Matthias Stiefel

As a son of rural doctors who devoted themselves to caring for others, Matthias grew up with a passion to help improve lives. Back in the early 1990s, after a five-year break in his United Nations (UN) career, Matthias found the world had profoundly changed. He launched himself into research. He analyzed the new conflicts that had erupted after the end of the Cold War and how peace could be built. What he discovered proved to be the building blocks of the Interpeace we know today.

We spoke to Matthias, Founder of Interpeace and Vice-Chairman of the Governing Council, to find out more about his experience as a pioneer in the peacebuilding field.

What does peace mean to you?

Peace is the creative and constructive management of the differences and tensions that cause conflicts. Every society experiences conflict, but societies whose members can translate them into positive forces maintain peace. Interpeace helps societies to recover this capacity.

Why did you decide to create Interpeace?

I left an earlier career in the UN to spend some years in Portugal, where I experienced the harsh realities that subsistence farmers must cope with around the world. After five years I returned, by which point the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Cold War had come to an end. Everyone was expecting a peace dividend, but the opposite happened - wars were breaking out everywhere. I realized that security could not be separated from development or humanitarian issues.

We needed to develop new paradigms for understanding and responding to these violent conflicts. I started a research project. But that very quickly turned into an action-oriented project and created the foundations for the Interpeace we know today.

What are the peacebuilding essentials to you?

Following a conflict you always have a large number of actors pursuing a wide mix of policies at all levels. This creates a lot of confusion and worse…it was clear from the beginning what the big challenges were and still are today:

  1. To rebuild trust among people and authorities to allow them to join forces in rebuilding their country;
  2. To help them set strategic priorities channeling the sparse resources; and
  3. To get all actors, local and foreign, to work within one coherent integrated framework for rebuilding society.

The identification of these challenges quickly led to the definition of the Interpeace approach.

How do you ensure local ownership?

By constantly challenging the local actors to take responsibility and make decisions. This always requires local leadership. They are researchers, doctors, journalists, former politicians, all local people with a deep knowledge of their country and society and of the dynamics of the conflict, who champion the drive to build lasting peace. When Interpeace starts working in a country, it challenges the local people to identify who such respected leaders could be. We call them ‘consensus figures.’

How do you know local ownership has been achieved?

When they become self-reliant and need Interpeace less and less. When the relationship evolves into a partnership and the population is in the driving seat.

You started the organization 15 years ago. What are your hopes for the next 15 years?

My long-term vision for Interpeace is to gradually build local peacebuilding institutions in all conflict and post-conflict regions of the world – to create an alliance, a web of local peacebuilding capacities that can work with each other to not only respond to conflict, but also to prevent it.