The conflict in Syria dominates coverage of conflict, and also shows the limitations of international action. Across the world, conflicts now are increasingly based on local factors – political, ethnic or religious identity, competition over resources such as land and water, the bumpy transition out of dictatorship, and the problem of 45m refugees, the highest number ever, that need to return home.
There will always be a role for international mediators and peacekeepers, but much of the heavy lifting needs to be done at a very local level. I’ve recently been one of the judges for Peace Direct’s Tomorrow’s Peacebuilder competition, whose results were announced yesterday. The largest number of entries came from Kenya – not the country with the greatest conflict, but one with a strong story to tell about how a mass of local peacebuilding initiatives after the 2007 post-election violence, helped to head off a repetition in 2013.
One of the organisations that most impressed me was Kapamagogopa, based in Mindanao in the Phillipines. Started by a female Muslim engineer, the organisation is bridging Christian/Muslim hostility by placing Muslim volunteers in Christian organisations. In less than ten years, they have affected the lives of 700,000 people through this activity, and one volunteer has recently been chosen to lead their organisation – the equivalent of an Ulster Protestant organisation choosing a Catholic as its Director. This is such a simple idea, that could be applied in so many conflicts – Sinhala versus Tamil, Serb versus Bosnian, Sunni versus Shia – and costs almost nothing.
Many large scale conflicts start with small incidents – as the Tunisian start of the Arab Spring demonstrates. Using the analogy of a spark setting fire to a tinder dry field, the spark is unpredictable. But the dryness of the field is a function of the level of trust and cooperation between different communities, and this can be changed with initiatives such as this one. And even in a dry field, the fire can be extinguished if someone is standing by with a bucket of water. That immediate response can only come from a very local individual or organisation.
With the post-2015 Millenium Development Goals under review, there is growing awareness that unless we can deal more effectively with conflict, development will be held back in the poorest and most fragile states. One approach that hasn’t yet been tried is large scale long term funding of these kinds of small local peacebuilding initiatives – allowing them to build community support over a period of years, integrate peacebuilding with work on livelihoods, and be leaders of their own strategies, rather than implementers of ideas developed elsewhere. There are models that we can learn from in the Global Fund for Human Rights, or the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. Let’s apply this learning to the field of peacebuilding, and put funds in the hands of those who have the most at stake.