Belfast celebrates a peace process by posing questions to Philanthropy


Avila Kilmurray


Reflecting on discussions held in Belfast, framed by the question ‘Countering Violent Conflict and Polarisation: How Can Donors Help?’ Melanie Greenberg (Humanity United) praised the event – ‘I think it was for creative imagination, moral support, celebration, but also for some serious reflection.’ 

Held in February 2024, the gathering was timely given global events.  Some 200 participants, from a wide range of regions and organisations, delivered a vibrancy and sense of urgency to the issues under discussion.  Charles Keidan, executive editor of Alliance, commented on the presence of major Foundations, but also INGOs, governments and civil society grassroots activists.  The north/south mix of perspectives generated an honest exchange of experience, quandaries and opportunities.

Philanthropy can make a difference

The bottom-line challenge was stated in factual terms.  Peacebuilding is complicated, messy and often unpredictable.  Professor Christine Bell  of the University of Edinburgh posed the question –How are the lessons of failure carried forward into success?’.

 Long-term peacebuilding practitioner and thinker, John Paul Lederach, called for support for permanent pilots’ that made sense by contributing to a theory of learning instead of a theory of change.  Lederach framed this approach as Islands of vitality and learning that make their way towards what might make a difference.’  Concrete examples of where philanthropy and funding had made a positive difference during various stages of conflict were cited from places such as Northern Ireland and Colombia.  Grassroots activists from Armenia and Nigeria, Nepal and Serbia also shared their stories.

The importance of engaging with activists in local communities affected by conflict was recognized and underpinned by a call for donors to build relationships that deliver a nuanced understanding of local context, needs and perspectives.  Ambika Satkunanathan of The Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust in Sri Lanka recommended that international donors use locally based funders to achieve inclusive and informed  community reach.  She held that such intermediaries can be critical to counter government attempts to curtail the activities of civil society.  Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou  of ODI agreed, challenging donors by asking – ‘How can we legitimize and give value to the frontline?’

‘The opposite of othering is not saming but belonging’, powell asserted, prioritizing the creation of relationships and trust.’

A session on the importance of grounded experience and local context, moderated by Dylan Mathews of Peace Direct, offered a number of concrete suggestions to address the current situation where OECD Data on Giving concluded that of all the money available, 92 percent is channeled through INGOs, based in donor countries, with only 8 percent allocated directly through locally based organisations.

Polarisation is the 21st century problem

Outlining how toxic polarization and othering can exacerbate distrust and conflict, jon a. powell spoke about the work of the Othering and Belonging Institute at Berkeley.  He described how rapid change produces collective anxiety.

The danger is that people take refuge from future uncertainties by mythologizing the past and demonizing ‘the other’.  ‘The opposite of othering is not saming but belonging’, powell asserted, prioritizing the creation of relationships and trust.  Martin Abregu of the Ford Foundation suggested that toxic polarization occurs where people lose the idea of a shared destiny – a situation that Martin Macwan related in the context of his pioneering work with Dalit communities in India.

President of the Oak Foundation, Doug Griffiths, highlighted the concerns that the foundation has about increasing polarization and disinformation.  He emphasized the importance of donors taking more risks – They really need to invest in what civil society means.  How do people belong; how do they engage? …We also have a role in holding folks accountable who are causing harm in this space.’ 

A conversation on social media companies recommended that donors should develop guidelines and strategies to counteract polarization and fragmentation, both online and offline.  The safeguarding of media independence and protection of democratic space was also viewed as critical.

Two interventions reminded conference participants of the urgent need to think outside accepted frames of reference and to think about the importance of being more preventative than reactionary.  Hosh Ibrahim of The Mo Ibrahim Foundation stressed the urgency of engaging young people.

By 2050 over 50 percent of the global population will be made up of young Africans; there are already strong indications of a creeping disillusionment with Western notions of democracy.  There is also the issue of increasing numbers of stateless people.  Amal de Chickera of the Institute of Statelessness asked how current national and international policies and practice deal with this growing challenge.

Inclusivity and dialogue

Inclusive peace processes, engaging diverse stakeholders, are crucial if sustainable peace is to be achieved.  Examples were shared from South Africa and Colombia, as well as the successful Northern Ireland peace process.  In the context of the Middle East the principle of inclusivity also applies.

Donors were challenged to Hold our collective humanity in the face of deep pain’Speakers with experience of long-term work in Palestine stressed the need to appreciate the different roles that donors can play – but it is important that there should be no compromise on the truth and truth-telling. ‘We need to be more courageous’ was the message in the current context where an extreme militarized response fails to create security for anyone.  This requires leadership, including shown by philanthropy as a matter of urgency.  One helpful approach suggested would be a convening of like-minded stakeholders to take forward thinking and framing opportunities.

On a more general basis there was recognition of the need for donors to adopt flexible funding approaches and to identify strategies in partnership with local peacebuilding practitioners.  Karen Karnicki of The Rockefeller Brothers Fund noted the importance of constantly checking out those peacebuilders that are targeted on the frontline.

She referred to the killing of women activists and human rights defenders in Afghanistan.  Reference was made to the creation of donor collaboratives to ‘Create space, build courage, knowledge and the flexibility that’s needed. Philanthropy can ask local practitioners ‘What works in your society?’ Adrian Arena of The Oak Foundation spoke to the valuable role collaboratives can play in sharing risk and preventing funder flight when situations deteriorate.

Balancing urgent needs and patient capital

Speaking at the conclusion of the conference, Andrew Gilmour of the Berghof Foundation emphasized the urgency and immensity of current global challenges.  There are those conflicts that are in the public eye in the West; there are conflicts that are hemorrhaging lives in the global South and, as Michelle Parlevliet of Reos Partners pointed out, there are situations such as Cyprus and the Caucuses that show ‘The sustained limbo of slow deterioration’. 

Mark Malloch-Brown of The Open Society Foundation described A contagion of conflict across the world.’ that requires an urgent philanthropic response, but this also needs to be matched by funders acting as patient, long-term investors in peacebuilding processes.

The conference organisers and hosts, SCI (Social Change Initiative) have drawn together the conference presentations and top-line conclusions to take the discussion forward.  This includes a short conference takeaways document.  It was agreed that creating space for further dialogue that underpins effective action is essential if donors are to address both the challenges and opportunities of inclusive peacebuilding.

Avila Kilmurray is the Migration and Peacebuilding Executive at The Social Change Initiative

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *