The theme for this year’s first Peacebuilding Forum plenary session is ‘Awareness, Commitment, Change: Towards a Partnership of Equals’, and – like motherhood and apple pie – there’s nothing much to disagree with here. Whether it is climate change, economic recovery, tackling Covid-19 and, of course, building sustainable peace, effective partnerships between different stakeholders in the system and at different levels is absolutely essential.
And yet the truth is that the whole concept of equal partnerships is a myth, at least as it relates to partnerships between organisations in the Global North and those in the Global South. For almost twenty years Peace Direct has been supporting local efforts to stop violence and build sustainable peace and in that time we’ve studied the different ways in which the peacebuilding system erects and maintains, rather than dismantles, barriers to effective local inclusion and action. There are a multitude of reasons for this, including bureaucratic inefficiency, risk aversion and most crucially – structural racism – which has seeped into every nook and cranny of the peacebuilding sector, and which the sector has been conspicuously silent about up until very recently.
Structural or systemic racism refers to the 'normalisation and legitimatisation of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage white people, while producing chronic outcomes for people of colour worldwide'.
So how does this show up in partnerships? The uncomfortable truth is that it shows up everywhere. It shows up in how neo-colonial attitudes towards communities in the ‘Global South’ translates into dominant narratives about lack of capacity and how local organisations cannot be trusted to manage donor funds. It shows up in how INGOs seek ‘local implementing partners’ while retaining as much control and direction for programmes as possible. It shows up in the humanitarian cluster system which is dominated by agencies from the Global North. And it shows up in how we define what a good partner is: usually an organisation that can manage donor money well, can speak our language and has absorbed fully our approach to M&E, compliance, reporting and theory of change. From the perspective of most local organisations, this looks very much like a one-way street, with very little equality in the partnership.
In November last year Peace Direct held a three-day consultation on ‘Decolonising Aid and Peacebuilding’ in which over 150 activists took part in a frank and often sobering discussion about how to change the system, not tear it down. One of the loudest calls from the participants was for different, less unequal partnerships. Not one of the participants talked about a partnership of equals, perhaps because it simply isn’t possible, or at least this is the case if money is involved. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try a lot harder than we are right now to redress the imbalance.
At Peace Direct, we are trying to cultivate partnerships which are less unequal and more mutually accountable with those who we work with around the world. We have a long way to go but we are committed to transforming ourselves and in turn our partnerships into something that will deliver better outcomes for everyone. It’s a win-win for the whole sector if we are all willing to take the first steps, and then a few more. I hope that at the Fri-Ent Peacebuilding Forum we may learn how to do this together.