Covid-19 and virtual inclusion: Who decides how the pandemic affects peacebuilding?

Introduction Since the emergence of Covid-19, and its declaration as a pandemic, the peacebuilding sector has analysed a wide range of issues related to the outbreak – with almost all of these discussions taking place virtually. Webinars, online panel discussions, presentations and virtual working groups have begun to unpack the implications for development financing, where the potential exists for significant reductions in funding for peacebuilding, although many donors, it appears, have approached the crisis with broad flexibility and openness to adaptation.[1] Conversations have taken place around new conflict risks posed by the virus, linked to the abuse of power and the use of the crisis to advance political aims and further entrench exclusion and marginalisation, as well as concerns around resource scarcity and access to services and support.[2] Virtual exchanges and reports have explored new forms of division and othering – between generations, among urban and rural populations, and a wider increase in mistrust of ‘outsiders’.[3] The potential for changes to norms around global collaboration have been considered, as well as the risk of an accelerated decline in multilateralism as insularity and nationalism take hold, and governments are granted new powers that may be difficult to reverse.[4]

Comparatively little discussion has taken place on the ways in which Covid-19 alters (or sustains) dynamics of power as a result of the changes it provokes in the way we work. The peacebuilding sector, and much of the development community, is in a moment of transition – in which a new set of norms around collaboration, analysis and relationship-building are emerging. New space is being created for discussions and approaches that may not have been possible previously, as the peacebuilding ecosystem grapples with how to position itself in relation to Covid-19, and the future of peacebuilding practice post-crisis. However, this period of ‘liminality’ –  in which we exist ‘in between’, at the mid-point before and after Covid-19, and in which ambiguity and uncertainty create opportunities to change or reinforce old ways of interacting – risks being exclusionary: as so much of our engagement must now take place virtually, only a small set of (already, in many ways, privileged) actors are able to access and participate in these discussions.[5] Internet connectivity, electricity and technological infrastructure – as well as a relatively open internet architecture, low levels of individual risk associated with surveillance and sufficiently open civic space – are prerequisite resources. Those with these resources, and the finances to sustain them, are currently engaged in shaping, and defining the direction, of post- (and during) Covid peacebuilding, and in doing so, setting out the contours of the ‘new normal’ for the sector. These same actors, in addition, tend to be those that decide on the direction of financial resources within peacebuilding more generally. At this juncture, it is worth considering the impact of the move to virtual engagement on peacebuilding in a multidimensional sense:

1. Where do virtual peacebuilding discussions happen currently, who participates, and what are the requirements to do so? 

2. In what ways does the Covid-19 crisis affect power dynamics between ‘global’ decision-makers and international organisations, and ‘local’ peace actors that take on the practical work of peacebuilding? How are those that already have the resources (and control over them) to access virtual peacebuilding spaces further empowered by the current situation?

3. How can we make virtual spaces more equitable and inclusive, and in ways that do not maintain the power of one set of actors over another (for instance, by creating new relationships of dependency in which one set of actors controls another’s ability to participate)?

4. What opportunities are created precisely because we are interacting virtually – where conversations tend to be less formal, and in which most (even those running the sessions), across levels and disciplines, are muddling through and learning as they go?

This reflection piece focuses on the positive and negative effects of moving peacebuilding discussions (and processes) into the virtual space – how remote work may exclude certain actors, reducing their ability to engage in, and shape, peacebuilding discourse and practice, but also creates possibilities to shift power in new ways. However, it is also a write-up that emerges from within the space being criticised, based on various forms of virtual engagement in which Life & Peace Institute (LPI) has participated over the past two months: webinars, panel discussions, planning, online research design and programme development workshops, virtual reflections, strategy meetings and others. LPI has itself used the practices being challenged here, as we continue to learn about how to operate under these circumstances (and a number of the points made around the ability of local peacebuilders to engage in virtual and remote peacebuilding remain based on assumptions). This piece is intended as a conversation starter. Subsequently, we will engage with local peace actors to hear more about their experiences with and thoughts about virtual engagement – to inform and shift our virtual practice to capitalise on new opportunities, rather than falling back into old habits in new spaces.

Picture 1 Updated

Challenges – defining and framing peacebuilding during Covid-19

Much of the analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on peace and conflict, and peacebuilding responses to the pandemic, has taken place virtually. This is understandable, and reflects the adaptability and commitment of many international peacebuilding organisations, multilateral actors and bilateral donors. However, this shift also has a variety of visible and immediate, and less visible, longer term effects. Recognising the practical (and political) barriers to participating in discussions on peacebuilding and Covid-19 – the need for a computer, a smart phone, consistent internet access, predictable and sustained provision of electricity, and other items – is only part of the picture.

The Covid-19 crisis may accelerate divides in other ways. For instance, those that are able to work from home, and have access to connectivity and technology, or already work remotely, are able to advance their day-to-day activities (moving forward institutional processes, making decisions on the future – potentially without the participation of those that do the practical work of peacebuilding), but also outline the organisational response to Covid-19.[6]

Perhaps more importantly, those with internet access and electricity, that live in areas with relatively robust communications architecture and have sufficient income to cover the cost of these services, lead in setting the interpretive frame for the crisis as a whole: the way we, in the peacebuilding sector, understand it and think about our position in relation to it. The analysis, the definition of the problem, and the design of the peacebuilding response to Covid-19 (one that is intended to be conflict sensitive, peace-oriented, transformative) is led ‘from above’, largely in the global north, and outside contexts in which peacebuilding is taking place. New sets of relational patterns and engagement habits are being set, particularly on how we interact with one another across the peacebuilding community. Norms around communication, including in virtual spaces – how we structure discussions, the tools through which we collaborate, the languages that are used – are becoming established, largely without the participation of individuals and groups in conflict-affected environments that virtual conversations are (eventually) about.[7]

While efforts have been made to create space for local peace actors operating in conflict-affected environments to provide input to these discussions, they have as yet been less involved in frame-setting, or in analysis processes. Instead, these critical discussions are taking place, with post-Covid peacebuilding taking shape (although most virtual conversations remain focused primarily on the current crisis), in closed spaces, populated by those that already have access to the resources needed to participate in remote engagement. Analysis of Covid-19’s relationship to peace and conflict is moved forward by a relatively small group. Power – in decision-making and problem definition – remains, and is likely reinforced, with those that already have it.[8]

Inclusive virtual peacebuilding discussions

First, how do we go about making conversations on these issues, on responses and planning – and indeed, analysis pieces such as this one – more accessible and inclusive, such that they reflect the perspectives of a wider range of actors?

In order to bring local peace actors into virtual peacebuilding processes and discussions, and make digital spaces more open, a variety of approaches may be useful – supporting direct internet access, for instance, but also using mobile money or transferring airtime (that may then be translated into mobile data) to facilitate participation, at least in the discussions themselves.[9]

There are also other, less explicit problems with the move to virtual engagement (even if inclusive) that may need to be explored. For instance, some local peace actors may rely – for better or worse – on the development and peacebuilding sectors for informal income: stipends, per diems, transport reimbursements and other forms of ‘compensation’. The lack of in-person activities represents a less obvious, but nonetheless stark, loss of income for these actors. Participants’ time, and their contributions to peacebuilding activities (through information, networking support, or provision of contextual knowledge) – their ‘consultancy fees’, in the form of these supplements to their existing income – are also impacted by remote engagements, even those in which they are able to participate. Some form of in-kind support, or transfer of resources, should perhaps be discussed, in addition to providing the (often short-term, limited) means to participate in an individual virtual peacebuilding event, through granting digital access to a particular process. This highlights the ways in which the knowledge of local actors, and their participation (including expertise, skills and time), is rarely framed as an operational or human resource cost for peacebuilding work, instead having this compensation tied to physical meetings, or wrapped into workshops via reimbursements associated with movement, accommodation or sustenance.

Another dimension, here, is around the implications of international peacebuilding organisations imposing restrictions on local peace actors’ movements. Where LPI has been able to bring local peacebuilders into virtual processes, we have been clear that we are not – explicitly or implicitly – asking others to put themselves at risk on our behalf. When we seek information remotely, we have worked to ensure that local actors do not feel that they are being asked to move around, collect information, or undertake practical peacebuilding activities, on behalf of a given international organisation. While this is part of efforts to reduce risk, it is also an ethical position – if LPI staff are working from home, with offices closed, our partners or programme participants should not be asked to travel, to move around, and should be subject to the same safety considerations we place on ourselves. However, there have been requests by local peace actors to hold small-scale meetings, and to speak to others in-person, in ways that they feel are low-risk. LPI’s efforts to maintain safety, in these cases, have been viewed as restrictive – where activities seen as  reasonable and effective are being prohibited on someone else’s terms, set outside the conflict context being discussed, and our efforts to avoid transferring risks to partners means their agency is reduced in their own environment.[10]

Second, how do we deepen local actors’ participation in remote peacebuilding discussions, in ways that are more substantive than providing information that is then published by an international organisation? How do we bring local peace actors into analysis processes, into intricate engagement on response planning? Collective, multi-stakeholder assessment of conflict risks associated with Covid-19 in order to reach common analytical positions between ‘global’ and ‘local’ stakeholders is possible through virtual means, but requires creativity and more sustained support for access by those that do not have the resources to otherwise take part. Now may also be an opportunity to hand over some of the elements of research, analysis, design and development that have tended to remain with international organisations – tasks that also happen to be possible to conduct remotely – such as desk research, literature reviews and data analysis.

