Peace Direct’s submission to the International Development Committee inquiry on Humanitarian crises monitoring: impact of coronavirus
17 April 2020
- This submission, prepared by Peace Direct, is based on a series of consultations with local peacebuilders about how coronavirus (COVID-19) is impacting their work. Key findings include:
- The COVID-19 crisis and the response to it are exacerbating the root causes of conflict, particularly inequality; peacebuilders are struggling to sustain their work as donors’ priorities shift to COVID-19 responses; and social distancing is impacting organisations’ ability to delivery existing peacebuilding programmes.
- Some governments are exploiting the crisis to further restrict civil society space and increase authoritarian measures; at the same time the crisis has also provided opportunities to advance peace.
- The UK government needs to support conflict sensitive approaches in the COVID-19 response and ensure that flexible funding is available to local peacebuilding organisations.
About Peace Direct
- This submission has been prepared by Peace Direct, a UK-based international NGO dedicated to supporting locally led efforts to stop violent conflict and build sustainable peace. Our submission seeks to provide information on the direct and indirect impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on developing countries and specific risks and threats; and lessons identified and learned from previous experiences. We look forward to submitting further evidence on longer term issues, implications and lessons to be learned at a later date.
- Peace Direct works with local organisations in 13 fragile and conflict-affected countries and maintains a network of local peacebuilding experts around the world who provide regular insight and coverage of trends, initiatives and organisations working on peacebuilding. As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic grows, our focus remains on how we can continue to support communities breaking through cycles of violent conflict. Peace Direct welcomes the IDC’s inquiry and views it as an opportunity for the UK government to ensure that its response is well informed.
- During the first week of April, Peace Direct and the Danish based INGO ‘Conducive Space for Peace’ held a series of consultations asking local peacebuilders how they were affected by the crisis – over 400 people from more than 60 countries participated. Our submission is based on the key findings from this consultation and includes quotes from some of the participants. A full report from the consultation, produced in collaboration with Conducive Space for Peace and the US-based private foundation, Humanity United, is available here: https://www.peacedirect.org/publications/covid19andpeacebuilding/.
Focusing on fragile and conflict affected communities
- In addition to COVID-19’s enormous impacts on health systems and economies worldwide, undermining development gains and exacerbating humanitarian crises, there are also serious implications for fragile and conflict affected countries and communities .
- The pandemic and conflict could become mutually reinforcing, with violence prolonging the pandemic, for example by hampering access of health workers[i], while the pandemic in turn exacerbates conflict. Although the numbers of confirmed cases in many countries in Africa and the Middle East are low so far,[ii] the impact of measures to mitigate the virus, and fear, are already affecting people’s wellbeing and conflict dynamics.
- Local peacebuilders understand the conflict dynamics at play in their communities and maintain relationships with different groups, including those who may become marginalised or vulnerable in the crisis. They also have experience with trauma and psychosocial programming, and during the consultation they emphasised the importance of creating trauma-informed responses for the immediate crisis and longer-term recovery. Local communities, civil society organisations and NGOs play a vital role in responding to crisis, conflict transformation and sustaining peace. Individuals and organisations with deep roots in their communities, have established trust, respect and have greater influence in shaping opinions and behaviours, especially in times of crisis.
- A key lesson that emerged from both 2014-16 West Africa and current DRC Ebola outbreaks is the importance of community engagement and the role of local actors – both in terms of communicating public health information and easing tensions that may arise. [iii]
- “Local peacebuilders work closely with communities and accompany them in peacebuilding efforts. They are trusted mediators, mobilisers and messengers. Local peacebuilders are responsive to the needs of local communities… This means they are used to integrating different type of needs whether related to peacebuilding, development, human rights or humanitarian concerns.”
- Consultation participants shared how they are actively adapting and integrating their work to respond to the pandemic. Many are now working to deliver supplies, promote measures to limit the spread of the virus and keep communication open among communities to maintain social cohesion in the midst of physical distancing. They have a vital role to play as trusted communicators and mediators in their communities, especially where trust in government may be low.
- Young peacebuilders in particular can play a leadership role in preventing violence and helping innovate new peacebuilding technologies. Youth often have creative ideas of how to overcome the challenges of lockdown, they tend to be skilled with technology and social media and can strengthen online capacity of the population. Similarly, grassroots women’s organisations should not be overlooked. As pandemics often exacerbate existing inequalities, especially in relation to gender, women’s organisations make critical contributions to sustain justice and peacebuilding in their communities.[iv]
Significant impact on conflict dynamics
- Local peacebuilders report significant impacts on the conflict dynamics in their communities. COVID-19 and the response to it are exacerbating conflict dynamics and existing patterns of inequality, interrupting peace processes, and increasing the risk of violence in communities. The United Nations Development Programme estimates that income losses will exceed $220 billion in developing countries;[v] many people live from day to day and have no savings to sustain their living. In communities where people do not have the economic means or physical infrastructure to comply with government mitigation measures such as lockdown, deeply rooted social divides are exposed, which can fuel resentment and unrest, and increased rates of crime are reported. During the consultations, participants reported that in some places people are saying they prefer to die from the virus rather than starvation. The poor, women, disabled, prisoners, elderly and other marginalised groups are disproportionately impacted by the crisis.
