Mie Roesdahl: “Local peacebuilders are the core of building sustainable peace”

Photo via: Hans-Henrik Jensen

(Reposted from: Robert Bosch Stiftung. April 2021)

Violent conflicts are at a historic high. They recur at an alarmingly high rate despite the efforts of the global peace building system to prevent conflict and build peace. Mie Roesdahl explains why meeting the needs of locally led peacebuilding can be an approach to building sustainable peace.

By Sabine Fischer

About

Mie Roesdahl has for the past 25 years worked as a peacebuilding and human rights practitioner in Africa, Asia and Europe. She has founded Conducive Space for Peace in 2016. Engaging with grass-root and international NGOs, policy-makers, bureaucrats, and other stakeholders, Mie pursues an ambitious agenda of  promoting transformation and developing innovative ideas and processes in peacebuilding.

About 60 percent of all civil wars recur approximately seven years after being concluded. Why is it so difficult to deal with these kinds of conflicts?

One of the reasons we haven’t been able to effectively deal with these conflicts is that the global peacebuilding system doesn’t pay enough attention to the needs of local peacebuilders. There’s an increasing focus among national donors working in conflicted areas on their own national interests. That means there is less attention to what local peacebuilders think they need to build peace. That also has to do with a sustained power inequality: If you as an international peacebuilding organization come in with your priorities and say “This is what we have funding for” you can’t create a mutual space where you have a dignified relation and give space for what the ones you’re collaborating with actually need.

What role does locally led peacebuilding play in creating sustainable peace? 

Local peacebuilders are the core of building sustainable peace. They are much more legitimate than any outsider stepping into a context and saying “I think we should do this”. Local peacebuilders have knowledge and wisdom, great legitimacy and convening power – many have engaged in peacebuilding for many years and have learned what works and what doesn’t. They can creatively identify and see long term strategies through. I don’t mean to romanticize local peacebuilding. There are many challenges, but currently we as international institutions don’t give them a chance to unfold their potential. While not discounting the critical supportive role international actors can play, it’s completely illogical to think that anyone from the outside can come in and bring peace anywhere. We should rather focus on providing the best possible support to the ones who are building peace in that context and be attentive to the nature and quality of relationships, the way power inequalities are addressed, and reciprocity and mutual learning.

At a convening of the NGO “Conducive Space for Peace” (CSP) a peacebuilder speaks about how to contribute to a paradigm shift within the global peacebuilding community. (Photo via: Andrew James Benson)

What’s the best way to meet the needs of local peacebuilders? 

The most important thing is asking and gaining an understanding of what they really need. That sounds basic but it’s actually fairly complicated because if you ask those questions you need to be able to address the needs that are expressed. But international organizations struggle to do this because their structure doesn’t allow it. There might be too little flexibility in funding to allow them to divert from existing ways of working and function for the long term so they can support organizations in a sustainable way, for example. So it’s a very good start to ask the question but what we actually need to do is to change the system.

What exactly needs to change within the global peacebuilding system and in international institutions? 

One way international institutions engage with local peacebuilders are funding mechanisms. These often have a lot of requirements – for reporting, for priorities or for a person to write in English even if their first language isn’t English. Some of the main funds in the UN for example are only available if you can document that you have already managed a large amount of funds in the past which is not the case for small local organizations who know exactly what needs to be done in their context but can’t meet the requirements to get the financial support to do it. So there’s a lot that needs to be changed within the funding mechanisms but it’s also important to look beyond that. Change is also about how to engage in your environment. How you walk into the space and what you offer in a conversation.

Create a space that allows different people to come together.

How can such change happen?

It’s a difficult time. The world and the global peace building system are changing. This should be seen as an opportunity: There is a momentum for change right now where more people – even if they are working in these organizations – find the courage to express the need for change and try to find new ways of working. There is no lack of initiatives but a lack of transforming the main part of how the support of locally led peacebuilding actually works today. We are trying to connect change agents and help them to learn from one another. But it’s not easy. We are going to see a gradual change.

What role can private donors such as the Robert Bosch Stiftung play in this? 

Private donors who have the courage to reflect on their own ways of working have a particular responsibility to share their learnings among the community of funders. But they also need the courage to engage in a change process that is about structural, practical, behavioral, and normative change on a deeper level. It’s important for me to say that conversations and policy developments are not going to make the difference. We already have the most fantastic elaborate policy framework on peacebuilding: it talks about ownership, flexibility, localization – all the things that indicate how we should work to support local peacebuilders. But it’s not changing into practice. In order to change that there are different ways of engaging. For example: Funders often carry a lot of experience and knowledge about the spaces they engage in and they have a huge network. Being willing to mobilize that to enforce broader change and create a space that allows different people to come together could be a step in the right direction.

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