “costly and lengthy endeavor,” she said, it justifies its costs over time. Cheng-Hopkins brought up the UN’s 2004 intervention and ongoing engagement in Burundi as an example of successful peacebuilding, because the international community assisted the nation in building essential infrastructure such as roads and hospitals in order to “overcome the root causes of conflict.”
Cheng-Hopkins said she often has to think “like a venture capitalist” when deciding how to allocate her office’s limited budget across so many countries in dire straits.
“You have to decide where to invest your money in the places most likely to produce peace,” she said.
Throughout the talk, Cheng-Hopkins emphasized that peacebuilding and political stability are the most important preconditions for economic development. Countries with negligible or no violence saw a major decline in poverty from 1981 to 2005, she said, while poverty levels have remained constant in conflict-affected countries.
Cheng-Hopkins also advocated for more women to be involved in peace building and development.
“Women are almost innate peace builders,” she said. “They are natural peace mediators. They want their children to go to school, they want to live in their villages in peace.”
Students said they enjoyed her talk, describing it as inspirational and uplifting.
“It was great to see a female perspective on development, and how influential women can be in developing and rebuilding war-torn countries,” Julia Levinson ’15 said.
Danielle Ellison ’15 said that although Cheng-Hopkins was “focusing on the positive side” of development, it was “uplifting to hear of the active role women are playing in some parts of Africa.”
Forbes Magazine named Cheng-Hopkins one of the ‘10 Most Powerful Women at the UN’ in 2011.