Recounting our work over the past 12 months is a story of two halves: before and after the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis quickly cut across international peacebuilding in unexpected and testing ways, showing its potential to undermine local conflict prevention. It didn’t take long to observe that for people and places affected by conflict, the pandemic had become more than a public health crisis. It quickly worked its way into the sinews of divided and unequal societies, exacerbating drivers of violence and conflict, while playing into the authoritarian tendencies of many regimes worldwide.
Our colleagues and partners have witnessed similar trends, citing examples of how heightened economic pressures have led to rising social tensions, and how securitised state responses – including increased deployment of military and security personnel – have taken root; or how the repression of political activity, sometimes in the name of public health, risks derailing fragile peace processes or interrupting vital development and conflict transformation initiatives.
As the pandemic broke, our immediate task was to adapt to these new challenges as best as we could. This became a truly organisation-wide endeavour, with inspiration primarily derived from the body of civil society organisations, activists and administrative officials we have the privilege of working alongside. Our community-based partners in the numerous regions where we work –from Tajikistan to Myanmar to Somalia – are already experts in responding to crises and challenging situations, and we continue to learn from them. In understanding how communities engage with public health measures, the trusting relationships that our partners have built locally are critical. Our partners’ ability to reach marginalised and isolated groups makes their work essential – especially in contexts where conflict and instability mean government responses to COVID-19 are slow and patchy.
Adapting and blending peacebuilding approaches with public health responses has proven to be an effective approach. For example, our partners in South Sudan are raising awareness of the pandemic while continuing to work with communities to peacefully address local security concerns. In Yemen, where the war has caused thousands of civilian fatalities, left countless families without an income, and devastated the economy and public services, it is humbling to witness how civil society, activists and volunteers continue to serve the needs of their communities to inspire change, and work tirelessly to help the most vulnerable even in the midst of the pandemic.
This year saw other influential factors at play, including global initiatives, such as Black Lives Matter, that challenge the inherent biases and racism embedded in institutions and societies. At Saferworld, we believe that the peacebuilding we are invested in should also be open to scrutiny and questioning. We are taking time to reflect on what it means to be part of an aid system that has in some measure been shaped historically by power imbalances and privileges; and we are considering how we address the impact this may have on the partners we work with.
As peacebuilders, we stand in solidarity with people who, as well as being affected by violent conflict and instability, have experienced additional uncertainty and further challenges to their health and prospects for peace. As you will see in the summary of our work on partnerships, a great deal has been achieved through our partners’ efforts over the year, but much more still needs to be done. Our decision this year to establish a presence in Sudan – following the 2019 peaceful change of power – reflects that readiness to collaborate closely with our partners over time and in this case in support of the people’s complex political transition to civilian rule.
It’s curious how the pandemic is making the harsh realities of our world more visible – whether it’s the poverty or inequalities found in society or the misuse of privilege and power. But it’s also highlighting the exceptional work of activists and people committed to change in often hugely challenging environments. It is because of our partners’ extraordinary work that we’ve chosen to shine a light on our partnerships throughout this annual review; it’s to our partners that we extend our ongoing respect and gratitude. I hope you also find our partners’ stories inspiring.
Paul Murphy, Executive Director