Working in a War Zone

As director of UWM’s Institute of World Affairs, Rob Ricigliano has traveled to some of the world’s most troubled and dangerous areas.
These are his stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, South Africa, the Congo, and Colombia. And his answer to the obvious question: Why would you ever go to these places?

[Read Peace building takes Ricigliano from campus to crisis below the video.]


Peace building takes Ricigliano from campus to crisis

by Kathy Quirk

It’s easier to win the war than the peace.

But it is a challenge Rob Ricigliano has made his life’s work. As the director of UWM’s Institute of World Affairs, he combines experience in war-torn areas ranging from Afghanistan to northern Sudan with research, teaching and writing about building a more peaceful world.

He has summarized much of what he’s learned in his new book, “Making Peace Last.”

He focuses on ways to develop sustainable peace in areas dealing with ongoing conflicts.  The book has been well received by policymakers and researchers.

Ricigliano in Iraq

Car bombs and mortar attacks were so common in Iraq, Ricigliano say he eventually became accustomed to the sound of explosions.

“In his book Rob Ricigliano uses his research and experience to describe not only why so many well-intended peace programs fail, but, more importantly, what can be done to systematically untangle the remaining wars and humanitarian outrages on our watch,” wrote reviewer Jan Egeland, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Ricigliano has worked in many of the world’s most dangerous and troubled places. He’s been involved in peace-building interventions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, Georgia, Colombia, South Africa and elsewhere. He’s worked with political parties in the new Iraqi Parliament; has trained diplomats, aid workers and government officials; and was part of the first U.S. team to teach negotiation at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union. He advises agencies and organizations ranging from the Defense Department to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Moving beyond ‘yes’

Ricigliano’s interest in the art of negotiation and mediation began at Harvard Law School, where he was a teaching assistant for Roger Fisher, author of the classic text on “interest-based” negotiation, “Getting to Yes.”

Working with Fisher opened new doors for Ricigliano, who got involved in U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations as a third-year law student.

After completing law school, he began to look for a nonprofit way to institutionalize what he was doing. He served as executive director of the Conflict Management Group and assistant director of Fisher’s Harvard Negotiation Project, and then joined UWM in 2000. In addition to serving as director of the IWA, he teaches negotiation, international mediation and peace building through the Department of Communication.

Making peace sustainable

Ricigliano spent time in the Democratic Republic of Congo helping to facilitate negotiations between rebel groups and the government.

“Making Peace Last” grew out of his conviction that peace building requires a more coordinated, systematic approach.

“The international community invests billions annually in thousands of discrete projects designed to overcome poverty, stop violence, spread human rights, fight terrorism and combat global warming,” says Ricigliano.“The hope is that these separate projects will add up to lasting societal change in places like Afghanistan. In reality, these initiatives are not adding up to sustainable peace.”

A better approach, says Ricigliano, is to integrate the work of all those involved in an area, after a careful study of the culture, the society and the problems. From there, he says, it’s more possible to find a place in the system where intervention can begin to change the dynamics of the situation.

He uses medical analogies to describe the process – “get an MRI of the region,” make a diagnosis, find a leverage point where intervention can begin to make change, and develop a comprehensive plan customized for the culture and people.

“It’s a very different mode of thinking and planning than most government and nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) do,” says Ricigliano, adding that some leaders are starting to see the value of such systematic, integrated approaches.

Ricigliano does consulting work with the Defense Department, an agency he says is open to trying new, more holistic approaches to winning the peace.  That’s because soldiers often become “armed social workers” after the immediate battle is won, giving the military a strong incentive to find approaches that help stabilize war-torn areas more quickly, and at a lower human and financial cost.

If at first you don’t succeed, admit it

The other key to developing sustainable peace is to admit failures and learn from them, which is challenging for any agency.

“Failures tend to get buried. We need to plan well, but expect some failures. Feedback is essential in the learning process, so we have to be open and honest about setbacks.”

Ricigliano also advocates training more generalists to work in the peace-building process, an approach that is increasingly common among international organizations and agencies. He compares the generalist role to that of a general practitioner working with medical specialists. A generalist who understands the roles and abilities of medical specialists is vital to coordinating medical care for a patient with complex needs.

On campus, he is leading the effort to establish a master’s level program to help develop people with such broad-based peace-building skills. The program is still in the planning process, but Ricigliano says he hopes it could be established in 2013.

Ricigliano strongly believes that peace is possible, in spite of complex challenges.

Every conflict-torn area has its ancient hatreds, bad actors and vested interests likely to disrupt the peace process, he says, “but we actually know a lot about building a sustainable peace. We can do it if we plan, think and work together.”

Videographer, UWM University Communications & Media Relations