What will peacebuilding look like in 2030?

Impuls 08/2018 by Jonathan Cohen, Executive Director at Conciliation Resources

Looking ahead often starts by looking back – checking where we have come from to reflect on where we are going. I have been engaged in peacebuilding for 26 years, most of those with Conciliation Resources. My first tentative steps in peacebuilding were taken in a different world. The Berlin Wall had recently fallen and the Cold War come to an end. Inspired by People’s Power in the Philippines and people seizing the space for autonomous action in Eastern Europe, civil society was demonstrating the power for change that could come from within societies. Conflict resolution and peacebuilding NGOs were coming into existence. The then UN Secretary General published an Agenda for Peace in 1992.

A quarter of a century later the current Secretary General is again placing peace at the heart of his agenda; polarised relations with Russia are back on the global scene with a vengeance; and the space for civil society is being squeezed in all too many countries.

The scale of global conflict and displacement and the loss of confidence among states supporting a liberal peace agenda make it a sober moment to ask what peacebuilding will look like in 2030. In the past decades there have been tremendous normative advances: UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security has made issues of gender and inclusion central to our understanding of peacebuilding. UNSCR 2250 on Youth Peace and Security will take this agenda further. The SDGs have set an important benchmark for 2030 that brings a new energy to the peace discourse at the UN, notwithstanding the fact that it will continue to be bedevilled by geo-politics and national interest.

However, the future of peacebuilding is not about the UN, important though it is. And it is not about those of us in the wider peacebuilding community either. It is about those people who build peace on a daily basis in the midst of conflict. What those people need more than anything else is consistent and principled support that puts them at the centre, to support them to prevent and resolve violent conflicts and to build societies in which resilience is not an academic pursuit.

Looking toward 2030, if we want peacebuilding rather than securitised responses to be the primary way to deal with protracted conflicts there is much for us to do. We have to deepen our understanding of the multiple sources of conflict – clashes of identity and how they are utilised by rivals for power, the pernicious nature of different extremisms, the growth of urban violence, the impact of climate change, the continued stresses of displacement, and tensions erupting over resource scarcity.

There will continue to be much to learn from the dynamics of each about best practice in mediation support, the challenge of making political settlements more sustainable and inclusive, approaches to adaptive dialogue in the face of peacebuilding architectures that can feel behind the curve of evolving conflicts, and how to ensure hard earned agreements are implemented, to name but a few challenges. We must remain a listening and learning community and become even better at key components of our work - conflict analysis, sustained support and partnership that is equal, respecting and promoting the agency of those most affected and intimately bound up in addressing violent conflicts in their own societies.

Scientific and technological advances in the next decade will make a difference as we look for inspiration beyond our own field. Neuroscience and the research and practice of social psychology will expand our understanding and challenge us to ask questions about the way we work with rationality and emotions in designing interventions seeking to bring about change; smarter analysis of data and documentation will enhance comparative insight; and the development of information and telecommunications technologies and platforms will impact on the practice of peacebuilding and mediation support. Certainly, these technologies already contribute to deep shifts that are affecting conflict landscapes, providing threats and opportunities. We must examine, understand and take advantage of technological and scientific developments, but not rely on them to solve our problems.

We will also need to get smarter at generating resources for our work. Over the past three decades there have been inevitable ebbs and flows in funding as our peacebuilding work has navigated the financial and political climate. This will continue, though the more polarised social mood in the liberal democracies, which have been the main donors, means governments might jettison sources of expenditure that they don’t think appeal to the public. Research has shown that there is public support for peacebuilding but more must be done to engage the public and convince governments that there is popular support for a peacebuilding approach. Making the case to governments will also require us to challenge short-term, risk averse donor funding that limits the potential for change through peacebuilding.

We need to keep focusing on what it means to work in partnership - within our own domain of peacebuilding, as well as with practitioners in allied fields such as development, human rights and humanitarian work; as well as with those working in different sectors – business, local and central government and multilaterals. And we need to keep reflecting on the power dynamic between northern and southern organisations in promoting partnership in peacebuilding.

A field that has evolved out of strongly held values around equality, cooperation, humility and generosity must not lose touch with these and allow transactional approaches to supplant transformational ones.

Above all we can’t be complacent – even if the Stephen Pinkers of this world are right in asserting that in the long trajectory of human existence our societies are less violent, they clearly remain painfully and destructively violent. Martin Luther King’s assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is not a given. Peacebuilders have our work cut out to ensure that by 2030 those with malign intent do not gain the ascendancy.