A woman addresses attendees at the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) Conference in 2019

As a former ICAI Commissioner and chair of the board at Conciliation Resources, a leading peacebuilding organisation, I welcome the conclusion that peacebuilding must be supported generously and strategically. Conflict has become ever more widespread and complex and without peace all other development (such as health, education, economic growth) are hampered, if not rendered impossible.

It is a timely conclusion. Just days before ICAI published its report, the FCDO announced a third consecutive cut in the Government’s aid budget, described by Andrew Mitchell, Minister of State (Development and Africa), as “fierce and draconian”. This is distressing news for peacebuilding organisations and their partners already under pressure in responding to complex and shifting conflict dynamics in countries such as Afghanistan, Ukraine and Ethiopia, as well as the challenges presented by COVID-19, all while seeing projects cut, downsized or cancelled altogether.

The ICAI report highlighted how this funding instability can hamper peacebuilding, using an example of a Conciliation Resources’ run consortium programme (see page 34). After two years of uncertainty, a £12 million conflict prevention programme, Smart Peace, was cut completely by the FCDO, leaving local organisations and networks in complex areas in Myanmar, Nigeria and the Central African Republic without promised support. Even though the funding uncertainty during the first two years had taken precious time and resources away from work on the programme, it had begun to unlock useful outcomes, opportunities and lessons, many of which were lost when the funding was abruptly cut.

For the communities that such projects are supposed to support, cuts on this scale can cause real harm, jeopardising fragile peacebuilding gains and relationships, while reinforcing pre-existing grievances that fuel conflict. In some cases, local people leading or involved in UK funded projects can find themselves vulnerable when projects are cut abruptly. For instance, ICAI reported that sudden cuts to Women Peace and Security (WPS) programmes left participants without protection. Conciliation Resources has done a lot of work on the vital role of women in peacebuilding, but in too many contexts the space for women peacebuilders to operate safely has been rapidly shrinking. So to raise women’s profile in those contexts, by virtue of their courageous involvement in programming, only then to cut the programme, makes their position all the more vulnerable.

A ’patient, strategic’ approach is needed

ICAI’s report calls for the Government to extend its “patient, strategic and risk-taking approach to peacebuilding at country and regional levels… to its partnerships at programme level”. Such an approach is essential if the Government is to see a return on investments in peacebuilding, and restore its reputation for policy leadership in the field of conflict prevention. An approach which is long-term and prepared to take risks is also a much more natural fit to the delicate and difficult work of peacebuilding, which requires time to lay the groundwork for lasting peace. And the cost of work after conflict is infinitely greater than the cost of prevention and peacebuilding.

Conciliation Resources has consistently shown the value of such long-term investments. Working with our civil society partners, we played an important role in developing and implementing the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines, opening entry points at the negotiating table for diverse groups such as young people and women and supporting the implementation of the eventual peace agreement after it was signed with the Government of Philippines in 2014. And in the Somali Region of Ethiopia, our Horn of Africa team worked for six years supporting negotiation teams and civil society prior to and during the peace talks between the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Government of Ethiopia, which began in 2012. The peace agreement, signed in 2018 ended hostilities that had ravaged the region since 1994 and holds good despite conflict in Tigray.

There are no short-cuts to peace agreements and the conflicts they intend to resolve do not adhere to short-term project timelines and delivery targets. For peacebuilding to be most effective, it must be funded courageously, generously and over the long-term.

More attention for ‘transformational approaches’

The report also suggests it is time to reorient the UK’s peacebuilding programmes towards “transformational change” in conflict dynamics, and away from the cycle of the financial year. In particular, it highlights a lack of attention to more transformational approaches in the UK’s work on the Women Peace and Security agenda among its implementing partners.

As a penholder of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, and one of the first countries to adopt a National Action Plan on WPS, the UK is seen by many as a frontrunner in the field. Working on the Government’s Women Peace and Security Helpdesk, staff at Conciliation Resources see its commitment to WPS and gender mainstreaming first hand.

ICAI’s report also shows that the UK still has some way to go to fully consider how climate change and environmental degradation shape conflict. Our own analysis shows us that gender plays a crucial role in determining how these links play out, something the upcoming National Action Plan on Women Peace and Security, should take into account.

The Government should challenge itself to build on its expertise in addressing violence against women and girls, and integrating gender sensitivity into its peacebuilding work. It should seek to challenge and transform the deeply embedded norms, power dynamics and structural inequalities which mean that women, girls and gender and sexual minorities are particularly exposed to conflict and excluded from peace processes. With our partners, Conciliation Resources has developed a gendered conflict analysis toolkit which can help peacebuilders to identify and respond to these underlying factors from the outset.  

An opportunity not to be missed

From my experience as an ICAI Commissioner, ICAI’s recommendations do result in more effective programming and hard-pressed civil servants and policymakers want development work to make a real difference. This report shows that peacebuilding can make a remarkable impact and it presents policymakers with a vital opportunity.

At ICAI we found that the best means of achieving lasting impact includes committing to longer term support and ensuring the genuine involvement of those who the work is intended to benefit. As this report finds, peacebuilding cries out for this approach. Investment in conflict prevention is essential and infinitely more effective and less costly than waiting until it is too late. Without peace no other development progress can be made or sustained, so this is an opportunity which must not be missed.

Photo: A woman addresses attendees at the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) Conference in 2019. (c) Conciliation Resources 2019