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John Marks, a former U.S. diplomat and investigative journalist, has pioneered the use of TV and radio soap operas to facilitate peacebuilding and conflict resolution around the world. John’s organization, Search for Common Ground (SFCG), specializes in the use of popular culture to create understanding among ethnic communities and to achieve measurable changes in behaviors and attitudes. In the last twenty-seven years, SFCG has grown to become the world’s biggest citizen-sector, peacebuilding organization.
The New Idea
John founded SFCG in 1982 in order to transform the way the world deals with conflict and, more specifically, to move away from adversarial approaches and toward cooperative solutions. Although SFCG has evolved throughout its existence, the organization’s path-breaking innovation remains the use of popular culture, including soap opera and other kinds of media programming, to build bridges and promote reconciliation between communities facing ethnic and religious tension and violence.
SFCG’s guiding principle is to “understand the differences, and act on the commonalities.” It works with local partners to find culturally appropriate ways to strengthen societies capacity to deal with conflicts, operating according to the philosophy that conflict is a natural part of life, and improving our ability to transform conflict into a source of growth and progress will have a profound impact on how effectively we deal with difficult issues in the future.
SFCG has developed a diverse toolbox, which includes such traditional techniques of conflict resolution as mediation, training, facilitation, and back-channel negotiations. Because violent conflict depends on stereotyping, demonizing, and dehumanizing, SFCG uses less conventional, mass communication tools to help reverse this process. Thus, it produces television and radio dramas that communicate messages of mutual respect, tolerance, nonviolence, and problem-solving, including a TV series in Nigeria (50-episodes), Egypt (29-episodes), Macedonia (51-episodes), Côte d’Ivoire (20-episodes), and Kenya (26-episodes); along with radio soap opera series in such places as Sierra Leone where over 2,000 episodes have been produced. In addition, SFCG makes music videos that have turned into theme songs for entire peace processes. It even produces reality TV—with good values. SFCG’s toolbox also includes street theater, comic books, sport, art, community organizing, and film festivals. In sum, SFCG is an organization of weavers who aim to knit together multiple strands to help mend countries that are torn and broken. It seeks to de-radicalize and encourage moderate voices. It works both top-down and bottom-up to promote societal healing across whole countries.
In a world of different nationalities, ideologies, ethnicities, resources, and social, political, and cultural values, conflict is widespread. Yet, the same differences that lead to conflict also enrich our lives. The question becomes how to deal with these differences constructively. By acknowledging differences, highlighting common interests and approaching conflict in non-adversarial ways, significant progress can result. On the other hand, when humans respond negatively to conflict, as is so often the case, the resultant violence tears apart their societies.
SFCG opens programs in new countries when there is an explicit need or request for its services. Often, opportunities then arise in countries bordering those in which it operates. SFCG prioritizes these requests and needs from neighboring countries. Starting a new program involves three steps: First, determining whether SFCG can meet the specific needs outlined in an assessment mission; second, finding credible partners in the area; and finally, securing sufficient funding to open and sustain operations. Conflict transformation at the societal level is a long and continuous process. Although SFCG’s programs are designed to be long-term interventions, its ultimate goal is to leave behind sustainable projects. In Gaza, for example, SFCG established the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution, which now operates as an independent, local citizen organization with twenty-four full-time staff and significant fundraising capabilities. In Macedonia and Ukraine, SFCG programs have become locally directed and funded, nonprofit organizations.
Evaluating and measuring the success of SFCG’s work is a constant challenge due to the complexity of conflict situations and the fact that behavioral and attitudinal shifts are more difficult to measure than material humanitarian aid or standard of living indices. In most cases when violence is reduced, it is nearly impossible to isolate the causes of the reduction, given the fact that societies are complex systems subject to myriad competing influences. In any case, SFCG is committed to actively monitoring its impact. Because each location has its own programs, results are measured on a country-by-country basis. Formal program reviews are conducted biannually, while informal project monitoring is continuous.
SFCG currently operates programs on the ground in seventeen countries in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North America. It has approximately 350 full-time employees, of whom 80 percent are local nationals, and 20 percent are Americans and Europeans. Though SFCG is commonly described as the ‘world’s largest peace-building citizen organization,’ John is focused on spreading its work both in terms of geographic reach as well as product/portfolio expansion. For instance, in 2008, SFCG received a large grant from the Department for International Development—the U.K.’s foreign aid agency—to create separate TV and radio series in ten countries around the themes of conflict resolution and soccer. John is particularly engaged in scaling Common Ground Productions to achieve global reach.
John Marks was a diplomat who resigned from the U.S. State Department in protest of its policies in the Vietnam War. He went on to become a U.S. Senate aide, investigative journalist, and a best-selling, award-winning author. However, John became troubled by the adversarial quality of his work—which was mostly defined by what he was against. Instead of tearing down the old system, he wanted to build a new one. To John, this required transforming the very framework, or context, in which nations and ethnic and religious groups confront each other. John became an advocate of common security, which reflected interdependent—indeed, transformational—ways of thinking about security. He was convinced that there had to be better ways of resolving differences—that beggar-your-neighbor, win-lose techniques are not only dangerous, but in the end, ineffective and unworkable. In 1982, John founded Search for Common Ground (Search) in Washington, D.C., to find concrete ways of shifting how the world deals with conflict—away from adversarial, you-or-me approaches to non-adversarial, you-and-me solutions.
In order to promote sustainable change, John saw that he needed to work with, not against, the people with whom he disagreed. Like many successful social entrepreneurs, he was infused from an early age with the notion that he not only could make a difference in the world, but more importantly, that it was his obligation to do so.
John married Susan Collin Marks in 1994, a well-known peacemaker and author who was deeply involved in South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. As SFCG’s Senior Vice-President, Susan became a full partner in his work, and they operate very much as a team. In 2006, John and Susan were awarded the Skoll Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurship.