A year ago, Peace Direct launched the report Race, Power and Peacebuilding, unpacking the systemic racism underpinning the peacebuilding sector.

Following the Time to Decolonise Aid report, which had exposed the colonial roots of the development, peace and humanitarian aid system, Race, Power and Peacebuilding was intended to encourage the peacebuilding sector to embrace the decolonising agenda and address unequal global-local power dynamics.

The report was based on a global consultation hosted on Platform4Dialogue, in which over 160 people from 70 countries shared their insights, experiences and analysis. The findings were damning, highlighting that the peacebuilding sector side-lines local peacebuilders, is oblivious to its own structural racism, and enables funders to wield outsized power to dictate every aspect of a peacebuilding effort – ultimately undermining the sustainability of peace itself.

For example, Cathy Amenya, participating from Kenya, told the consultation: “Research has persistently shown that in times of conflict and trauma, traditional mechanisms seem to offer more long-lasting reconciliation processes because all participate. If African knowledge was accepted and allowed in developing peacebuilding theories, there would be more robust mechanisms than what we currently have.”

Landry Ninteretse, Local Peacebuilding Expert for Peace Insight, argued during the consultation that White Saviourism is at the heart of the issue: “White Saviours’ use their own research, judgement, benchmark, perspectives and often limited knowledge to design, conduct and assess the success of their work, perpetuating the already felt sentiment that locals are unable, lack competences, capacity and know-how in handling their own crises.”

Talking about it isn’t enough

The issues that Race, Power and Peacebuilding highlighted have been raised before, by voices that powerholders often overlooked. In amplifying those voices and sharing their insights on how to drive change, Peace Direct hoped to prompt a transformation of mindsets and practices. In some ways, we succeeded.

The report has had a significant impact on the sector’s thinking, spurring many new and necessary conversations about the sector’s role in perpetuating racist and colonial systems, power structures and attitudes.

Shannon Paige, Senior Policy and Partnerships Officer at Peace Direct, says: “The peacebuilding sector had for so long distanced itself from the horrors of development and aid. We were arrogant enough to see ourselves as the ethical strand of the ‘triple nexus’. This report provided a confrontational mirror, inviting us all to reflect on the notions underpinning our practices. We had not been reckoning with how our biases affect how we perceive and engage with vulnerable populations.”

The timing of the report’s release was especially confronting, as it followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the first all-out war on European soil in decades. Paige highlights how, for some peacebuilders in the Global South, the international community’s response to the war was much more urgent and humanised than to conflicts in the regions they worked in. She says some Global South actors told her this proved that the international community had always had the capacity to ‘move heaven and earth’ for people affected by conflict, but had chosen not to for ‘those it saw as less deserving, or less human’.

The report offered 21 recommendations for all actors in the peacebuilding sector – from small steps like acknowledging that structural racism exists, to stronger initiatives like decentring Global North decision-making and re-imaging the sector itself. But despite the clarity these mirrors offered the sector, the conversations prompted and the insights that Global South practitioners have shared, real change has been slow.

Paige argues, “some of our recommendations are incredibly clear and simple – to acknowledge structural racism, for example. But many in our sector haven’t done that. And progress on real action is even slower. We’re waiting for those who have benefitted from the current system to decide they are interested in change. Meanwhile, we have so many activists who are pushing for this but are completely forced to the margins. For this to be effective as a transformative initiative, powerholders need to learn how to relinquish power. And Global South actors need to claim it, not ask for it.”

What’s next?

Since the launch of Race, Power and Peacebuilding, we’ve explored how we could deepen our understanding of the decolonisation needs of our sector and operationalise some of these findings to have practical implications.

We’ve begun by holding global consultations and interviews with practitioners around the world to explore how the legacy of colonialism affects and underpins partnerships between international NGOs, donors and local practitioners.

We’ll soon be sharing a guide on how to move beyond equitable partnerships to decolonised partnerships, focusing on how to do that in practice, not in theory.

We have also teamed up with the Decolonizing Wealth Project to look at philanthropic practices, taking a reparative lens to decolonisation in acknowledgement that many philanthropists have made their money through slavery.

Our Advocacy teams is very focused on the practice of decolonisation – supporting the radical transformation of the sector and the shift of power from Global North to Global South actors. Paige says, “We’re assessing everything we do against whether it radically shifts the system, and that gives us a real clear-eyed path.”

A crucial part of that work is trying to find ways to ensure that local activists, particularly marginalised populations, are centred. Because despite having driven this work through their advocacy, insights and expertise, Global South actors are still side-lined in conversations about decolonisation.

We are hopeful that we’ll soon be able to host an in-person learning exchange on decolonisation, in the Global South, where Global South actors can together create real strategies to function in a decolonised way within this deeply colonial system.

In the meantime, a team of local peacebuilders and activists globally has been working together since late 2022 to co-create a campaign that will amplify local solutions for peace. The Campaign is being fully designed and steered by the team of peacebuilders, with Peace Direct acting as Secretariat to provide the space and resources needed.

Paige adds, “It is really about ensuring that we are grounded in the perspectives of local populations – and there isn’t just one. In this sector, we all need to recognise the diversity of perspectives here and learn how to meaningfully engage with them.”

Looking inward

Decolonising peacebuilding requires us to decolonise Peace Direct. Our organisation was created twenty years ago in the established structures of this system, and it is crucial that we continue to assess how we may have reinforced the existing axes of power.

Our internal Decolonising Systems Working Group meets regularly to evaluate how to decolonise our strategy and operations, and to ensure that decolonisation is the framework and narrative embedded in every aspect of our work. This is an ongoing effort, and there is much work we still need to do.

As Dimitri Kotsiras, Research Manager at Peace Direct and a member of our Decolonising Systems Working Group, says, “we’re trying to learn and unlearn across the board.”

In practical terms, our research initiatives are increasingly locally led and designed, with Peace Direct’s Research team taking a convening, facilitating role. As we’ve worked on the upcoming partnerships guide, we’ve also reflected on and changed practices in our own partnerships with local peacebuilders.

And the Fundraising and Communications team has led sustained, meaningful change on how Peace Direct talks about our partners, and what images and language we use across the organisation. As part of that, we’re actively exploring opportunities to co-create campaigns and communications with local peacebuilders.

Paige highlights that not all of this work was led by the leadership team. In fact, some of the changes we needed to make have been driven at lower organisational levels through cross-team conversations. In that vein, she encourages individuals to take action themselves to drive change forward:

“The impetus to change can’t only rest within leadership – including in organisations. We’ve shown that you can be creative and innovative to decolonise on a day-to-day basis, in ways the senior leadership might not see. But that doesn’t mean they won’t support it when you show them what’s needed. I encourage everyone to reflect on what are the small changes you can do. Everyone has the potential to be an agent for decolonisation.”