Johanna Poutanen on a field visit to a cattle camp in Rumbek, South Sudan.
Fulbright Finland News Magazine

An Inclusive Path to Peace

10 December 2020 • Text: Louisa Gairn, Photos: Saila Huusko, CMI
Peace mediation professional and Fulbright Finland alumna Johanna Poutanen talks about her experiences of peace processes around the world, the ongoing impacts of her Fulbright award in her work, and the crucial importance of women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution.

Johanna Poutanen has forged her career working in peace mediation in tense political situations around the globe. With first-hand experience of peace processes in countries as diverse as Nepal, South Sudan, Libya, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland, among others, she believes passionately in the importance of inclusivity in fostering meaningful dialogue and making positive steps towards peace.

Johanna is now Head of Women in Peacemaking at the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) in Finland, one of the world’s leading independent organizations specializing in dialogue and mediation, founded by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former President of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari. With a mission to foster inclusion and equality for women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, she leads a team of experts in informing and supporting international peace mediators and policy makers to involve women at every stage of these pivotal processes.

Johanna remembers understanding the importance of mediation and dialogue at an early age. “It seems to be an innate propensity!” she laughs. “Even when I was a kid my brother used to call me a peace mediator. If there was a disagreement in the family, I would often try to find common ground.” This natural affinity was developed while attending an international high school in the U.S., where she participated in an extracurricular program on conflict resolution. Later, she spent time volunteering in Northern Ireland and Kosovo, experiences which inspired her to pursue an M.Sc. degree in Diplomacy and World Politics at the University of Helsinki. 

Following graduation, Johanna took on a variety of roles related to her studies, including working in the Strategic Planning Unit of the UN Secretary General in New York and contributing to grass roots dialogue initiatives in Kenya. But perhaps her most crucial experience was working at the Finnish Embassy in Kathmandu in the aftermath of the Nepalese civil war and ongoing peace negotiations, where she facilitated a pioneering platform for youth dialogue. “These were very formative years in a very acute, post-conflict setting, because the peace had just been signed in Nepal. There was a dire need to create a platform for peaceful dialogue on substantive issues facing the Nepalese, and particularly from the point of view of young people.”

Crisis Management Initiative in South Sudan

Johanna’s move to CMI came in 2013, as CMI Country Manager in South Sudan at a time when political upheaval, and ultimately armed conflict, swept the country. “It was just after South Sudan’s independence and our focus was on inclusive dialogue in state-building. We worked with youth and women parliamentarians, channeling input to the decision making but also opening dialogue between the different ethnic, geographic and political groups. The situation changed very dramatically when I was there. South Sudan fell into civil war in December 2013 and all of a sudden we were working in a very acute conflict and peace process context. I was evacuated at the time, but returned a few weeks later and continued to work in support of the formal
peace process through complementary means.”

Johanna Poutanen discussing with a South Sudanese woman on a balcony
Just after the country’s independence, Johanna worked in South Sudan with a focus on inclusive dialogue in state-building.

Thinking back to that period of her life, Johanna remembers the experience as “very interesting, although very tough in many ways”. It was then she began considering what her next steps should be. “Witnessing the challenges that both the South Sudanese and the international community were grappling with, I wondered if there was a way to do this better. I wanted to see if there was something in research that could help me and also to take a step back a little bit. I was so immersed in the day to day, I felt the need for a break for reflection.” 

The opportunity to join a mid-career program in the U.S. proved attractive. “In this sort of program you’re with your peers, and you already have some professional experience in your backpack, so you can approach things from a different perspective. Then I heard about the opportunity for a scholarship
with Fulbright Finland, which of course was a critical enabler. I was very lucky to get the scholarship and then get into the school that I wanted.”

