Graduate Students Launch Platform to Foster Innovation in Peacekeeping

May 13, 2010Bookmark and Share
When Gal Bar Dea closes his eyes, he imagines “peace in a Google world,” led by young people with Twitter and Facebook accounts, YouTube capabilities, study-abroad experience and international circles of friends.
SPIRIT co-founders Gal Bar Dea and Heather Gilmartin
SPIRIT co-directors Gal Bar Dea and Heather Gilmartin
Bar Dea’s dream is closer than those of most about-to-be graduates. The 30-year-old budding entrepreneur from Tel Aviv, who is receiving his M.B.A. this month from Columbia Business School, launched an initiative last September called Students Participating in Resolving International Tensions, or SPIRIT. This online platform allows young people with fresh ideas and diverse backgrounds to propose alternative strategies for bringing peace to communities in conflict. It has already received an imprimatur from the United Nations. 
A veteran of the Israeli army, Bar Dea said he lost faith watching an older generation repeatedly fail to bring peace to his part of the world. The future of Israeli-Palestine relations rests on the shoulders of a new generation of leaders who are truly global, he says, comfortable with using technology and connecting via far-flung digital networks.
SPIRIT is a peace-building model based on three critical priorities: ideas, expertise and resources or foundational support. “Say you have an idea for a fishing business on the Gaza Strip, which you think could create 300 jobs,” said Bar Dea. “The next step is to utilize our online platform to connect that idea to experts around the world, like industry professionals, government negotiators and people who operate businesses in war zones. The last step is to partner with organizations with money and a stake in the project.”
“Instead of the old model, which relies on government officials or members of a nonprofit board who often have little contact with people around the world, we wanted to develop a mechanism to enlist the help of a banker in Moscow or a Web developer in China—or even a person sitting on the beach in Brazil—in order to build peace,” said Bar Dea, who volunteered as a community organizer and worked as a brand manager for Proctor & Gamble in Tel Aviv before coming to Columbia.
Bar Dea teamed up with Heather Gilmartin, a 26-year-old from Atlanta who will graduate from the School of International and Public Affairs this month. With a background in international security policy and conflict resolution, Gilmartin became SPIRIT’S co-director. She says that SPIRIT “complements the knowledge and vision of people currently working in peace-building with the energy of people from other perspectives—young entrepreneurs—who are used to taking risks and bursting with ideas.”
The duo led a diverse group of passionate volunteers who reached out to students at 50 business schools around the world, asking for their ideas to help in three areas of conflict: Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan/Pakistan and Colombia. Then they worked with the United Nations to create a conference for students interested in peace-building to showcase some of these ideas.
“I immediately saw the potential,” said Eric Falt, director of the outreach division of the U.N.’s public information department. “Peace-building is a subject which does not receive enough interest in the academic community. It was also interesting to us because it was student-driven. … Youth is at the top of our list.”
Eight of 29 ideas submitted were presented at the SPIRIT conference, held at U.N. headquarters last month at an event attended by 150 people, including several dozen experts from business, government and academia who pledged support to turn these ideas into reality. The proposals include construction of community centers along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; a cooperative that connects Israeli water supply and sanitation with upstart Palestinian water companies through microloans; and a re-integration project in northern Colombia that would bring together victims and ex-combatants.
The organization is now supported by a 20-member team that includes a dozen Columbia graduate students, as well as New York artists, pro bono advertisers and U.N. officers. The students have been advised by William Duggan, a senior lecturer at the business school who teaches courses on innovation and spent time early in his career running the Ford Foundation’s operations in West Africa.
The eight teams that participated in the conference are revising their proposals and will begin soliciting funds this summer. Bar Dea, who is gearing up for another U.N. conference, plans to expand SPIRIT over the next year. This fall, he says, anyone will be able to log on to and offer ideas for peace to thousands of people the world over, developing “a real, true global online think-tank to help conflicted regions.”
“If we can combine the brainpower from passionate individuals all over the world,” he said, “we can do wonders.”
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