Peace Direct: applying a “local first” approach to conflict resolution

This is part of a series on highlighting innovations and possibilities for action for the famine in Somalia. Most news stories frame the famine and political conflict as near unsolvable; we’re examining the on-the-ground measures that can help – from the large scale and political to the local and preventative.

The term “failed state” is often used in discussions around Somalia’s political and humanitarian crisis. Simply put, the government doesn’t control the country; in most areas the Islamist Al-Shabaab militia rules with force. The conflict has been longstanding — since 1991, Somalia has been without an effective central government and rival warlords within the militant factions have caused constant bloodshed over the years. Now, a severe drought and resulting famine have added a humanitarian crisis to a nation already suffering.

Peace Direct is an organization based in the UK that approaches conflict resolution in areas with frayed central governments, like Somalia, with an innovative approach they call “local first.” They use their outsider status to support organizations already working in conflict zones by helping them obtain funding and creating networks of support for them. Here Carolyn Hayman, Peace Direct’s CEO, talks with Dowser about the organization’s tactics, how they might apply to the Somali situation, why international conflict resolution should adopt the local first paradigm, and, on a timely and related note, what can be learned from the recent London riots.

RS: What’s innovative about your approach to conflict resolution?
Hayman: The dominant model of funding in the development and peace-building world is that the donor decides what is needed, and an NGO makes an agenda, and then they find a local organization to do what the donor has conceived of being necessary. We work the other way around –we’re totally led by the vision of our partner organizations.

Our skill has been taking organizations that are full of promise, when they’re still at a young stage, and finding the right kind of resources to enable them to do whatever it is they want to do. We then showcase what they’re doing to people in power, people with money. Our organizations often come up with ideas that are much more radical than an international donor would conceive of – and much more appropriate.

Can you give an example?
In Zimbabwe the organization we’re supporting is doing nonviolent conflict transformation with different parts of the Zimbabwe security sector. That’s not something that seems particularly feasible, but building on relationships they had going way back, they are able to do this.

How do you find your partners?
It’s different in different cases. We’ve relied on relationships through a network called Action – people who have trained together to respond to conflict. We’ve also found them through ourInsight on Conflict website, which has listings of over 550 peace orgs in 20 different conflict areas.

What is a “Peace Exchange”?
We have had three, in Nairobi, London, and Kampala. These are a mixture of organizations sharing their experiences with each other – probably the most valuable thing because they see they are facing similar problems – and we also did workshops with local media about how to tell a story how to take good photographs. And there was a third element: in London, the organizations in attendance met people from different governments and donors. We’ve done one Peace Exchange in the Congo with 20 organizations and we’re hoping to do one in Pakistan next spring.

How do you measure the impact of your work?
There are short, medium and long-term ways. Short term, we ask our partners to talk to the people they are working with about what those people would see as a success. For example in the Congo, someone building a house and getting married and not using black magic – staying immobilized –is a sign of a successful reintegration process.

Medium, we look at the extent to which we’ve been successful in rearing the organization and reducing their dependence on us – their ability to win grants and funding from people besides us.

And long-term, we’re looking to see a radical shift toward what we call ‘local first’ in the international community, which is before you introduce an outsider to do a job you should see if a local org can do it. This is beginning to become widely accepted – [US Army] General Petraeus said that in the case of Iraq this should be happening.

What is most challenging in your work?
Finding the right kinds of funding for each partner at each stage of their development. We’re working with nine partners at any given time and each one of them might want something very small and quick, that requires 10,000 dollars in the next month, or they might want something much bigger. Government organizations like USAID tend to get very close to other governments and give their money to them, instead of civil society – in our opinion this is money wasted. Government needs to create a social contract with organizations and if they’re getting half their money from outside aid, it limits their need to create that social contract through taxing the population and creating government accountability.

How do you see your organization’s work as a potential solution to what’s happening in Somalia?
In Somalia organizations are working on a practical, day to bay basis, like Save Somali Women and Children, which is mainly based in Nairobi and Mogadishu, and is giving women packets of things they need in the camps. There’s lots of talk about not getting the aid in, but I think much more use can be made of organizations in Somalia to do this. If we looked at local capacity first, we wouldn’t have this chaos – of loads of different international organizations tripping over each other.

The West went wrong in not backing a local solution in Somalia in 2006. In 2006 Mogadishu was really peaceful – it was one of the most peaceful during the Ramadan festival – because the Islamic courts union had managed to build a consensus around a particular form of decentralized govt. and though it was Islamic it was a mild form of govt. But the Western governments were not prepared to see Somalia with an Islamic government so the UN Security Council made a resolution that authorized external involvement in Somalia – through the Ethiopian army involving.

Then, in 2007, Somalia had the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet, according to the UN. Nobody has taken responsibility – we talk about it being a failed state but actually, it didn’t have to be. Somalia achieved a peace agreement in the 1990s and that’s because the international community was not involved, we stepped back. The Somali government had to make business deals with different clans in order to survive – and this made it more legitimate.

That’s not to say there isn’t a role for outsiders. But if you don’t make space for local people to do what they do best, you won’t get peace.

Your website has an interesting piece about the recent youth violence in London. What do you think we can learn from the London riots?
I think the London riots were a combination of a number of different things. The parts of society you might look to for moral leadership have been found wanting in the recent past. Bankers have no concern for wider society, politicians were exploiting their power, newspapers have been illegally hacking other peoples’ phones with some degree of collusion from the police, and the Catholic Church has had scandals and covered them up – so if you’re a youth, why should you behave well when everyone else isn’t?

Also I think we’re in an intensely consumerist society, and if you don’t have the money, if there’s an opportunity to take those goods, some people will take it. And the cuts that we’ve had have born particularly harshly on young people – the unemployment situation has been particularly bad. And we’ve got this divided society – income polarization has really accelerated. Evidence suggests a very strong correlation between social ills like crime and income inequality.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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