New leader, new start for peace foundation

101-year-old group finds new home at Tufts

Alex de Waal Alex de Waal (Globe Staff)
By Bill Porter
Globe Staff / July 11, 2011

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SOMERVILLE - Alex de Waal was having tea and cookies on the veranda of embattled Somali warlord Mohamed Aidid’s Mogadishu home in 1992, about a year before the US helicopter battle that would inspire the book and film “Black Hawk Down.’’

A specialist in conflict resolution and humanitarian issues, de Waal told Aidid he was writing a report describing him as a war criminal for Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights.

That’s when the shelling started.

The blasts rattled the windows but not Aidid, who went on sipping and munching. “General,’’ de Waal asked, “is this the safest place to be?’’ “Absolutely,’’ Aidid replied. “They’re aiming for us.’’

Aidid, apparently indifferent to the message de Waal was trying to deliver, died after being wounded in gunfire a few years later. De Waal pushed on, fueled by determination to try to help make the world a better and safer place.

His path led to his recent appointment as executive director of the locally based World Peace Foundation, which tapped the Oxford University-educated British citizen and Somerville resident to run the organization as it begins life this month in a new home at Tufts University.

The foundation, established 101 years ago by Boston textbook publisher Edwin Ginn, moved to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts on July 1 after an 11-year affiliation with Harvard’s Kennedy School.

“I can tell you this is really big for us,’’ said Peter Uvin, Fletcher’s academic dean. “It’s been a marriage waiting to happen, as we are so alike in many ways and have similar mandates and even a similar origin.’’

The foundation’s board of trustees decided Fletcher would provide the best match following the retirement last summer of longtime president Robert I. Rotberg. It didn’t hurt that Ginn was a Tufts alumnus.

Ginn, who died in 1914, before the start of World War I, became a peace advocate in the 1890s and then a global force, along with Andrew Carnegie, for antiwar efforts, said Rotberg, author of several biographies including “A Leadership for Peace: How Edwin Ginn Tried to Change the World.’’

“That period included helping the state Legislature pass a major peace resolution in 1903 and many other local and national initiatives,’’ said Rotberg, also the former director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Kennedy, in an e-mail. “Ginn was a Tufts graduate, and the Fletcher library is named after Ginn. So it has come full circle.’’

Ginn’s School for Peace became the World Peace Foundation in 1910.

“I have often said that the WPF is a signal but glorious failure,’’ Rotberg said. “It was created in the vain hope of ending war and introducing an era of peace. That is still the WPF mission. It is still an urgent mission.’’

And de Waal, who had participated in several of the foundation’s projects, is “an excellent choice to succeed me,’’ Rotberg said.

Philip S. Khoury, chairman of the board and associate provost and professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called de Waal “a major figure’’ and said the board also was looking for a relationship with another high-quality university that values research.

“We wanted a place that is activist-oriented and interested in peace and conflict, and there is no question Fletcher majors in that, as it were,’’ Khoury said.

De Waal said Fletcher provides an ideal match because of its emphasis on conflict, peacemaking, and humanitarian issues.

For the past five years, de Waal, 48, has been a program director at the Social Science Research Council in New York, responsible for research programs on peace and security in Africa and the AIDS epidemic. He also has been an adviser to the African Union on Sudan, and is wrapping up his current assignment as the principal facilitator for security negotiations.

Among the agreements he helped craft was a political framework for resolving the conflict in South Kordofan, a state in Sudan.

But even as South Sudan celebrates its first days as an independent nation, hostilities persist in that region, with no cease-fire being reached.

“It could happen soon, and hopefully they’ll resume talking in the next few days,’’ de Waal said on Saturday.

His blend of peace work and scholarship could prove beneficial to the foundation, said Khoury.

“He is kind of a political anthropologist in many ways,’’ he said. “He’s a person who does field work; he’s on the ground, and he sees things that most people can’t see because of that.’’

De Waal, who officially took over July 1, has already forged partnerships with two organizations and secured an $11 million grant for research on fragile states including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. He also is working to create a forum that would bring African leaders and scholars together to discuss peace and security issues.

The travel-weary de Waal can walk to his new office near Davis Square from his house in Somerville, which he bought six years ago and where he will now be able to spend more time with his family: Somali wife Nimco; daughter Hannah, 15; and sons Adan, 4, and Hiroe, 21, a student at the University of San Francisco.

In his downtime, de Waal likes to spend time playing with Adan. “I read him stories, take him to the park,’’ he said.

The foundation will start with a staff of three, de Waal said, and will hire a research director and administrative assistant. “We’ll take on a number of student interns,’’ he said.

It will stay small, he said. “Small but venerable.’’

At Harvard, the foundation was first affiliated with the Harvard Institute of International Development, from 1993 to 1999, and then began its relationship with the Kennedy School with the formation of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution, said Rotberg, who was the foundation’s president from 1993 to June 2010 and a trustee for 30 years.

A Globe request to interview Kennedy’s dean, David T. Ellwood, about the foundation’s move was answered with an e-mail from spokeswoman Melodie Jackson: “The World Peace Foundation is a past funder of a Kennedy School research program, and as a separately incorporated 501c3 organization, the WPF was never a part of the school. We consequently don’t have much to offer by way of comment on its new affiliation.’’

But Harvard provided a good home for the foundation, some say.

“It was a great relationship over there, and we are certainly grateful for that relationship,’’ said James M. Shannon, a member of the board and a former congressman and state attorney general. “But I think there was general agreement that the foundation might better fit in a different institution. I think it works for everybody. . . . Mr. Ginn’s legacy is coming home.’’

Bill Porter can be reached at