Communities vs. Conflict: The Case for Supporting Locally-led Peacebuilding

Whatever news source we rely on, we can be sure that on any given day there is an alphabet soup of countries struggling to overcome delayed development and armed conflict: Afghanistan, El Salvador, Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria, to name a few. Whether a country is actively at war or is technically a post-conflict state, we see fragility, poverty, and ethnic tensions. We are witnessing the largest refugee flow in history, people who, for the most part, are fleeing war at home.

But it is not all so bleak. There is resilience, capacity, experience, and knowledge that resides within communities at the front lines of conflict. It is these communities that can create a different, more peaceful, stable future. However, a major obstacle to a locally led, locally driven peacebuilding is that a very small portion of international government aid and foundation funding goes to supporting the groups local to conflict.  

A group of private donors and foundations, all members of the U.S.-based Peace and Security Funders Group, are changing traditional ways of funders. We are embracing the creativity and commitment that we see in local civil society organizations, and yes, the uncertainty and risk. While many funders unwittingly create barriers to funding for local, grassroots groups in conflict and post-conflict countries, we are constantly looking to tear down these barriers: We invest time upfront to build trust with grantee-partners, we build long-term, multifaceted relationships, we offer capacity-building resources, we seek to simplify our application processes, and we appreciate that often, even the smallest micro-grants can make the biggest difference, if decisions are made by our local partners.

Through our collective funding at the Peace and Security Funders Group, we have observed that when communities themselves develop and lead strategies for peace and stability, they can make a big impact.  It’s an approach we hope that others with financial means and a passion for change will consider. While the goal of reducing violence around the world is daunting, modest funds, creativity, and productive partnerships can make a difference.

In Monrovia, Liberia, in fall 2014 as Ebola was untamed and the highest priority was educating citizens on prevention, a network of taxi motorcyclists and community members called the Pen-Pen Peace Network played a key role in reaching out to fellow citizens, communicating in colloquial language key steps to prevention, building hand-washing and sanitizing stations, and helping to keep the calm at a fragile moment. This effort, supported through the Purdue Peace Project, reached more than 28,000 people over five months with only $21,000. As our colleagues wrote in a Guardian article last fall, “Initiatives like the Pen-Pen Peace Network drive home the message that local citizens can be effective peacebuilders. The government and its partners should take keen note of this and consider identifying, strengthening, and supporting community-led structures, especially in countries not yet affected by the virus.”

In neighboring Sierra Leone, Fambul Tok, a national organization that has created and sustained locally led reconciliation and development, shifted its efforts to Ebola prevention and now recovery. Tapping into the community-based structures, it developed and supported for post-war reconciliation, Fambul Tok’s local women’s groups called Peace Mothers led a national, community-based Ebola prevention campaign through soap making and distribution. In contrast to similar government-led campaigns, the soap and accompanying educational messages were received with trust because they came from community members. With the support of its primary funding and program partner, U.S. foundation Catalyst for Peace, Fambul Tok also drew on its community networks and its connections with National NGOs to lead a national effort to create communication channels so that community voices and perspectives could be integrated into the national Ebola prevention campaign. Called the Bridging Communities Network, it identified critical components of the national Ebola response efforts, such as including women in burial teams, that helped overcome local resistance to Ebola prevention measures.

A recent article in the New York Times magazine emphasized the risk of ignoring local voices and capacity during times of crisis and fragility. Jonathan Katz, a Port-au-Prince-based reporter for the Associated Press when a powerful earthquake hit the city in 2010, talks about missteps, faulty information, and misdirected aid during that difficult time. He writes: “The sum of all this was an uncoordinated and improvisational relief effort that failed to work with Haitian institutions and people, or to strengthen the Haitian government to face future calamities.”

To be sure, there are challenges to what we propose here. How, for instance, can an individual donor be sure of the integrity of the effort they are funding? How can a donor with no experience in this type of work learn from others who do? How can local organizations meet reporting requirements of international organizations? How can we monitor and assess the impact of our work? When, why, and how do funding partnerships with local, community-based groups come to an end? These are all valid questions, and we as a group, together with our partners, are working to address them. But the bottom line is that not enough funding is directed to non-military peace and security efforts. A community-driven, locally led effort is one valuable strategy that we see making a difference. A June article in The Atlantic stated: “In other words, peace begets peace and violence begets violence.” So while many might consider the examples above to be "micro-level" conflicts, we need to start building peace community by community, nation by nation. To communities surrounded by conflict, sustainable peace matters, as does breaking the cycle of fragility and violence.

Milt Lauenstein has had a long career as a top executive, serving as CEO and/or Chairman of several successful corporations and on the boards of many more. Over the last 14 years he has provided funding for numerous violence prevention projects in West Africa. He is a member of the U.S.-based Peace and Security Funders Group and their affinity group on locally led peacebuilding.