COVID-19 Is a Window of Opportunity For Peacebuilding – Use It!

29 April 2020   ·   Nadine Ansorg, Julia Strasheim

In the past, shocks comparable to COVID-19 have created windows of opportunity for local and international stakeholders. The German government should seize this chance by investing in online communication for ongoing peace negotiations, increasing incentives for inclusive politics, supporting information campaigns on the virus, and dedicating funding to women entrepreneurs.

The current pandemic indisputably represents an unprecedented challenge to public health, global order, and the world economy. But it is not certain that it will have exclusively negative consequences for peacebuilding in post-conflict societies. 

In the past, similar shocks created windows of opportunity that have helped local and international stakeholders achieve core peacebuilding objectives: recent examples are the 2014 and 2019 Ebola crises in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, and the DR Congo, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.

Decision-makers in German foreign, security, and development policy can take advantage of this potential during and after the pandemic in four ways:  

1. Invest in Peacebuilding Efforts, Support (Online) Communication, and Provide Information

The common myth that the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami helped stop the 29-year war in Aceh, Indonesia, fuels similar hopes that COVID-19 will “silence the guns” and bring new momentum for brokering ceasefires around the world. Initial news from Yemen supported these hopes, when the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels declared a ceasefire to help contain the virus.

But what the 2004 tsunami in Aceh demonstrated, is that shocks alone do not lead to conflict resolution. Instead, they help end wars if conditions are ‘ripe’ and mutually hurting stalemates exist, meaning that neither side to the war sees an opportunity for outright victory and winning is too costly for either side. Rebels in Aceh were already looking for an exit when the tsunami hit. This is not the case with all of the ceasefires declared during the pandemic and some, such as the one in Ukraine, have already been breached.

But policymakers can help create the conditions that make conflicts ripe for resolution. Now is the time to invest in, rather than postpone, peacebuilding efforts. One way to do this is to make sure that ongoing peace talks do not collapse. The German government, in liaison with other third-party actors, can support communications between conflict actors, for example in Ukraine, Cameroon, or Afghanistan. This could be done using video-conferences – a mechanism the EU is supporting in the Sudan peace talks – whilst focusing on easy-to-achieve technical issues. This could even provide new opportunities for peace negotiations, such as including actors previously unwilling or unable to travel physically to join these talks. However, to ensure that digital divides between those actors with and without internet connections do not prevent some actors from joining negotiations, policymakers should “put the last first” and develop initiatives to leave no one behind, for example by blending digital and non-digital forms of communication as soon as the pandemic allows for it.

Germany can also use its existing resources to provide information to conflict elites, help document the virus in conflict areas, and share analyses on how to contain the spread of the virus. Moreover, conflict parties may be incentivized to collaborate once they are convinced that the current health crisis needs more urgent resolution than the conflict itself. Syria could be an example here.

2. Make Future Economic Support Conditional on the Inclusion of Minority Groups

Societal shocks demand swift, decisive crisis management. This can help create previously inconceivable consensus among longtime rivals. In Nepal, the 2015 earthquake helped unite the former warring parties as they realized the need to focus on reconstruction. What had been a major goal in the peace processes but failed to materialize in the nine years before the earthquake, was achieved within months: a new constitution.

But in the process parties also overruled minority concerns for the sake of fast-track decisions, which led to new violence. Last week, Human Rights Watch called on the Nepalese government not to repeat these failings in dealing with COVID-19.

With sustainable solutions to peace processes in mind, German policymakers should reject the argument that inclusion makes compromise more difficult to achieve – now more than ever. The German government could increase incentives for including minority groups, for example by making future economic support programs conditional on the protection of endangered Muslim minorities, as was done in Myanmar. A holistic approach towards health, economic, and development policies could provide a more stable way forward for peace in such highly fragile environments.  

3. Seek the Help of Country Experts, Support Local Information Campaigns

The 2014 Ebola outbreak showed that containing health crises is difficult if citizens distrust their government or international donors due to past experiences with colonialism and/or state-sponsored violence. Kenya’s response to COVID-19 has already been called “straight out of the colonial playbook” and security forces in Uganda and South Africa have been accused of resorting to violence in enforcing lockdowns. The international community's slow response to the Ebola crisis might also have impeded building trust among citizens in Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Côte d’Ivoire.

Any attempts in managing the pandemic must thus take the sociocultural needs and histories of communities into account. This means that the German government can only mount effective responses to the virus in post-conflict states if it listens to country experts in the process and develops hyper-contextualized responses to local demands.

The experiences from Sierra Leone and Liberia – where the lack of information on the Ebola disease was particularly problematic in remote communities – show furthermore that widespread information campaigns conducted with the help of local interlocutors are vital to mitigate mistrust in state actors. The German government could support local information campaigns and promote the establishment of online tools to track health- and disaster-related data. It could support localized responses, especially in remote areas in countries such as the DR Congo or Mali, where the reach of the state continues to be limited. Such online trackers could then also be used to protect civilians in the case of a renewed outbreak of violence.

4. Dedicate Funding to the Empowerment of Women Who are First Responders

Recent analyses on the pandemic have often focused on how it can increase violence against women and girls. We saw this after the tsunami in Aceh, the earthquake in Nepal, and during the Ebola outbreak.

But these cases also show that women are not only potential victims, but also powerful agents in the aftermath of societal shocks, who can play pivotal roles in building trust in marginalized communities. During the pandemic, many frontline health workers tend to be women. In their work as nurses, care workers, or cleaners they can act as multipliers of information and knowledge about the disease.

This potential cannot stay untapped, and German policymakers should dedicate funding to the empowerment of women as confidants and entrepreneurs. Existing programs such as the ones in Togo, Ghana, or Rwanda that train and support women, or completed projects aimed at improving career opportunities for women in the health sector in Liberia need to be further supported. These programs create conditions that allow women to design tailor-made solutions for the health needs of local communities.   

During this time of crisis, it is important not to stall peacebuilding efforts, but to turn the crisis into an opportunity for finding tangible solutions for violent conflicts worldwide.

Frauen Frieden & Sicherheit COVID-19

Nadine Ansorg

Dr Nadine Ansorg is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent, UK, and Research Associate at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg, Germany. @nadine_ansorg

Julia Strasheim

Dr Julia Strasheim is Deputy Managing Director and Program Director for European and International Politics at the Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung, as well as Research Associate at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg, Germany. @juliastrasheim