Picture 2 Updated

Opportunities – changing the way we interact

Transitional moments often provide space for changes that otherwise may not have taken place. The push to work and collaborate virtually also creates opportunities to alter the way actors in the peacebuilding ecosystem communicate with each another – creating new opportunities precisely because our activities are taking place remotely.

We can reasonably assume that interacting virtually might anonymise and depersonalise these processes, distancing participants from one another. However, based on virtual engagements held by LPI, it may be that remote conversations have the potential for the opposite. Seeing people in their homes, in an environment of their choosing, takes them out of formal, hierarchical settings and may connect them in alternative, perhaps deeper ways – unable to conceal themselves behind the established traditions of dress codes, seating arrangements, conference venues, and austere practices associated as much with place as participants. With virtual engagement, we may be able to be braver with informality – to begin to break hierarchies, and explore what connecting outside the formal setting means for creating equity in the way we interact with one another, eroding old social codes that fall into place in traditional settings and perpetuate power imbalances. As all participants struggle with unmuting, repeatedly asking if they can be heard, seek to structure discussions in new ways, and speak from their own locations, the perspectives of local peacebuilders may be able to be heard on new terms.[11]

Remaining questions and next steps

Patterns of exclusion experienced by local peace actors have a long history, both in countries where peacebuilding work takes place, and across the broader development sector. The individuals and groups that are excluded from virtual conversations are also often blocked from participating in other decision-making processes – on peacebuilding programming, policy decisions, research agendas and financing priorities.[12] However, this exclusion is exacerbated by the shift to virtual engagement, and at a critical transitional moment where new ways of working are being defined that will impact the practice of peacebuilding, and the global ecosystem that surrounds it.

As the Covid-19 crisis accelerates trends towards remote communication and atomised work, it simultaneously demands renewed engagement in areas without the means to operate in this way – environments in which closed-off, electronic, distanced peacebuilding is not possible. LPI is planning to engage partner organisations and programme participants – the exclusion of which this piece explores – to hear their thoughts on virtual engagement during this crisis, and in doing so give additional space to those experiencing the issues discussed here. We hope to validate the above ideas, and indeed, it may be that some of the positions taken are incorrect, or do not reflect the experiences or aspirations of those that have had less access to global discussions on peacebuilding and Covid-19.[13]

Key questions include:

  • How do local peace actors characterise their experience with virtual peacebuilding engagement?

  • Is there interest, on the part of local peace actors, in participating in ‘global’ conversations on Covid-19 and the future of the peacebuilding sector, in particular virtually?

  • What sort of remote spaces and facilitation techniques would be most useful, and are seen as the most effective?

  • What do international peacebuilding organisations need to provide in order to promote longer term – rather than one-off – participation by local peace actors in virtual spaces?

  • How do local peace actors reflect on the ways in which their interaction with international peacebuilding organisations has changed as a result of Covid-19 and the shift towards virtual engagement?


[1] See: https://www.whatsinblue.org/2020/03/possible-implications-of-covid-19-on-international-peace-and-security.php.

[2] See: https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/sb4-covid-19-and-conflict-seven-trends-watch.

[3] See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/18/thank-you-parisians-dont-bring-the-virus-plea-from-rural-france.

[4] See: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/health/2020/03/state-transformed-coronavirus-will-change-british-state-ten-crucial-ways.

[5] It should be noted, however, that individuals and groups in conflict-affected settings have, for some time, adapted challenging access conditions that make face-to-face interaction difficult, or at times impossible – and have found remote means to interact, for instance via SMS or phone. This has taken place in, among other areas, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, or in Somalia, where WhatsApp groups have been used to mobilise diya (compensation paid to victims of violence) payments. Remote communications tools, in these ways and more, are regularly being used by local peacebuilders – often taking place unnoticed, with or without the support of the global peacebuilding architecture. In the current Covid-19 crisis, the issue here is that conversations on the impact of the pandemic on peacebuilding, and the international response, are taking place in specific, often closed, spaces, and where those convening discussions may not make the needed effort (beyond a Zoom link, via email, to existing networks and mailing lists), to reach and include local peace actors. As a result, discussions continue in the same ‘bubbles’ as before – now occurring digitally. The trend towards organisations and individuals in the ‘global north’ framing peacebuilding responses to Covid-19 is reflective of existing structures of decision-making, and established patterns of engagement – speaking about, rather than analysing with, local peacebuilders; taking procedural shortcuts in the interest of expediency; and more broadly, local and global processes remaining separate or unequal.

