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Press Conference on new Initiative – SPIRIT – Aimed at Student Participation in Resolving Conflict

Press Conference on new Initiative – SPIRIT – Aimed at Student

Participation in Resolving Conflict


With the same players employing, with limited results, the same stale tactics to end long-standing conflicts or diffuse simmering tensions, “we believe peace processes could benefit from fresh ideas [and] an innovative cultural shift,” said Columbia University graduate student Gal Bar Dea today as he previewed the first conference of the United Nations-backed SPIRIT initiative.

Mr. Dea, a graduate student at Columbia Business School, is Chair of the Students Participating in Resolving International Tensions (SPIRIT) programme, which aims to create an open-source platform that will connect individuals all over the world and allow them to contribute to peacebuilding initiatives in key conflict areas.  “It’s time for something new,” he said, at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon, and added:  “This is a Google, Twitter and Facebook world; things can and should be done differently.”

The inaugural SPIRIT conference will open at Headquarters tomorrow at 9 a.m.  It will bring together graduate students from top schools all over the world with representatives from the United Nations, business, non-governmental organizations, academia, think tanks and diplomacy, said Mr. Dea, adding that, throughout the day, the participants will aim to inject fresh, young spirit into proposals for three long-standing international peacebuilding processes.

[From November through December 2009, student teams from over 50 schools around the world were invited by SPIRIT to submit creative plans for alleviating violence and/or suffering in three regions:  The Afghanistan–Pakistan border region; Colombia; and Israel-Palestine.  In January 2010, 8 of the 29 submitting teams were selected and invited to the SPIRIT conference.  There they will present their plans and participate in workshops with experts from all relevant fields.]

Mr. Dea was joined by Lennart Crain, another graduate student at Columbia Business School, as well as Josefine Roos (master’s candidate), and Heather Gilmartin, both students that University’s School of International and Public Affairs.  Also on the panel was Holly Lynch, a graduate of Harvard University, who is currently Group Strategy Director at StrawberryFrog, an advertising and strategic innovation company that specializes in sparking cultural movements.

Moderating the press conference was Juan-Carlos Brandt, Chief, Advocacy and Special Events, Outreach Division of the United Nations Department of Public Information.  He hailed the Department’s partnership with SPIRIT as its first-ever collaboration working with young adults who all had a passion for critical issues on the United Nations agenda.

“The voice and ideas of youth are a priority for us,” Mr. Brandt continued, adding that the SPIRIT initiative also offered an important opportunity for the Information Department and the wider United Nations to engage in a meaningful partnership that sought results and advanced the development of projects that promoted peace.

“It goes beyond typical opportunities for young professionals to discuss ideas by getting them to focus their efforts on finding practical solutions for regions prone to conflict,” he said, stressing that tomorrow’s conference was not a “one time event,” but would hopefully be part of a process that would grow from year to year.

Mr. Dea said that SPIRIT was the first initiative to try to create a truly cooperative model for peacebuilding.  While current peacebuilding processes were hampered by old ways of thinking, over the past few years, very powerful peace movements and humanitarian initiatives had been sparked and supported by social networks, such as Twitter, YouTube, and, as in the case of Haiti following January’s devastating earthquake, text messaging.

“I feel like we are the first generation in history that can not only organize and connect globally, but that can also take global action,” he said, adding that SPIRIT aimed to connect people with ideas, expertise and resources  from all over the world, so that together, they could work to create innovative peacebuilding processes.

“Think Wiki-Peace,” he continued, noting that tomorrow’s event would be a live representation of what SPIRIT aimed to accomplish online:  an ever-evolving global open-source platform, featuring fresh and energetic discussions among students, experts, diplomats and foundations.  “We hope to get enough support tomorrow from all sides to take the first steps to getting some these initiatives implemented,” he said, adding that the presenting teams hailed from Nigeria, Israel, United Kingdom and the United States and were made up of participants from all around the world

Mr. Brandt added:  “This is one of the stories that are your responsibility to report on […] the kind of thing that can have great repercussions.  It really is the future […] and it’s up to journalists to report on it.”

Responding to questions about future countries or regions the initiative might discuss, Ms. Gilmartin stressed that for the three areas chosen this year -- the Afghan-Pakistan border, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories and Colombia –- SPIRIT hoped discussion would focus on communities affected by violence.  The aim was to identify innovative strategies that would yield real changes on the ground.  Next year, plans were underway to take up some situations in Africa as well as in the Balkans.

Mr. Dea added that there was no region-specific goal; SPIRIT would help create a platform for people to express passion and energy about conflict situations and to share expertise towards opening a peacebuilding dialogue.  The teams were not political affairs experts, but hoped that by driving an open and inclusive dialogue, they could generate innovative and concrete ideas.  “We’re not trying to point out who’s right and who’s wrong -- we’re trying to fix the [global peacebuilding] mechanisms,” which currently lacked energy and innovation.

To questions about funding, he said that the students had treated the venture like a “start-up”.  So, while they had a couple of major backers, including the Ong Family Foundation, he said the group had mainly just reached out to family and friends, and other people who believed in the project.  He added that, for tax purposes, SPIRIT currently operated under the umbrella of the Columbia University School of Business.  Here, Ms. Lynch added that SPIRT was not a “student programme” that would die at the end of the school year, or over the summer break.  The seeds would be planted at the United Nations today and tomorrow, but the movement that grew from those seeds could be lead by “anybody anywhere.”

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For information media. Not an official record.