If you are a student of the Paris School of International Affairs, chances are high that you were marked absent from your classes on Nov. 12 and 13, and you were to be found at La Grande Halle de la Villette, the venue for the Paris Peace Forum, feeling as though you had fallen down the rabbit hole and emerged in Wonderland. 

La Grande Halle de la Villette

La Grande Halle de la Villete is huge, even more imposing than it seems from the entrance. As I entered the Hall, feeling rather pleased about the badge around my neck proclaiming me to be a ‘guest’ at the Forum, I thought that I could take a good look and attend a couple of events in the next couple of hours. I had seriously underestimated the number of interesting events going on in the hall, and it was easy to get lost in the first half-hour even with the map available in the Forum app; the stage was on the first floor, the amphitheatre and auditorium in the basement.

Guests watching the speech of President Macron

Little stall-workstations had been set up everywhere, where organizations could set up office, project their work and talk to interested persons. Interspersed were workshops and conference areas for organizations to showcase their work through presentations, or, in the language of the Forum, put forward their pitch. I spoke to a number of young change-makers from various parts of the world and found them to be articulate, well-informed and passionate about their work.

It is a particularly poignant testimony to how far we have progressed in the last century since the end of the First World War that a forum for peace was not predominantly about prevention of war or arms proliferation. The six interlinked themes at the Forum were peace and security, development, environment, new technologies, inclusive economy, and culture and education. Within this overarching construct, there was immense diversity of both issues and actors. This year, the Paris Peace Forum had 7,000 participants, including 33 heads of state and 12 international organizations,  representing 140 countries.

The largest NGO in the world, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) was there, showcasing its Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative, selected as one of the 10 programs at the Forum to receive support from their scale-up committee over the next year. Ms. Julie Kedroske, Technical Specialist, BRAC USA has this to say about the experience of her organization at the Paris Peace Forum, “The Paris Peace Forum not only provided us with access to a world stage to promote a sustainable and effective approach to ending extreme poverty, but also allowed us to showcase the voices and struggles of the hundreds of millions around the world that are often left out of the conversation.” 

There were various panel discussions and pitches on specific issues from across the world, with a heartening emphasis on including hitherto marginalized voices. There were discussions titled Poverty Alleviation for Refugees, Youth Empowerment and Diplomacy in Action, Basic Services in Slums, Building Peace through Sport, Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change, Strengthening Women’s Role in Peace, Open Governance and Democracy, just to name a few. 

Pitch from the Poverty Alleviation Coalition

Another positive development was the recognition of civil society actors in questions that have long seen as exclusive prerogatives of the governments. For instance, the panel discussion on ‘Beyond Poverty: SDGs for all – Including the Bottom Millions’, brought together political leaders, leaders from finance and representatives of civil society to debate the validity of SDGs. The panelists were (photo 6, left to right) Remy Rioux, Director General, French Development Agency; Hassan Ali Khaire, Prime Minister of Federal Republic of Somalia; Lindsey Coates, Managing Director, Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative, BRAC; Youssef Chahed, Head of Government of the Republic of Tunisia; and Bandar Hajjar, President of the Islamic Development Bank. It was refreshing to hear them say, in near-agreement, that there is an urgent need to ‘change the narrative’, ‘change the way of doing business’ so that the poor and the vulnerable groups in society are not left by the wayside. This panel discussion, incidentally, was moderated by our very own Dean Enrico Letta.

The all-star panel on Beyond Poverty: SDGs for all – Including the Bottom Millions

In fact, Sciences Po seemed to be everywhere. There were numerous alumni who are now working with organizations dedicated to making positive change. And finally, the 150 student volunteers, who were publicly acknowledged by Dean Letta at the beginning of the panel discussion on SDGs, worked seamlessly to ensure a wonderful experience for all guests. 

Sciences Po at the Paris Peace Forum

I was particularly delighted to see Fanta Diaby, first-year PSIA student in the International Development master’s program, in a panel, “The Fourth Estate: Media between Citizens and Governments.” Commenting on her participation in a panel with Awad Abir (Country Director, BBC Media Action) and Denise Dresser (Professor of Political Science and columnist, Reforma), Fanta said, “It was slightly nervewracking but I was honored to be on a panel with incredibly talented women and talking about something that I found very important.”  Indeed, discussions on the role of media are gaining importance in light of the various ways in which the independence of media is being threatened and social media is being manipulatedby vested interests.

Melati Wijsen and Jean-Marc Boursier during their discussion on Challenging the Status Quo on Environment Protection

The Forum’s engagement with youth in large numbers, as participants, volunteers and guests gives us hope for the future. In fact, perhaps the youngest speaker at the Forum was only eighteen years old. Melati Wijsen is the founder of two organizations, Bye Bye Plastic Bags and Youthtopia, and has been a climate activist for six years. Her conversation with Jean-Marc Boursier, Officer of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and COO of Suez, at the discussion titled ‘Alarmism is not Enough: Challenging the Status Quo on Environmental Protection’, combined the best of youth and experience.

There was much to learn at the Paris Peace Forum, and I ended up spending much more time than I had originally planned. I left, as I hope all participants did, with renewed hope that we have not abandoned our dream for peace.