Interview with Renowned Peace-Builder, Scholar and Professor, Dirk Salomons

Dirk Salomons, Ph.D., is the director at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs for both the Humanitarian Affairs Track and the International Organizations Specialization. He is a senior lecturer, currently teaching courses on complex emergencies, post-conflict recovery, UN system management and international organizations. Check out his recent scholarly work on laws and policy in humanitarian action.


Professor Salomons at SIPA Graduation, May 2014

What motivations and/or life experiences led you to the field of peace building and humanitarian operations?

It is partly by design and partly because life threw me several curve balls. I came from sociology and comparative literature, from journalism and foreign affairs and from working on development policy at UNDP. Mainly I came from the 1960s’, 70s’, and 80s’ innocent enthusiasm about development as a Swiss clockwork process, i.e., if we managed it effectively, as a technical challenge, we would magically convert countries coming out of colonialism into well functioning modern states.

We came, as international organizations, out of an era of naiveté in the 60s, 70s and 80s, which were highly politicized by Cold War, and then transitioned suddenly at the end of the Cold War into a period of short-lived but very intense optimism. There was the Secretary-General’s 1992 “agenda for peace“. For the first time, the UN system, which had been doing lots of traditional “color by numbers” development work, suddenly was thrown this curve ball of having to address peace-building operations. This was in situations where virtually none of the traditional building blocks functioned; situations where there was no infrastructure, no institutions, where people were highly traumatized because of years and years of conflict and where national capacity had dwindled to virtually nothing.

I made that transition from traditional development to peace building because I was asked to be executive director of peace operations in Mozambique. This involved an enormous learning curve and therefore it was something that was initially thrown at me rather than something I chose. But as soon as I got involved, it was something totally intoxicating. On the one hand, we discovered immense complexity and, on the other hand, it opened up possibilities for a lot of improvisation, innovative efforts and experimental ventures that then over time have become part of the classical canon of UN peace building, such as mine action, elections, civil affairs and child protection. 

What has been/are some of your biggest influences, intellectually and professionally?

I’m recently drawn again to some of the Russian anarchist writers, especially Peter Kropotkin, who argued for a communal society built from the bottom up, with as his main premise that humans are naturally inclined to cooperate, rather than to compete… He, in exile, was friends with George Bernard Shaw and William Morris. Emma Goldman found inspiration in his works, as did the “garden gnomes” anarchic movement in the Netherlands, which was active in my younger years… This thinking has direct implications for the manner in which we approach post-conflict recovery in heavily traumatized and depleted societies: working with communities rather than “governments.” A.A. Milne, who created the Hundred Acre Woods with its Jungian archetypes such as Winnie the Pooh and Owl has also shaped my perspective on life.

In addition to teaching in and directing Masters programs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), you have had your own well-established consulting practice. What is the relationship between your professional and academic practices? How do they complement each other?


Source: Alice in Wonderland image (copyright of Disney)

I see them as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

I came to Columbia out of the world of practice, so I am not really an academic, but I see the task of SIPA, where I teach, as launching young professionals who can with very short lead-time be inserted into the work of international organizations or national governments and function professionally. I therefore believe that it is important to share with them what is really happening in the world outside.

We are moving so quickly currently in the field of peace building and conflict resolution that it’s essential for our students to know what happened yesterday and what is going on today. I found that spending my summers consulting for UN agencies and for some of the more enlightened donor governments gave me fantastic opportunities to actually spend time with people in real settings and to see the current challenges and latest solutions and innovations. This brings me back in September with a fairly good sense of what is going on at the moment, which I can then incorporate into the work we do in class.

For example, technology has changed the essential role of communications in early recovery. Now there are mobile phones in the hands of the most destitute refugees, and they are being used to give farmers in Mali the latest price of sorghum on world markets. All this means that our needs assessments, programming, evaluations and approach to partnership have all changed dramatically. Unless you’re on top of these changes you’re not giving the students what they need to seamlessly fit into that world.

There is such complexity in conflict situations. What strategies do you use for engaging with complex systems?

A characteristic of working in complex environments is working with relatively limited information. I think one of the most difficult things for leadership is to continue moving and taking action with a clear goal in mind but with limited information about the overall context and about the actual availability of resources.

So, one strategy is simply:

keep peddling – because if you stop peddling, the bicycle will fall over.

Working in development is very much comparable to working as a military in a war zone. The famous “fog of war” also is a nebulous veil over the context of much of what happens in post conflict and early development work.

Another one is to rely on local sources and seek out community programming opportunities. Here I do not think we are nearly ambitious enough in seeking out advice of people who have lived through crises. Oddly enough this is changing as if by force because of the new security paradigm but it is something which we could have done much earlier and in less hostile environments.

For empowering local communities, capacity building is at the essence  – looking at any part that could move forward and seeing how it could do so even more effectively if we help it along. Lots of these activities pop up and present themselves through referrals, random meetings, and sometimes networks that exist locally that you manage to tap into. Even in the “fog of war” of post-conflict peace operations you can do this and it’s interesting to see how a bottom up approach actually works, if you can connect to it, and how it gives you results that the top down approach does not.

Why was being the Executive Director for the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Mozambique (1992-1993) your most cherished assignment?

I had had all these crazy jobs within the UN system before this. I had worked on external relations, chaired the internal administration of justice at the UN Secretariat, run a division of the International Civil Service Commission, had been in charge of finance and budgets in various operations, such as UNOPS, done a lot of field troubleshooting for UNDP, worked on elections in Nicaragua… I had done so many weird things in the course of my first 20 years and then all of a sudden I was in this job where it had all fallen together.

It required management skills, like knowing how HR works in order to get all the people in the right place, and how to manage a $300 million budget, while at the same time demonstrating political and analytic skills. Having done a lot of short-term field assignments for UNDP over the years, I was used to working with the most exotic governments of various calibers. I had learned Italian working in FAO, Spanish with UNDP, and therefore picking up Portuguese became a minor challenge. All these bits and pieces, which seemed totally disconnected, all clicked together and the Rubik’s Cube suddenly had this shiny integrated face where it all made sense.

What advice do you feel junior professionals in our field should hear as they move out of their academic programs and begin looking for meaningful work and engagement in the world of conflict resolution?

Spend at least half an hour everyday reading a quality paper: look at what’s happening in international affairs while asking yourself constantly what makes these people tick, what motivates them and what do I learn in observing the complexities of their interactions. And, look at situations where people have successfully managed these challenges.

Read good novels. A good novel develops people to the point that you can see them before you. You know their strengths and their weaknesses intimately and reading is really trying to live through the eyes of others and into the lives of the people depicted. It’s trying to understand complexity.

There’s a very obscure PhD thesis by Elizabeth Schoendorf defended at the University of Berlin about leadership in UN missions. Her thesis was that all UN Peacekeeping missions are designed to fail; their mandates are utopian, the resources are few, and so how come some have succeeded nevertheless and what made the difference?

She looks at the leadership – the people who ran them were surely what made the difference. Then, what characterized those people? It was a mix of humility, courage, thinking outside the box, sophistication in using defective systems effectively, and a lot of those traits traits and skills are acquired over a long, long period of trial and error.

Short version: Throw yourself into this, keep your eyes open and enjoy the ride.

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