Peace has a PR Problem: How would you fix it?

Today is the UN International Day of Peace. You probably won’t have heard of it. Harriet Lamb, CEO of International Alert, explains why that matters.

Our dictionaries mirror what’s happening in society. And the words we use shape how we see events and how we act. So it’s a sad reflection that dictionaries are full of the words of war: from warmongering to terrorism, and yet ‘peacebuilding’ is so under-recognised that you won’t find it in a single English dictionary.

Luckily, it’s a joy of languages that they constantly evolve. Old words slink away, unused and unloved, to the back of the cupboard. Their place is taken by brash new words, springing up on our streets and in our tweets and richocheting around the world. Last year, for example, ‘hangry’ jumped into the dictionary – referring to people being so hungry that they become angry. Other newbies include ‘totes’, ‘adorbs’, ‘bingeable’ and, entering just last week, ‘instagrammable’. Peacebuilding is looking positively middle-aged at over 40 years, so what’s taking so long?

It is an oversight which 19 peacebuilding organisations have clubbed together to change. We’re campaigning to get peacebuilding recognised – supported by everyone from actor Mark Rylance through to the Middle East Minister Alistair Burt. We’re hoping for positive responses from the dictionaries to announce today, the UN International Day of Peace.

Sadly, the dictionaries are not the only ones giving the cold shoulder to peacebuilding, which we define as those activities that tackle the root causes of conflict and enable societies to resolve differences without violence. Politicians often don’t even know that such an activity – and so policy option – exists. They haven’t heard of peacebuilding in their daily lives, and so they don’t think about it when they get to power. Alternative responses to brewing violence overseas, such as sending in the fighter jets or ‘putting boots on the ground’, are well known levers to pull and have an appealing kinetic energy. When prime ministers want to look strong against dictators or jihadists, nothing looks quite as tough as a vast black machine taking off: Look at what we are doing, it screams.

By contrast, peacebuilding seems too fluffy, too much motherhood and apple pie, too weak, too big, too slow, too worthy. Peace, it seems, has a PR problem.

And we urgently need to fix that as the world slides ever deeper into violence. As we speak, a record 68.5 million people have been forced to flee war or persecution worldwide. More people being killed in battle. More civilians, especially women and children, dying than ever before.

So peace is needed more than ever. Yet only US$10 billion is spent every year on peacebuilding, compared to an astounding $1.7 trillion in global military expenditure.

Serious as peacebuilders are, we’ve built up our evidence base. We know that peacebuilding is effective, and cost-effective – and popular. A just released public opinion poll conducted by International Alert with the British Council and polling agency RIWI across 15 countries from UK to Ukraine, Nigeria to the USA, found strong popular support for prevention as better than cure. Across the world, given choices, people ranked ‘dealing with the reasons why people fight’ top of their list of ways for governments to promote peace – way ahead of military, diplomatic or humanitarian options. Governments can look strong and win popular support by backing peace.

Now we just need to win the argument with policy-makers. So it was that last week, I was sitting in the uber-trendy Lido Café in Herne Hill, surrounded by yummy-mummies, having a coffee with Duncan, both of us scratching our heads about peacebuilding’s low profile. What can we do to turn things round?

What have we done so far? First off, the world’s leading peacebuilding organisations have come together to put peacebuilding on the map by communicating better with the public. We know we have a problem that needs radical change to fix it. At a ‘Maniacal Business Attack’ (trendy US term for a two-day brainstorm) in DC last year, we looked at other transformative global campaigns inspired, for example, by how the gay rights movement won the day for marriage when they shifted from talking about equal rights to talking about love. Genius. So what’s the shift that we need to make to build a vibrant, modern, strong peace movement?

We haven’t yet had our breakthrough moment; we are still working away to find solutions. We know we need to tell our stories of impact better; to enlist the backing of the military; to engage the public better with our work; to bring in more celebrity support and more unusual voices. Duncan’s bacon buttie clearly getting the better of him, he suggested we enlist Jeremy Clarkson. I didn’t jot that one down – but I get his point: we need surprise supporters.

Duncan’s next bright idea was to write a blog, asking for people’s brightest and best ideas of how we could tackle peace’s PR problem. So here we are.

