In an effort to expand the community of likeminded peers interested in systems change for locally-led peacebuilding and development, Conducive Space for Peace has just released its new monthly systems change brief. In the first brief, CSP Director Mie Roesdahl shares her personal reflections as well as the latest thought development of Conducive Space for Peace and its partners regarding the momentum for change which is currently building globally.
Conducive Space for Peace was created with the aim of being bold and thinking differently about shifting power to local peacebuilders. We hope our upcoming briefs will spark your interest and expand the space for us all as we continue to collectively explore and pursue pathways of systems change for locally-led peacebuilding. Below we have chosen to publish the very first brief, and we invite you to sign up today should you wish to begin receiving our upcoming briefs as well.
JULY SYSTEMS CHANGE BRIEF
I’m writing to you because you signed up to receive regular ‘briefs’ from Conducive Space for Peace (CSP) on the theme of transforming the global peacebuilding and development system and shifting power to local practitioners. I feel humbled by this endeavour and look forward to growing this space to share.
I deeply believe that we need more spaces for sharing and learning from one another to change what is wrong with the current way of working of the aid system. But I hold no conviction that my pondering and practice on this is more important than yours. So, this is a first step from my side; and the aspiration is that it will spark further exploration and conversations, by yourself, within your organisation, in the broader sector, and/or between the two of us.
Another initiative from CSP’s side that also aspires to create space for sharing and learning is an upcoming platform for dialogue on systems change in the sector. This space will open in the fall, and you are invited! Building on our efforts over the years to facilitate systems change, CSP is developing a mutually owned and co-created space/platform for those of us committed to systems change for shifting power in order for us to come together in sharing, learning and joint action for change. With this we hope that we can create a space which will be reciprocal, energised by what is there, and inspiring deep learning and ambitious action to shift power in the ‘aid system’ to local actors. I will let you know more about this upcoming initiative in later briefs.
But let’s dive a bit into what is happening right now on systems change…
Does it make a difference that we simply talk and talk about the need for systems change?
A representative from a private foundation said to me last week following a brown bag meeting at the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO): “This was a great conversation. All the right things were said. But how does that change anything. We talk and talk, and it seems that those of us who believe in systems change talk to ourselves or to the ‘converted’.”
After we came out with our report, “A Global System in Flux – Pursuing systems change to shift power to locally-led peacebuilding”, a couple of months ago, we have engaged in a number of talks on this issue – in events organized by EPLO, Peace Nexus, REOS, and the Alliance for Peacebuilding. Others like Peace Direct, NEAR Network, Principles for Peace and #ShiftThePower have held similar events and conversations online on this subject. And this is just within the past month. So yes, it is an important question to ask: Does it make any difference at all to talk about the dysfunctionalities of the system and to point to approaches to change the system and shift power if nothing is actually done about it? What if we continue to talk but see no positive change? And instead see the continuation of a tendency for more donor-driven requirements and priorities that undermine the space for local actors to address the real needs and unfold their full potential to build peace.
This dilemma is in some way the basic argument of CSP and holds the core reason why we were established in 2016: that it is not enough to talk and talk. Great policies are there which set the terms for shifting power to local actors, with commitments to funding for local organisations, local ownership, flexibility and longer timeframes in programming– and yet, the funding for local organisations decreased from 3.5% to 2.1% between 2016 to 2020. And this at a time when the Grand Bargain framework had set out a commitment to ensuring that 25% of funding would reach local organisations.
Having worked in peacebuilding, human rights, and development for the past 25 years I do see change. Or rather I sense it. The momentum for change that CSP and others have been pushing to build with multiple reports, conversations and advocacy work has taken off in an unprecedented way. More people are talking about the need for systems change and shifting power, driven among other things by the Black Lives Matter movement that has transcended into the ‘Decolonising Aid’ 2.0 movement for change. It has even reached the corridors of bilateral donors, as seen with Danida here in Denmark, who invited the NEAR network to speak about the importance of local leadership at the launch of their new four-year development strategy this week. And it has allowed people who did not feel sufficiently confident in speaking up to now find their voice in this space, and others who have previously rejected any talk of system dysfunctionalities, structural racism, and the need for systems change to sneak peak into this new space of strong value-based proponents for systems transformation.
Should we rely on institutions or people to facilitate change?
In CSP we believe that change agents within international institutions are important in this movement; they are the people who see the need for change and feel compromised by being complicit to power inequalities that play out as international knowledge overriding local knowledge, upward accountability overriding local accountability, and funding and programming mechanisms that give little space for those who know what it takes to build peace to lead the way. When they have crossed a personal threshold, as I did some years back, of feeling so compromised and complicit to power inequalities that are contradictory to everything they believe in, then they can be very powerful change agents. The power of the change agents within, and beyond, international institutions, the ‘internal co-conspirators’, to do something sensible to shift power, depend on their ability to listen to local peacebuilders and their needs, and to be persistent in pursuing change within their own organisations – from where they stand.
