Hollywood star and philanthropist Forest Whitaker, who famed movies including ‘The Last King Of Scotland’, has launched a project in South Sudan, working with young people to spread his message of peace.
In an interview with The Niles, he spoke about goals, setbacks and why childhood experiences of gang violence persuaded him to campaign for peace:
Q: Why did you decide to work in South Sudan?
A: As a humanitarian, I try to help bring peace to people and communities that have been affected by conflicts, violence and economic turmoil. I believe in connecting, empowering and inspiring young people across the planet — from South Sudan to South Central Los Angeles.
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Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative (WPDI)Peace is never simply an absence of war; it is, in my view, an attitude of openness to others and a readiness to choose dialogue over violence.
Following my experience working on conflict resolution and peace-building with former child soldiers in Uganda, I wanted to identify other communities that could benefit from this type of training. I firmly believe that efforts at peace and reconciliation should include the potential of youth for peace.
Adults make youth a part of war – as victims and perpetrators in conflicts, especially when belligerents enrol child-soldiers – but they rarely, if ever, give them a voice in building peace. I believe that this is a mistake: working with youth may prove the best approach to foster long term peace.
My projects aim to demonstrate the role of youth in the stability of their national and local communities by giving them a role for peace and security and by giving them opportunities to develop projects of their own, through which they can become civic actors as well as economic players.
We saw immense needs and great opportunities in South Sudan – as a new nation which is still writing its national narrative and where 72% of the population is below the age of 30. Many of the people I have met in South Sudan, particularly the youth with whom we have worked, are eager to propose and explore solutions for living together in peace. Finally, we selected South Sudan based on our partnerships and existing connections to the region.
Q: You are the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation. Will UNESCO also be the one overseeing Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative (WPDI) activities?
A: UNESCO is continually updated about our activities for peace and reconciliation. It is a key partner of WPDI, especially given that as Goodwill Ambassador and Special Envoy, I have the honour of being personally designated to advocate and disseminate the values and principles of UNESCO. I work to promote these values as part of my work since the objective of UNESCO is to build the defences of peace in the minds of people.
Q: How will the project be implemented given South Sudan’s current crisis?
A: First, I should say that the security of our teams and participants is our most important concern. To ensure that the project can be implemented in the safest conditions, we maintain relations with UN agencies and local as well as national authorities. We moved the project from the Jonglei State to Eastern Equatoria based on security concerns. As soon as the conflict erupted in December 2013, my very first move was to inquire about the people involved in the project, including their families.
We even managed to evacuate some of them out of the country for a short period and provided them with emergency grants. But there is a second dimension in the question: I should say that we are not developing this project despite the crisis in the country. Rather, we are developing this project because there is a great need to address this crisis through means other than weapons.
When we identified Jonglei for our pilot phase, we were aware of tensions, but it seemed essential to help work on minimising them. Our objective is to help establish a kind of early warning system for peace and security. The youth we trained in Jonglei have proven that this approach can work.
On that matter, I want to stress that we selected our group so that it embodies the ethnic diversity of Jonglei State and that, while the conflict has developed along ethnic lines, the youth we have trained have chosen to ignore these divisions in order to communicate and help each other through the crisis.
Q: Which are the target populations?
A: WPDI focuses on youth in communities impacted by conflict, armed violence, insecurity, and ethnic tensions. I choose to focus on youth because they have a huge role to play in peace-building. Youth have a unique potential for openness, energy, creativity, connectivity, which can be harnessed to benefit their communities. WDPI pursues a holistic approach including a unique mix of peace-building, conflict resolution, mediation, life skills, vocational training, and technology skills.
Q: Given the fact that some of your work has already been undermined by violent incidents in Jonglei, what do you plan to do with infrastructures already set up there?
A: Although we had to readjust our project in Jonglei, we had already trained 22 young people to become ambassadors for prevention and reconciliation. This, in itself, is a small victory against despair. When violence did erupt, the youth we had trained utilised the skills they had gained, as well as cell phones given to them, to communicate with one another and to help each other escape combat areas. Fortunately, all of them survived the outbreak of violence and we intend to mobilise them again in the future.
