This oft-quoted line by the German physician-anthropologist, who led the creation of social medicine in the 19th century, has motivated and beguiled me for years. After an undergraduate degree in International Development and Nutrition, I have spent 3 years living on and off in Latin America working in community health development programs. Today, I find myself working towards my Masters in Public Health with a focus on Health Promotion at the University of Toronto. I began this degree because of my convictions that in promoting health, we are promoting peace. In its primary aim, “to reduce suffering, death, and see health holistically as a state of physical, mental and social well-being, rather than simply the absence of disease,” health promotion in many ways looks identical to peacebuilding.
The diffuse ways that health and peace can be promoted include intersectoral collaboration, community empowerment, and health and peace education. It is here that InterChange is a great example of a visionary organization that understands the interlinked nature of health and peace. InterChange exemplifies the health-peace promoting hybrid, in that it offers workshops on food sharing circles, non-violent communication, self-care and yogic meditation. The online environment, as you have seen by reading this, is easy to navigate and encourages the user to find out about different areas of peacebuilding they may not have considered. The forum I am beginning here, Health and Peace Promotion, is another exemplary way InterChange offers practitioners in peacebuilding to connect with others in related fields. Through having a forum where practitioners like you can tell others about how your health-related work promotes peace, or where on the spectrum of peacebuilding you promote health, more and more users will learn of the amazing work that is going on out there, and hopefully be encouraged to join in.
Peace and health align in two central areas: living environments and social service provision. Living areas where community members are able to identify concerns and are given authority to change problem areas are themselves areas where conflict is less likely to occur. I have worked in a squatter settlement in Honduras, where community organizers solicited and emboldened local people to contribute to planning discussions on social change and infrastructure development. This diminished the allure of drug trafficking and gang membership because people knew they had a say and stake in their future, and felt accountable to those around them. Social service policies that protect the vulnerable and uphold human dignity encourage responsible citizenry and involvement. Working with refugee families from all over the world, I have been exposed to the social service sector in Canada, including the legal aid and welfare services. Mental health outcomes in many families I worked with were very poor, as were their commitments to participate in the broader community building initiatives, because in large part they were anxious or suffered depression from the entire refugee application process. When bureaucratic policies fail to account for language and cultural differences, people are treated like anonymous entities. Healthy, peaceful communities are not comprised of anonymous individuals. They are compromised of self-confident, engaged individuals who believe they can make positive contributions to their community, and in turn rely on the people around them. Health promotion involves enabling people to increase control over and to improve their health, by creating these supportive environments, building healthy public policies, and strengthening community action. These very same conditions promote peace.
“We see them as one in the same. One cannot exist without the other,” says Dr. Charles Tauber, who is the Director of the Coalition for Work with Psychotrauma and Peace (CWWPP), in Croatia, and a Board Member of InterChange. His organization is a perfect example of how peace and health initiatives blend and reinforce one another. CWWPP works on issues of psychological trauma, reconciliation, and non-violent conflict resolution for the “empowerment of people during or after armed conflict.”
Tangible methods communities use to build health and peace concomitantly include: community kitchens, public information and sensitization related to taboos about mental or environmental health, creation of parks and public meeting spaces, and the organization of activities that reach out to various demographics of the population. International organizations can also play a role here, as evidenced by InterChange. Because they bring academics, peace practitioners and community members together from around the world to share best practices and dialogue about events in the field, they are living examples of how to build upon supportive communities and talk about the best ways to deliver services.
This summer I will have the privilege of working for four months with mobile health clinics in the West Bank, Palestine. I think I will observe again what I saw throughout Latin American displaced communities, which was the central importance of mental health strategies and support to capacity building and reconciliation at the community level. I want to chronicle my journey in this column, but also invite others involved in peace and health work to share their stories.
Thank you for reading my inaugural posting, and I look forward to hearing from you!
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 WHO (1986). The Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion. Available at: http://www.who.int/hpr/NPH/docs/ottawa_charter_hp.pdf