Category Archives: Peacebuilding

An pacifist advocating for transgender equality – in the military.

I’m setting myself up for criticism. After all, aren’t Quakers known for our fierce (some would say strident) pacifism and opposition to all things military? So why is this Quaker advocating for the legal right of transgender Americans to serve in the military?

The easy answer is simply that I am also a transgender person, so I feel a profound solidarity with my transgender brothers and sisters in any aspect of our shared struggle for equality as American citizens. Have I placed myself on the horns of moral and spiritual conflict then – pacifism versus equality?


First, the pacifism that Quakers generally espouse runs deep. It isn’t simply about avoiding military service and renouncing war; it’s about avoiding all conditions that give rise to violent conflict in the first place. Many will argue that it is human nature to be competitive, and that on occasion this competition is inherently bound to escalate to violence and sometimes even organized violence at scale – war. What drives competition to become violent conflict is as complex as is human nature, and yet such extreme competition is frequently and appropriately linked to some of the worst attributes of human nature: greed, pride, arrogance, callousness to human suffering, elitism, even evil.

In short, violent conflict – and the need for having a military to defend us – represents human failure at a vast scale. While Americans frequently celebrate our women and men in uniform, and rightly express our gratitude to them for their service, we tend to turn a blind eye to the brutal savagery and devastation of warfare. War leads inexorably to human suffering, often massively. Morality, and our efforts towards building civilized societies, is all about ending human suffering. War and violence stand in our way.

Those who feel called to place themselves in harm’s way to defend us from the devastating and destructive consequences of that massive human failure are rightly hailed for their selfless courage and sacrifice. I’m the grandchild of a Marine Corps general, the daughter of a Marine Corps colonel, the sister of brothers all of whom served in the armed forces, and the aunt of a Navy pilot, so I have lived close to men of commendable patriotism, sacrifice, virtue, and dedication through their service. I have many dear friends (some transgender) who are veterans. I respect them all deeply.

There is another side. Continue reading An pacifist advocating for transgender equality – in the military.

Reflections from an Unrepentant International Development Idealist

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For years and years every Friday morning at 8am, a small group of international development folks of many nationalities would gather for an hour over coffee and fruit in a well-appointed if sunless conference room in the first basement level of the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Whenever I was in Washington (i.e. when I wasn’t working overseas), I would take the opportunity to join them, which meant I was usually one of the regulars. Predominantly attended by World Bank staff, they were happy to include consultants and visitors like me in a common endeavor. In short, we talked values.

Sometimes “values” strayed into religion, or spirituality, or secular humanism. Often there was a guest presenter, and even I made a few presentations along the way.  I do remember some remarkably inspirational discussions…and 9am always came around too fast. We’d then return to our respective worlds of pragmatism, attending to the development “paradigm of the month” and the realities of the various institutional environments that shape how international “development” is supposed to happen.

Yet often I left the World Bank’s basement with the strong sentiment: “if only…”.

Over the years, and even long after the Friday Morning Group ceased (gray-haired regulars retired and younger people could not accommodate Friday meetings that early!), my “if only” list has only grown. Call me an optimist, an idealist, or even out-of-touch, although I would argue that the latter accusation is suspect given my more than 15 years based in developing countries, and more than twice that long doing development work. If you insist on disparaging me, then call me a wishful-thinker who views her world through those rose colored glasses that seem now to have fallen out of vogue. But don’t call me naïve, or a dreamer, or foolhardy…even if I do admit to one fundamental abnormality not shared by the majority of those who have given their careers to international development, poverty alleviation, humanitarian relief, or human rights activism: I am an unrepentant idealist.

Yes, I still believe in the basic goodness of people, and their potential to do the right thing…and for the right reason.

