News and Articles

Actions for Peace: Building Belonging 

Add a heading
September 20, 2023

By Priya Nair, Research and Program Manager, SCSC

This year, the theme of the International Day of Peace is Actions for Peace. On this day, Eleanor Roosevelt’s words are particularly fitting: “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” So how do we work on peace, how do we build peace? To build peace, we must build belonging.

Meaningful connections with people, a sense of purpose, the ability to exercise agency through participation in society, and a respectful relationship with nature, form the foundation for a strong sense of belonging (Samuel, 2022).* When this foundation erodes, individuals and societies become more vulnerable to conflict. Research shows that social isolation, lack of opportunities, and disenfranchisement from decision-making structures can act as push and pull factors for conflict and violent extremism. For example, groups such as Daesh/ISIS were able to recruit locals and foreigners by offering a sense of camaraderie and a cause to rally behind (Stern and Berger, 2015). Youth experiencing social isolation and lacking a sense of purpose are particularly susceptible to violent extremism and radicalization. History also demonstrates how individuals may become involved in armed groups to gain agency or access opportunities that have been historically denied – evident from the systemic marginalization of Hutus erupting into the Rwandan genocide in 1994, to the confines of traditional gender norms encouraging women to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Increasingly, nature and our relationship with it also have a role to play in societies’ susceptibility to conflict. Environmental drivers of conflict encompass the direct impact of contention over natural resources, as well as the indirect impacts of climate change fueling food insecurity and competition over resources, thus acting as a threat multiplier for conflict.

Building sustainable peace and preventing violent conflict thus requires reinforcing and revitalizing the four foundations of belonging – our connections with community, purpose, agency, and nature. This entails ensuring that our systems and processes reflect values of belonging. Laws and policies should uphold the rights of marginalized populations, ensure equitable access to opportunities for all, and encourage environmental protection. Meanwhile, peace processes should ensure equitable representation of populations and a commitment to reconciliation and restorative justice over retribution. A prime example of this is the Colombian peace agreement reached with FARC in 2016, considered one of the most inclusive peace accords. Women were active participants in the Colombian peace process, the agreement included several provisions to address gender issues including gender-based violence, and there was a recognition of the need to reintegrate FARC militants into civilian life. While challenges remain with respect to the implementation of the agreement, the guiding ethos behind this agreement to rebuild the social fabric of Colombia algins with efforts to build belonging and sustainable peace.

Systemic changes must be complemented by bottom-up approaches that nurture belonging. This can include activities that build inter-community social cohesion, community mediation mechanisms, community protection groups, and collaborative resource management arrangements. In Iraq, in the aftermath of the war against ISIS, there remain deep ethnic divides, rooted in mistrust between communities and trauma from the war. The NGO Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) epitomizes how we can use bottom-up approaches to (re)build peace. In the region of Ba’aj, NP has used sports to bring together youths from Sunni and Yazidi backgrounds. While the brutal oppression and trauma that the Yazidi community suffered under ISIS (Sunni Islamic fundamentalists) makes rebuilding trust between communities difficult, one of the youth leaders of the football team notes, “We learned to distance ourselves from prejudice, to handle issues in a nonviolent way. We have been able to take a step forward in our relations with the Yazidis through football.” NP supports communities in creating their own youth and women’s protection teams, thus empowering youth and women to build peace at the local level. Involvement in such groups can also help members find a goal to work towards, a purpose. Collectively, these activities help strengthen individuals’ sense of belonging and build alternative pathways away from violent conflict.

We often think of peace as a mere outcome; however, sustainable peace is a process, one that we must constantly work on. It requires sustained efforts that foster belonging – efforts that build societies where people have agency, feel a sense of purpose, and share respectful and reciprocal relationships with each other and nature. In our individual communities, each of us has the capacity to contribute to this effort through small acts, such as choosing empathy before prejudice. On a systemic level, we must recognize that the answer to sustainable peace lies beyond bloated military budgets, in inclusive policies and structures. On this day, let us look inwards into our own societies to consider where we stand on the spectrum of sustainable peace and reflect on how we can build stronger societies that nurture a sense of belonging for all. Let us believe in peace again – and work at it.

* This definition of belonging is drawn from the four P framework conceived by Kim Samuel, Founder and Chief Belonging Officer of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness (SCSC). This framework understands the experience of belonging as connectedness with people, place, power, and purpose.


Samuel, Kim. On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation. New York: Harry N Abrams, 2022.

Jessica Stern, and J. M. Berger. ISIS: The State of Terror. London: William Collins, 2016.