- Local peacebuilders have observed that existing tensions between groups are exacerbated by social distancing and by blaming ‘the other’ for the spread of the virus. Reports of attacks on people suspected of having COVID-19, including medical staff, as well as migrants, are already being documented.[vi] Unreliable information flows create uncertainty and fuel fears of stigmatization. Similar challenges arose during the Ebola crisis, when fear, misinformation and stigmatisation undermined responses[vii] and led to attacks on treatment centres.[viii]
- Consultation participants reported that in South Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Cameroon, and DR Congo, important peacebuilding programmes and dialogues have been cancelled. In Colombia, the peace process has been stalled at a critical moment. In other countries social activists have been killed, armed groups exploit the crisis for recruitment and abuses by security forces have been reported. Racist sentiments are also in mounting in countries with exiting patterns of polarisation, discrimination and exclusion. Experience from Ebola and Zika crises[ix] and emerging evidence from COVID-19 demonstrate distinct effects on women, such as increases in domestic violence during lockdown, and victims having trouble accessing support.
- Social distancing and restrictions on gathering makes many existing peacebuilding efforts difficult to deliver, as they typically rely on in-person gatherings and people-to-people approaches. Meanwhile, some governments are framing the crisis as ‘warfare’ and exploiting it to further restrict civil society space and increase authoritarian measure. ACLED’s COVID-19 disorder tracker has recorded a variety of such cases in the last three weeks from Myanmar to Uganda[x]. Local peacebuilders fear that it will be difficult to reclaim the space after the crisis.
- “The military is fully in control and using excessive force in minority areas; including attacks on journalists; and not issuing curfew passes for Muslim vendors to operate while allowing others to operate in the area.”
- Conversely, tentative COVID-19 ceasefires are being negotiated in places like Yemen, Darfur, South Sudan, and some armed groups have initiated unilateral halts to fighting in Cameroon and Colombia.
- Local peacebuilders are struggling to mobilise necessary resources (financial and non-financial), to respond to the changed environment, and sustain their operations. Many local peacebuilders told us they are already facing, or expecting, reductions in financial support and attention from international donors, as priorities shift to the COVID-19 response. Local peacebuilders see a clear need for greater conflict-sensitivity, gender-awareness and peacebuilding integration into COVID-19 response efforts, but they are not yet being included in response initiatives by donors.
- Prior to COVID-19, some local peacebuilders were using digital technology in a variety of ways: for communication and information sharing; mapping incidents; online networking and mobilisation; as well as innovative gaming applications to teach about peace in an interactive manner.[xi] During the consultations participants highlighted the importance of technology for maintaining social cohesion and asked for support to acquire the technology and communication tools needed. This could mean increased internet access, mobile phones air time, radio programming, or other communication tools. Lessons from Ebola demonstrate the important role local media and communication tools such as radio shows and drama, have on addressing miscommunication and fear.[xii]
- Local peacebuilders pointed to the urgent need for flexible, adaptive, long-term support to help mitigate growing conflict and to assist them in the post-conflict recovery phase. There is a high degree of uncertainty among local peacebuilders on how to sustain their work now and after the crisis. Many organisations have no general organisational support beyond activity support, and little means to sustain staff if projects are cancelled. Small local organisations are particularly at risk. While the UN Global COVID-19 Humanitarian Response Plan emphasises the ‘importance of involving and supporting local organizations’; 95% of funding allocated will go to UN agencies.[xiii]
- “The survival of small organizations and movements is in jeopardy at the moment. When things start opening up again, there is a question of who and what organizations will still be here to continue working. While many countries consider stimulus efforts and donors shift to fund Covid-19 related problems, small organizations are at risk of falling through cracks of assistance”
The consultations produced eight recommendations for international donors, governments and international NGOs; drawing on these we recommend that the UK government should:
- Ensure a conflict-sensitive approach to the COVID-19 response: The government needs to ensure that all aid programmes focusing on COVID-19 (including aid to national governments and aid directed through INGOs) adopt a conflict sensitive approach, especially in health, humanitarian and security sectors. Furthermore, the government needs to make regular gender-sensitive conflict analysis a key part of this approach, monitoring changing dynamics and acting on conflict sensitivity risks from the outset.