It’s a conviction that I’ve paid dearly for in terms of bucking the system and being an outsider. When I worked at a leading consulting firm and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) put out a comprehensive anti-corruption proposal some years ago, the terms of reference stipulated that all of the experts for the project ought to be economists. I pushed back, arguing that people are moved by many factors, and that we therefore instead ought to offer a balanced team of economists, political scientists, and development ethicists to capture more of the very human dynamics that truly define corruption (and integrity). The proposal was submitted accordingly and was promptly rejected by USAID; the competitor’s winning proposal took USAID at its word and provided only economists. Later at a different consulting firm, the donor’s terms of reference for a project on community-driven development completely ignored gender considerations, and in the draft proposal that I prepared I argued that we should showcase an approach that also featured the purposeful collaboration of men and women. I was told that this wasn’t the way the world (i.e. the patriarchy) worked, my draft of the proposal was rewritten to take out all of the references that I’d included that were based on gender equity, and the firm went on to win the project. My draft would clearly have failed. Continue reading Reflections from an Unrepentant International Development Idealist

Trying harder on Memorial Day

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Memorial Day in the United States is beloved among Americans as the holiday that marks the unofficial start of summer. It’s a day for picnics, barbecues, family outings, and the opening of numerous neighborhood swimming pools. In Washington this year, it’s particularly welcome – after a May that was record-breaking for all the wrong reasons (setting new records for consecutive rainy days, with temperatures far below average). Hooray – we are finally enjoying warm and mostly dry weather!

As is my long-standing practice, I fly the American flag on Memorial Day. In recent years, I even trekked downtown to watch the remarkable spectacle of the countless riders of Harley Davidsons gathered from across the nation, roaring past in memory of those lost or left behind in America’s wars. Most of these riders are of my own generation – the Vietnam War generation – and there is something particularly poignant and oddly moving about these aged and largely ignored veterans of the war that did not go well, asserting their dignity and patriotism amid the mass of rumbling, powerful steel machines.

But then this year The Donald co-opted the riders of Rolling Thunder, at their invitation. What I once viewed as a dignified if unusual procession of honor and commitment is now, for me, reduced to merely a showy prop in the service of an ignorant, dangerous demagogue.  I will go no more to Rolling Thunder.

Despite Mr. Trump’s latest acquisition (Rolling Thunder), patriotism still has a firm grip on me. Perhaps it’s due to having grown up in the U.S. Marine Corps – my grandfather Joseph was a general, my dad Ray was a colonel, my younger brother Ken a Marine tank officer. And since the Marines are part of the Navy Department, I’ll give due Semper Fidelis respect to my next older brother George, a retiree after 20 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy. I was brought up to respect the service – and the sacrifice – of America’s women and men in uniform. And today – Memorial Day – is first and foremost about those who have won the peace for our country, which even I – a Quaker – can get behind.

And I do.

Still, winning the peace is a larger and more complicated effort than winning wars. And while nothing can compare to the remarkable courage and tenacity of those who have adopted the Warrior’s Code and risked their lives to overcome a violent adversary – as my father did time and again in the Pacific campaign in World War 2 – Memorial Day is large enough to celebrate all of America’s peacemakers.

Yet we don’t. Continue reading Trying harder on Memorial Day

2015 was harrowing. Why do I embrace 2016?


As someone trained in public policy whose life and career has been international, my end-of-year musings tend toward discerning global trends. Despite the recent flood of dystopian movies and television offerings in the United States, are things getting better and is progress being made? In the face of the rampant barbarity and media-hyped cruelty of movements such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and the Taliban, is civilization getting stronger? Contrary to the grisly death statistics of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France, or at Garissa University in Kenya, or the many incidences of Boko Haram violence in Africa that the Western press largely ignores, is safety and security improving for most people on this planet? In the crumbling and almost forgotten remains of the Arab Spring, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and Egypt’s latest swing to authoritarianism, and the deepening polarization and distrust of politics in the United States, are democracies still thriving?

And what about respecting human rights and the recognition of human dignity? Do these terms mean much anymore? What of the plight of the most vulnerable among us? Women’s rights? The humane treatment of animals? The plight of the elderly? The human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons? Freedom of expression, movement, participation, conscience?

In short, what about us?

