A joint blog from Conducive Space for Peace, Humanity United and Peace Direct
When we held our first consultation in April 2020, the COVID-19 crisis and response to it were already exacerbating the underlying roots of conflict, particularly inequality. In some places, violence was being reignited and peace processes threatened. Initial analyses on the potential impacts of the pandemic were dire, anticipating increased conflict with armed groups taking advantage of the situation, compounded by closing civic space and decreasing social cohesion. More recent analysis and discussions with local peacebuilders have highlighted a more nuanced impact of COVID-19 on conflict dynamics. ACLED data for example indicates that in some places, lockdown measures have led to less political violence targeting civilians, such as in the Philippines, while in others – for example Nigeria, India and Mexico – violence targeting civilians has increased. (i)
Participants in our recent consultation shared how lockdown and other restrictions have impacted conflict dynamics in a variety of ways across contexts:
With this context in mind, participants shared experiences of adapting their peacebuilding digitally, changes in funding, and expressed frustration at the missed opportunity to shift greater power to local peacebuilders.
COVID-19 and social distancing measures have created significant challenges for peacebuilding, which often relies on in-person gatherings and people-to-people approaches. Participants noted that the restrictions on movement have had significant impact on their peacebuilding work – we heard repeatedly that work had slowed down – but that many have sought to adapt their ways of working or shifted to focus on the COVID response.
One particular aspect that was prominent in many of the discussions is digital adaptation. There was a feeling amongst some of the participants that technology was the only way forward and many were already adapting their ways of working:
Challenges for digital adaptation remain however: access to technology, poor internet connectivity, and IT literacy were all issues raised as barriers to adaptation. Furthermore, in contexts of shrinking civic space, government restrictions on internet use can further inhibit organisations’ ability to adapt.
Recognising that many local peacebuilders were struggling to adapt, Build UP, Conducive Space for Peace, Humanity Unity and Peace Direct launched the Digital Inclusion for Peace initiative in May. The initiative aims to provide digital support to local peacebuilders to enable the adaptation of their local peacebuilding efforts during the pandemic. Peacebuilders can collaborate online with a global network of people working for peace, access online courses designed by Build Up and apply for grants to purchase digital tools. The fund, which closed in November 2020, was designed to provide micro-grants to enable peacebuilders to continue their work and adapt to more digital ways of working during periods of closures and restrictions brought about by the pandemic. Between May and October over 2000 applications were received, primarily for phones, cameras, airtime and internet packages.
There are also wider challenges of how successful the use of digital technologies can be. The reality of the ‘digital divide’ means that not everyone can access digital technologies to the same extent, while the quality of access to online resources can vary from area to area and in some cases from day to day. Furthermore, while the use of digital technology may be a useful interim measure that enables people to keep working during the pandemic, it is unlikely to be able to replace the gradual and painstaking work of building relationships through face to face conversations, dialogue and meetings.
Across the aid sector, civil society is facing funding challenges.(ii) The peacebuilding sector is in a precarious position as funds decrease or are diverted.(iii) Participants said that their ability to access funding has decreased, with delays to disbursement, postponement of funding decisions and reports of some funders being unwilling to adjust initial planned activities. Participants noted that much of the funding is being redirected towards health and economic empowerment, or more broadly towards COVID-19 responses. Many participants expect funding to continue to decrease and be redirected.
This has impacts for organisations’ sustainability, ability to deliver work and maintain important ties with communities, especially when forced to cut staff. Participants noted that this was particularly affecting smaller organisations, donors appeared reluctant to engage with them especially in relation to micro grants.
Research by Conducive Space for Peace found that four out of five of local peacebuilders have experienced a reduction in their funding for peacebuilding following the onset of the pandemic.(iv)
Overall funding for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) is expected to decrease significantly.(v) This could have devasting consequences for local peacebuilding, as international NGOs face tough decisions about programmes and staffing, that have knock on effects for support for local partners.(vi)
Local peacebuilders are struggling to sustain their work as donors’ priorities shift to COVID-19 response. There is a high degree of uncertainty on how to sustain their work now and after the crisis. Many organisations have no general organisational support beyond activity support, and little means to sustain staff if projects are cancelled. Small local organisations are particularly at risk. Existing dysfunctions within the funding system are exacerbated by the pandemic, creating a crisis situation for local peacebuilders.
Arguments for what Peace Direct, Humanity United and Conducive Space for Peace calls ‘locally-led approaches’ are based both on principle and pragmatism. Support for local peacebuilding aligns with our principles of inclusion, agency and challenging power structures. In addition, local approaches are often more effective because of actors’ contextual knowledge, legitimacy and accountability; it also reinforces resilience and increases sustainability.
Supporting locally-led approaches means acknowledging that local communities are never homogenous, often espouse divergent views and are centrally involved in local politics. But while local approaches may have their limitations, they are often dismissed or side-lined in favour of international (and predominantly White) responses due to factors such as risk aversion, concerns about scale and capacity, along with neo-colonialism, prejudice and racism.
As the pandemic has reinforced both the principled and pragmatic arguments for locally-led peacebuilding, many have argued that the COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity to move beyond rhetoric and truly shift power to local peacebuilders.(vii)
While many participants expressed hope that this could be the case, they felt it was not coming to fruition.
We believe that a radical shift in the international peacebuilding sector is required to remove barriers to local leadership and create an enabling environment for locally-led peacebuilders, and that it has never been more important to do so than now. An important aspect of this is funding modalities and partnership approaches. This will require a fundamental re-shaping of power structures that involve a transition of power to local peacebuilders, with both donors and INGOs ceding leadership and resources to locally-led initiatives.
In conclusion, the COVID-19 crisis presents serious challenges, but it could also catalyse change; an opportunity to shift power to local peacebuilders and change the way the aid sector works. We would like to thank all the participants for contributing to the online consultation – we continue to learn from you and are humbled by your work day in and day out to create a more peaceful world.
About Shift Power for Peace: Shift Power for Peace is a collaboration between Conducive Space for Peace, Humanity United and Peace Direct. It was established with the shared goal of transforming the way local, national and international groups approach peacebuilding efforts, to focus on the agency and power of local people, working to build peace in their own contexts.