Can we build peace from a distance?

The impact of COVID-19 on the peacebuilding sector

This background paper explores some of the ways in which the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has disrupted one of the foundation principles of peacebuilding practice: the basic need to bring people together face-to-face.

It takes a step back to look at the overall impact on peacebuilding practice when intergroup contact is limited, encouraging an examination of the principles that underpin practice.

The paper shines a spotlight on how trust and the creation of safe spaces is inherently challenged by a shift online, where sensitive issues and information are at greater risk. The transition of peace dialogue and mediation to the virtual sphere is an example of the inadequacies of online engagement.

Ordinarily, peacebuilding is a process underpinned by long-term trust building through face-to-face engagement, and previous progress risks unravelling unless physical spaces are reinforced alongside digital ones.

The question of who has access to the digital world and who does not is critical. For some constituencies, such as young people, the move online has expanded the space to engage and is an opportunity to be at the core of shaping future resilient societies.

Yet, for others, existing power dynamics have simply been extended to the online space – with those who have connectivity holding a new form of power.

Better-resourced and -connected organisations and communities are better positioned to access decision-making forums. Digital consultations are often gender blind, with little exploration to date to understand the gender impacts of a shift online. Access to (or lack of) connectivity risks exacerbating conflict, driving inequalities and grievances.

A positive consequence of changing practice is that the localisation agenda can finally be realised. Peacebuilders living in conflict places have not had the luxury of stopping their work. In many places, efforts to build peace have never paused.

The greatest change has been in the grounding of staff based in the ‘global north’, which has increased momentum towards the localisation of peacebuilding, including transition of responsibility for project implementation to local staff or commissioning new local partners to continue the delivery of services to communities.

This opens the space for a long-awaited examination of what is needed to shift the focus to local expertise. However, this is not without complexity, and considerations such as the transfer of risk to local organisations and a testing of donor appetite to continue to support this work should be at the forefront of the discussion.

The sector needs to work together to navigate these challenges; to advocate for the most equitable ways forward; and to ensure that efforts to adapt do not inadvertently contribute to conflict and fragility but place peacebuilding at the very centre.

This paper is accompanied by a subsequent paper, How do we build peace during a pandemic? Lessons for peacebuilding and health sector organisations, which offers institutionally focused recommendations for continued meaningful investment in peacebuilding.

Download here

Webinar: Building peace and resilience at a distance: Adaptive approaches to COVID-19

Watch our webinar with USAID and DME for Peace where we shared the findings of the report and heard from those building peace at a distance in South Caucasus and Syria.