Where ceasefires or peace agreements are brokered top-down, bypassing the local citizenry, they usually fall apart quickly, argues Atje Drexler, Senior Vice President at the Robert Bosch Stiftung and responsible for the peace program.
A conversation with Atje Drexler
Henry Alt-Haaker: With Russia’s attack on Ukraine, war in Europe is back at the forefront of global discussion. How is the Robert Bosch Stiftung active in the conflict?
Atje Drexler: The Robert Bosch Stiftung has been active in Ukraine since the invasion started, as well as in neighboring countries, where many people have fled to, and in Germany. Let me give you a few examples: In Ukraine, we support NGOs that protect civilians with concrete measures, sometimes with simple things like a generator in a bomb shelter. This gives people access to electricity and thus a way to charge their mobile phones so that they don't have to leave the shelter to contact families and friends or get information about safe evacuation routes. We also support NGOs that work with Ukrainian officials to train them in the documentation of atrocities and potential war crimes. This can then be used in international courts.
Outside of Ukraine, our funding mostly goes to supporting refugees. A key focus of our work in Germany is the education system, so that Ukrainian children can be integrated into German schools, while also continuing education in their mother tongue and with the Ukrainian curriculum.
While Robert Bosch was alive, he was devoted to supporting peace. Within our focus area on Global Issues, we have a peace program. Can you tell us about it?
The Foundation supports locally-led peacebuilding as an approach to long-term and sustainable peace. This means that the people who live in a conflict region, who are most affected by the conflict, lead and design the peace process.
We are promoting this approach in two different ways: On the one hand, we support locally-led peace initiatives on the ground. We have selected a few regions where we believe this approach has something to add. We will continue our work in the Western Balkans, which started in the 1990s with this new angle. Although there's no active violent conflict in the Western Balkans right now, the situation can’t be called peaceful either. The conflicts of the 1990s remain unresolved. We also work in the Middle East, with a special focus on the connection between climate and environmental change and conflict. And the third region is the Sahel. Here we've zoomed-in on the southern border of central Sahel, the region that borders the coastal countries on the Gulf of Guinea.
On a macro level, we work on the theoretical concept of locally-led peacebuilding and the larger environment for local peace builders. This happens in the realm of the international peacemaking and peacebuilding system. We want to change the system in a way that is more supportive of local peace builders.
This is a very specific angle on peace building that also excludes a couple of major conflicts that dominate the debate in the media. Why do we focus on locally-led peacebuilding?
There is ample evidence that without local actors you will not achieve sustainable peace. We've seen in many conflict resolution processes that the combatant parties agree on a power sharing agreement that is not inclusive. Because many groups have been left out, for instance the local population, it is not supported by a broad consensus.
Thus you may end up with an agreement that is either not implemented at all or that falls apart after a couple of years. The average duration of these agreements is around five to seven years – and then violence erupts again. So many of these power-sharing deals actually lead only to temporary ceasefires or something that is called “negative peace” – the mere absence of large-scale violence. Many organizations, including the UN with its Peacebuilding Fund, claim that local actors should be more included, and even in the driver's seat. But, in practice, not much has changed.
And in particular, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, securitized and military approaches to peace are on the rise. Locally-led civilian conflict resolution mechanisms are often portrayed as being useless, which they are not. Examples from the Philippines or Sierra Leone prove that long-term civilian, locally-led processes are present and successful.
The Robert Bosch Stiftung has no offices outside of Germany, so we manage our projects mainly from here. This could be criticized by those closer to the conflict. How do we make sure that we reach the societies affected and the relevant actors who can change something?
That’s not an easy task. In the Sahel, we have just this year started a pilot project in the border region between the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and northern Ghana. We collaborate with two local organizations: the Ivorian organization is a local NGO, in Ghana a branch of an international NGO. In this case, it was important to find an organization that is actually rooted and registered in Ivory Coast and can receive our funding directly. It sends its people to the border region from both sides and talks to different stakeholders like elders, women's organizations, religious leaders, and businesspeople in the different communities.
This entails a large number of consultations. What do people want and need for their communities? What would help them prevent or overcome violence? We don't go there saying: this is what you need to do. We help build a program. The consultations in roughly 30 communities along the border are ongoing. We understand that it takes a long time for people who live in a village or a community that may be multiethnic or even a transborder community where you have villages on both sides of the border to agree on what exactly they think would be helpful.
You mentioned the complex settings in conflict zones. We as a foundation try to see the interlinkages and the synergies, what we call the “nexus,” within different topics that influence and impact one another. How does the relationship between climate change and conflict look in practice?
This nexus is becoming more prominent and visible, not only in our work but in general in the debate about conflict. While climate change per se is not a cause of conflict, it exacerbates existing conflicts. The lack of resources, such as water or arable land, in regions like the Middle East but also the Sahel has long been cause for conflict. Conflicts between farmers and herders have been present in the Sahel for generations. All of this is exacerbated by unreliable rain patterns and droughts that are consequences of climate change.
We have to ask the question of how to mitigate the effects of climate change and how to help people in the region adapt to the changing environment, because it’s real. The lack of water in Yemen and the control of freshwater resources in the hands of the few will always be a cause for conflict, if you do not solve the water crisis.
And the same holds true for Lebanon. One of our projects there reactivates traditional mechanisms of dealing with resource conflicts and sharing common resources. Many people in dry regions have used these kinds of mechanisms in the past. Some of them have been superseded by colonial practices but some can be revived. People who draw on the same aquifer, for instance, understand their joint responsibility for this resource and find traditional ways of dealing with the conflicts that arise.
You’ve already touched upon challenges of locally-led peacebuilding: Patience is needed, contexts are volatile and different actors, that are often difficult to reach, need to be involved. Are there other challenges to your work?
Take the Sahel. One challenge is the presence of a very securitized and militarized approach to peace throughout the region. This is heavily focused on the prevention of violent extremism and the fight against terror, with many different security actors on the ground: local, national, and international missions, including the UN and EU. This has led to a general wariness of the local population of people from the north, such as Europeans, and of security forces, both national and international. Many more people there are harmed by security forces than by terrorists.
Is there something that makes you hopeful? Do you see any positive developments in the peacebuilding system in general?
Although we‘ve seen an uptick in militarized approaches since February, the international actors finally recognize that the system as it is does not produce the results we want. So there is an understanding that things need to change in the way we approach peace, particularly at the UN level. There is a window of opportunity for those working to promote locally-led peacebuilding, to get it included into the international toolbox and finally move beyond mere declarations. There’s a great momentum for locally-led movements and decolonization. Local approaches are expert approaches. The system needs to change and we try to support this power shift in favor of local actors and solutions.
Atje Drexler is Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung at the department of "Global Issues" and responsible for the programs "Peace" and "Inequality".
Henry Alt-Haaker is Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and heads the Strategic Partnerships and Robert Bosch Academy department.
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