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Reflecting on a year of working to decolonise peacebuilding

  • Published

    26 April 2023
  • Written by

    Jennifer Venis

It’s been a year since we launched the collaboratively developed* report, Race, Power and Peacebuilding. It collated the insights and experiences of over 160 practitioners – shared through a global consultation on Platform4Dialogue – to expose the systemic racism underpinning the peacebuilding sector.

The consultation participants identified many ways peacebuilding is affected by racism – including the perpetuation of stereotypes; initiatives being copied into disparate contexts; the devaluing of local expertise; and distrustful, opaque funding systems.

The issues they highlighted were not being raised for the first time. In fact, these conversations have been happening around the world for a long time, often in spaces that were overlooked by many powerholders. This report offered a route to amplify those voices.

At the core is a crucial issue: the willing blindness of Global North actors to the deep-rooted problems of structural racism and neo-colonial worldviews dominating peacebuilding practices, norms, and attitudes.

Ultimately, this failure to address the unequal power dynamics and systemic racism of the sector is undermining the one goal we all strive towards – to create sustainable peace.

As Cathy Amenya, a participant from Kenya, put it:

“Research has persistently shown that in times of conflict and trauma, traditional mechanisms seem to offer more long-lasting reconciliation processes because all participate. If African knowledge was accepted and allowed in developing peacebuilding theories, there would be more robust mechanisms than what we currently have.”

Since the launch of this and our earlier report, Time to Decolonise Aid, we’ve witnessed a seismic shift in sector thinking, with conversations about decolonisation becoming more and more mainstream. We’ve been on the EU Observer’s podcast EU Screams, been invited to speak to institutions and policymakers, and seen our peers draw on the insights that the consultation participants in their research and practices. We’ve also had the chance to learn from our colleagues, who have developed further research, insights and guides on this topic.

Beyond talk, there have been some active steps taken, by a few in the sector, to tackle the problems the participants highlighted. But although the report’s offered a range of practical opportunities to drive change – from simply acknowledging that structural racism exists to decentring Global North decision-making – not enough of us have taken real action. And there is still a lot of work left to do.

What’s next?

In its conclusion, Race Power and Peacebuilding highlighted that the peacebuilding sector has struggled to move beyond the preliminary acknowledgement of the existence of structural racism:

“For most practitioners and policymakers from the Global North, the path to decolonisation is unclear because what is necessary is uncharted territory.”

Unfortunately, this still seems to be the case for many. For Peace Direct, this lesson has pushed us towards a deeper exploration of how to operationalise decolonisation across peacebuilding: in MEL, funding, and programme implementation, for example.

We decided to look first at partnerships between local actors and international NGOs, as well as donors, holding another global consultation to explore the changes needed. Soon, we’ll be sharing a practical guide on how to move beyond equitable partnerships to decolonised partnerships.

Part of that work has also meant reflecting on Peace Direct’s own partnerships, and we are continuing to redevelop the ways we work with our peacebuilding partners around the world.

That effort isn’t happening in a silo. Our Decolonising Systems Working Group meets regularly to evaluate how Peace Direct can decolonise as an organisation, across all aspects of our work, because there’s still work we need to do.

As Dimitri Kotsiras, Peace Direct’s Research Manager explains,

“We’re trying to learn and unlearn across the board.”

Who gets to have this conversation?

Throughout our research and engagement with decolonisation efforts, we’ve learned from people all over the world, particularly practitioners in the Global South. And although the sector has embraced the decolonisation conversation prompted by the insights these practitioners have shared, they’re rarely offered a seat at the table.

The report emphasised the need to decentre Global North decision-making, but how often do the conversations Global North INGOs, institutions and governments are having include, let alone centre, voices from the Global South?

Shannon Paige, Senior Policy and Partnerships Officer at Peace Direct, says:

“We’re waiting for those who have benefitted from the current system to decide they are interested in change. Meanwhile, we have so many activists who are pushing for this but are completely forced to the margins. For this to be effective as a transformative initiative, powerholders need to learn how to relinquish power.”

She adds, “In this sector, we all need to recognise the diversity of perspectives here and learn how to meaningfully engage with them.” Her own work is dedicated to trying to find ways to actively shift power to Global South actors and rethink ways to ensure that local activists, particularly marginalised populations, are centred.

As consultation participant Nicoline Nwenushi Tumasang Wazeh explained, peacebuilding has existed in indigenous communities for a long time, and local communities have approaches of maintaining peace and preventing violent conflicts, which are generally not mainstreamed or integrated into peacebuilding frameworks:

“Let’s prioritise the experiences and knowledge of these locals, since peace and security means different things for different communities.”

*Race, Power and Peacebuilding was produced by Peace Direct in collaboration with the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY).


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