It isn’t often that my personal and professional worlds collide. But this is exactly what happened on Easter Sunday. I woke to the news of devastating suicide attacks in Sri Lanka, targeted at the country’s Catholic community. Churches packed with worshippers celebrating Easter were ripped apart, as were a string of hotels in the capital city, Colombo.
My thoughts turned to my extended family who belong to this small but vibrant Catholic community in Sri Lanka. Were they OK? Had they gone to the service held at St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, where so many people had been killed? I frantically messaged relatives in the UK and in Sri Lanka to see if they knew anything. I felt not only a sense of shock that this had happened to a community that I am a part of, but also a sense of loss and of helplessness.
As the immediate shock of the event began to subside, I turned to my professional role as CEO of Peace Direct. For almost fifteen years, we’ve been supporting the Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation (CPBR) – a remarkable local organisation at the forefront of interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding initiatives in Sri Lanka. Through their peacebuilding work, CPBR understand the importance of bringing people together from all communities to build connections and understanding, and engaging young people is a key component of their work. They seek no public acknowledgement for their tireless efforts, despite having convened communities and their leaders from all the different faiths to restore trust and build the foundations for long term peace.
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I reached out to Dishani Jayaweera, the head of CPBR, to ask her if there was anything we could do to help. She told me that she has been inundated with calls from religious leaders across the country asking her to help:
‘How can I refuse?’ she asks me. ‘Right now, our country is covered by a thick blanket of fear and suspicion. As CPBR has been leading interfaith dialogue for so many years, we feel that we have a huge responsibility to engage. We do not know what is needed in the coming weeks, but we do know that we must prevent violence against our Muslim friends and communities now.’ And so Dishani and her team, traumatised by the events that they have witnessed, are now planning to travel around the country to help protect Muslim communities from any backlash.
As they have done for years, they will bring together interfaith leaders to stand together and signal to Sri Lankans across the country that these events must not divide communities, but instead make the country stronger.
They will do this whether the international community supports them with additional funding or not, because this is how local peacebuilders often operate; below the field of vision of most policymakers, quietly and effectively – with whatever resource they have. But support can significantly amplify their impact – and in turn heal divisions, reducing the chance of another tragedy. That is, if the support is given well.
What can the international community do for Sri Lanka now?
We always advise to policymakers and donors to:
Peacebuilders need donors to engage regularly before funding is allocated. This means travelling to the affected communities and extending their field of vision beyond the International NGOs based in capital cities. It also means using their convening power to bring civil society actors together to hear their insights systematically and consistently, and in ways that are genuinely inclusive. This takes time and effort, but can reap significant rewards in the long run.
Most local organisations have no hope of applying for international funding as they can’t comply with the increasingly complex due diligence requirements. Donors should also change their funding mechanisms so that they are less bureaucratic and more tolerant of risk. Let’s strip these layers of bureaucracy back and find ways to accept that this work may be risky, but that this is inherent in these contexts. Above all, let’s start with this question: How can we help Sri Lankan peacebuilders achieve their goals?
What isn’t helpful for any peacebuilder, including those in Sri Lanka now, is a request for a 20 page funding application with a results based framework and full budget, which will be reviewed by grant assessors who may not understand the context, or who may make a decision six months down the line. Nor do peacebuilders need donors who respond immediately, but move on from their cause in a few months’ time. In fact, since the end of the civil war that devastated the country for decades, donor funding for Sri Lanka from most western governments has dropped significantly – as if the problems in Sri Lanka were solved. Sunday’s events show us that this is not the case.
All peacebuilders know that the painstaking work of healing and building bridges between people and communities takes years; even generations – in fact, it is the only way true healing can occur.
CPBR have a permanent stake in the peacebuilding process in their country. The same goes for all the peacebuilders we work with, from DR Congo to Somalia and Burundi. At Peace Direct, we always aim to provide comprehensive and continuous support to our partners for as long as they need it. And one of the ways we can help is to have other types of organisations understand that it’s not just support that peacebuilders need – it’s the right kind of support at the right time, and for the right amount of time. We will continue to endeavour to do that for CPBR in Sri Lanka, and hope others follow suit.
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