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Risks and limitations of Medical Peace Work

You might be thinking that Medical Peace Work holds great promise as a concept that can address the root causes of ill health and heal broken societies…

While we generally agree with this view, it is also equally important to be aware of the risks and limitations of Medical Peace Work. It is well known that healthcare workers can sometimes be quite ineffective, and have a counterproductive impact when they intervene in a conflict. There are three main reasons why this can happen:

  1. External perceptions of health professionals engaging in peace work
  2. Health professionals’ lack of relevant peace and conflict skills
  3. Limitations to easily achieving and measuring peace outcomes

Peace work in violent conflict settings often involves politically sensitive issues. Health professionals’ efforts to improve the situation can lead them to directly or indirectly challenge existing power structures, which have very different values or interests, and sometimes a long history to them. Health workers can find it difficult to remain neutral and impartial in this setting. We are typically not taught the skills to deal effectively with these situations - unlike professional diplomats, peace practitioners, or marketing and lobbying professionals. This can lead to divided loyalties - to patients, to institutions, and to society at large. This is compounded by the fact that health workers may be pressured for quick results from their interventions. Financial donor support can also 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?

During this week, and throughout this course, you will learn about some of the tools at your disposal for effective peace work in your health roles. Here are some general tips for managing the risks and limitations of Medical Peace Work:

  1. Educate yourself. The fact that you are doing this course is a good starting point in getting an overview of major issues in Medical Peace Work. However, 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 would have a limited understanding of what might have occurred in a community before you arrived. Describing initiatives in health-focused terms is a safe approach - 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 are serving is an important starting point for effective peace work.

Reflection point

Have you ever tried to combine peace and health work? If yes, please share what you did and whether you encountered any challenges in doing that.

Write your comments in the general discussion area below, and read what others have written. When you are ready, move on to the next step.

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:

Medical Peace Work

University of Bergen

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