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How donors can fund bottom-up peacebuilding

Written by Craig Valters

If we look at cash flows alone, the UK Aid Strategy suggests that donors have a large role to play in conflict-affected countries.

The British government spent £1 billion in 2015-16 through their Conflict Stability and Security Fund – a figure which will increase to over £1.3 billion by 2019-20. The aid strategy commits the government to ‘increased cross-departmental spend on security and justice’. Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, recently announced £750 million will be spent on ‘addressing causes of conflict and instability’ in Afghanistan before 2020.

But are governments, donor organisations and INGOs making interventions that actually help?

In September, Minister of State Rory Stewart gave an articulate speech on Britain’s role in building global peace and security. He argued that interventions often fail to take the locally grounded, granular approach required to do this well. He also got philosophical, arguing that in development we spend too much time generating abstractions (like ‘rule of law’ ), indulging in dangerous levels of optimism, and failing to have the humility required to get our interventions right.

The truth he highlights is that that time and again, donors get this wrong. In fact, they can actively do harm.

The list will be a familiar one to everyone in the development industry: the focus on quick wins rather than long-term change; trying to build replica Western state institutions rather than working with the grain. Or building courthouses and training judges for a judicial system that the vast majority of the population can never afford and has little interest engaging in.

So how can donors better support peacebuilding?

There are no hard and fast rules for how to do good development programming in conflict-affected areas of the world. The evidence on conflict prevention and conflict resolution is mixed and often inconclusive.

But what we know is that community level work, such as supporting locally owned systems and processes for peaceful dispute resolution, can make a valuable contribution – the Asia Foundation’s work in Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka is a good example.

Community volunteers acting as third party mediators can help facilitate a negotiated resolution to small scale disputes around loans, assault, land or family matters. But with the right design, similar programmes might also tackle more violent conflict-related issues.

For donors looking to support this kind of granular, locally-relevant work, here are five lessons drawn from my research into community dispute resolution.

1. Community dispute resolution can provide a valuable service – at scale.

In Sri Lanka, for example, state-led community mediation boards have processed more than 2.5 million disputes since 1990.

It is obvious why: the cost of an application is a 5 Rupee stamp; the boards cover most of the country; the process is quicker than court proceedings; and is often preferred because of its focus on reconciliation rather than retribution.

Whatever the aims of such programmes – healing social relations after conflict, or improving ‘rule of law’ – they work because they provide a service that people badly need.

2. If you want to have an impact beyond individuals and families, design programmes that way.

Community dispute resolution is often premised on ambitious theories of change with wider aims to prevent social unrest or violent conflict. But in reality, achieving this is likely to require tackling specific issues which run along social fault lines, such as ethnicity, caste, class, or gender, which can be tough for community volunteers to do.

In the Philippines, civil society groups trained in conflict resolution specifically seek to target long-running or violent disputes with the potential to escalate. This has proven to be a positive model for preventing escalation of relatively small-scale violence into larger conflict which engulfs wider communities and regional hot-spots.

3. The process of community dispute resolution is as important as the outcome – especially when people have space to discuss long-running grievances.

In Nepal and Sri Lanka, for example, mediators are trained on the ‘interest-based’ method. They should use this to facilitate ‘win-win’ resolutions.

In reality, this is not always possible. Power relations in any community will often mean bias creeps in, or that disputants can manipulate proceedings. But the very process of being given a chance to state their case, outline their grievances, and be treated with relative respect by mediators, is important. In fact this can be a granular, local-level way of challenging unequal power relations in communities.

4. Institutionalising any dispute resolution system takes time and flexibility.

Successful programmes are built on long-term, trusting, and respectful relationships with the state, civil society groups and communities. This allows for a gradual scaling-up – in the case of Nepal and Sri Lanka, over a 20-year period. This requires having continuity of staff and institutional knowledge to ensure that the programme grows iteratively over time. Employing local staff who are experts, committed to the issues and keen to critically self-reflect is crucial.

Civil society groups in the Philippines have now been working for over a decade in these communities, which allows them to garner the trust of elites who may be sceptical of their motivations and interests for engaging in conflict resolution.

This has required donors who stuck by these programmes over time, but also, frankly, Asia Foundation staff who were willing to rework the emphasis of their programmes to fit the latest trends in donor thinking.

5. Be modest and self-reflective.

Many people engaged in dispute and conflict resolution feel that the work they do contributes to a greater good. They may often be right.

However this can go too far. We saw how practitioners tended to ascribe to overly ambitious theories of change for their programmes, claiming they can improve ‘social harmony’ or ‘state-society’ relations.

This is driven by donor demand for new, sexy development programmes that tackle a country’s big challenges. It also reflects NGOs’ desire to keep their show on the road. Yet if we want serious self-reflection – as Rory Stewart requests – we need honest, modest theories of change.

Another challenge here is that donors and NGOs have little incentive to find out whether these programmes were doing harm. Conflict and post-conflict contexts are volatile. Yet our research highlighted some serious dilemmas that practitioners and donors appear to have avoided. Were these dispute resolution systems empowering elites in their communities? Does that matter? If minorities are empowered, does that limit the success of dispute resolution?

Conclusion: it’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it

With the UK set to ramp up its spending in conflict-affected countries, it is important it learns lessons from the past. Many will rightly say that they should start by not directly fuelling conflicts through arms sales or ill-conceived wars. But what about the relatively benign side of development assistance?

We need to recognise what is possible with what kinds of interventions and systems. A focus on dispute and conflict resolution should not mean neglecting the day-to-day needs of those in these situations, nor should it mean jumping from one context to another searching for quick wins. Focusing on the local level to prevent disputes escalating may be valuable, but targeting particularly volatile disputes is crucial.  

More than anything, building dispute and conflict resolution systems takes good intentions, time, patience and humility. In this respect, even if we agree that building dispute and conflict resolution systems is a good thing, it matters how you do it.