Credit: International Alert/Search for Common Ground

Meanwhile, as peacebuilders, we agreed to kick-off with getting peacebuilding into the dictionary. And today that step is at least partly accomplished. Harper Collins, MacMillan and Cambridge dictionaries have agreed to add the word. Harper Collins online dictionary are even making ‘peacebuilding’ their word of the day today.

Getting into the dictionary is just the first step. Next is to call on the UK government to step up its commitment to building peace, asking  Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to include concrete commitments to reducing violence in the ‘Global Britain’ strategy to be announced in March 2019.

We live in hope that, helped by your ideas, peacebuilding could hit the heights of ‘Word of the Year’. Recent winners have been fake news, populism, and austerity. Let’s hope peacebuilding can be next. That would be ‘totes adorbs’. And only possible if you get in touch with your ideas and offers of help…….

And here’s a short (2m) video summary of the public opinion research

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


11 Responses to “Peace has a PR Problem: How would you fix it?”
  1. We prefer military action because, as you say, it looks like action. But also because it offers the promise to quickly turn us away from disaster, to improve the situation. The counter-factual is movement in a continuing downward spiral, whilst the forceful intervention results in an upward line. There is a sense of energy. In contrast peacebuilding is an action that prevents the spiral downward in advance; it offers a relatively unattractive flat line when there is no apparent crisis.

    The other problem we have with paying to maintain peace is that there is no industry that benefits, unlike the armaments or military industry. Peacebuilding does not employ enough people or support parts of an economy. So, it does not get political support.

    As for the word, peacebuilding, let’s hope it does not go the way of the word peacemaker which is no longer unambiguously peaceful. A peacemaker can have elements of violence now that weapons have taken the label: handgun, bomber aircraft, missile.

    The actions of building or maintaining peace are distinct from enforcing peace: the difference is violence. The dictionary definition could make this clearer by stating, “A broad range of peaceful measures…”.

  2. Matt Moran

    A thought-provoking article, and definitely worthy of action to put peace-building onto the political and societal agendae and keep it there. I am surprised that the UN Sustainable Peace Initiative isn’t mentioned in it nor the recent UN-World Bank study – “Pathways to Peace”. The term “peace-building” has found its way into those initiatives.

    The Shalom Centre for Conflict Resolution & Reconciliation established in Kenya in 2009 by Irish missionary, Fr. Patrick Devine, focuses on conflict transformation and peace-building. It is achieving considerable success on the ground, as well as recognition and acclaim internationally. Its Chairman, Fr. Devine, delivers regular guest lectures in universities and institutes on their successful approach. In order to advance the concept and practice of peace-building, he made a substantial submission to the current public consultation on Ireland’s oversea’s aid programme. See

  3. We are constantly being astonished at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt-of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.


    I often wondered about the choice of words that Gandhi choose to describe his non-violent strategy. For instance, Sathyagraha- The Truth force. He contemplated an “Army”- Shanthi Sena (Peace Army)- all militaristic. The prophet of peace using words drawn from the military language. Maybe we have to build a 21st Century Shanthi Sena- that which captures energy and dynamism.(
    Just saying peace building though sounds polite it misses the need for active -force needed to make it happen.