We are now relocating the program and its infrastructure to Eastern Equatoria, and we plan to continue to mobilise youth to empower and support one another through the conflict training, ICT skills and computer centres provided by WPDI and its partners, including Ericsson and Zain.
Q: While addressing a reception in Juba, you said your project will now target youths in Eastern Equatoria. Why did you choose that area?
A: After my team conducted a series of on-the-ground assessments, we decided to relocate the programme to Eastern Equatoria because it was a relatively stable and secure environment to conduct peace-building activities, and because the complex social and economic challenges in the region create a great need for our work. Our work there includes working with local youth to rehabilitate a road, which will make a difference in the lives of 300,000 people.
Q: How much might the whole project cost and how long is it expected to run?
A: The project is a five-year commitment, with a current budget of US$ 2.2 million.
Q: Accountability has been a question in project circles. How will you know that your project is being carried out out since you only come to the country once in a long while?
A: Accountability is an essential part of our project. As a youth-based network, our primary concern is to create effective ownership among the participants. Ensuring ownership is the cornerstone of accountability because without ownership, accountability risks to be a mere set of perfunctory procedures that do not really help you monitor and evaluate what is really happening. We cannot track 18 or 20 young people every day as this would be counterproductive.
The network is itself a means of accountability in the sense that we can directly gauge what participants do with it and where gaps may appear. As for accountability in a more traditional sense, WPDI plans to have five staff members on the ground, operating programmes, monitoring progress, and reporting on projects outcomes.
Additionally, WPDI works with partners, including UNESCO Juba and UNMISS, which are key to ensuring transparency and effectiveness on the ground. As for myself, I maintain regular contact with my teams – I spend a lot of time in teleconferences – and I plan to visit the project a couple times each year, as I have done so far.
Q: Apart from peace building, what more is WPDI thinking of doing in the long run?
A: Peace-building is our primary long-term focus. We have a five-year plan to develop several more projects in each of the South Sudanese states, including Central Equatoria and Western Equatoria in the next two to three years. We are also going to be expanding our programs in Mexico and Uganda, and possibly starting the Youth Peacemaker Network in Myanmar.
The long-term goal of the WPDI is to build a coalition of young peace-leaders who will encourage reconciliation, peace-building, nonviolent conflict resolution, and mediation in regions affected by conflict. My personal hope is that every person understands that peace begins with our daily efforts in local communities.
Q: People know Forest Whitaker as an actor. Does that make you a role model in this project?
A: I consider myself to be an artist and a humanitarian, and as such I seek to help individuals and communities affected by conflict to find peace. I grew up in South-Central Los Angeles where tribal warfare is called gang violence. In my neighbourhood, the violence was between two gangs known as the Crips and the Bloods – engaged in conflicts not unlike the Hutu versus the Tutsi. It was brother against brother, fighting for survival. For most of my life I’ve struggled to understand how it happens and to find ways to help stop it.
Q: You talked of Information technology and setting nine ICT centres across Eastern Equatoria; high level illiteracy persists in the area among the youth. How will such ICT program help?
A: Illiteracy is a big problem in this part of the world, especially in South Sudan where only 15% of men and women are functionally literate. When I was in South Sudan recently I spoke at a Literacy Teachers Graduation Ceremony alongside South Sudan’s Minister of Education John Gai Yoh Nyuot. At the ceremony I urged donors to continue funding literacy and education programmes, and I have pledged to continue my efforts through the WPDI to support literacy programmes, notably through the community projects that the YPN participants will develop.
I believe that literacy education and ICT programs support one another. Technology and ICT training are important tools because they provides access to resources for peace-building, as well as e-learning modules for basic education, vocational training. Finally, they provide a platform to connect and to share stories and best practices through the internet and social media.
Improving the educational opportunities for South Sudanese youth is vitally important and we are working hard to achieve these goals.
Q: What message do you have for your fans in this country?
A: My message to the people of South Sudan is to remember that peace can only come from within – within individuals and communities. By demonstrating peace through our daily actions and attitudes, we can create a ripple effect to help build a more peaceful future for all.