On April 24th and 25th 2019, Conducive Space for Peace (CSP), in collaboration with Humanity United, hosted a two-day meeting in New York. The meeting brought together 35 thought and practice leaders from local and international peacebuilding organisations, UN agencies, universities and think tanks to share experiences on how to transform the international system of support to peacebuilding.
The intention of this meeting was to bring together people with a shared agenda and ambition to strengthen local agency and power in peacebuilding and explore avenues for learning and complementary action for change. Although CSP recognises the importance of working with the ‘unusual people’ in ‘unusual places’ as a core part of its strategic engagement, this particular meeting was intended to explore the ‘shared space’ for change among those we expected to be our allies. There were however important nuances in our thinking even within this group.
We found a great deal of alignment on our vision for how to promote peacebuilding and what a future peacebuilding system should look like. In particular, we were highly aligned on our end-goal of ensuring that local agency and power is at the heart of peacebuilding. Also, there was a great deal of alignment on how we understand the current challenges in the way of working of the international peacebuilding institutions and how this impacts the space for local agency and power in peacebuilding. However, we clearly held different understandings of approaches to change, of how to understand ‘the system’, and how to achieve systems change. While some argue that change has to come from working directly with the existing international institutions to change their way of working (at the edge and/or at the core), others argue that change must come from providing the good examples of how to do things ‘right’ with no involvement of the existing international institutions. And again, others argue for facilitating change through the space for collaboration between local and international actors at country level and/or at the level of global governance. This diversity represents a great advantage for our ambition for change. As one participant said: we need multiple, diverse, pluralistic, and complementary approaches to get there. We need to further explore the different change approaches and the potential for capitalising on their differences and complementarities. We can benefit from joint analysis, sharing, exploring, and sometimes collective action to seek out these complementarities.
Other meetings held before and after our joint endeavour in New York in April showed that we should not take for granted that we can easily talk about the challenges of the current international system including its power imbalances without meeting resistance and barriers to change. This is not an easy discussion as one could think based on our exchange in New York. We have to think hard about how best to influence this change agenda and communicate to facilitate change – balancing between being co-opted by the current way of working and the language used, and standing in a place where no one will listen and no change of the current way of working will take place. For CSP it is not an option to choose to ignore the challenges of the existing way of working of international institutions which have major impact on the space for local agency and power and are sometimes violating the dignity of local actors. This happens for example when the technical knowledge of international peacebuilders overrides the local contextual knowledge of those who live the conflict and have worked all their lives to develop a peaceful society.
As participants said: we must empower one another to change ourselves and our organisations, and empower one another to facilitate broader systems change. These two levels of change are connected. We need to be artists, visionaries and change makers wherever we are in the system. We must pursue this change process, considering what should happen today if we are to change the system tomorrow, and how can we each contribute to change.
For more reflections from the meeting, we encourage you to read the following blog posts written by two of the meeting participants: 7 Approaches to Local Ownership and 4 Problems with Trickle Down Peacebuilding by Lisa Schirch and What is required for a conducive space for local agency and power? by Isabella Jean.