  4. Patrick Devine, SHALOM (SCCRR)

    Well done Harriet in this positive initiative to have “peacebuilding” included in a number of dictionaries. Undoubtedly some ‘conflict’ concerning clarity and perceptions about peacebuilding as a word, concept and process will emerge and is to be encouraged. Context and the definitions of conflict, violence and peace are always pertinent to perspectives. Discussions and debates in this manner on peacebuilding are frequently the progressive pathways leading to greater theoretical understanding and a more productive dia-praxis (dialogue-practice) of preventions and interventions. In this respect, conflict of a certain non-violent type can be indeed beneficial!
    For those seeking to engage in peacebuilding on the many continuum stages between manifest conflict and/or structural conflict and the ideals of reconciliation, it is of absolute importance to value empirical research and have knowledge of conflict transformation dimensions and processes. At a minimum, but of absolute importance, to understanding the essence and the processes of peacebuilding is conceptual clarity on the distinctiveness and inter-relationship between manifest violence, structural violence, negative peace, conflict settlement, positive peace and conflict resolution. The threats to peaceful coexistence, tolerance and interdependence are amassing. The analytical skills for peacebuilding were never more needed as our world experiences rapid evolutionary changes in modes of relational co-existence and communication, among others.
    For example, we are living in a world of increasing population size creating demand issues, environmental degradation causing a supply issue, and an ever widening disparity and inequity in the distribution of resources. This is creating a social pressure cooker that is creating a volatile turbulence underneath the lid! Whether it erupts or not depends largely on peacebuilding dynamics. Likewise, in today’s world, peacebuilding has to more and more take cognizance of the increasing proliferation of religious ideological extremism.
    When contextualized within the frameworks of human rights and integral human development, this form of extremism is depositing multifaceted precarious challenges to peacebuilding, especially on the continuum of tolerance-intolerance. This degenerative process involves the intensification of negative radicalization off-loading a fundamentalism of non-violent extremism which is the basis for the terroristic acts of manifest violent extremism. Ultimately the goal of such terrorism is the forceful purging of society of all contrary perspectives and configurations on how society should function. An intolerance of tolerance becomes the order of the day!
    Even in our well known democracies we are witnessing the pervasiveness of a form of non-violent extremism where people are less and less willing to civilly listen to and engage the other perspective, even want the ‘other’ to not have an opportunity of expression, and worse still would perhaps like them banished from the social and political narrative or space. Think of that mindset, and what peacebuilding needs to address! In this regard, perhaps quite soon, a term like fake-peace may hit the airwaves, and enter into daily terminology as it is quite prevalent and a real threat to the ideals advocated in the peace-development-human security nexus espoused in democratic States. Peacebuilding, in respect to definition and intervention-process is immensely impacted by context, conceptual clarity, and the perceptions of what defines typologies of conflict and peace.
    From prevention and intervention perspectives, peace, conflict and development studies are increasingly an imperative for our human and environmental survival. They should be an integral part of educational and formation systems all over the world, without exception. A definition of peacebuilding in a dictionary is a substantive achievement in terms of knowledge, and the development of appropriate analytical skills-peacebuilding techniques. These components are essential for the prevention of negative conflict and for the transformation of manifest and structural violence primarily to negative peace, which is only the absence of physical violence. They are also of equal importance for the transformation of negative peace to the positive peace of reconciliation whereby all parties are mutually committed to the security, development and endurable wellbeing of each other.
    Rev. Patrick Devine, Ph.D, Chairman, Shalom Centre for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation (

    • Tracey Martin

      Scilla Ellsworthy has written a Business Plan for Peace – she is an informed and inspiring speaker armed with practical solutions. Or how about a Netflix series based around a peacebuilder? – there are people in the film world who might be willing to back this – Maxine Peake in the starring role? And, as the video says, peacebuilding in schools would be a great start – in the UK the armed forces regularly visit schools – peace should be given at least equal time.

  5. Helen

    The under-recognition of peacebuilding is partly due to a lack of public consciousness of the term. We are all too familiar with past and present conflicts – images of which are vividly transmitted around the globe through media and through film glorification. Peacebuilding on the other hand is frequently hidden from public view with treaties often negotiated behind closed doors and is related commonly to failures of ceasefires in the public awareness thanks to the above-mentioned media. Bringing awareness of the breadth and depth of the measures taken in peacebuilding, and the challenges faced to prevent conflict, negotiate a treaty and to build a lasting, sustainable peace is a worthy task which deserves widespread support

  6. Camilla

    Before even looking at the issues with peacebuilding, it would be necessary to address the issues with ‘peace’. Most people cannot define peace and in many circles, sadly, the word has negative connotations. You work for peace? You must be a lefty. Or a dreamer. Or a ‘smoker’. So to me the question really is; how can we re-brand peace, give it a new logo and a new image?

  7. Linnea

    Thanks for a very interesting post. I don’t quite agree with “the words we use shape how we see events and how we act”, though. We create words for the concepts we need to talk or write about, and we in particular need specific words for the abnormal. We don’t have a word for the opposite of murderer, for example, unless the word human counts…