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Medical peace work: risks and limitations

Medical peace work is a powerful tool for removing the root causes of ill health and healing broken societies. However, it is important to remember that as healthcare workers our interventions may be ineffective, or even counterproductive in a conflict. There are three main reasons why this can happen.

Health professionals lack peace and conflict skills

We are typically not taught the skills to deal effectively with conflict situations - unlike professional diplomats, peace practitioners, or lobbyists. This can divide our loyalties between patients, institutions, and society at large.

Health workers can find it difficult to remain impartial

Peace work in violent conflict settings often involves politically sensitive issues. Our efforts to improve the situation can lead us to challenge existing power structures, which have very different values or interests, and sometimes a long history.

Peace outcomes are difficult to achieve and measure

We may expect quick results from our interventions. Financial donor support can be dependent on achieving measurable results - which can be difficult to do when working at the micro level of a conflict.

Does this all sound a bit overwhelming? Here are some general tips for effective peace work in your health role:

  1. Educate yourself. This course is a good starting point. There are further education courses you can take through universities and our own compendium of resources and self-study courses.
  2. Collaborate with other professions. We all have different skills which each play a part in resolving conflict situations - none of us can act effectively alone.
  3. Use the term “peace” with care. Patients, communities, and officials may view those who come to undertake peace work with varying degrees of distrust. As an outsider, you have a limited understanding of what has occurred in a community before you arrive. It can be more effective to describe your initiatives in health terms - although you may have underlying peace goals, too.
  4. Understand your own motivations, background and experiences. An attitude of humility and sensitivity towards the population you serve is an important starting point for effective peace work.

If you would like to read more about this, take a look at Lesson 2.4: Risks and limitations of medical peace work in Course 1 of the Medical Peace Work textbook.

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This article is from the free online course:

Global Health, Conflict and Violence

University of Bergen