When Professor Johan Galtung, the world renowned founder of peace research as an academic discipline visited Islamabad last week, he shook up the social scientists and politicians; those who try to know and say all the right things, but do little. All of us belong to that category, at least to a certain extent and in many concrete cases.
Don’t rug the boat, we say. Don’t speak up against authority, the principal, the old politician, the religious leader, and others in power. But then they may not always be right. Indeed, in many cases they are not, and it is my duty and yours to speak up against injustice and wrongdoing- otherwise we become accomplices, and we don’t contribute to the change that would benefit ourselves and others.
There are groups and forces in any town, city and country that don’t want change; they are the ‘pillars of society,’ resisting change which is not in their own interest. They are the old leaders in politics, the civil service, the private sector, and elsewhere. Even in academia, we find them; they justify and explain the superstructure so people believe that the status quo is quite right, that there is no need for the unknown, even if it might be better.
And then sweeps in the elderly Norwegian peace professor at a conference in the capital Islamabad, like a fresh spring wind from the far north.
Don’t take anything for granted or to be true, he says. Don’t believe that there are only one or two solutions to a problem, a conflict, a dispute or a war. There are always many solutions. We must think beyond conventions. We must transcend what our textbooks and superiors thought was right.” And he adds: “Don’t just say that disagreeing parties should ‘reconcile.’ Maybe what was there before was not right at all. Hence, new ways must be found, and only those who are there today can do it.
It is common to see peace conferences during and at the end of a war or conflict, such as in Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. But Galtung says: For heaven’s sake don’t place opposing parties in large conferences with prepared speeches. Even if one party agrees with many points from the other side, they cannot admit it. Therefore, talks must be small-scale, even just one-on-one, so that issues can be deliberated quietly and systematically, without any media or Ph.D. students present. At the end of peace talks, there should only be winners; and everyone should feel like they gained something.
About the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan, drawn up in 1893, as ordered by a British civil servant and agreed to by the Amir of Afghanistan, professor Galtung had serious and sarcastic comments. He blamed the Brits for having had an obsession with ‘drawing lines’ everywhere they went during the time of the British Empire, for which the locals were left to suffer for generations. He said that the Pashtun people or, nation, as he termed it, is the largest ethnic group in the world without its own land. But he added that perhaps the two lands, Pakistan and Afghanistan, should have common jurisdiction over the land. In our modern world, people travel and cross borders all the time, so that fact should be realized and practical administration found to accommodate them.
True, this is thinking beyond convention, and it may take some time to get used to the possibility of having a permanent porous border or no border at all. But that doesn’t mean we should not try it.
Leaving Professor Galtung aside now, let us consider some other fields where we need to think outside the box. And those who wish to study Galtung further can consult his books; there are more than a hundred and fifty of them.
This week, on Saturday the 8th of March, the world will celebrate International Women’s Day, which actually started as ‘Working women’s day.’ There is good reason to celebrate the many achievements made by women and in gender relations in the last generation or two; of course even earlier, such as those between the two world wars when the new, more socially-conscious political order with the welfare state began to take shape. True, there were few women leaders in government posts at the time, but there were some prominent ones in the non-governmental sector; often they were enlightened upper-class women, who were socially and economically independent and, therefore, could afford to transcend convention.
Today, we can hardly imagine a government cabinet without women, and some of the most prominent world leaders are women, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and earlier, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto. But were they thinking more outside the box than their male counterparts were? No; not always, and that is a challenge to women - and men - in leadership posts in the future. Leaders must be more than clever and organized technocrats. They must be seen to be competent, but then they must also be much more than that.
In Pakistan, we are still struggling with providing education for all (EFA). There is a long way to go before every child goes to school, and every illiterate adult has been given a second chance to learn the basic skills of reading and writing. Why can we not get around to doing it? Money is required, teachers are needed, books must be printed, school houses must be built, maintained, and so on. And if some parents don’t want their daughters and sons to go to school, there must be local campaigns to explain the importance of education. I am certain they will agree if the curriculum and content was made acceptable and relevant.
On that note, let me say that I believe most of what children learn at school should be thrown out. We should find new and simple content that can give a real foundation for children’s lives, in moral fields, skills and knowledge. And, every child should feel he or she can succeed and be useful. Everyone must be included, Taliban or not! Of course, peace education would be compulsory, but also education for justice and equality. And that would mean learning to continue the peaceful struggle for the lower classes to get a fair place in society.
This is not rocket science; but it demands that we think anew about what education really is. This type of education would be more expensive, although money is needed, and it would give an enormous rate of return for the individual and society.
Sometimes, ‘modern’ secularists criticize Islam, Christianity and other religions for hindering or delaying human progress. I don’t think so. But I believe religious leaders must also transcend convention. Rather, I think that many of those who think they are ‘modern’ should question themselves. Take for example, the military paradigms; nothing is more illogical than those, and all the money the military consumes. Or take the capitalist economists, who believe in the eternal growth of any country’s economy, even the over-developed West’s. If there isn’t growth, there will be unemployment and recession. How come they cannot find any form of ‘economic equilibrium,’ where resource consumption and growth stop, and where politicians focus on sharing economic resources and building societies that are more humane – not just more efficient in manufacturing goods and services that people don’t really need. The whole Western world needs to consider these issues, and the middle and upper classes in the developing countries, too.
Dear reader, I wish you a happy International Women’s day - and many happy human development days, where we all transcend conventional thinking.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.