Shifting power for peace in times of COVID-19
By Conducive Space for Peace, Humanity United and Peace Direct
At the end of September, Peace Direct, Humanity United and Conducive Space for Peace held a second consultation on COVID-19 and local peacebuilding. Almost 100 peacebuilders from 67 countries joined the consultation over two days, discussing the impact of the pandemic on conflict and peacebuilding, changes in funding, and engagement between the international community and local peacebuilders.
COVID-19 and conflict
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 analysis 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]
“Overall we see Covid-19 more as a conflict accelerator, an additional factor on top of many others that affect conflict dynamics. More importantly, the likeliness of shadow pandemics is also of great concern in which in the longer term, the pandemic will have further impacts (some we are witnessing already) on economic and social dynamics, increasing the frequency of domestic and gender-based violence, and adding to the long-term grievances within communities that are likely to contribute to the frequency of conflict events.” – Ashley Neat, The European Centre for Development Policy Management, The Netherlands
Participants in our recent consultation shared how lockdown and other restrictions have impacted conflict dynamics in a variety of ways across contexts:
“… COVID-19 has imposed a kind of peace but an armed peace since everyone remains on their guard by observing, fearing the pandemic but ready to resume hostilities as soon as possible.” – Arnold Batundi, Coalition of Volunteers for Peace and Development, Democratic Republic of Congo
“The conflict dynamics has hugely changed in this situation of COVID-19. The prevailing structural violence has deepened more. I can say that from especially from the current situation of women and marginalized communities and how they are impacted by this situation of COVID… polarization among the communities is rising.” – Susan Risal, Nagarik Aawaz, Nepal
“In Liberia the Impact of COVID 19 on women and girls has raised serious concerns such as the high increased in Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) against women and girls.” – Margaret Taylor, Women Empowerment Network, Liberia
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.
Impacts on peacebuilding and digital adaptation
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.
“During the past six months, the work of local organizations has slowed down tremendously…” – Lumenge Lubangu, Association of the Survivors of Makobola Massacres, Democratic Republic of Congo
“Most NGOs have put aside their regular activities to get involved in the fight against covid-19. It is true that the disaster in the DRC was not as big as one could imagine but also there was a bitter fight against the pandemic…” – Adrien Mutabesha Bahizire, VISION TEKOA, Democratic Republic of Congo
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:
“…in my opinion COVID-19 has changed the role of technology in peace-building work for good. For example, we as an organisation had never thought of using technology in our work but here we are thinking of innovative ways that will reach our beneficiaries without contact. In short, more challenges like COVID-19 will come and go, but our new technological approaches are here to stay as solutions to any new extreme challenges.” – Derrick Mpagi, MIGHT Foundation, Uganda
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.
“Online interventions were welcome given the environment. However, they were not enough and would not reach the grassroots who are challenged in online access in terms of internet, IT Literacy rates and access to relevant [gadgets] among others.” – Ronika Mumbire, Zimbabwe Women’s Bureau, Zimbabwe
“When other countries are using online tools and technology or any other innovative methods, the valley is struggling to even use social media platforms properly because of restrictions on internet speed.” – Nazia Nabi, Indo Global Social Service Society, India
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.
“There been a huge [shift] in funding trend because most grantors are diversifying from peacebuilding either empowerment, health … all geared to deal with COVID19 related issues.” – Ada Ichoja ohaba, Do No Harm Humanitarian Development Initiative, Nigeria
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.
“Many organizations have been compelled to cut off their staffs. But my organization is fortunate enough our donors are still supporting us.” – Susan Risal, Nagarik Aawaz, Nepal
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]
“Donors are reluctant to engage with smaller organisations, especially those they have not had a prior funding relationship with. It’s a risk management measure to my mind. However, some donors who take this risk want to give their funding as ‘impact investment’.” – Ajibola Oyelade, The Centre for Equality & Equity, Nigeria
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]
“Covid-19 has affected funds access in that many granters themselves lost donations that used to come pre-COVID; as such getting funding has become a challenge. Besides, it also curtailed some of the activities that could have helped to raise funds.” – Constantine Loum, Community Network for Social Justice, Uganda
“COVID-19 has adversely affected access to funding especially micro grants for very small community organizations, it was hard pre-COVID and it has got harder especially as international partners are also readjusting…” – Prince Charles Dickson, Tattaaunawa Roundtable Initiative, Nigeria
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.
An opportunity to support local peacebuilding but power and control of resources is acting as barrier
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]
“One new opportunity for peacebuilding during the pandemic is that in some countries where international peacebuilders face new challenges such as restrictions on movement/remote working etc, a greater ownership of peacebuilding by local actors such as local activists, NGOs and CSOs, community organisations, and women could be achieved, allowing for more grassroots and local solutions to local problems .” – Ashley Neat, The European Centre for Development Policy Management, The Netherlands
While many participants expressed hope that this could be the case, they felt it was not coming to fruition.
“More power? No, not at all, on the contrary, we feel the drawbacks of an addiction and that makes me think about the sustainability of an [CSO]. More autonomy? No we always depend on the donors and when the donor himself has problems then everything seems to stop.” – Arnold Batundi, Coalition of Volunteers for Peace and Development, Democratic Republic of Congo
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
[ii] Epic Africa and @AfricaNGOs. (June 2020). The impact of COVID-19 on African civil society organizations: challenges, responses and opportunities.
[iii] Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding. (July 2020). Fighting COVID-19, building peace – a civil society perspective.
[iv] Conducive Space for Peace. (June 2020). Act now on ‘localisation’: COVID-19 implication for funding to local peacebuilders.
[v] Vernon, P., with Sherriff, A. (September 2020). International funding for peacebuilding: will COVID-19 change or reinforce existing trends?
[vi] Conducive Space for Peace. Op. cit.
[vii] For example see Draper, S. (2020). ‘How can civil society honour the loss from the pandemic by shaping a better future?’ in ICVA The future of civil society organisations; Ebiede, T.M. (2020). Local ownership of peace process in African countries in times of Covid-19; Mercy Corps. (September 2020). Advancing peace in a changed world: COVID-19 effects on conflict and how to respond.