Making Choices for Peace: Aid Agencies in Field Diplomacy

Book Review

Peace is a journey, starting from the interior of the persons involved, but aimed towards a re-creation of the community for the sake of justice and well-being after disasters. So, in (proactive) intervention during a humanitarian crisis, ‘aid delivery’ is not enough. Aid agencies need to embrace comprehensive peace-building. That is the principal thesis of Opongo in his Making Choices for Peace. So, he proposes ‘field diplomacy’, a vital tool in post-conflict peace-building, as integral to aid agencies’ activities.

Opongo’s thesis is argued in eight chapters ranging from the background to the proposal, and culminating in the kind of efforts, as well as structural and spiritual supports that are imperative for the proposal to work. Chapter one identifies what Opongo calls the gaps in the way contemporary humanitarian assistance is carried out, particularly as they result from the ethical dilemmas that aid workers constantly face. In the second chapter, Opongo deals with challenges that sustainable peace-building poses to field diplomats. The principal challenge is for aid agencies to move beyond their traditional neutrality because in the face of suffering and injustice one cannot be uncommitted to reaching the root causes.

Pacific spiritualities and commitments to non-violence without a strategy of engagement for peace are useless. This strategic engagement is the focus of chapter three. If aid agencies are adopting an effective hermeneutics through the strategic engagement outlined in chapter three, then they are inevitably adopting a broadly inclusive approach to conflict intervention. This is what Opongo, in the fourth chapter, calls ‘participatory advocacy’. Part of that advocacy is peace education. What he proposes as ‘integrative peace education’ in chapter five is multi-dimensional because it focuses on systematic analysis of various public structures and the transmission of values that improve interpersonal relations and structural reforms.

Field diplomats are human beings, with needs and experiences that require attention. While the sixth chapter focuses on psychosocial tasks, chapter seven is about kinds of spirituality that help spiritually-challenged field workers. The eighth, and final, chapter is exceptional because of the ‘voices’ that speak in this chapter. This chapter shows Opongo’s daring approach – combining professionalism (Prendergast, Asefa) with interpersonal (Lederach) and liberative-praxis (Gutierrez) approaches.

Together with my appreciation of Opongo’s effort, I also offer some critical comments, however. First, I am, as an ethicist, drawn to Opongo’s ethical evaluation of the moral dilemmas facing aid workers (see pp. 37-45). He expresses his reservations about casuistry crippling aid agencies. I join issue with him by offering that human agents – in this case aid agency workers – need to fulfil six primary conditions for actions based on proportioned reasoning towards the required end in conflictual circumstances. (1) They must pay attention to the foreseeable social implications of the choice they are about to make. (2) They must ensure that the choice is universally tenable, or, in other words, that it can bring harmony and human flourishing if practised everywhere. (3) They must determine whether contextual conditions are in favour or not in favour of the envisaged action. (4) They must pay attention to the wisdom gained from past occurrences. (5) There must be widespread consultation for input on experiences and discernment. (6) They must make sure that there is room for religion-informed contributions. The bottom-line is a dialectical relationship between personal and communal discernment and intellectual contributions.

Second, it is intriguing for me that Opongo spent twenty-nine pages on ‘psychosocial support’ but a paltry ten pages on ‘spiritual support’ for aid workers (see chapters six and seven). It leaves one with the question: where does Opongo’s priority lie? I think Opongo could have enriched us more, in chapter seven, if he – as a priest who is actively involved in the field – had offered us some suggestions on how to approach the pastoral (spiritual) care of aid workers.

Third, I admire Opongo for allowing the voices in the final chapter to speak freely, because the first ‘voice’ (Prendergast) in my opinion is highly critical of Opongo’s vision of ‘Aid agencies in field diplomacy’ (sub-title of his work). Anyway, he does not need Prendergast’s endorsement. Let the readers and the aid agencies with their field workers make up their minds on what aid agencies are: needs-based do-gooders or active agents of change? I agree with Opongo on his vision for agencies – just as Asefa does, I surmise – although with a caveat: they must tread with caution, and ‘do no harm’. For those desiring some practical way of coping with the spiritual effects of death/suffering and the stress of those in the field, the interview with Gutierrez is it! It should be read, I suggest, as a continuation of the short chapter seven. I highly favour this interview because it presents the ‘spirituality of peace’, which Opongo notes in his general conclusion as one that is inspired by our common capacity to resist and overcome evil – even if the prognosis is not optimistic (p. 185).

Opongo has added his voice, as a professional and ‘field diplomat’, to the notion that peace is possible in Africa and other parts of the world. What is clear from Opongo’s work is that there is no sustainable peace-building without the heart. Time and again, we are reminded: there cannot be just peace without empathy and vulnerability.

Finally, central to the proposal of Opongo, though unmentioned, is the metaphor of ‘covenant’. Opongo is calling on aid agencies and their workers to enter into a deep relationship with those they are ‘caring’ for. Hence, it is crucial, as Opongo offers and I concur, that there must be holistic preparation of agency workers that consider this, because people do not enter into any ‘covenant’ without prior preparation of the whole person. ‘If you cannot stand the heat, you have no business in the kitchen’, is an English saying. Perhaps, we need to recover this in the contemporary search for peace. A commitment to common values based on respect and acceptance of religious, cultural and political differences can assure a more reconciled African continent, and, indeed, world. Such values, as conceived by Opongo, should be promoted by aid agencies.


This Issue


  • Richard Kamidza
  • Jannie Malan

The Case against Taylor’s Asylum

A Review of Nigeria's Domestic and International Legal Obligations

  • Mba Chidi Nmaju

The Dilemma of Restorative Justice when ‘All Are Guilty’

A Case Study of the Conflicts in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria

  • Austin Onuoha

Integrated Development Planning in South Africa

Lessons for International Peacebuilding?

  • Sybert Liebenberg
  • Elsona van Huyssteen
  • Richard Gueli

Agency Theory

A New Model of Civil-Military Relations for Africa?

  • Deane-Peter Baker

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in the Workplace

The South African Experience

  • Hanneli Bendeman