WASHINGTON — Countries suffering from conflict must not be neglected during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Habib Mayar, deputy secretary-general of the g7+, an organization of fragile and conflict-affected states.
“Lockdowns or closures of borders or airports have created social and economic challenges for these countries where people mostly live in a hand-to-mouth situation,” Mayar said. “The institutions are fragile. They don’t have the capacity to respond to their needs — economic, social, or even health needs. If the situation persists, it might affect the current peace-building initiatives or the transition.”
Almost 1,000 civilians were killed in 2019 by local militias and fighters linked to Islamic militants in the country. Some aid groups say that officially defining the situation as an armed conflict would make it easier to operate.
The g7+ was established in 2010 in East Timor, growing out of conversations around aid effectiveness and challenges that conflict-affected countries had in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Mayar said that although the original seven countries were from different regions all over the world, they identified commonalities and realized they could all benefit from sharing their experiences.
“The underlying reason or cause for not achieving the MDGs was the lack of peace. We realized that unless you have peace, you cannot either achieve development or, even if you achieve it, you cannot sustain those gains,” Mayar said.
In 2011, the g7+ countries signed the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States with development partners and civil society, recognizing the nexus between peace and development. The g7+ was formalized in 2014, and in 2019 it achieved observer status at the United Nations. The group focuses on what it calls “fragile-to-fragile cooperation” in areas of peace- and state-building and on advocating in the global arena for the needs of fragile states.
Mayar spoke with Devex about what both g7+ national governments and the international community must be doing in the context of the pandemic to prevent disruption to peace processes and exacerbation of ongoing conflict.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What challenges does the COVID-19 pandemic pose to peace efforts around the world?
These countries are going to be affected badly by the consequences of the pandemic itself and also the countermeasures. Most of these countries are in important transition points of peace-building and state-building. The countermeasures have unintentionally created a situation where people will be forced into more hardship and important processes at the national level, like peace-building, will be hampered. The countermeasures will cause a crisis in many countries.
Those already in conflict might see even greater challenges, because the pandemic has created [an] economic downturn in these countries, with aid expected to be reduced. While we are also hoping that this is an opportunity for peace or maybe this an opportunity for a cease-fire, we don’t see, in most of these conflict affected countries, a promising sign of reduction in violence.
As we see that the overall global focus of the U.N. and also the multilaterals will be on tackling the pandemic. We are hearing that resources in aid which were dedicated or committed to these countries might be restricted or might be diverted because of the global need [and] expected economic downturn. Most of these countries are dependent on aid.
What can national governments be doing to mitigate these negative effects?
Some countries — particularly in the g7+, like the West African countries which were affected by Ebola — they have a precedent of this kind of crisis there, and they might be better equipped with some tools. But those countries for which it didn’t have any precedent, the priority for them is to manage their meager resources and respond to the direct threats of COVID-19 in terms of providing health care to their people.
But that’s not the only thing they’re struggling with. They’re also struggling with trying to fill the bridge of mistrust between the society and the government or the institution. That's also directly related to maintaining stability. People might lose their trust in the institutions, which is already very low, and that’s one reason for the conflict. These countries are trying to fill that gap, to make people trust their institutions.
What about countries that are actively at war?
Those countries which are affected by conflict, which have an active conflict or war — the governments are and they should prioritize a cease-fire. But this is not something that only the government can do; it should be something from both sides, from all actors, including the international community.
“We realized that unless you have peace, you cannot either achieve development or, even if you achieve it, you cannot sustain those gains.”— Habib Mayar, deputy secretary-general, g7+
That’s why we welcome the call by the U.N. secretary-general for the cease-fire. That’s the most important priority for those countries which are in active conflict so that they can focus on curbing the pandemic rather than dealing with the insurgency or the civil war or the other conflict that has erupted.
It will be challenging for those countries which don’t have a lot of their own resources and they depend on international aid or humanitarian assistance. The governments and the leaders have to be critical in thinking about self-sufficiency, particularly in agriculture — for example, in food production. Unfortunately, we sometimes just advocate for more aid and more assistance and more cooperation — which is, of course, needed — but we forget the fact that we need to think about our self-reliance.
How should international donors be incorporating conflict sensitivity into pandemic response?
We have put forward four asks, and one of them is debt relief for these countries. The second thing is there is an opportunity for the international community to consider or to think again about the things they agreed in the New Deal.
This is a time to take it seriously, which means that they have to take the national context into consideration. For a long time, we have been suffering from phenomena where solutions are designed outside our countries and they are just imported or imposed on them, which rarely work.
One of the things that we’ve learned in this pandemic is the measures that might work in Europe might not work in these countries. This means that they have to contextualize the responses to the country.
We have tools of national assessments which can inform the global response. It can inform engagement. It would mean they have to respect the national ownership — for them to trust the national leadership of these countries because they are the ones who know better how to deal with their own challenges. When I'm talking about this, I mean the humanitarian and also the development engagement with these countries.
We have to use the lens of conflict sensitivity for engaging in these countries. Despite the fact that there will be [a] downturn in the global economy and we might also experience a global recession, we expect that international aid commitment is maintained to help these countries.
We already saw the refugee crisis which affected the whole world. We saw the threats of terrorism and extremism. These challenges are no more the challenges of conflict-affected countries. We believe that stability in these countries is essential for global prosperity and global peace.