- Provide sustained and flexible financial support: The UK Government in its response needs to ensure that flexible, longer-term funding not only benefits UN agencies and INGOs but includes support for local groups and organisations, and includes minimum levels of bureaucracy to maximise impact on the ground. The government should sustain existing financial support to organisations, including to youth-led and women-led networks and organisations during the crisis. This should include opening new emergency response funding, and where requested, supporting them in adapting their work. The government should embrace funding models that permit greater flexibility and innovation for rapid programme re-design, as well as redirection of resources to project core operations and staff.
- Support technology up-take up: The government should support local peacebuilders with appropriate technologies they need during the crisis, including increased access to power, phones, internet radio, online platforms and other communication tools. This should include supporting the development of innovative ways of reaching local communities during distancing and lockdown.
- Support youth-led efforts: This should include providing opportunities for youth to contribute to response efforts and continue their education through the crisis. The UK government should guard against stigmatising youth as part of the problem and engage them as leaders.
- Monitor human rights violations: The government should play a leading role in highlighting and addressing protection concerns and ensuring emergency measures are not abused to suppress human rights, target political opponents or limit civil society space
- Address the structural causes of conflict: The government should continue to support programmes that address the structural causes of conflict such as inequality and discrimination which are being exacerbated by the crisis and requires long-term solutions. This includes planning now for the extensive post-crisis recovery process that will be required for communities to rebuild their economies and health systems, and to restart education and social life, in more inclusive ways.
- Provide increased support for recovery and trauma healing. The government should provide increased support for psychosocial and trauma healing programmes during the crisis and through the recovery process.
- Using this moment to promote systemic change: The government should leverage opportunities to mitigate violence, advance peace processes, and promote longer-term positive transformation in society relationships from the crisis. Supporting initiatives like ceasefires, mutual aid, cross-community cooperation in the midst of the crisis can prevent immediate violence and contribute to more durable peacebuilding in the future.
[i] Graff, C. (March 2020). ‘Don’t leave fragile states behind in the fight against Coronavirus’ United States Institute of Peace. Available: https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/03/dont-leave-fragile-states-behind-fight-against-coronavirus
[ii] MercyCorps. (7 April 2020). ‘COVID-19 secondary impact analysis’
[iii] Lekkerkerker, N. and Mollett, H. (April 2020). ‘COVID-19: four entry-points to localise the response’. Charter for Change. Available: https://charter4change.org/2020/04/03/covid-19-four-entry-points-to-localise-the-response/
[iv] Forsyth, M. (April 2020). ‘Lessons from African feminists mobilizing against COVID-19’. Available: https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2020/04/03/african-feminists-mobilizing-covid-19/
[v] United Nations Development Programme. (30 March 2020). ‘COVID-19: looming crisis in developing countries threatens to devastate economies and ramp up inequality. Available: https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/news-centre/news/2020/COVID19_Crisis_in_developing_countries_threatens_devastate_economies.html
[vi] ACLED COVID-19 Disorder Tracker Available here: https://acleddata.com/analysis/covid-19-disorder-tracker/#1585775444289-5037e15f-ecd3
[vii] Wilkinson, S (June 2016) ‘Using media communication to respond to public health emergencies: lessons learned from Ebola’ BBC Media Action practice briefing Available: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/mediaaction/pdf/practicebriefings/ebola-lessons-learned.pdf
[viii] Médecins Sans Frontières. (February 2019). ‘Second Ebola treatment centre in North Kivu attacked’. Available here: https://www.msf.org/second-ebola-treatment-centre-north-kivu-attacked-democratic-republic-congo
[ix] Wenham, C., Smith, J., and Morgan, R. (2020). ‘COVID-19: the gendered impacts of the outbreak’ in The Lancet vol 395 issue 10227 p846-848
[x] ACLED https://acleddata.com/analysis/covid-19-disorder-tracker/#1585775228939-0c55bbb2-9b4c
[xi] From an online peace exchange conducted by Peace Direct 17-19 March 2020 – report forthecoming
[xii] Wilkinson, S (June 2016) ‘Using media communication to respond to public health emergencies: lessons learned from Ebola’ BBC Media Action practice briefing Available: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/mediaaction/pdf/practicebriefings/ebola-lessons-learned.pdf
[xiii] Lekkerkerker, N. and Mollett, H. (April 2020). ‘COVID-19: four entry-points to localise the response’. Charter for Change. Available: https://charter4change.org/2020/04/03/covid-19-four-entry-points-to-localise-the-response/