Conflict Prevention with NGO Belun in Timor-Leste – Reflections from Anna Larsson, AC4 Fellow

Anna Larsson is in the Master of International Affairs Program, specializing in both International Conflict Resolution and Gender & Public Policy, at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. With the AC4 Fellowship award, she was a Women, Peace and Security (WPS) intern at the conflict prevention NGO Belun in Dili, Timor-Leste.

Photo: Timor-Leste from above: the view from Timor-Leste’s highest peak, Mount Ramelau.

Can the Fear of Doing Harm Hinder Peacebuilding Practitioners from Doing Good?

After internalizing Autesserre’s important “Peaceland” messages on how dominant aid work cultures can result in more harm than good, e.g. with international aid workers’ exclusively interacting with one another and with local/context knowledge being deprioritized, I came to Timor-Leste hyper-aware of privilege and power dynamics. How was I to make sure that I did good, or at least no harm, in Timor-Leste, a country with a history of vast negative international influence via colonization, occupation, and exploitation?

At first, I found myself over-analyzing my every move – should I make sure I speak last during meetings? Am I interacting with a good mix of nationals and internationals? Etc. Over time, I realized that I did not have to abandon my do-no-harm concern in order to be productive. Rather, I could use it as an awareness lens through which I could figure out when and how it was useful for me to act. For example, while discussing potential activities for increasing women’s leadership with my colleagues, I was able to provide ideas on the format, based on my previous practical and academic experiences, but it was my colleagues, with their context-expertise, who knew what activities would actually work in a given community.

Photo: Women, Peace and Security stakeholder meeting between the police, community-based organizations, women’s organizations, and regional leaders.

I also learned that the awareness of power dynamics can be used to promote positive change. My Columbia colleague and I received the opportunity to meet with the Nobel Peace Laureate and former President of Timor-Leste, José Ramos-Horta, to discuss the Women, Peace and Security implementation in Timor-Leste. I am rather certain that it was the fact that we came from Columbia University that enabled us to have this meeting. Anyhow, even if power may have been the “buy-in”, I learned that it was possible for us to strategically use it to advocate for those whose interests we were representing – in this case, our respective organizations and beneficiaries.

Photo: My Columbia University colleague, Gabriella, and I during our meeting with the Nobel Peace Laureate and former President of Timor-Leste, José Ramos-Horta. Ramos-Horta emphasized the centrality of addressing discrimination at all levels and the importance of mobilizing leaders to instill positive change.


Beyond “Either, or”

“The women are victims and the men are perpetrators,” I heard my colleague say when we went through the main points in Belun’s new gender-sensitive conflict transformation training manual. A few days later, he was to pilot this training with our partners and staff. Without knowing what to say at first, I simply asked “Is that what you have seen among your acquaintances, friends, and family?”

Photo: One of the infographics I found useful when discussing the importance of a gender-sensitive lens. Depending on our identities, we experience life (and conflict) differently. The same policy/measure (the fence) does not translate into the same results for everyone. Hence, we need to take special measures to address the inequitable impact.

I learned a lot while working on the Women, Peace and Security agenda in Timor-Leste, but some of the most profound insights I got are based on rather simple ideas. After asking my colleague the question above, he started listing the many different roles his friends and family had had during and after the conflict and he noted that they also had different roles at different times. That was it. In a matter of seconds, my colleague pinpointed one of the central aspects in the relationship between gender and conflict. He noted that while there are trends in society where women tend to be subject to violence and men tend to be the perpetrators, that is not the full story. Women and men have multiple roles in conflicts, and unless we realize that, it is easy to recreate negative, binary gender roles. This conversation with my colleague made me realize the power of being able to relate to something. In my colleague’s case, being able to relate enabled him to see nuances and complexity, as opposed to either, or.

Not only did this conversation generate continued discussion among my colleagues and I on the importance of holding both the trends, on the one hand, and the complexities, on the other, in mind when working on gender and conflict issues. It also made us include more reflective elements in the conflict transformation training.

Photo: My colleagues and I participating in Timor-Leste’s third Pride march.



Thank you, AC4, for allowing me to learn and grow as a peacebuilding practitioner while further exploring the relationship between peacebuilding and gender! Also, thank you to Belun for welcoming me into the Belun family and for giving me important training in bridging peacebuilding theory and practice.

Author: Anna Larsson, MIA Candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs, brings focus on gender-responsive peacebuilding. She travelled to Dili, Timor-Leste this summer to work with Belun, a conflict prevention NGO, on their newly launched Women, Peace and Security (WPS) project. 

All photos provided by author.

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