[6] The specific modalities of who can continue working during Covid-19, and therefore define the institutional response, is also likely to reflect existing hierarchies and ways of operating within organisations, where those that are more decentralised may find this issue less challenging. Others might fall back on old practices in which decision-making is taken largely by those that are relatively distant from conflict-affected environments.

[7] It is also the case that, in general, virtual discussions on peacebuilding follow processes of directive facilitation, using written visual tools (functioning, usually, through one language). In multilateral fora, limited participated during in-person engagement pre-Covid-19 has in some instances become even less interactive – prepared statements read out, written responses instead of discussion, calendars for virtual processes that are difficult to find and unclear on how to join specific events. What potential exists for more horizontal, or participatory, ways of thinking and analysing in these spaces?

[8] Many local peace actors, indeed, may not have had the opportunity to engage in virtual conversations on peacebuilding and Covid-19, and further, may not know these sessions are taking place. The discourse advances largely without them. However, the need to engage remotely may have already emerged for local peace actors in conflict-affected environments, perhaps many times, and they have likely developed broad skills in practicing remote communication as part of their day-to-day work – with their staff in different locations, with community-level peace structures, and in particular, when individual episodes of violence prevent their movement. They would have much to contribute to current efforts to adapt to interacting – planning, coordinating, analysing – remotely.

[9] LPI has used this method, for instance, to facilitate research design workshops in Nairobi, Kenya. In addition, as part of the Shift Power for Peace initiative, Conducive Space for Peace, Humanity United, and Peace Direct manage a support mechanism providing various tools to local peacebuilders to enable digital engagement. Further information is available here: https://www.shiftpowerforpeace.org/en/digital-inclusion/.

[10] It is possible, in addition, the restricted movement of international actors may allow local peacebuilders to work in more effective ways. For instance, where staff from an international organisation are not able to travel in a given environment, they might develop remote, and flexible, means to support those working at the local level – where the situation necessitates more open, less directive assistance. The exclusion of international actors (largely those in the global north) from conflict-affected contexts (as they are currently – exiled into virtual conversations and webinars), may mean that local peacebuilders are able to make more use of space in their own contexts, and that international actors are more dependent on them.

It should also be noted that, in the countries in which LPI operates, there are also a number of measures in place that aim to limit movement. For instance, curfews or lockdowns of varying severity. In this way, there are restrictions specific to the environments of local peace actors that limit their movement, in addition to requests by LPI and other international organisations.

[11] While ‘reading the room’, seeing participants’ faces and moderating in-person discussions are important in facilitating mutual, equal discussions, some individuals (particularly in settings with participants from a wide range of backgrounds, organisations and levels of seniority) may feel more comfortable and able to contribute when they are not in the room, in a virtual setting.

Further, virtual settings create space for multi-stage, phased discussions, design processes, analyses and reflections. In particular, this is because decision-making often does not work to the same cost-linked deadlines – tricky issues, disagreements among participants, unfinished workshop sessions, decisions that have been ‘parked’ or left unmade as the end of a workshop approaches, and where participants are due to fly home, have their per diems paid and hotel rooms vacated, can now be worked through, shifted into the next session, deliberated over and returned to once participants have had the opportunity to think through and return to the next virtual convening.

[12] Local peace actors are frequently either entirely absent from discussions on these issues, or invited in temporarily, to provide a brief testimonial, a story outlining their experiences, or a description of their particular context.

[13] LPI also continues to learn about the advantages and disadvantages and virtual engagement in a number of additional areas. For instance, how to get at depth of analysis via virtual formats, based on:

  • The practical elements of use of the technology in question (including connection issues and unfamiliarity on the part of participants)

  • The various combined tools (for instance – Zoom, with Mural, as well as text chat, polling and voting), and virtual facilitation

  • The impact of engaging virtually on people’s energy levels, their ability to feel a close connection with the analysis, and how that analysis is progressed over the course of an engagement

Author

Luke Errington-Barnes
Strategic Advisor , Life & Peace Institute

Luke Errington-Barnes is a Strategic Advisor with the Life & Peace Institute, focusing on research and analysis, policy engagement and cross-organisational learning. He has worked in East Africa, South Asia and the Middle East with a variety of international peacebuilding organisations.

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