Is the grand experiment known as humanity getting any better? Are we moving slowly toward global peace, not just in the sense of an absence of violence but in the much deeper sense of what peace really entails? Are we “developing” in a moral sense? While most of us have our own intuition on these matters, there aren’t clear answers, and the distortions in our perceptions are legion. The media by its nature focuses on what sells: disasters, terrorism, wars, failures, disappointments, violence, corruption, crime, immorality, betrayal, or avarice. We hear or read very little about integrity, compassion, solidarity, sacrifice, teamwork, bravery, mercy, or humility. Enormously important words like wisdom, virtue, statesmanship, authenticity, and idealism slip from our vocabulary. Continue reading 2015 was harrowing. Why do I embrace 2016?

Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women)

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Almost from the outset, I realized my error. Once again my idealism had gotten the best of me, even if to me it had all seemed so clear and pressing. The eight or nine officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development who were seated around that conference table at USAID headquarters more than three years ago just before the Christmas break were all committed to the introduction of the political economy analysis (PEA) tool into USAID’s core set of analytical approaches. Yet my pitch (or was it a plea?) went flat. In that obscure meeting long ago, I was making the case that limiting our evaluation of what constitutes good, effective, and sustainable international development requires more than just the analysis and consideration of power and money, and more than just viewing democracy and governance as a competitive “political game”. People are complicated creatures, and sometimes we are motivated by other reasons…moral reasons. Sometimes people choose to collaborate instead of compete, or chose to care about others rather than use them.

Their facial expressions said it all. Some showed a glint of pity for my naïveté, others were more openly disdainful. How did I ever get to be a political appointee and senior advisor without appreciating what they each knew to be irrefutable and fundamental doctrine, that Homo economicus rules? My curious assertion was that many (I believe I said “most”) people in developing countries are also deeply moved in their aspirations, choices, character, and actions by a moral compass. I argued that while PEA was undoubtedly a useful tool for USAID, it could not be applied without at least some room at the edges for the influence of morality and ethics – but it was evident that my modest challenge to orthodoxy would be resisted.

Homo economicus is well described by Peter Ubel as a “creature of coldly calculated selfishness, dispassionately maximizing its best interests even if that comes at the expense of others”. And the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m writing about Homo economicus very, very early on a dark and quiet Christmas morning. My thoughts at this moment are also simultaneously drawn to that compelling historically unexpected alternative paradigm that was introduced to the world more than two millennia ago in the humility of a birth in a stable in Bethlehem.

I used to find Christmas in America nearly unbearable. The word “crass” doesn’t begin to capture the avaricious, manipulative, cynical view of humanity that has converted a celebration of one of human history’s most poignant examples of love, sacrifice, caring, and wisdom into an orgy at which Homo economicus presides and exalts. Fortunately I have moved on and now have found my own ways to ignore the crassness. I have learned how to center down on Christmas. And while I am a Christian, I would think that the story of Jesus that had its start in that manger is one that transcends any religion, with his life and message of love, humility, peace, and caring offering a profound challenge to the earthly rule of Homo economicus.

Homo economicus has no use for love or peace, except as sentiments to be exploited for commercial gain. The articles of faith of the doctrine of Power and Money haven’t built their vast financial empires or victorious armies on the virtues of caring, gentleness, or humility. There’s no trace of love in the arrogant smirks or in the manipulative, condescending words of the most successful (i.e. wealthy and powerful) exemplars of power and money. Homo economicus is all too real, and USAID is right – we ought to take him (and occasionally her) seriously. He is regularly embodied now and throughout history in a never ceasing cavalcade of “successful” people who are distinguished by (or loathed for) their limitless greed, self-centeredness, cruelty, bluster, arrogance, and disdain for lesser mortals. Donald Trump is but the latest variation along this theme, yet like Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Adolph Hitler, or innumerable other tycoons or despots, somehow this type of person always attracts a devoted following.

