Sergei C. Valenzuela
The Diplomatic Envoy recently interviewed Professor David Wood to discuss his new undergraduate class and ongoing conflict mediation work. With over 15 years of experience as a peacebuilding expert, Professor Wood currently serves as a professor of practice at the School of Diplomacy. His work includes resolving violent international conflict and mediating peace processes, which he has done both at the non-governmental and international level for a wide variety of agencies. In 2011, Wood created an international peacebuilding organization, The Peaceful Change Initiative (PCI). His organization focuses on mediating conflict that arose from the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa starting in the same year.
Wood’s research focuses on interactive approaches to mediation and dialogue in periods of open violence when political environments and dialogues become toxic. His organization is closely involved with conflict management and developing new ways for promoting stabilization in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Wood has been at the School of Diplomacy since 2018 and leading the development of several projects through the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in the MENA region. He is also teaching a graduate-level course and an undergraduate course on conflict studies.
During the interview, Wood discussed the components and approach he uses with his undergraduate students and explained how the field of conflict studies is academically rigorous. The course requires students to understand various conflict areas, as well as the motives for either the rise of violence in a conflict or the reasons for why a conflict moves from violence to a positive relationship.
“[Along with] a research focus,” he explained, “we’re also looking [for] personal skill sets. [We have to consider] the attributes of an individual who’s engaging with those in conflict. As such, we are both interested in a balance between the academic rigor at the university and the skill sets needed on the ground.” Wood added that he hopes “[students] obtain a good sense of what it is that drives conflict and what are the ways in which we can manage it.”
Additionally, Wood spoke about what it was like to establish PCI and how he built his reputation for political support. “It started in Libya after the open face of fighting ended. There was just very little left in Libya after 40 years of organization of the [oppressive] regime.” He furthered, “Within that period of time, there was very limited exposure to the international community and international organizations didn’t have a footprint on the ground. As such, when we arrived in Libya, there wasn’t any large organization present, giving us room to operate.”
Wood added that “big organizations like Oxfam and Care International move quite slowly because they have a heavy internal bureaucracy and a lot of risk management procedures. [Therefore], as a smaller organization, we are more mobile and able to work. Our approach to mediation,” he stressed, “was to do it at the point of violence between people, since the risk threshold of others is often beyond them.”
Since he worked in high violence and conflict areas, like Yemen, Wood recognizes that the biggest challenges within protracted conflict are the massive humanitarian need, political violence, and fractured state infrastructure. He also finds that these three things are interlinked. Wood explains that “the [intensified] levels of violence are creating high levels of humanitarian aid and affecting state infrastructure. The weakened infrastructures also become a cause for humanitarian needs. As such, we actually need to deal with all these three parts within the country in order to move towards a solution.” Wood refers to these three components of the conflict cycle as “The Nexus.”
Professor Wood concluded that “It’s all about knowing how to make a difference in a bigger world. None of us can make changes by ourselves [as] we are all parts of a bigger puzzle.”