More than one billion children worldwide live in areas afflicted by violent conflict. Conflict preys on civilians. It spreads disease. It devours food, encourages crime, and destroys schools and hospitals. Conflict devastates children. In an increasingly interconnected world, “conflict traps” produce instability and underdevelopment that transcend boundaries – threatening human security at the local, regional and global level. Recent events within the countries where PPI operates, riots in Belfast over the union flag, the discovery of natural gas off the coast of Cyprus, the ongoing HIV/AIDs crisis in South Africa, and the conflict between Israel and Gaza, have further exacerbated social and ethnic divides. The work of PPI is to eliminate the fear of the "other" that can mark a divided community by educating children to respect each other, appreciate diversity and strive for peace. Evaluations of PPI have shown that a child who enters our program is not the same child who emerges; according to both quantitative and qualitative measures, children emerge with fewer stereotypes and a greater desire for friendships with the "other" side.
Recent approaches to societal conflict emphasize that a negotiated solution will require a transformation of the attitudes of all communities involved towards reconciliation, mutual trust, and cooperation: a "bottom-up" approach, in which a change in public opinion precipitates a shift in policy. PPI partners with schools, community centers, sports leagues and basketball clubs in order to ensure that positive changes are having an impact on the institutional level as well as an individual one. In an effort to build peace, PPI addresses three key challenges that help sustain societal conflict.
Challenge 1: Social, Educational, and Cultural Segregation
In many societies, walls physical and social separate our youth. Language, religion and culture have created a tight, almost impermeable ethnic boundary between our communities. Individuals are left to learn about the “other” primarily through the media, myths, and stereotypes, allowing prejudice and fear to thrive. These misconceptions serve to justify further segregation, in turn begetting only more ignorance.
Structured interactions focusing on the pursuit of shared goals has been shown to powerfully reduce such prejudices, and team sports – such as basketball – serve as an ideal tool to facilitate such encounters. After all, children living in a divided society may attend different schools, live in segregated neighborhoods and speak different languages, but they all play sports according to the same rulebook. Sport also enjoys an almost universal appeal, attracting individuals independently of their politics, socioeconomic status and ethnicity. By bringing different communities together for regular integrated practices and games, PPI provides a neutral forum for the establishment of deep personal bonds and lasting friendships. This sustained contact successfully challenges youths' negative preconceptions of the “other,” allowing them to explore different cultures in a positive setting.
“I believe that sport can bring about real change at the root… because sport offers a stage that's objective. Everyone is equal; everyone begins at the same starting line.”
– Danielle, 17, Russian-Israeli from Jerusalem, a member of the Jerusalem All-Stars under-18 team
Challenge 2: A Lack of Opportunities for the Personal and Athletic Development
In many of the communities where PPI works, there are very few opportunities for children to participate sport, leaving many young people without constructive outlets. PPI aims at providing these children the opportunity play organized sport. All of PPI’s activities include an element of formal life skills education that uses a combination of fun, on court activities and guided discussion to teach children proven methods of overcoming personal and societal conflict. Implemented by local coaches who double as role models, PPI’s curriculum helps ensure that the gains made by PPI’s children on the basketball court extend far beyond it.
Where necessary, PPI prioritizes the involvement of girls in its programs. In Israel and the West Bank, where only 25% of participants in competitive sports are women, more than 70% of PPI’s program participants are female. This imbalance is particularly prevalent in traditional and conservative communities that suffer most from poverty and where women’s participation in athletics is frowned upon by prevailing social and religious conventions. These facts are particularly worrisome considering the strong correlation between girls’ participation in sport and higher academic achievement and future professional success. In addition, such disenfranchisement robs societies of a powerful tool for peacebuilding. As reported by a panel of experts from the Council on Foreign Relations: “Peace agreements and reconstruction work is better when women are involved in the building process – bringing women to the peace table improves the quality of agreements reached and enhances the chances that they are implemented.”
PPI uses its unique curriculum to not only teach participants how to be confident, assertive athletes, but also confident, assertive leaders. Using a longitudinal model, which engages children from early childhood all the way through adulthood, PPI is creating a league of young women ambassadors for peace. PPI’s Leadership Development Program give these young women the tools to lead the way towards peace in their local communities and beyond, and to serve as positive role models for younger girls.
“PeacePlayers gave me the chance to play basketball, which is rare in the Arab community, and it made me more ambitious for the future.”
– Manal, 18, Arab from East Jerusalem, PeacePlayers participant since 2006, current member of the Jerusalem All-Stars
Challenge 3: Socio-Economic and Health Problems for At-Risk Youth
The toll of conflict disproportionately falls on those least able to bear it, the least privileged of society. These are precisely the same people who are least often engaged in peacebuilding processes, typically the domain of political and cultural elites. PPI predominantly engages youth from disadvantaged communities, providing a constructive framework to guide the development of at-risk youth. Virtually all of its programming is free of charge to participants, most of whom would not have the financial ability to participate in after-school sports clubs without the benefit of PPI.
When necessary, PPI also addresses the underlying factors that allow inequity to persist. In South Africa, for example, PPI uses basketball to help young people in South Africa’s townships and rural areas overcome the two greatest threats they face today – lack of viable educational and employment opportunities and HIV/AIDS. In response to the staggering toll of HIV/AIDS, PPI has augmented its peacebuilding program with an innovative life skills curriculum and coaches trained as mentors and educators.
"We find that the PeacePlayers program brings in life-skills in a non-threatening way, and is helping to educate children on the big issues of HIV."
- Pamilla Mudhray, CSI Manager, Sasol, South Africa