COVID-19: Four ways peacebuilders can respond

At International Alert, as in every other peacebuilding organisation around the world, we are emerging from our initial shock at the speed at which the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has swept the globe, and are starting to look at how we, as peacebuilders, shape our actions.

A sprayer wearing protective equipment stands at the entrance of an Ebola treatment unit in Monrovia, Liberia
A sprayer at the entrance of an Ebola treatment unit in Monrovia, Liberia, 2014 © Tamara Stubbs/Alamy

Here are four ways we think we, and other peacebuilders, can respond.

1. Using evidence to show how responses to COVID-19 affect conflict, and vice-versa

As the pandemic hits countries already struggling with violent conflict, or experiencing difficult periods of transition, it will interact with other causes and consequences of these conflicts.

In Ukraine, the pandemic threatens to overwhelm a battered healthcare system in the war-torn east. All over the world lockdowns have brought more domestic violence. And vast inequalities have been brought into sharper focus, such as in India where a lockdown threatens to trigger a humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of migrants walk from cities back to their villages.

How COVID-19 affects, and is affected by, conflict will differ from country to country, from community to community. It will depend on what existed before, and how those in power respond when their constituents are in need. Some of the impact will be immediate, but much of it will take months and years to become apparent.

Peacebuilders can bring this context-specific nuance to policy-makers and humanitarians by leveraging their networks and access in difficult to reach places, generating and analysing local evidence, and using it to inform crisis responses.

For example, International Alert’s Philippines team has adapted existing conflict maps to include information on COVID-19 hotspots, enabling local governments to respond more effectively and quickly to areas and communities where virus infections, local vulnerabilities and violent tensions converge.

The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) Partnership has looked at how it can use its tools, which track resource, economic and disaster-related data, to assess the impacts of COVID-19 and help design effective response mechanisms.

Peace Direct and partners used an online dialogue platform to convene over 450 peacebuilders from 60 countries in consultation about what their communities need during this crisis.

2. Promoting conflict-sensitive aid delivery

How aid is delivered in places of conflict or fragility is critical. If delivered without knowledge of existing conflict dynamics, including an understanding of who holds power and who does not, aid could exacerbate tensions, deepen divides, or even lead directly to violence. At best, aid agencies will have little impact. This is particularly the case during large-scale crises requiring rapid response, as seen for instance during the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Peacebuilders need to forge partnerships with humanitarian actors, providing up-to-date conflict analysis, delivering capacity-building programmes on conflict sensitivity – like this online training from swisspeace – and helping humanitarian agencies to monitor the impact of their work on conflict.

When delivered well, humanitarian aid can bridge divides and address the structural drivers of conflict, such as inequality or poor governance. In Lebanon, International Alert has spent the past four years working with healthcare NGO Amel Association, supporting health and social workers in stress management, conflict resolution and communication skills, so they can deliver services in a way that contributes to social cohesion.

Collaborative Development Associates and the International Federation of the Red Cross have documented the ways in which community engagement and accountability approaches have improved the delivery of humanitarian and development aid, including in response to the DRC Ebola outbreak.

3. Countering divisive narratives

Targeting and ‘othering’ of particular groups, often those already marginalised, have been early signs of the negative impact of COVID-19 on societies. Several countries have reported violence against Asian communities (there is now a Wikipedia page on the issue), and tensions between Lebanese communities and Syrian refugees are reported to have worsened during the crisis. In some cases, divisive narratives are fuelled or legitimised by those in power; in many cases the ‘othering’ proliferates online as well as off.

Peacebuilders must mobilise to identify and counter such narratives. The othering of minority and vulnerable groups is a common feature of many conflicts, and we already have a myriad of different tools which can be repurposed for a post-COVID world. From training journalists to cover stories in a way that does not unwittingly fuel violence, to supporting those belonging to marginalised groups to tell their own stories, to engaging directly with those spreading divisive messages or hate speech on social media. The peacebuilding organisation Build Up is currently working with students in Kenya to address polarisation online, based on learning from their work countering online polarisation on Twitter and Facebook in the US. Build Up also have two great blogs on digital peacebuilding during the pandemic, signposting some innovative approaches.

4. Building citizen-state trust

One of the long-term impacts of this pandemic across the world will be the extent to which it challenges (or strengthens) the prevailing social contract between citizens and states.

International Alert’s research in Liberia after the 2014–15 Ebola virus outbreak showed that trust in the government was very low – a legacy of the country’s civil war – with 81% of respondents angry at the government’s perceived slowness in responding. The same research found that community-level initiatives had “played a vital role in preventing the worst-case scenario from coming to pass”, shifting the government’s initial top-down approach to one that emphasised two-way communication and mutual respect with affected communities.

This demonstrates the important role grassroots organisations and structures, including peacebuilding networks, can play, not only to lower transmission rates, but also to prevent and resolve tensions. This includes networks of women peacebuilders, who can mobilise to respond to the increase of sexual and gender-based violence, alongside other issues.

Worldwide we are seeing an increased centralisation of state power to enforce social isolation measures. Human rights organisations have reported government abuses. Many countries have called up their militaries, raising concerns about the potential effects on the civil–military relationship, and the particular risks for women in some countries. There is also a risk these emergency measures may not be rolled back when the pandemic ends.

Meanwhile, powerful conflict actors carry out their own responses. In Lebanon, political parties are mobilising resources independent of the state to serve their own constituencies. In Ukraine, President Zelensky has asked oligarchs to invest in the country’s pandemic response, allocating them oblasts (regions) in which they are to coordinate efforts.

The economic impact of the pandemic will also challenge the social contract. The drop in oil prices may undermine the ability of ruling powers in countries like South Sudan to pay for their security sectors and public service, or – in the case of Gulf countries – to offer subsidies and low taxes.

When the crisis does subside, people’s demands on their governments are likely to change. Peacebuilders can help citizens voice these demands peacefully, and to bring governments and citizens together to identify common ground. For example in Tunisia, Alert is looking at ways to adapt its work on health governance in border regions – which supports citizens to advocate towards government for health service improvements – to COVID-19.

In Nigeria we are using media programmes to provide accurate information and to give citizens a platform to voice how the pandemic is affecting their lives.

The road ahead

Previous crises have shown us that when an emergency looms, it is all too easy to focus on solving the problem at hand and take our eye off the underlying and complex issues that drive conflict.

It will take time for the full impact of COVID-19 to be known – on society, the economy, governance, the international aid sector and peacebuilding.

It is the responsibility of those of us working at the intersection of peacebuilding, conflict and humanitarian crisis to continue to shine a torch on conflict drivers, and support governments, humanitarians and donors to address them.

This requires us to work in partnerships, with the healthcare sector, with the technology sector, and with each other. This is unchartered territory, and we need to pool knowledge and resources to navigate it successfully.