Why do we make disproportionate room in our lives for power and money, but seem to relegate love to the edges? Why do we build our media and news around stories of extreme violence, sensational greed, and the callous lives of the unthinking, uncaring wealthy elites and self-absorbed celebrities, with very little room for genuine “good news” stories? Why do we get so exercised about those who prosper through avarice and corruption, while entirely forgetting to recognize those who quietly but steadfastly pursue lives of remarkable integrity? Why do we honor experience (with no moral denominator) and ignore wisdom? Why do we say so little about (and fund so minimally) such extraordinarily successful examples of peacebuilding such as the Peace Corps, yet complain endlessly about government dysfunction? Why do we think of human rights only as a list of grievous violations, instead of as an agenda that – if actively promoted – leads inexorably to the universal recognition of human dignity? Why do we fail to recognize the hard and selfless work of human rights activists and civil society folk around the world, who make extraordinary sacrifices in their quest for making our world just a little better? Continue reading Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women)

A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas

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For a non-Catholic, I’ll admit to a certain grudging admiration for Pope Francis.

Why grudging? Well, he’s the leader of a religious denomination of 1.2 billion persons, still exclusively led just by men. Any organization – even a small one – that limits its leadership to persons of one gender is poorly situated to understand the dynamic tapestry of humanity, or to draw upon the spiritual and worldly gifts that men and women, boys and girls, each uniquely offer. The Roman Catholic Church however isn’t a small organization, so sexism institutionalized on such a gargantuan scale leaves me profoundly uneasy (and to be clear, I’d be every bit as uneasy were this church led only by women).

Pope Francis seems unlikely to morph into the Angel of Gender Equity any time soon. This Pope has also said some very unflattering things about people who are transgender, such as comparing us with nuclear weapons! Perhaps I should be flattered with such a comparison – it is seldom that a transgender person is ever described as supremely powerful (even if in a destructive sense). Pope Francis however has taken the view that the world’s nuclear arsenals are to be equated with some of the world’s most disempowered and persecuted people – both standing accused of failing “to recognize the order of creation”. So while I lack the weight of a billion-plus congregation, I refute the Pope’s accusation, remaining convinced that the divine light shines equally in each and every one of us. That’s the “order of creation” that I feel most led to respond to, and to reach for.

So I have reasons to feel under-appreciated by this Pontiff…and “grudging” I will remain. Still, the Pope’s recent observation about the Christmas season that we’re entering upon left me deeply moved, if also deeply saddened. His words:

“we are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war…It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”

I just set up my Nativity scene at home, and here in Maryland there are already Christmas lights. Yes – I have received invitations to parties, and I will be happy to attend. This morning I’ve spent time online trying to locate (affordable) tickets to take my children to the ballet (The Nutcracker, of course). “Black Friday” (a name that should be a warning) was yesterday, and the media has once again ramped itself up to its usual annual frenzy of commercialization, ever-increasing crassness, and rank consumerism.

What does any of the American Christmas Industry have to do with the celebration of the remarkable birth of Jesus of Nazareth in a humble stable? We no longer even ask. Continue reading A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas

Awkward but obvious questions from Kabul



I really wasn’t pondering the obvious question. Instead, I was absorbed with watching the muscular, handsome Afghan man standing there with his luggage cart. He was heavily bearded and tall, with intense but kindly eyes. Dressed in t-shirt and jeans, he and his young son were being welcomed by two elderly men – relatives no doubt – who each sported traditional Afghan Pashtun attire. We were all among the throng of people who waited in the arrivals hall for the “all clear” after the truck bomb’s powerful explosion just 30 minutes earlier at the main gate to Kabul Airport. Oddly, no one in the arrivals hall seemed particularly anxious or distressed; the three Afghan men were entirely focused on the antics of the young toddler perched on the cart. It was a tender family scene, in a country now much better known for the type of intense brutality and violence that had just claimed the lives of five people only a short distance away.

The question awaited an answer. Why was I here? Officially I’d come to Kabul to assist as a senior policy advisor, to work alongside a multinational team of engineers on the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s transportation sector. Given Afghanistan’s widespread insecurity it seemed an ambitious venture at best, although there was little doubt that without roads, rail, and air transportation, Afghanistan’s development prospects would continue to remain mostly theoretical. Yet “development” is elusive in Afghanistan, a predicament shared with all countries afflicted by terrorism and instability. My effectiveness as a foreign advisor raised many troubling questions in such circumstances.

