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Unlocking the power to get things done

  • Published

    17 November 2014
  • Written by

    Carolyn Hayman

On Saturday, Peace Direct Chief Executive, Carolyn Hayman, gave a talk at TEDxUCL about why local people should be in charge of their own development. Below is the text of her talk.

I guess you’ve heard the one about the man and the fish – give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. I think it was pretty cool in the ‘60s when I was growing up.

But what if he knows how to fish? Actually he’s been fishing for years. He knows the rivers and the fish in them in every season. What he really needs is more fishing rods so he can teach the rest of his community to fish.

I’m going to be talking about the capacity that exists in poor countries for people to help themselves and their communities to get things done – and how this gets sidelined by the aid system. And I’m particularly going to talk about tapping into the peacebuilding that is locally led.

The aid system has fallen in love with the idea of needs assessments. Organisations routinely do needs assessments before they design an aid programme. Who could argue with that? Not surprisingly, they find lots of needs, for health education, and maybe some things that people haven’t realised they need, like a gender lens. That’s excellent news, we feel powerful. And better, our jobs are safe as we meet those myriad of needs.

But what about looking to see what local people would need, for them to be able to meet those needs themselves? Perhaps a bit of catalytic help in bringing people together and modest outside funding would start them on the way to self-help.

If this sounds implausible, consider the remarkable story of the International Red Cross in Burundi. In 5 years they went from being a centralised office in the capital getting grants from donors to do one off projects, to having a presence in 98% of communities, with 300,000 volunteers helping their neighbours with all manner of day to day problems. What is more, the network they build proved to be invaluable when the World Food Programme wanted to distribute food in Burundi. If Ebola hit Burundi, which let’s pray it doesn’t because they have enough other problems, this network would be the first responders, present in every community – not the UN or the UK military or even Medecins Sans Frontiers.

I’ve seen the same power at work in Eastern Congo, where Peace Direct supports a Congolese organisation called CRC. CRC started using radio to get Mai Mai militia leaders to come out of the bush. It worked like this – a former militia leader would go on the radio and say ’Look I’ve come back to my village, and their message to you is, stop fighting, we need to start building peace, if you come back you will get help.’ Over time, people in the villages started listening to the broadcasts to get a sense of what was going on, which rumours about fighting were true, which roads were safe. Then the Sunday morning listening clubs – because we’re talking here about one radio per village – became something more. They became a focus for village self-help. No-one came in a white 4 by 4 and taught them how to do it. Here are some of the projects they started (SLIDE). And the radio clubs have spread, with villages scraping together the money to buy radios for other villages. Now there are over 300 villages with radio clubs.

Nowhere is it more important to support local efforts than in building peaceful societies.

Peace Direct’s founding belief was that everywhere there is conflict, there are local people building peace. We test this continuously as we map local peacebuilding organisations for our Insight on Conflict website. And we’ve never failed to find them – not in Sudan, a year after the end of a 20 year civil war, not in Afghanistan, not in Iraq, or even, our biggest challenge so far, in the Central African Republic. There are always people bringing different factions together, building trust and understanding and then, most powerfully, getting them to work together in ways that everyone can see, to make their community better.

Because every society has the means to resolve conflicts without violence. It doesn’t work all the time – we hardly need reminding of that at the moment! But it works most of the time in most places. Because think about it – if it didn’t, we would all be living in a Hobbsian wilderness, suffering the ‘war of all against all.

Let’s go back to Burundi, a country that suffered a horrible civil war in the 1990s. Slide. We did this map to help build a network of Burundian organisations who are working together to prevent violence in the forthcoming 2015 elections. You can see that they cover every part of the country. Elections are often a trigger for violence, and there are reasons to be fearful about 2015. So the network is training citizen reporters in 12 of the 17 provinces to spot signs of intimidation, violence, young men in training camps, human rights activists being arrested – and compile up to date reports on what is happening. But more than that – the citizen reporters are being trained to mediate wherever possible, before incidents get out of hand.

Can you imagine the UN or any international agency having this kind of reach into every colline? No way.

So my first point is that the capacity exists locally to deal with a whole range of challenges. We need to find it, and support it, and not assume we, the outsiders, are working with a blank canvas.

Why am I so passionate about finding and nurturing this capacity? Let me tell you a bit about my rather odd career. If you’ve read my bio, you’ll know I used to invest in technology startups. The most exciting part for me, was finding that person with a totally new idea, that challenged orthodoxy. It could be a biologist looking for ways to deliver a large molecule protein as a lifesaving drug. Or a materials scientist developing a ceramic that also conducts electricity. The day we decided to build a relationship with one of these extraordinary people was a red letter day. I moved on to work with a whole network of social entrepreneurs trying to get homeless young people back into the mainstream – and again, I found it so exciting working with people with ideas that challenged the system. Homeless young people going to university? Rather than sitting quietly and claiming their benefits? Surely not.

That’s just by way of explaining why I get excited when I meet someone who doesn’t accept the status quo – for example, who thinks it might be a good idea to get those Mai Mai leaders talking with the army to find out where things are going to kick off, and work together to stop the conflict getting out of hand. Even though they might have been trading bullets only weeks ago.

