In the years after the second World War ended, the American Friends Service Committee found themselves at the crossroads of an important decision: what to do next. Since its founding in 1917, the AFSC had been working across the globe to provide for the peoples of war-torn or impoverished countries. Should the organization decide to expand the scope of its mission? In 1950, Colin Bell, leader of the AFSC’s operations in the Middle East, proposed the idea of “linked centers”: placing leaders in positions of negotiation and peacemaking in major hubs of global politics. By 1953, AFSC had international centers in New York, Paris, Geneva, Calcutta and Shanghai with “Quaker International Affairs Representatives” (QIARs) working to find creative solutions to disputes and misunderstandings.
The role of QIAR has long been defined by processes of education, research, and negotiation. Representatives would become experts on the ideological and structural issues facing their region of study and then apply this knowledge to their peacemaking efforts. For example, in 1954 AFSC hosted a series of dinner discussions between Americans and Frenchmen in France in an effort to promote each side’s understanding of the other’s concerns. While QIARs aren’t negotiating with or hosting discussion between top world leaders, their work with lower-level cultural leaders is important in facilitating peaceful environments for disputes across the world. In a 1969 report, AFSC described QIAR’s work as “an exercise in building the foundations for peace, both through the resolution of immediate conflict and through long-range efforts to create the conditions and institutions of peace.”
QIARs achieve their goals in various ways. Many will recruit a team of both college age fellows and experienced staff to focus their efforts on a specific region. What they do from that point depends on the area. After researching the problems facing an industrialized nation, QIARs may host seminars and learning sessions to promote understanding between local leaders and citizens. In more conflict-prone areas, QIARs may host gatherings of leaders and facilitate civil discussion between warring enemies. Representatives’ work is ongoing throughout their region and isn’t restricted by a timeline. Many representatives will continue their work even after a major conflict has been resolved. QIARs remain an important an important part of AFSCs international work not only because they are continuously involved in promoting the Quaker ideal of peace in their regions, but because they convey to Quakers abroad the issues and needs of their areas. Representatives become the advocates for their regions to the global Quaker community and help to secure funding and resources for various aid projects.
By 2015, all but one QIAR had left their position due to financial shortages. However, AFSC is working to re-establish the QIAR program in 2016 with the long-term intended goal of being a more effective, positive force for peace and sustainable development in the world’s poorest countries.