Once the airport reopened, my security team helped me don a heavy Kevlar vest and installed me in an armored Land Cruiser for the relatively short drive through some of Kabul’s most dangerous streets, to the hotel. Actually “hotel” is an inadequate descriptor; once past the crude and unremarkable metal gate in the small street I entered a high-walled maze of security checks and screenings, finally arriving at the heart of a fortified compound more reminiscent of a medieval fortress than a hotel. Everywhere I looked, there were European, North American, even Gurkha men each equipped with weaponry sufficient to blow away a small village.  Their nonchalance and casual manner made it clear that “normal” now had to be redefined.

The fortified compound was as much my prison as my safe haven. A pleasant enough prison to be sure in the circumstances – with rose beds and gardens, a pool and a gym, and basic but comfortably furnished air conditioned rooms. Yet I wouldn’t be able to leave this compound without the armored vehicles that brought me here. The upper slopes of the surrounding jagged lunar-grey mountains were visible above the high walls, but I would see very little of Kabul from this location. That also meant that connecting with Afghan people – civil society, government officials, women, ordinary folk – would be nearly impossible.

That separation is corrosive. While international development practitioners do possess experience and skills honed by project assignments around the world, our ability to support and sustain positive change rests entirely with the quality of the relationships we forge with our local counterparts. While a few Afghan staff do endure the intrusive daily security screenings to come to work with me and my team each day, the notion of broad engagement with the Afghan public on development issues was an absurdity. A debilitating absurdity too; it would be nearly impossible to learn about Afghan culture, values, aspirations, and history from behind my fortified walls. Continue reading Awkward but obvious questions from Kabul

“Those people” in the tent?


It was Monday, August 3rd, and my task was clear. The 500 young (aged from 25 to 35) African leaders gathered for the Presidential Summit at the majestic Washington Omni Shoreham Hotel were expecting my fellow panelists and me each to address the topic of Upholding Human Rights. All of these young leaders – Mandela Washington Fellows to use their correct title – had been hearing quite a lot about inclusion and non-discrimination, and about how best to ensure that realistic compliance measures would be explicit, integrated into the law, and have the political support to make the goal of inclusion effective.

But I didn’t speak about inclusion. In fact, I rejected it, by raising the bar much higher. Instead of “inclusive societies”, we need societies that do not exclude. A minor semantic point?

Hardly. When societies are exhorted to be inclusive, the message between the lines is quite clear. There are those – the majority – on the inside who are being urged to make some room in the tent for a few of “those people” currently on the outside. We often refer to “those people” as the marginalized, the vulnerable, the invisible…the labels abound. Yet as long as there is the presumption that the inclusion choice rests with those within the majority to decide to include – or to continue to exclude – those on the outside, the power rests where it always has. Insiders within the tent get to choose.

Such power is nothing to dismiss lightly. International relations, both political and economic, depend on a multitude of shifting and strategic assessments of who has what power, and how that might be better secured , applied, defended, or redistributed. Missing from such calculations, and largely missing even from the global dialogue on human rights and development, is a radical idea: all people everywhere belong in the tent, by virtue of the universality of human dignity.

Everyone. Continue reading “Those people” in the tent?

International development – A Voice at the Periphery

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It was remarkable. There was so much expertise, caring, and experience gathered together in that one room! The annual conference of the Washington DC chapter of the Society for International Development on May 27th brought together a dazzling cohort of more than 900 people who have committed their careers to caring about and doing something important, effective, and sustainable to overcome poverty. Isn’t it odd then that the larger world knows so little about this community of development practitioners, and so often stands in opposition to (or in tepid support of) the work that they do in foreign aid?