My second point is about who decides what needs to be done. Again, the aid system has developed this model whereby the donor decides on a programme, an international NGO or increasingly a private company bids for the contract, and then a local organisation delivers something that it has had no hand in shaping.

We’ve all heard stories about where this ends up – like the clinic in Sudan that ended up being used as a cowshed because it was put in a place where, because of violence, local people couldn’t access it. One of our partners said, ‘$100 from Peace Direct that I can use with my discretion is worth $100,000 to deliver a donor’s programme.’ An extreme statement but you get the point.

Local strategies can be far more imaginative than those that come from outside. In another part of Eastern DCR, the formal justice system is out of reach of almost the whole population, because of distance and cost. The legacy of many years of conflict means that there is a culture of violence. When people have a dispute, over land, adultery, robbery or whatever, they can either go to the police or the traditional chief, which often means paying bribes, or they can pick up a machete and take matters into their own hands.

Our partner, Fochi, helps villages revive the traditional justice system, the baraza. But they found that women struggled to get their concerns heard, and often didn’t want to speak of things like marital rape in front of men. So now the barazas have women’s courts embedded within them, where cases can be heard just by women, but the decision of the women’s court is enforced by the whole court.

You can see how effective this has turned out to be: Slide. It doesn’t fit Western boxes, because although it empowers women, and for example, gets them working alongside former militia members on community projects, Fochi is not a women led organisation and the courts benefit both men and women.

I visited one of the courts. It felt a bit like a cross between Judge Judy and Oprah. One of the cases was about adultery – a women had borne a child with a neighbour and the husband had been remarkably relaxed until he was asked to pay the hospital fees. The guilty wife did not attend, but the women presiding promised to summon her to explain herself to the women’s court. I was a bit shocked when one of the women in the audience called out ‘You are an old man and maybe you can’t satisfy your wife’ but that seemed to be OK.

So there is local capacity and there are imaginative and effective local strategies. The third thing I want to talk about is moral authority.

Let’s go back to CRC, in Eastern Congo. Henri Ladyi, until recently the Director, puts himself in danger almost every day. He has made a career going into the bush to negotiate with militia leaders to release child soldiers, and persuade adult combatants to return to civilian life. He may wait for a week or even two, in a remote area, until the militia leader arrives. When he has persuaded people to leave the bush, he and his colleagues need to prepare the community to take them back. This is a complex process – the ex combatants do work to restore roads and markets, to show their goodwill, and then they are enrolled to work alongside community members in agricultural cooperatives.

Everyone involved is taking risks. The militia leader risks being turned in, the ex-combatants risk being rejected by the community, the community risks embracing people who turn out to be criminals. Henri has the moral authority, because of the risks he himself takes, to ask people in turn to take those risks for peace.

This moral authority can actually be undermined by the wrong kind of support from outside. Masooda Bano, an academic at Oxford University, studied the impact of outside funding on six organisations in Pakistan. Her findings are shocking. A year after the organisations received funding from an international NGO, all six had imploded. Why? I found her explanation fascinating. Her thesis is that successful voluntary organisations are founded by people who have non-material motives – they may be religious, they may be about fulfilling a personal vow, so they aren’t necessarily altruistic, but they aren’t about money. And people follow these leaders because they see that the motivation isn’t about money. When money comes into the equation, not only do the followers become disillusioned – so it was about the money after all – but, and this is the bit I find so fascinating, the leader also loses motivation. For her or him, money didn’t motivate – but now the original motivation has been displaced, and the work loses its savour.

Does this mean we should not provide resources to local peacebuilding? No, but Masooda Bano has some thoughts about how to fund without destroying, which are uncannily close to what Peace Direct has discovered empirically:

  • Fund at a scale and speed that doesn’t require an abrupt transformation of the organisations
  • Salaries should mirror local living standards
  • Organisations should be funded to do what they and the community think will be most effective, not to carry out a donor’s programme

If we fund carelessly, without paying attention to these kinds of principles, we risk destroying the social capital which is one of the few assets that very poor societies can draw on. Remember the village with one radio? The very poverty there is the seedbed for collective action. Destroying that is a pretty terrible thing to do.

So for me, local leadership in peacebuilding is about these three things – local capacity, local strategies and moral authority. Together they represent the power to get things done – to build peace.

Let’s return to where we started, with the river. People who are involved in peacebuilding from the outside have a role – for sure. But they need to see themselves as stepping into a river, which is already flowing and which will continue to flow after they have left. That river is the local peacebuilding. Without it, no society can achieve lasting peace.

And so finally, what does this mean for you? Some of you will be in the development sector. You have the responsibility to find the local capacity and work with it, before you bring in resources from outside. Some of you will be writing stories about conflict. Have the guts to tell the other side of the story – about local action to create peace. And some of you will support aid organisations with money. To you I say, look for the ones that name their partners – for example, this is what the Bangladesh Women Fisherfolk are doing, not this is what ‘Western aid organisation’ is doing – and who give them the credit. Those are the ones that are unlocking the power to get things done.


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