FriEnt article Coronavirus

Blog: Coronavirus - Familiar problems exacerbated: investing in implementation of the SDGs is worthwhile

Article by Elsa Benhöfer, project manager at FriEnt – Working Group on Peace and Development, CSPPS member.

Originally this Impuls article was going to be an analysis of the future EU-Africa partnership. It was meant to retrace the progress in negotiations surrounding the EU budget and the new instruments, Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation (NDICI) and European Peace Facility (EPF).

However, now that the coronavirus is affecting all areas of life, we have also reassessed the subject of this FriEnt Impuls article. How can we write about an EU-Africa partnership without considering the current situation? Looking at the draft strategy, it can only be hoped that the experience gained from the coronavirus crisis will lead to significant strengthening of the peace policy dimension. On the other hand, the focus on economic development and migration control should be pared back. Although there is legitimate criticism of the current draft, the EU-Africa partnership is on the right lines, because many countries are defenceless against global crises. African countries, in particular, are suffering from the consequences of the coronavirus crisis, both at home and in the EU. Now is the right time to make the effort as partners to build and develop democratic regional organisations and states.

Global injustice under the magnifying glass – impacts of the global coronavirus crisis on crises and post-conflict contexts

According to official figures, the number of coronavirus cases in fragile states is low; the actual number of those infected could be higher. At the same time, the repercussions of the lockdown policy imposed by many EU countries, among others, have already reached fragile states in recent weeks. The industrialised nations classify coronavirus as a security risk and are currently prioritising their own health needs. To ensure that social cohesion in fragile contexts is not jeopardised over the long term, in this case, too, a balance must be struck between health, civil liberties and means of survival. For many people in fragile contexts, an order to stay at home does not increase their chances of survival.

The health system is extremely underdeveloped in many crisis and post-conflict contexts. Infections with the coronavirus could be a double burden, as even now, medical staff and hospitals barely manage to provide appropriate treatment for diseases such as HIV or tuberculosis. Access to clean water and sanitation facilities is essential to curbing the spread of diseases, but in many countries cannot be guaranteed. It is apparent that income, social class, place of residence, conflict/displacement context and gender determine how individuals can overcome pandemics in terms of the health care they receive.

When the EU and other industrialised regions close their borders, hamper trade and restrict mobility, this has global consequences, especially for the survival of poorer segments of the population. Interrupted supply chains cause a rapid rise in poverty and trigger famine in countries with weak local currencies and low levels of pay across much of the population. There are no government or private-sector reserves to make up for people’s loss of earnings; they are left with nothing. Women and children are particularly badly hit when the informal sector collapses and they have neither health care nor protective spaces available to them.

Emergency legislation curtails freedoms such as the right of assembly. Political protests then run out of steam, and public scrutiny only takes place online (if at all) – the same also applies to the EU. Citizens’ right to participate in political decision-making processes is restricted in order to overcome the crisis as efficiently as possible. That said, rule of law monitoring mechanisms, civil monitoring mechanisms and independent information policy remain in effect, and trust in political processes still exists. The weaker the nature of such democratic guide values, the more impact will the emergency legislation have on shrinking civic space and the legitimacy of the state. This is apparent for instance in countries like Ethiopia, where the postponement of elections can lead to keeping governments in power without public legitimacy.

In order to cushion the health impacts and socio-economic consequences of coronavirus in fragile contexts, these countries require swift yet sustainable humanitarian, development/peace policy and economic support. It is not a new phenomenon that a lack of socio-economic provision and absence of civic space accelerates the negative impacts of global crises such as the coronavirus pandemic. Nor is the global responsibility for these factors. Taking the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs including SDG 16 seriously means backing instruments that make a lasting contribution to peaceful, equitable and inclusive societies.The crisis underlines the importance of the 2030 Agenda’s holistic approach and illustrates the urgency of the need to implement the SDGs, especially in times like these.

II Impacts on international peacebuilding actors

The work of peace experts and peacebuilding actors has not diminished with the arrival of the coronavirus crisis. On the contrary. Supporting partner countries while the global lockdown policy is in place has become more complicated. Now, of all times, it is clear how relevant it is for civil peace work to coordinate closely with partners and to be conflict-sensitive. What do partners need in the coming weeks and months? How can budgetary deadlines be pushed back to take the pressure off projects? In what way does a specific project need to be adapted to the new circumstances? These are questions that many FriEnt member organisations and international partner organisations are asking themselves. The answers can be found by listening, and by being willing to adjust targets and budgets unbureaucratically. The German institutions have already begun to manage their funds flexibly, and more should be done to build on that.

Cooperation on peace and development thrives on bringing people together to enable trust to grow through joint action. If it is to remain viable during the crisis, it needs digital infrastructure and hence urgently digital security, something that presents challenges to many FriEnt members. Communication with local partners, in particular, must be protected against vulnerability arising from gaps in data protection. Moreover, many fundraising campaigns have stopped because of curfews and precautionary measures. It is not yet possible to predict what the consequences for projects on the ground will be, but a negative feeling is creeping in. However, the current crisis situation also offers peacebuilding actors opportunities to review their work processes and over the longer term to be even more resilient in the face of crises, as well as to strengthen local structures.

‘Do no harm’ principles are more important than ever

NGOs, INGOs, international and regional organisations and national governments are already organising aid funds. The World Bank has put together a package worth USD 12 billion and the IMF one worth USD 50 billion to provide financial support for weak states during the coronavirus crisis. Debt relief for African countries is also under discussion.The UNHCR is providing USD 255 million for refugees in the fight against the virus. USD 2 billion is being made available through the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for prevention, direct assistance and setting up laboratories. At the present time it is not yet possible to say on what scale further funding will be provided, but given that around one billion people live in fragile countries, USD 2 billion seems to be far too little.