The development practitioners who come together for this yearly event have made enormous and well-documented strides to contribute to humanity’s well-being, and to make stewardship of this planet’s environment their focus. Human development is a complex notion, and in that room sat individuals whose daily routine is built around extremely diverse pursuits: agriculture, health, education, democracy strengthening, economic growth, energy, rule of law, entrepreneurship, gender equity, youth, infrastructure, the elderly, women’s empowerment, civil society, political processes and elections, global climate change, peacebuilding and conflict mitigation, natural resources management, human rights, public administration, to name but a few. Together these practitioners support and facilitate – in the most adverse situations imaginable around the globe – humanity’s universal aspirations for a life of dignity, health, and meaning, all set within a harmonious and healthy natural environment. Given the scale, complexity, and intensity of the challenges standing in the way of human development around the world, these earnest and competent practitioners are far too few, far too poorly resourced, and – as a result of how the aid industry’s procurement processes are structured – too divided by fierce internal competition to overcome poverty or be the catalyst for human well-being. They know this – we know this – but still we persist. It’s what we do, and the solidarity and energy that comes from gathering this community together from time to time was the reason I had arranged my own schedule to return from a consulting assignment in Jordan specifically not to miss this event.

Like any conference of international development experts, the daily fare was all about problem-solving. Plenary speakers, panelists, and members of the audience participated in weighty and often discouraging discussions about the forces arrayed against development, about the many problems and constraints we all contend with, and about the cumbersome bureaucracies that fund and deeply influence development’s goals and accomplishments. So much energy and intellect was directed at problems, issues, challenges (or “grand challenges” as USAID is prone to framing them), budgetary constraints, procurement minefields, and humanity’s many foibles and failures (weak states, failed states, greed, corruption, conflict).

In many ways, we forgot to talk about development as human flourishing, or what concepts such as “flourishing” or “human dignity” might mean. Continue reading International development – A Voice at the Periphery

Words – a limit to human potential

Six years ago this month I was invited to make a presentation to the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, where I was one of the finalists for the position of Executive Director of the Institute for Peace & Justice. This school is well known as one of the preeminent institutions for the study of conflict, and I’d reviewed their curriculum carefully. As I rose to speak, I framed my comments first to recognize and honor the important work going on at the School in studies on conflict prevention and assessment, early warning, and peace negotiations. I allocated the rest of my talk however to my vision of reorienting the School to live up to its name, to be genuinely a place where peace was studied, celebrated, and understood, in balance with the trailblazing work being done on conflict.

Despite the name on the building, in those days conflict studies were known as conflict studies. There was very little emphasis on what constituted peace; little academic content at San Diego or at any of the nation’s best conflict and peace programs focused on how to build and sustain peace. The big exception was that School’s wonderful Women PeaceMakers Program, which I made due reference to. Still, as I looked out to an audience of leading conflict scholars, I wasn’t really expecting to be offered the job.

I wasn’t, but across the county the field has evolved in a direction I take comfort in. The overarching framework is now on peacebuilding, although the important emphasis on conflict prevention, mitigation, and resolution remains appropriately strong. We are beginning to see many efforts to achieve that lost balance, to understand and promote peace, and to conceptualize what peace means over and above thinking of it simply as the absence of conflict and violence. We’re learning more about the essential linkages between peace and human rights, social justice, compassion, and democracy.

The words are important. We view the world through paradigms which are conceptualized around words. If we only look for conflict and how to address and prevent conflict, we often fail to see the many resources for building and sustaining peace. If we only look for human rights in terms of abuses, we fail to see and support the needed measures to promote, sustain, and celebrate human rights in a positive sense.

If we only marshal our efforts to fight global corruption, we don’t see the remarkable women and men of integrity going quietly about their public service, fiercely persistent in doing the right thing for the right reason. Exemplars of integrity are ignored, but even more damaging is our growing cynicism about human nature. It’s now the norm to assume all human beings are going to be corrupt unless we provide sufficiently strong incentives to motivate them to do good. The notion that humanity might have moral justifications to pursue public service, honesty, and ethical behavior is either ignored or entirely discounted. Ultimately it’s a self-fulfilling approach, as the less we recognize the moral compass that all humans are born with, the rustier that instrument becomes. Continue reading Words – a limit to human potential