Without face-to-face meetings, what does peace building look like during COVID-19?

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Peace-building organizations in fragile countries are now using radio and various social media platforms as alternatives to in-person meetings. Photo by: CH Claudio Schwarz / @purzlbaum on Unsplash

NEW YORK — As COVID-19 cases continue to climb in many regions worldwide, some fragile countries face ongoing conflict at the same time.

Civil society organizations and networks in conflict countries such as Afghanistan and Yemen are getting creative with their advocacy efforts, finding new ways to appeal directly to warring parties and press for peace.

“Where programs have been able to continue and where social-distancing measures are in place, peace building is harder to do. There is a lot of interest in finding out what alternatives work where you cannot gather people together. Are there opportunities online?” said Lisa Inks, senior peace and conflict adviser at Mercy Corps. “What digital platforms exist for connecting people, and what cannot be replaced by meeting in person?”

Latin America sees largest decline in peacefulness as COVID-19 poses further threat

South America is the region of the world where peace deteriorated most last year, according to the "Global Peace Index 2020" report.

The Peace Track Initiative, a coalition of more than 250 Yemeni women within and outside of the country, is one local organization that has continued its peace-building efforts during the pandemic. It now conducts most of its work through WhatsApp and other digital platforms, according to founder Rasha Jarhum.

The initiative is using Twitter to track cease-fire negotiations and the peace process in Yemen and has engaged in online consultations with the United Nations. Jarhum is doubtful that online meetings can adequately substitute for standard in-person, two-day consultations, she told Devex.

“You're confronting new and really new barriers to getting information and to sharing information and being able to report on what's happening on the ground.”

— Anna Tonelli, inclusive peace and security senior policy adviser, Oxfam International

“It feels more like tick-box exercises than real consultations,” Jarhum said of the U.N. meetings. “I am not so happy with the inclusion mechanisms that are currently happening, but I understand that it is time to test these methodologies because of the situation.”

“There is not a lot of work happening. To see what the peace agreements were and what is done in Yemen, there has been zero implementation,” Jarhum continued.

The pandemic and resulting shutdowns have exacerbated conflict dynamics and interrupted peace processes, according to a report by international peace-building organizations Peace Direct, Humanity United, and Conducive Space for Peace. Peace-building dialogues and programs have been canceled in South Sudan, Somalia, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the findings show.

“The conflict dynamics are just speeding up — they are accelerating. While health and humanitarian work are very important, you have to make sure you are dealing with drivers of conflict,” said Bridget Moix, U.S. executive director of Peace Direct, which recently announced a grant-making program for local civil society groups to access digital tools.

“COVID is just something else that is layered on top of a conflict-affected and fragile state. We have to remember not to put everything else on hold,” Moix said.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly called for a global cease-fire during the COVID-19 pandemic. But efforts to successfully encourage such a cease-fire at the U.N. Security Council and within fragile countries have been a “catastrophic failure,” Oxfam International said in a press release for its report “Conflict in the Time of Coronavirus,” which was issued in May.

The Security Council has not been able to reach an agreement on a formal resolution for a cease-fire, and some observers have noted that calls for council action have recently lost momentum.

A number of conflict parties have agreed to a cease-fire in countries such as Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Yemen, and South Sudan. But the acceptance and implementation of cease-fire deals have been piecemeal and not widespread enough to bring actual peace.

“The only thing that has been missing from pushing the parties to an agreement is a concerted international push, because these are parties that can command and control their forces,” said Scott Paul, who leads Oxfam America’s policy advocacy on humanitarian affairs. “I was hopeful that a big international push like a global cease-fire, if it had the support of major global powers, could inject a kind of energy that the peace process needs. But we haven't quite got there yet.”

Adapting to social distancing

Poor internet connectivity is among the challenges that the global health crisis and lockdown orders have exacerbated for civil society organizers in conflict settings, experts told Devex.

“We interviewed a number of our partners and other women's rights activists. And even that process we had to adapt because there was social distancing already in place. And so instead of in-person interactions, you're having phone calls and with network challenges or access to electricity,” said Anna Tonelli, inclusive peace and security senior policy adviser at Oxfam.

“You're confronting new and really new barriers to getting information and to sharing information and being able to report on what's happening on the ground,” Tonelli continued.

In Afghanistan, Oxfam has been conducting radio roundtables with health officials and women’s rights activists to reach remote communities, which mostly lack access to the internet. Oxfam and local partners are also using Facebook and other social media platforms to connect people in cities.

“There are some meetings still happening, but mostly not face to face. The good thing is that the efforts are there. The networks are working virtually and probably two, three, four people come together also in person. But the effort is ongoing,” said Fazal Amiri, senior program manager of Oxfam’s Afghanistan office.

Mercy Corps has been using radio to communicate with people in places like northeastern Nigeria, as well as internal communications platforms that can operate offline — such as telephone hotlines that people can call to ask questions or voice concerns.

But over the last two weeks, Mercy Corps programming in countries such as Ethiopia has begun to resume to normal levels, even as new COVID-19 cases continue to rise. It will take time to assess how the pandemic has influenced violence as a result of conflict, said Emma Whitaker, a peace and conflict adviser at Mercy Corps.

“It is too early to see how that will unfold over time and the way governments and communities respond to the needs of communities,” Whitaker said.

“Peace and conflict was not initially at the forefront of COVID responses, being a health epidemic, so that is something we have pushed for. This is going to have an impact way beyond health, and we need to be aware of that,” Whitaker added.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.