One such change agent wrote a message to me last week after having listened to the Podcast that I did with Stephen Gray from Adapt Peacebuilding. Ola Saleh wrote: “We need more like your voice in the peacebuilding sector, it makes those of us who share this ethos feel less lonely in this quest”. I think the collective sense of feeling compromised and being prompted to speak truth to power is key to how we move on from here. And that we don’t feel alone in this battle. It is difficult to speak up and demand change in an international organisation that is working much like everyone else in the sector, responding to the same demands that come with bilateral funding, and feeling quite vulnerable to shifting trends that influence the sector. But it is easier to do so if there are more of us, and if we stand together; if we can change the dominant paradigm that gives legitimacy to donors to set the terms, to one that recognises the crucial importance of people in conflict affected countries to set the terms and get the kind of support they need. It is important for the local peacebuilders in having the necessary conditions for doing the important work that they do and being respected for holding a key role in any peacebuilding effort. And it is important for donors and international organisations to provide the kind of support that is most likely to promote sustainable peace, in conflict affected contexts and globally.
How do we place ourselves in the broader societal shifts around us?
Last week I had another conversation with a friend and colleague from South Africa. She reminded me that development is basically the same as colonialism – and that this has NOT changed for the better. She told me that she was still fighting the everyday battles against white teachers in South Africa. They continue to tell black students that they will not succeed because of their upbringing and parents who are not able to support them properly, and that blacks will never be able to achieve the same intellect as whites. This overt racism is still the reality for most South Africans today. But what has racism in South African schools to do with the global peacebuilding and development system, the ‘international aid infrastructure’ as some would call it? The latest report from Peace Direct, Adeso, the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security shows how much it has to do with it, and how much structural racism impacts the current way of working of the global peace and development system. Of course, it unfolds in more subtle ways within this system, because how would anyone working for equality admit to being complicit in inequality unfolding in one’s own practices. Despite this, people within international institutions increasingly admit to that but not nearly enough of us; and so far, most admit it after they have left their positions within international institutions.
Structural racism does not imply that people are deliberately racists, but that we all carry ways of understanding the world and the people we relate to within a lens that holds the norms and structures that we have been brought up with. The question is this: What does it take to allow, or prompt, us to question these norms and structures? Why are only few within international institutions even noticing the dysfunctionalities of the system that play out, when for example an international ‘expert’ travels to a country that he/she has never been to before and convey what the priorities of his government is? What he/she suggests would be a way to build peace in other people’s country, and how the people (who already know what is needed) can best comply with these requirements in order to get funding. And why are internationals happily flying out from conflict zones every six weeks or so in order to recuperate and take care of their psycho-social wellbeing, while not questioning the conditions for support to local practitioners that do not allow for such careful consideration of their psycho-social wellbeing although they are the ones who stand in the midst of dealing with conflict, trauma, insecurity every day of their lives? I am not merely pointing a finger at you if you are an ‘international expert’. I am at the same time pointing a finger at myself. But now is the time to change this. We are many who believe that something is wrong but are complicit to retaining the system as it is with its build-in power inequalities. Therefore, we are also many who can change it.
Continuing the pondering together
I hope all of this pondering makes some sense to you. I would love to hear from you if you have thoughts on this and if you have time for a conversation to ponder on this together. Generally, I believe that our potential for change lies not in what each of us are thinking and doing, of course including myself and CSP, but in what we can share and learn from one another and the action we can take collectively.
I’ll be sending you a ‘brief’ like this one about every month. And if you find these useful, you are welcome to share the sign-up link with colleagues and friends who also may be interested in this conversation. The only aim from my side is to expand our ‘community’ of like-minded peers interested in systems change for locally-led peacebuilding and development, and in this way further build momentum for change and allow each of us to stand together. That “those of us who share this ethos feel less lonely in this quest”, as so wisely said by Ola Saleh.
We need to explore what the potential for change is in the multiple processes that are currently undertaken with the purpose of reimagining a different system – whether a different aid system, a new role for INGOs, or a reimagined peacebuilding system. I hope you will join me in the common endeavour of pondering on the following question; How do we change the current way of working through reimagining something new?
Director, Conducive Space for Peace
Sign up to CSP’s monthly systems change briefs and join our movement of likeminded change agents coming together to explore how to pursue systems change for locally-led peacebuilding.