The role of foundations in supporting sustainable peace

By Sandra Breka, Member of the Board of Management, Robert Bosch Stiftung

The level of peace around the world in 2020 declined for the ninth time in twelve years. The coronavirus pandemic has led to a decrease in overall conflict levels, but roughly 120,000 people were killed by political violence and 45.7 million were internally displaced in 2020. Violent conflict has a profound impact on economies and impedes the reduction of poverty and hunger. Violence cost the world $14.5 trillion in economic activity in 2019 according to the Institute for Economics and Peace. 

The effects of violent conflict are devastating – and remain neglected by philanthropy. In 2020, only one percent of philanthropic funding supported peace and security, according to the non-profit sector tracker Candid. The share is even smaller according to OECD data, with only 0.11% of total philanthropic funding in 2019 dedicated explicitly to conflict, peace and security in developing countries.

There are multiple reasons for this: private foundations considered peacebuilding too political, too short on hard evidence on successes and too difficult to measure, according to Candid. Despite the persistent call for multi-stakeholder approaches to global issues, many philanthropic organisations also perceived it as an area reserved to governments and other official donors, and beyond the mandate and means of private foundations or civil society groups.

The Robert Bosch Stiftung has been working on peacebuilding and conflict transformation for many years. We are keenly aware of the limited contribution we can make, and face many of the problems this challenging field presents. However, I remain convinced that private foundations can play a unique role in the field, not least because of the strong and increasing nexus between peace and other challenges which they address, such as climate change, inequality, or migration.

The global peacebuilding system is dysfunctional in many places. In addition to its failure to reduce the overall number of violent conflicts, it can rarely ensure sustainable peace – in an alarming number of cases violence recurs after just a few years, even when a peace deal is still in operation. The United Nations and other multilateral organisations have suggested improvements, highlighting the importance of more inclusive and locally led peacebuilding in contrast with the deal-based mechanism of so-called elite bargains. Academia and civil society groups have gathered extensive data that demonstrate the positive impact local peacebuilders can have, contributing to more sustainable and resilient social contracts.  

Unfortunately, the gap between supporting these principles and putting them into widespread practice remains significant. The 2016 Grand Bargain between large donors and humanitarian groups was designed, amongst other things, to channel 25 percent of funding as directly as possible to local and national responders. In practice, direct funding fell from 3.5 percent in the Bargain’s initial year to 2.1 percent in 2019. A huge amount of work remains to be done to put principles into action and ensure that local actors receive the appropriate support in transforming their unique knowledge of a conflict into solutions for lasting peace.

Creating a conducive environment for locally led peacebuilding goes far beyond dedicating a certain proportion of funds to local actors. It implies a review of partnership modalities: agency, leadership and knowledge of local actors need to be strengthened at the same time. Partnerships based on trust, mutual respect and willingness to listen to and learn from each other are essential to making peacebuilding work in the long-term. It is also crucial that international donors re-examine their development strategy and decision-making processes by involving local actors. Local peacebuilders in fragile contexts would particularly benefit from unrestricted and core support, as well as from a long-term perspective which goes beyond the usual project cycle. Reporting requirements should reflect the priority of process over product and prioritise information that is truly actionable. 

Foundations are uniquely positioned to make a contribution. Compared to government actors and official donors, they are ideally more flexible with regard to the content and conditions of funding and more able to take risks, as well as a long-term approach and perspective. This makes it often easier to try out new ways of funding that are better suited to locally led peacebuilding and promote promising, innovative approaches by other organisations. In many cases, foundations’ biggest asset is a non-partisan approach.

To engage more foundations in peacebuilding, we need frank dialogues and realistic expectations about the impact that they can have in this field. By transparently sharing our stories, successes and failures, we can contribute to shifting perspectives and creating more awareness among philanthropic organisations. Partnerships and alliances across all sectors can help to mitigate risks and create collective impact by combining funding resources, different experiences and expertise.

For us, it is also crucial to work on a regional as well as a global level to increase impact. Through our regional engagement in the Western Balkans, the Sahel, and the Middle East, we support local actors that want to transform the conflicts affecting them. By involving them in the agenda setting, strategy development and decision-making processes, we want to foster peace – and model a reformed way for international actors to support local peacebuilders. Our activities on the global level are designed to contribute to long-term changes in global peacebuilding by strengthening its actors in promoting local leadership and local agency. This includes support to the development, testing and scaling of innovative global collaboration mechanisms that have the potential to make a contribution to the transformation of the peacebuilding system. Regardless of the entry point, we hope to see more organisations joining us in the quest for lasting, positive peace.