Mid-Career Reflection and Growth through Fulbright

Johanna undertook a master’s degree in Public Administration at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where she pursued advanced studies in conflict, democracy, and negotiations, supported by an ASLA-Fulbright Graduate Grant

“Altogether the program was a perfect fit. I was able to compile a tailored set of courses combining leadership and management, and also the latest research on civil war and democratic theory, which feeds into my interest in inclusivity in peace processes. It enabled me to dig deeper into exactly the questions that I wanted to answer. There was also a very valuable practical element to it all, developing skills like public speaking and policy writing, with a lot of self-reflection built in. Having returned to Finland I could see a tangible difference in what I learned and how I was able to develop my professional skills.”

The network of contacts Johanna developed both inside and outside the classroom is another key ongoing benefit. “We had an incredibly international cohort of students from different fields, such as public administration, NGOs, and other organizations,” says Johanna, noting that former classmates have gone on to become foreign ministers and diplomats, as well as leaders in NGOs and other organizations. In addition to keeping in touch with her classmates, she maintains links with leading researchers in her field, as well as institutions in Boston and Washington, including the State Department. “These contacts and network have enabled me to open new avenues for collaboration between institutions as well as individuals.”

Including Women for Fair and Sustainable Peacemaking

By including women you can take a more comprehensive approach – it makes a better peace.

Returning to Finland, Johanna put her enhanced leadership skills and research knowledge into practice in her new role as Head of Women in Peacemaking in CMI. She explains that ensuring women’s participation in peacemaking is of vital importance. “We need to ensure that both men and women have an equal right to take part in the decision making that concerns them – and of course peace processes are major forums for political decision making. But there’s also the question of how we can make these peace processes more sustainable, more fair, and lasting in the longer term. If you completely exclude half of the population in the way you understand the conflict, what are the root causes, the drivers, and also the possible solutions, you’re missing out on an incredible resource for building lasting peace. I’m not saying that women are the peacemakers – they are also equally part of making and driving the conflict. They’re not bystanders watching the conflict from the sidelines, and they shouldn’t be bystanders to the peace process either. By including women you can take a more comprehensive approach – it makes a better peace, if you will.”

In support of these goals, Johanna’s team works internationally and on a  variety of levels. “We work a lot with peace mediators, those who design and conduct peace mediation efforts, to take this agenda of women in peace and security and put it into practice in their work. They’re the key actors who define who sits at the peace table, whose interests are heard, whose concerns are taken into consideration. That’s why strengthening those inclusive mediation capacities is so important. Over the past few years, we’ve been working with the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, convening high-level seminars on gender and inclusive mediation strategies for leading peace mediation actors, such as UN envoys or regional representatives who are in charge of ongoing peace processes. We focus on concrete tools and measures they can take to make the processes more gender-sensitive and how they can better take into consideration the rights and views of women.”

“We also provide tailored support in different conflict contexts. For instance, in Yemen, we’re working with women who are feeding inputs to the UN-led peace process about what the needs are, what the transition should look like, and what methods should be used to make a long-lasting ceasefire. Women are also taking part in very local level mediation efforts, for example upholding a ceasefire in a particular area or mediating in community-level conflicts. We provide support to these actors to come together and build strategic partnerships, as well as providing resources for them to do their work.” 

Working Together for Lasting Peace

Johanna describes peace mediation as “incredibly rewarding” work, but notes that the path to peace requires dedication and perseverance from everyone involved. “It’s very much a team effort. There are no quick gains; and even if there is some consensus built, or a peace agreement made, in many ways it’s only the beginning. Conflicts can bring out the best as well as the worst in people, and there is a lot of injustice and violence that you come across, so you have to be mindful of your own wellbeing. Then again you also see the resilience and creativity of people.”

“I love the field that I’m in and have this sense that I’m in the right place, where I’m continuously learning and growing but also able to contribute in my own small way, in collaboration with colleagues. It’s emotionally and intellectually fascinating to be part of these processes, and you learn a great deal from the people you’re working with. Peace processes are these rare moments in history where you’re renegotiating not only the rules of the political game but also the social contract. The longer term changes can be immense, particularly from the point of view of inclusivity. That’s why I see my work with women’s participation as so crucial, because it really matters. It makes a difference, both in the short term and also in the long term.”

Read the whole Fulbright Finland News magazine 2/2020!