COVID-19 Recovery Must Include Peacebuilding

by Bekah Sears

In the rainy and remote Department of Chocó, on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, communities have been grappling with the devastating impacts of COVID-19. Chocó already had high rates of poverty and food insecurity, not to mention regular flooding that impacts crops. It is also one of the regions in Colombia hit hardest by the armed conflict, resulting in high levels of forced displacement and a complex web of armed state and non-state actors controlling much of the economic flow.

MCC service worker Giles Eanes (left) and Rutilio Rivas, director of MCC partner Weaving Hope Agricultural Foundation (FAGROTES/Fundacin Agropecuaria Tejiendo Esperanza), demonstrate the method used in Choco, Colombia for harvesting rice by hand during a visit to Luis Norberto Mosquera’s farm in March 2018. (Photo courtesy of Growing Hope Globally/Alex Morse)

The Colombian government has historically either ignored these “peripheral” regions of the country or responded with militarization. On top of this, COVID-19 has taken significant tolls on health, development, social cohesion and well-being in Chocó.

But, on the ground, the local Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church is responding, as they have for decades, through adaptive and strategic responses. They are providing humanitarian relief, continuing with development projects, and skillfully monitoring and responding to threats of violence and conflict, through peacebuilding and psycho-social support efforts.

Approximately fifty beneficiaries from six communities in the San Juan region in Colombia meet with representatives from the agricultural foundation of the Mennonite Brethren Church of Chocó, MCC and Foods Resource Bank to share experiences and reflect on challenges and hopes related to growing cacao in a complex context. (Photo courtesy of Mennonite Brethren Church of Chocó , 2015)

There is no doubt that, as in Chocó, COVID-19 has taken a significant toll on development work around the world. In conversation with MCC partners, we’ve heard how the current crisis has eroded access to key determinants of well-being, such as food security, education, social cohesion, and many more. The impacts are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable.

COVID-19 has also greatly exacerbated and created new humanitarian crises, raising tensions, especially in already corrupt or fragile and conflict-affected states. And as always, local organizations are responding to these complex issues.

The Canadian Government studies and responds to the impacts of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable

This is what members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (FAAE) have been hearing in their ongoing study, Vulnerabilities Created and Exacerbated by the COVID-19 Pandemic. This four-pronged study, which started last fall and has brought  in multiple Canadian NGOs and individual experts, is examining the global impacts of COVID-19 on humanitarian conditions, human rights, specific impacts on children, and development financing.  

In February 2021, the FAAE tabled their first of four reports on the humanitarian impacts, entitled The Humanitarian Burden: Ensuring a global response and reaching the most vulnerable. And the government responded in June 2021, with general support for many of the recommendations.

In defining the most vulnerable, much of this first report focuses on fragile and conflict-affected states and contexts. This is a framing often used by global development and humanitarian actors, as a way to promote responses that anticipate conflict and work to address its root causes, often exacerbated by shocks to the system such as COVID-19. This is a very important way to define vulnerability, as violent conflict will almost always further exacerbate issues like food insecurity, lack of access to education and general well-being, and vice versa.

This first FAAE report includes several excellent recommendations

  • designing and carrying out a long-term coordinated and comprehensive approach globally,
  • committing to a greater proportion of funding to locally-led organizations, and
  • widening funding appeals and opportunities to a diverse range of Canadian NGOs.

However, there was one major element missing in this report: peacebuilding

Defining and Implementing Peacebuilding across all sectors

In Canada, peace responses are most often grouped together with security and militarized responses, such as United Nations Peacekeeping and/or joint military operations.

However, efforts to build sustainable peace need not be tied to political, and specifically security and military actions. Peacebuilding efforts are a diverse set of actions that proactively seek to both understand and respond to the local social, political and economic context – so as to do no further harm, address the roots of conflict, and build toward sustainable peace.

Long-time peacebuilder John Paul Lederach defines peacebuilding as “an array of processes, approaches, and stages needed to transform conflict toward more sustainable, peaceful relationships.”

This is what makes peacebuilding an essential element in humanitarian and development responses. The combination is also known as the Triple Nexus – especially referring to fragile and conflict-affected states.

The leadership of local organizations in these efforts is an essential part of this equation. Local organizations generally have the most in-depth understanding of the complex dynamics and needs of the communities where they live and work: something that the FAAE recognized as well in their recommendations.

Back to Chocó

Years ago, when the local MB Church was hearing and witnessing significant struggles within communities, on both food security and the impacts of illicit crop and externally-driven mining projects fueling the armed conflict, they proposed a new project: Strengthening Food Production and Value Chains in Chocó. Along the San Juan River, the local MB Church denomination built a rice processing plant – the only one in the region – and a nursery for cacao plants that can be processed to make chocolate.

Luis Norberto Mosquera dries cacao seeds on his farm in the Lower San Juan region of Choc, Colombia in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Growing Hope Globally/Alex Morse)

Their goal: to help families grow legal crops and maintain a greater distance from the complex network of armed groups fueling the conflict, all while being able to support their families with food and an income. Amongst restrictions in the pandemic, the MB Church also began processing and selling the chocolate directly, to keep the project running. This project is peacebuilding through development and humanitarian interventions.

However, the situation remains critical in Chocó and in Colombia as a whole, and around the world. COVID-19 has in no way slowed or stalled rising violence in Colombia, particularly against community leaders and human rights defenders. International organizations cannot access many of these areas due to restrictions and the spread of COVID-19. Many local governments are overwhelmed with other needs.

Dora Alicia Murillo Reyes is holding rice that was harvested by hand, a method commonly used in Chocó , Colombia in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Growing Hope Globally/Alex Morse)

By using their deep roots in the community and local expertise, the local MB Church continues to advocate for positive, non-military state presence, deliver essential humanitarian aid across a wide and remote grouping of communities, and provide psycho-social support. Through these actions, they continue the work for sustainable peace.

The global recovery from COVID-19 will be a long and slow road that will extend well beyond addressing the health impacts of the pandemic. A global response and recovery will have to address the crippling aftershocks and spreading impacts on the state of development, humanitarian situations and long-term peace. Such complex and intertwining issues require a long-term comprehensive response. This includes innovations in development and humanitarian interventions, as well as peace and peacebuilding efforts, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world.

What can you do?

Bekah Sears is the Policy Analyst and Government Relations Specialist for the MCC Canada Peace & Justice Office


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