Can we build peace from a distance? The impact of COVID-19 on the peacebuilding sector

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 looks at the overall impact on peacebuilding practice when contact between groups is limited, the challenges created by the shift online and the need to examine the principles that underpin practice.

Sensitive issues and information are at greater risk online, and this has an impact on trust and the creation of safe spaces. 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. 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 provided 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.

Some issues are:

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

A positive consequence of moving online is that the localisation agenda can finally be realised. In contrast to the grounding of staff based in the global north, peacebuilders living in conflict places have not had the luxury of stopping their work. In many places, efforts to build peace have never paused.

This 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 a complex issue. Considerations such as the transfer of risk to local organisations and a testing of donor appetite to continue supporting 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. These issues are discussed further in a subsequent paper, How do we build peace during a pandemic?

Watch video

Watch our webinar ‘Building peace and resilience at a distance: Adaptive approaches to COVID-19’ 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.

Peace Research Partnership

This report was produced as part of the Peace Research Partnership (PRP), a process of participatory research with partners and communities in conflict-affected areas around the world. The aim of PRP was to generate and share knowledge about how international actors, like INGOs and donors, can best support peaceful and inclusive change in conflict contexts. The research partnership was funded by the UK government. However, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.