How to Choose a Dance Partner

Local peacebuilding, engaging with local people, ensuring you take account of local context –all are mantras in development aid theory, all the more so when donors and international organisations are working in conflict countries. So why do international efforts in these countries so infrequently turn fully into real collaboration between international actors and local people, the sort of collaboration described in the interviews in ‘Insight on Peacebuilding’? The answers lie in these interviews.

  • It’s hard work finding suitable partners in such confused and chaotic situations. Suitable that is, in terms of the requirements laid down by donor governments, the rules of international organisations, and NGO Boards of Trustees, to meet stringent Western standards of financial propriety and project management.
  • The ‘capacity’ in country seems weak and doesn’t work in the ways we are used to or want to impose.
  • It can take a long time to get the necessary impetus in a country where day to day life is shattered and trust between different groups is limited. But time is critical to spend donor money in the timeframes dictated by donor budget processes and Ministerial interest.
I understand these problems. I’ve been the bureaucrat pressing for proper procedures to be applied in these circumstances. So I don’t want to dismiss the pressures on those who go into complex post conflict situations to try to help. Working in a meaningful way with local people seems risky and makes everything even more complicated. It’s safer – some might say easier in these difficult environments - to bring in more international personnel, or use local people to deliver projects developed mainly by donors, international agencies, and the World Bank. While efforts are made to engage local people they often feel decisions are made for other reasons and by everyone except the people who have to live with the consequences and try to hold peace together when the outsiders have gone home.

This first edition of Insight on Peacebuilding shows that proper engagement with local people can be done, at a very basic level on a small scale, but also on a bigger scale over a longer period of time, by donor governments, NGOs and other bodies. It can be effective and is increasingly seen as essential to longer term success. The perspectives also show that in a range of different countries separated by many miles and great differences in culture, there are similar issues to think about when seeking such fundamental engagement with local people:

Who are the people to work with and how can they be found?

If projects are to succeed in polarised and divided post conflict societies they need to be led by local people who are respected and listened to by all sides, who carry weight with opinion formers and officials, both governmental and international. Perhaps the key requirements are that they must have a deep felt motivation to rebuild peace, whatever their original agenda, and a genuinely altruistic approach – they need to be in the process for the greater good, not just their own profile. A major local figurehead who is trusted by many will help the work succeed and also give the external partner a person to use as a trusted adviser to help decide who else might be effective collaborators.

It can take time – be ready sometimes for a long haul.

Some of these perspectives show that it can take some years for this work to be successful. It can take months even for an external partner to find the right local partners. Getting together a critical mass of people willing to stand up to those who are content to see conflict resume takes time. It can involve training and support which takes time. It needs to build trust again between communities, a difficult and prolonged task, but essential as the foundation for a longer term peace. So organisations engaged in this work need to be patient and willing to explain to their governments and Boards why this longer engagement is needed.

The process is often as important as the outcome.

It’s hard to explain to donors from target driven (Western) cultures that such work does not always have specific and concrete outcomes. But it is clear that unexpected results can come from the slow building of new or mended relationships across different components of society and a habit of cooperation. It makes sense in psychological terms of course – relationships come from frequent contact on a common agenda.

Be willing to take unexpected opportunities, to be flexible and to take risks.

All the studies show that the external partner has to be flexible in their approach to meet theemerging ideas from local people, whether by funding work on mosques as well as schools and hospitals, or by renovating army barracks to shore up a general who is trying to maintain peace, or by accepting a nominee to work with who didn’t meet your original criteria but who comes recommended by local networks. Risk taking might also include funding risk, where it might be better to disburse small funds to lots of local groups knowing that some will fail in the next few years, rather than waiting to find out which survive, and then losing opportunities to begin to work locally.

Look hard at your own systems and local ones.

Common ground is found throughout the personal experiences in Insight on Peacebuilding about the need to deliver projects under satisfactory controls, and this must be right. It may mean helping to build the financial and other management systems of local partners, so external partners need to take account of this right at the beginning in setting budgets and timelines. But they might also want to look at their own systems to make sure they are not overly demanding in the standards set. The relative, and usually small amount of the spend might allow greater risk to be taken if urgent demands show that the possible gain is significant for shoring up peace. In the wider arena, use of local systems for making connections or delivering action across the community has proved very useful, including in the use of village meetings (shura) in Afghanistan or traditional local systems of justice in Rwanda.

Finally, a message which comes through from these personal experiences and many others:

Seek to work with your local partners as collaborators, on an equal footing, and with humility.

All external support to a country recovering from conflict needs to be given in the knowledge that those local people who want to rebuild their country and keep it peaceful face enormous pressures. There are risks to their own lives and those of their loved ones and local people are often dealing with loss on a scale we can’t quite come to grips with.

As a former colleague of mine who has worked in several such countries says, “what they need from the international community is respect not arrogance, support not pity, and for their views and ideas to be acted on, not pushed aside because we know better.” And external partners need to develop a habit of working with local partners on all that they do.