How do we build peace during a pandemic? Lessons for peacebuilding and health sector organisations

This paper looks at the new environments in which peacebuilders are operating in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The repercussions of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) have reverberated across the global peace and security landscape, creating and heightening risk factors for conflict across social, political and economic spheres, often exacerbating already fragile situations. The pandemic, and the operational restrictions that accompanied it, also forced a rapid adaptation of the way peacebuilding was delivered by local and international organisations.

Using illustrative examples provided by peacebuilding organisations around the world, this background paper attempts to understand better the new environments in which peacebuilders are operating, focusing on conflict dynamics that have arisen in the first year of the pandemic and looking at how peacebuilders are addressing these. It also explores the ways in which local practitioners are using their skills, knowledge and networks to strengthen the COVID-19 response and recovery.

The paper is structured around five programming strands:

  1. Drawing on peacebuilders’ contextual knowledge to inform short- and long-term responses to COVID-19
  2. Supporting conflict-sensitive public health and humanitarian responses, vaccination, and long-term recovery interventions
  3. Countering divisive narratives and building bridges across divides
  4. Building trust and accountability between citizens and state
  5. Reducing gender inequalities through responding to COVID-19 and its impacts

The case studies in this paper clearly illustrate the positive impact of peacebuilding across these areas and the importance of continued collaboration with humanitarian and development organisations in a multidimensional crisis. Evidence from Rwanda demonstrates the value of psychosocial support for genocide survivors and perpetrators in alleviating potential trauma associated with government restrictions. Digital platforms have enabled thought leaders from both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir to share information and guidance on the pandemic and its effects on social cohesion.

The paper also identifies the ways in which the peacebuilding sector must strengthen its role in the multisectoral response and grapple with new ways of working in unprecedented and protracted crisis settings. Other case studies shared insights into the limitations of digital engagement over the long term, and experience from Somalia identified the need for continued advocacy around technological access for marginalised communities. In a socially distanced environment, as the health impacts of the pandemic increasingly extend beyond the physical, several respondents stressed the urgency of identifying alternative avenues of mental health support for practitioners and beneficiaries.

Above all, this paper depicts the ways in which the pandemic has magnified the structural inequalities and injustices that drive violence and unrest in fragile contexts. This awareness must be transformed into increased resources and support for local peacebuilding practitioners. This will allow them to address the structural drivers of conflict, drawing upon their contextual knowledge of conflict dynamics and their strong presence and networks in isolated and conflict-affected areas.