Doing Peace Differently

By Mie Roesdahl, Conducive Space for Peace

I recently met Gatwal Augustine Gatkuoth from South Sudan who works to empower youth in peacebuilding.  In our talk about peacebuilding he told me that he and his youth organisation are spending a lot of time writing proposals and struggling to meet donor requirements – but often failing. They end up spending more time writing proposals and reporting than doing the important peacebuilding work within the communities of South Sudan and refugee settlements in Northern Uganda. Gatwal made a very strategically sensible request to me and my colleagues: “teach us to write good proposals”. Many INGOs get the same request and in fact respond by building local actor’s capacity in proposal writing and reporting to donors. The question we should ask ourselves is whether the international peacebuilding support system should be concerned with helping brilliant, insightful, innovative local actors like Gatwal write proposals and reports that meet donor requirements, or we should focus on changing the system, including the donor requirements, so that both Gatwal and the international actors supporting peacebuilding can focus on doing peacebuilding well and learning from their efforts. This would imply changing the way the current system works and focusing on creating a conducive space for peacebuilding actors to do the good work that we know they are doing.

Many will argue that we need documentation of results and accountability for the money spend. The increased demand for documentation of results and upward accountability derives among things from a trend towards ‘professionalization’ of development assistance that draws on New Public Management thinking. And it derives from a trend towards national donor interests being the legitimate driver of development and peacebuilding efforts/funding rather than the well-being and security of the populations in conflict affected contexts. Either way, it plays out as increasing demands on defining results prior to engagement, as donor led and centralized definition of goals and ways of working, as lack of flexibility of funding, with less funding available to grass-root organisations, and more money going into accountability mechanisms and measures rather than to the peacebuilding efforts themselves.

At country level, many working within the international system of support to peacebuilding, will often have a different take on this. Professionals working at country offices of international organisations (and respondents in Susanna Campbell’s research on accountability and performance in peacebuilding), argue that there is no time to learn or reflect because of the pressure to comply with contractual regulations and deliver quick and measurable results: “We have tons of data but we can’t process it. The more we have upward accountability (to donors and headquarters), the more burnout there is…”; “We get a grant and we have to hit the ground running. We don’t even have any reflection time. If an activity is not a big failure, we just go onto the next thing”. While headquarter staff and donor country politicians say ‘what gets measured gets done’, people working in country will be more inclined to see the need for ongoing joint learning and adaptations to a changing context as well as investment of time and trust in partners who know what is needed. Research and policy development on peacebuilding point towards the latter as the way to more effective and sustainable peacebuilding, while the structural conditions and systemic practices lean towards the former. 

The challenges of the international system of support to peacebuilding is bigger than upward accountability and lack of time to reflect and learn. As the systemic challenges result in lack of recognition of the knowledge of local actors and in implicit exertion of power inequalities, they represent a violation of the dignity of local actors. The current way of working of the international system plays out in a way where local actors, symbolically, must come begging for money and adapt to ways of working that are not their own. At the same time one can argue that the dignity of persons within the international system is violated through the disempowerment that professionals experience when they recognize the dysfunctionalities but are not able to change the way the system works. The first two years of CSPs engagement has shown us that there are indeed many people working within the international system of support to peacebuilding who recognize the problems and are trying to change the system within their sphere of influence.

Part of the drive behind Conducive Space for Peace (CSP) lies in the magnitude of the challenges and their consequences. And it lies in the profound experience and recognition that local actors hold a largely untapped potential for change in peacebuilding, and that if the international system is able to provide a more conducive space for local actors to lead peacebuilding processes, we will be more successful in achieving sustainable peace, nationally and globally. Furthermore, our drive lies in our experience that a momentum for change is slowly developing, maybe most profoundly from within the international system itself – from those who know the challenges and who have felt their compromising consequences close-up. Finally, a broader driving agenda is the recognition that global collaboration is deteriorating and the space for collaboration around development and peacebuilding at country, regional and global levels represent an opportunity for trust-building and for generating something bigger than each of us could have developed individually.

Conducive Space for Peace is here to serve this agenda and be catalytic in transforming the international system of support to peacebuilding in order to provide a more conducive space for collaboration on peacebuilding and for the unleashing of the largely untapped peacebuilding potential in local agency and power.

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