Dr David Atwood

Dr David Atwood. Photo: David Atwood

David Atwood (pictured, photo supplied by David) has recently retired after nine years as Director of the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in Geneva, and 16.5 years on staff .

When he speaks to Friends at Yearly Meeting in Perth in January, David will draw on his experience of QUNO’s work to reflect on the efficacy of QUNO, which is difficult to quantify given that many of the changes that have been influenced by QUNO’s work have been incremental, slow, or subtle.

His lecture will fill a hole in the documentation of the work of QUNO in Geneva: ‘There hasn’t been much written like this. There was a booklet put out a few years ago by British Quakers with different dimensions of the UN Quaker experience. The 1983 Swarthmore Lecture by Sydney Bailey ‘Peace is a Process’ gave some useful reflections. But there has not been much published recently as a reflection on the Quaker UN work as a whole and how it fits the global situation, particularly the current situation.’

David grew up Presbyterian, but was deeply influenced by Quakers after his family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina in 1962 to live close to Guilford College, the only Quaker college in south-eastern United States. His family became close friends with the family of a professor, J Floyd Moore. David can now say: ‘If not for that family, my life would have been completely different.’

In 1967, the largest ever World Gathering of Friends was in Greensboro. U Thant, then Secretary General of the United Nations, addressed 7500 Quakers gathered there. J. Floyd Moore was the Secretary for the gathering.

David had a lot of questions around the Vietnam War but as he ‘was not a Quaker and not a pacifist’ at the time, he ended up in the army. His military experiences pushed him to re-evaluate what he believed in and a growing interest in peace studies was seeded by what he knew of Friends. The Moore family at Guildford College helped with his doctoral peace research. David says an opportunity to spend time at QUNO New York in 1976 and 1977 was also deeply influential as part of his doctoral research.

‘I went to New York in 1976 where Quakers were extraordinarily kind to the naïve young visitor. That was also where I heard in 1977 of a vacancy for a tutor of a vacancy for a tutor in economics and development studies (ultimately tutor in peace studies). I have a huge debt of gratitude to Quakers for the professional and personal life I have been able to have.’

Appointed to Woodbrooke College to develop the course in Peace Studies, the young academic found himself in the middle of Quakerism: ‘That was my deep immersion in Quakerism,’ he says. ‘I lived in Birmingham from 1978 to 1988 and went to variety of local Meetings and served on many Quaker committees, but did not become a member until I moved to Geneva.’

In 1988, David became General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, headquartered in the Netherlands where his duties included policy development, staff management and direction of the Fellowship programme on non-violence education and training. David then moved to QUNO Geneva as Peace and Disarmament Representative in 1995. He became Director of QUNO Geneva in 2004.

‘Being a Quaker has given me a freedom to act on the basic elements within me — strong threads that have been there my whole life,’ David reflects. ‘Spirit-led, faith-based organisations have a durability that other organisations don’t. I see people throw their life into something for three-four years and then they can’t do it any more. But I see Quakers who have the capacity to work on issues for decades and still be able to do it.’

David will speak at Christ Church Grammar School, Perth, and the published lecture will be available for purchase at Yearly Meeting and afterwards from Friends Booksales in Adelaide.

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