In just a few weeks, COVID-19 completely disrupted peacebuilding, like it did everything else. The social distancing measures that everyone adopted and the lockdown policies that governments implemented to stop the spread of COVID-19 significantly disrupted the pattern of work that peacebuilding organisations have developed over decades. In the short term, international peacebuilders could no longer travel to meet with partners on the ground, or to make assessments, conduct trainings and implement programmes. They could no longer engage in person with the communities or groups with which they worked. They could also not meet with their international peers in workshops or seminars to take stock of new developments, learn new skills or co-develop new tools or guidelines. In the short to medium term, it meant that the programmes which peacebuilding organisations had embarked on could no longer be carried out as planned. The commitments made to partners and funders had to be adjusted, and new ways of working had to be developed.
COVID-19 has transformed the way we undertake peacebuilding. In future, we will travel less and use more digital means to communicate and collaborate, but the most positive change, accelerated by COVID-19, is a shift to national and local capacities for peace.Tweet
Conflict resolution and peacebuilding is about relationships between people, and about how social groups and communities interact with each other. There is only so much one can do from a distance. To truly transform relationships, one needs to build trust in each other through face-to-face dialogue – and this is an iterative process that has to take place and be consolidated over months and years. This is why some peacebuilders see COVID-19 as a temporary disruption, which they can use to regroup, until they are able to return to the kind of in-person and in-country work they have done before.
Other peacebuilding practitioners are of the view that at least some of the changes brought about by COVID-19 may have a more lasting disruptive effect on peacebuilding. For example, in future there will be less international travel because COVID-19 has shown that a large percentage of meetings and seminars can take place virtually. They see this as a positive adaptation that will reduce costs and the negative impact peacebuilding travel had on the environment. Another adaptation that has been accelerated by COVID-19 is the increasing digitalisation of peacebuilding work. The sharing of information, the development of networks, coordination and division of work and consultations on reviews or reports and evaluations are among the many aspects of peacebuilding work that can be facilitated by digital platforms.
One constraint is the degree to which the people peacebuilders need to communicate with have access to the internet. Digital inclusion has thus emerged as an important factor. Existing initiatives to promote digital inclusion have been accelerated, and this is likely to be a growth area for peacebuilding in the medium term. For example, in South Sudan, international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have established internet cafés where people can access computers and the internet. Many people – especially those community, women and youth leaders with whom peacebuilders liaise in countries affected by conflict – now do have smartphones, but connectivity is still a problem. For them, Facebook and Twitter are the primary sources of information. Providing free internet connectivity is thus likely to be a major development and peacebuilding priority in the coming months and years.
Another adaptation that is emerging is a shift in agency to local peacebuilders. For years, there has been a growing emphasis on local peacebuilding, local ownership and context-specific approaches, but empowering local peacebuilders was still something that international or national-level peacebuilders did for local peacebuilders. Now that COVID-19 has closed borders and disrupted travel, national and local peacebuilders may finally get the peacebuilding space to themselves. COVID-19 has provided us with an opportunity to truly build and strengthen national and local capacities for peace. International support can be provided from a digital distance, and national and local actors can, for the first time, truly have the room to self-organise. In some cases, this means that the national and local offices of international NGOs are now managed exclusively by national staff. In other cases, it may mean that national and local NGOs which suffered from being relegated to a local implementing partner role in the past, now have the opportunity to become leading peacebuilding actors in their own right. This does, of course, also mean that international donors and peacebuilders have to adapt the way they engage with and support national and local peacebuilders. In addition, it means the scaling up of resources, in terms of expertise, personnel and technical capacities, that will be required for effective national efforts to be undertaken. In the past, many of these international partners were slow to make the actual changes needed to align their practice with their local ownership policies, but COVID-19 may now help them to overcome their own internal inertia.
One major concern, however, is the impact of COVID-19 on peacebuilding funding. One does not have to be a clairvoyant to see that the extent to which COVID-19 has disrupted the international economy will result in a significant economic recession over the coming 12 to 36 months. At the same time, there will be a growing demand for life-saving humanitarian assistance, direct support for public health expenditure and debt relief – which all implies that there will most likely be less money available for peacebuilding. Peacebuilders will thus have to adapt to a situation where there is less international funding available. This may mean less net peacebuilding overall, but the peacebuilding organisations that survive the economic downturn will be more innovative, specialised and local.
Thus far, the public health impact of COVID-19 in Africa has been minimal, but the spread of the virus on the continent is now accelerating exponentially. The social and economic impacts of the measures to contain the virus in Africa have had a more direct impact to date on political uncertainty, and social unrest and protest actions are increasing. The anticipated decrease in international funding available for peacebuilding is thus likely to be matched with an increase in social unrest and violent conflict, partly because the global economic recession will have local effects, such as the rising costs of basic necessities and the inability of governments to increase social spending. The demand for peacebuilding will thus increase, but due to limited funding for local peacebuilding and the disruption of international peacebuilding, the overall supply will most likely contract.
Some see the disruption as temporary, with things returning more or less to normal after some months. Others believe many of the changes brought about by COVID-19 will transform the way we undertake peacebuilding in future. We will travel less and use more digital means to communicate and collaborate. Perhaps the most positive change, accelerated by COVID-19, is a shift in emphasis to national and local capacities for peace.
Cedric de Coning is a senior advisor at ACCORD and a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).