Interview with Lisbeth Pilegaard – A new member of the ALF Steering Committee

Why did you decide to join the Steering Committee of ALF?

Firstly, the invitation to become part of the Committee came from good friends and people that I respect in the field of international development, but also I consider myself personally invested in the cause of ALF since I have lived and worked in the Middle East. The murder of the Swedish Minister Anna Lindh came as a shock and a kind of wakeup call for me. I think that a network such as ALF is needed now that the world, more than ever, is increasingly polarized and radicalized. One of the negative trends of this pandemic is that everything is easily turning either black or white and the extremes are becoming more and more polarized as we witnessed during the last year in the US and other countries.

Although I advocate for the perks of digital platforms in times of social distancing, I am not naive about it and I am aware that the continuous use of social media has created frustration and hostility amongst those people that feel isolated and lonely and thus feel the right to ventilate all their dark thoughts on strangers on-line. In this regard, social media are definitively not supporting a peaceful and beneficial dialogue: generally, people tend to be quite aggressive on social platforms and they lose the nuances that are an essential feature of face to face encounters. We are experiencing challenging times, but therefore it is even more important to have an organization building networks in order to reach out to people before they become too radicalized and before they start cornering themselves in crystallized opinions and stereotypes about their “enemy”. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in Denmark too and we certainly need to continue to build and re-establish the ALF Danish network. I hope that we will invite and engage many more members, especially those that are not traditionally part of this type of sector. I am thinking beyond NGOs because if you really want to achieve change in society, you need to reach out to those actors who are more critical and hesitant because they might not see the point in participating in the conversation right away.  It is much easier to agree with those who have the same idea as yourself. Nevertheless, the real work starts when we approach those who do not agree or have different opinions, because the differences allow us to expand beyond the comfort zone of organizations that already share the same ideas and goals. We need to open the dialogue at many levels, and we will take small step towards this goal; we owe it to the rest of the network and to our neighbours in Sweden.

In your opinion, what are the major strengths and flaws of ALF?

I firmly believe in the importance of networks.  I am also part of other networks such as the Nordic Women Mediators Network. I think that creating networks and relationships, formally and informally, is the only way we, as humans, can evolve and manage the challenges that we face politically, socially and military. ALF and its network have had a good start particularly in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. I do not think that there are any flaws in creating networks, on the contrary it is essential to have people meeting, discussing, building alliances in order to push agendas, raise awareness and help change things.

Have you had the chance to work in the Mediterranean area?

My experience in the Middle East started as a child living in Cyprus, where my father worked as a UN peacekeeper during the conflict between the Greek and the Turkish Cypriots. I grew up looking at the border, watching people fleeing from their homes and losing their families as I witnessed all the suffering that that caused. Amongst them, there were also refugees from Lebanon fleeing from the civil war, so I was exposed to the consequences of bad leadership in the Middle East at an early age. Then, years later I returned to work in the Middle East. I negotiated agreements with authorities, undertook assessments during conflicts and opened offices in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Jordan. I have a great affection for the region and its people, in fact I have maintained contact with the region as I am the chair of the Executive Committee of the European Endowment for Democracy which provides grants to organizations and individuals promoting democracy in the European Southern neighbouring countries.

The concept of dialogue is at the core of ALF, how important is it for the DIPD? What are the differences between the political dialogue of DIPD and the dialogue of ALF?

In Denmark we have an history of cross-party political dialogue and negotiation enacted to achieve what we think it is the best for our society and we have refined this culture for over hundred years. This is the history and the principles that DIPD brings along when engaging internationally in partnerships with developing countries that do not share the same historical path or background of democratic culture. Through peaceful and constructive dialogue, we show that it is possible to discuss with someone with a completely different view. DIPD facilitates dialogue between or within political parties, whereas ALF enables dialogue between civilians, people and organizations. Nonetheless, the two types of dialogue observe the same principles. This is the whole point of building societies – to listen constructively and peacefully not to fight those with different opinions.

In the current times of isolation due to the pandemic, it seems difficult or even impossible to foster dialogue. Would you suggest a strategy to keep the conversation open and active across the Euro-Med region?

I do not completely agree with the assumption that it is difficult to foster dialogue during these times. During the lockdown we were able to reach out to people that otherwise would have been excluded either because they could not afford to take part in fancy conferences or to travel to capital city for meetings. We were able to establish a dialogue with people and organizations in countries and across borders where otherwise meeting would have been very difficult. For some people digital meetings might be convenient and much easier to manage for social, economic or security issues that usually impede them form moving physically. Even thou unfortunately certain countries, such as Syria, have very limited internet connection. However, I am not so pessimistic about this whole pandemic situation when it comes to dialogue because I believe that, if we really think creatively and use the digital platforms available, we have the opportunity to reach out to people that otherwise we would be meeting only once a year or in very classical conferences. Now nearly everyone can be in contact with anyone more easily. Even the so-called hard to get VIPs that used to be very busy or hard to approach are at home and more approachable

I am more negative regarding the consequences of the pandemic thou when it comes to the social and economic downfall for the Euro-Med countries. “We are not going to die from the virus itself, but from starvation because of the consequences of Covid-19”, I have been told from friends of the region. Now it is the moment to think about innovative ways of being together and the time has come for us to use this moment as an opportunity to stop and reflect about what we are doing and how we can make it better.

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