It’s an honor to address this global conference of the leaders of the Office of Transition Initiatives. As many of you know, I have been a huge fan of OTI for the past two decades. I even take a little credit for helping get the office off to a good start, participating in the start-up of some of its first programs in Angola during the time I served as Ambassador to Angola from 1994 to 1997.
In Angola, we were working to fortify a fragile peace process that sought to end two decades of civil war that had cost a half million lives, left 4 million people displaced, resulted in the planting of up to a million landmines into the ground, produced massive gender-based violence, and forced thousands of child soldiers into armies and militias. In the face of these challenges, I confess that I often thought, “What the heck have I gotten myself into?” Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. OTI leaders like Rick Barton, Steve Morrison and their OFDA colleagues under the direction of Doug Mercado were on the job. So we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.
We helped plan and construct demobilization camps for ex-combatants. We trained and provided psycho-social assistance to help child soldiers reintegrate into society. We launched community development programs to encourage local ownership and empowerment. We cleared landmine and conducted landmine awareness programs. We supported independent media, including radio stations broadcasting messages of peace and reconciliation. We trained judges and parliamentarians and supported an independent judiciary and legislature. We helped transform armed militias into political parties. And we brought in human rights monitors and human rights trainers for armed forces and police.
Did it work? It’s hard to say. The peace process as we envisioned it didn’t really hold, but the country never reverted to full-scale conflict, in large part because of the safety net and social cohesion these programs provided. Angolans got used to peace, normalcy, and personal security, and resisted the siren songs of leaders calling for a return to war.
It is interesting that many of OTI’s current programs are in the same areas and have the same goals as those early programs, but the beauty of OTI is that it is a constantly learning, constantly evolving institution that incorporates new technologies, new innovations and best practices into its work.
I cannot tell you the number of times each week that I and other senior government officials in White House meetings refer to OTI efforts in critical crisis countries, from Haiti to Sri Lanka, from Burma to Yemen, from Kenya to Lebanon. In these situations, OTI is the eyes, the ears, the face and the conscience of our government and frequently the international community as a whole.
Equally important is the effect that the OTI model has had on the rest of the agency and the rest of the U.S. government’s foreign affairs community. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, OTI should feel flattered indeed. We are all seeking to replicate such techniques and practices as rapid deployment, decentralized programming and decision-making, expeditionary mindsets, data-driven strategies, in-situ learning, incorporation of best practices into on-going programs, adoption of sustainability principles from the beginning, and development of co-deployment platforms focusing on a broad multi-disciplinary surge capacity.
Looking ahead, I wanted to highlight a particular challenge; that is, expanding OTI’s focus on marginalized groups, including women, youth, people with disabilities, displaced persons, the LGBT community, indigenous populations, and religious and ethnic minorities. When social order breaks down, it is these groups that are most vulnerable and most affected. At the same time, the ground truth, talents, and moral authority of these groups are key to stabilizing society and enhancing human security. We must empower them not as victims, but as planners, implementers and beneficiaries of all our programs.
For example, we must include women, youth and others as effective participants in peace processes; ensure their safe and equitable access to relief, recovery and development assistance; and build staff competencies to integrate a rights perspective throughout our work in conflict and crisis environments.
We’re not undertaking these steps simply as a question of fairness, human rights, and equity. Inclusivity is an essential investment in the success of peace operations, reconciliation, reconstruction and development. And yet even today, I hear people in the corridors of power refer to these issues as the “soft side” of crisis preventing and mitigation.
Let me assure you: there’s nothing “soft” about preventing armed thugs from abusing women, children and other marginalized groups in IDP camps. There’s soft about holding warlords and other rights violators accountable for their actions. There’s nothing soft about forcing demobilized soldiers to refrain from domestic violence; or insisting that marginalized groups have a seat at the table in peace negotiations and post-conflict governments; or building stable civil society institutions.
These are among the hardest responsibilities in our foreign policy and development agenda, and I’m proud to have OTI on our side as we address them. Thank you.
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- Remarks by Thomas Staal, Acting Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, at the Beyond the Headlines in the Sahel: Population, Environment, and Security
- Video Remarks by Thomas Staal, Acting Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, at the 2015 Regional STIP Conference
Last updated: July 15, 2015