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Philanthropy and Conflict Transformation

November 13, 2017

Conflict_transformationCarnage on the streets of New York, London, and Paris has taught us that anyone can be affected by violent conflict. In an interconnected world, borders mean little and war spreads easily. Such attacks, where anyone can become a victim, have their roots in deeper social problems.

Violent conflict brings death, lost homes, displaced persons, and spoiled lives. It costs money, too. The Global Peace Index estimates the 2017 cost of violence across the world at $14.3 trillion (or 12.6 percent of global GDP).

The response of philanthropy to these problems has historically been modest. According to the Peace and Security Funding Index, 290 U.S. foundations gave $357 million in 2014 (the latest date for which figures are available). The mismatch between the scale of the problem and the size of resources stimulated discussion at a workshop organized by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), Foundation Center, and Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (DAFNE) on October 30. Some forty-five funders, peace organizations, NGOs, and think tanks concluded that there was a need to learn from each other and to join up the field.

Jean Marc Rickli from GCSP gave a lightning tour of recent conflicts across the world. A few high-intensity armed conflicts are causing large numbers of civilian casualties. Elsewhere, progress promoting peace and justice, together with effective, accountable and inclusive institutions, remains uneven across and within regions. Over the past thirty years, the face of violent conflict has changed markedly. Rather than standoffs between states, conflict is more likely to be based on asymmetrical power relations. Conflicts have become more scattered over a wider area and are driven by nationalism or differences in ideology.

Celia McKeon, from Rethinking Security, identified the drivers of modern conflict: social and political marginalization, inequality, climate change, competition for resources, racism, nationalism, hyper-masculinity, and growing militarization. In studying strategies for national security, she found a reliance on elite-level dialogue, a focus on short-term matters, and unrealistic time frames for post-conflict recovery. Much less attention is paid to preventive work and root causes and support for actors on the ground. Alex Bryden from the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces (DCAF) echoed these comments, suggesting that security policy was often muddled in suggesting, for example, that more private security is a good thing. The failure to address these factors demonstrates the weakness of global governance and the widespread failure of institutional solutions to peacebuilding.

In the light of the complexity of the issues and the risks entailed, it is perhaps not surprising that many philanthropies find the issue of conflict difficult to engage with. However, as Larry McGill from  Foundation Center observed, the experience of the Peace and Security Funders Group demonstrates that there is much scope for constructive engagement and described a wealth of different interventions in twenty-three different issue areas — from building coalitions to training journalists. Avila Kilmurray, drawing on her work with the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and Foundations for Peace, and citing her recent study for Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace (PSJP), pointed out that grantmaking in divided societies is different because efforts can be undermined by a bomb going off at any time. Both small and large grants are important, though a small unrestricted grant that allows freedom to spend money in a variety of ways is often better than large grants tied to restricted programmatic goals. There is a key role in research and development for foundations — trying out things that might work and sticking with issues over the long haul. A key task is working with communities that are affected by violence and engaging them in the solutions.

In afternoon workshops, participants explored the challenges facing NGOs and funders working in conflict prevention and resolution. They highlighted the need for a thorough understanding of the context and the causes of the conflict; clarity of purpose and the building of trust between donors and project implementers underpinned by alignment of mission; a preparedness to take risks; and a commitment to a scale and duration appropriate to the conflict and its resolution.

The conclusion of the workshop was that the field needs new energy and thinking. In her summing up, Lauren Bradford from Foundation Center noted that while lots of things are happening in different spaces, the field should be brought together in a way that would yield an ecosystem supportive of the skills, knowledge, and expertise of different actors. A useful vehicle for doing this is SDG 16, whose goal is to "promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels."

There was widespread agreement on the need for a follow-up meeting focused on strengthening connections. A useful place to start this process would be at the annual meeting of the Peace and Security Funders Group due to take place in Minneapolis in May 2018.

Barry Knight bio picBarry Knight oversees the work of the Webb Memorial Trust, supports Foundations for Peace, and works with the Global Fund for Community Foundations, the Arab Reform Initiative, WINGS, and the European Foundation Centre. He is also co-chair of the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace and has previously advised the Ford Foundation and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The author or editor of fourteen books on poverty, civil society, community development, and democracy, Knight recently published Rethinking Poverty. What Makes a Good Society?

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