We know what needs to be done to end war. We just aren’t sure how to do it.


Conor Seyle


The challenges of peacebuilding can seem insurmountable both for philanthropists considering entering the area and for those who have been working on peace for decades. Modern wars are often the result of a tangle of historical grievances and institutional failures spurred on by people and groups who are benefiting from the violence. This makes it difficult to identify a point of entry, or even be confident that short-term gains in one area won’t be undone soon after programs end. Because of that, it may be a surprise to philanthropists to hear that the world is actually converging on a solid understanding of what peace takes, but the truth is that researchers and practitioners know fairly well what peace looks like. The hard part is getting there.

Both empirical research and peacekeeping institutions agree: Societies are far more likely to be peaceful when they enjoy economic development, robust social services including education and health care, governments that operate in an accountable fashion that doesn’t exclude any gender, ethnic, religious, or other group from the processes or benefits of government, and minimally sufficient security institutions to prevent warlordism. In well-functioning societies, these different elements create a mutually reinforcing and resilient systems, where challenges in one area can be overcome by the strength of others. On the other hand, problems in one area can and will drag down success stories in the other pillars. The recent story of Iraq is, in part, the story of how military victories aren’t sufficient for stability if the national government isn’t seen as accountable, inclusive, and uncorrupt – and it’s also a story of how failures to develop sufficiently strong and inclusive security institutions can leave communities open to warlordism.

Achieving peace requires parallel intervention across political engagement, human development, economic development, and security areas – what peacekeeping institutions now call ‘multidomain,’ ‘comprehensive’ or ‘integrated’ approaches. International institutions from the UN to the US are increasingly accepting this fact. The problem, unfortunately, is that we don’t seem to be very good at it. Reviews of coordination between military, development, and political actors in both UN and NATO peacekeeping consistently point to similar problems undermining efforts to develop peace including challenges of chains of command, cultural conflict, unclear priorities, and other issues. The current challenge in the peacebuilding field is identifying how to coordinate across all the different areas that sustained peace requires.

What does this mean for philanthropists interested in peacebuilding? Philanthropists have to confront the same questions about narrow versus coordinated work that large international organizations do. The move towards evidence-based philanthropy and stronger monitoring and evaluation systems that has characterized the last few decades of philanthropy has overall been a valuable step forward in the field. In the case of peace, though, this can encourage limited and specific programs with theories of change that the implementing partners can control, rather than broader questions of coordination. Moreover, successful whole-of-society interventions require a scope of funding probably too large for any one funder, especially private philanthropists. The result is that many funders focus on specific, measurable, service-focused interventions that work to provide desperately needed services to specific communities or alternately try to address one of the many factors driving conflict through programs such as intergroup contact. These programs are necessary, and can save lives, but in and of themselves they will not lead to sustainable peace if the root causes of poor development, poor governance, and weak institutions are not fixed.

I encourage philanthropists interested in peace to not abandon targeted interventions, because in conflict-affected areas the needs are desperately high. But for those institutions and individuals interested in actually building peace, the larger context both of the conflict itself and the coordination questions about how all the different needs can be addressed simultaneously are important. A willingness to find out who else is operating in the geographic areas you fund, to share information about your programs and even coordinate to ensure that all the multiple challenges a region might face are being addressed, is critical. The models for how to do that are still in development, and there’s a lot of room for experimentation and entrepreneurs. My organization, One Earth Future, believes that non-hierarchical network systems may be a good way to address this, building on Kania & Kramer’s influential thinking about collective action. The new US fragile states strategy and ongoing UN reforms of the peacekeeping pillar, on the other hand, both emphasize more unified planning and stronger centralized coordination. It may be the case that neither approach is best, and that some new model is needed. The field of philanthropy may be well positioned to figure out what that is. After fifty years or more of institutional failure at coordinated peacebuilding from large state organizations, it’s possible that the solution to these coordination challenges will instead come from the philanthropic field – but only if the field decides to take up the question.

Conor Seyle is Director of Research at One Earth Future Foundation

Peace-related philanthropy, at less than 1 per cent of all grantmaking, seems irresponsibly small given that armed conflict spoils lives, divides societies and ruins economies.

Our new issue goes in search of philanthropy’s role in peaceful development.

Comments (1)

Cath Thompson

Great article, Conor! You lay out the case for coordination beautifully. This is exactly why the Peace and Security Funders Group (www.peaceandsecurity.org) exists, and was established by funders some 20 years ago – to bring more coordination at least on the private philanthropy side of things. We do this, for example, among smaller groups of funders addressing specific issues, such as atrocities prevention in the Congo, and have also done more “functional” coordination – for example, among PSFG members who support media/journalism. It’s our ongoing mission to build coordination and true collaboration in this sector, and I’m so glad that you’re a part of PSFG, waving that flag too!

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