Rapid and generous financial support is essential for carrying out prevention work. However, following their experience with the Ebola crisis of 2014 many FriEnt members are concerned that the funds will not be distributed in line with ‘do no harm’ principles. Back then, international assistance was very largely assigned within former colonial borders. There was no joint strategy. Health systems were showered with money, but accountability mechanisms were undermined and there was no lasting boost to confidence in the respective national states. Success in combating the disease was heavily dependent on the political structures, namely the extent to which local politicians trusted their government. After the Ebola crisis, financial assistance for these countries was cut by 77 percent (OECD) and not transferred to long-term cooperation on peace and development.

Especially in relation to the rapid support measures that are now necessary, thought should be given to how this support is to be provided, and to whom. Trust in the state should be bolstered, and at the same time civil society should be protected from the pandemic and from corruption and discrimination by state and non-state actors. To achieve that, it is essential for national and local governments to collaborate closely and in a spirit of trust (among other things through international cooperation).

HDP nexus – if not now, when?

Promoting and strengthening a multilateral approach is a prerequisite for guaranteeing a high level of effectiveness for the aid funds and ensuring implementation of the SDGs as a common guiding principle. Following the many discussions on the triple nexus (DAC Recommendation) – humanitarian aid, development and peace – it is now time to put what has been learned into practice. At present, a humanitarian response to the crisis is guiding the activities. There will be a need for a smooth transition to the sustainable establishment of resilient societies. This means recognising and promoting South-South or Fragile-to-Fragile cooperation and carrying out harmonised and coordinated development cooperation in fragile countries. This should be supported by mutual accountability and should be consistent with previous objectives, such as the Accra Agenda for Action (2008) or the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States (2011). The crisis underlines the fact that this form of long-term and hence sustainable cooperation following the principles of ‘do no harm’ is the correct approach.

III The virus and peacebuilding on the ground – impacts at partner level

To be able to promote prevention work promptly, the Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS), of which FriEnt is a member, launched a survey among its members to establish what effects coronavirus is having on their work. Initial findings from Togo, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Nigeria, where the curtailments that have been imposed range from minor movement restrictions to comprehensive emergency legislation, indicate similar views.

Many employees of civil society organisations in fragile contexts are severely affected personally by the consequences of the mild or hard lockdown policies. For them, first and foremost, it is a matter of getting themselves on a firm footing: ensuring that their families are cared for and secure and adjusting to working from home (if they are able to). Peacebuilding and human rights work suffer in these circumstances.

Many report that their work is also made more difficult by their governments failing to cooperate with civil society. The lockdown policy hinders humanitarian aid workers in pursuit of their duties, especially in rural areas. Even more, concern is rising among the NGOs that social unrest or conflict (over resources) may erupt if the socio-economic situation deteriorates as a result of the crisis. Many communities are called upon to report suspected cases. There have already been several reports of individuals presumed to be infected with the virus having been murdered. There are also multiple tales of fatal attacks by state authorities or parts of the population in various regions, for instance when people are out buying food. A lack of information about the spread, transmissibility and symptoms of coronavirus gives rise to myth-making and thus to social upheaval. To counteract this, the surveyed organisations – as best they can – conduct awareness-raising campaigns on the radio or via social media and distribute disinfectants.

Many of those surveyed fear that international funding for peacebuilding will now be diverted to fight the pandemic, which would have devastating consequences for their activities. They are calling for more financial support, partly to be able run better information campaigns, particularly to counter stigmatisation, and partly to enable them to respond to potential societal conflict. This is the only way they can prevent a rise in domestic violence, for example, or participate in national processes. Many are worried that tense social and political situations could escalate further and influential players could capitalise on the crisis.

Strategies on how non-state and state actors can combat pandemics together previously worked out for the Ebola crisis. They should now be put into practice in order to ensure that the needs of the population are provided for. Drastic emergency measures can succeed only if they are politically legitimised by the people, with the inclusion of relevant actors in national decision-making processes. Overall, the legitimacy of the governments can be lastingly boosted in this way. CSPPS and the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (IDPS) are already making a successful start in this regard with their dialogue processes, even during the coronavirus outbreak.

With a little luck, and given the appropriate resources, the crisis could even be a window of opportunity for conflict management, namely when the pressure to act forces cooperation across lines of conflict: such cooperation can then be picked up on and intensified to pave the way for lasting peacebuilding processes. UN Secretary-General Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire is an appeal that heads in this direction. However, this window will only remain open if the humanitarian situation improves, the emergency legislation is repealed once the crisis is over, and civic space is significantly expanded.

IV Outlook: Promoting equitable and inclusive societies

The research for this article has shown just how broad the debate surrounding peace, fragility and the coronavirus is. There are many aspects that we will not be able to identify and analyse for a number of weeks or months yet. What is certain is that peace and development are more closely intertwined and should take poverty reduction, equality of opportunity and the promotion of civic space into account. At the same time the rule of law and civil conflict transformation are also necessary prerequisites for strengthening resilience and thus the ability to face up to shocks such as the coronavirus. Specifically, this initially means taking local peacebuilders’ perspectives and needs seriously and encouraging their ownership. Project funds should be managed flexibly, and financial assistance should be granted according to conflict-sensitive quality criteria.

The message for multilateral cooperation is clear: if more had been invested in implementation of the SDGs beforehand, the impacts could have been mitigated. The aim must therefore be to promote resilient, equitable and inclusive societies, both now and post-coronavirus. The same applies to the further development of an EU-Africa partnership of equals.

Elsa Benhöfer, project manager for international processes at FriEnt

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