Financing for Peacebuilding: Beyond Money

A roundtable meeting held in connection with the high-level meeting of the General Assembly on financing for peacebuilding, April 25, 2022. (UN Photo/Manuel Elías)

On September 8th, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/76/305 on financing for peacebuilding. At a first glance, this four-page document appears to be a reiteration of previously agreed text on peacebuilding financing which can be easily found in the  2016 twin resolutions on peacebuilding and sustaining peace; in the subsequent ones in 2020 on the review of the peacebuilding architecture; or more recently, in a letter from the Chair of the Peacebuilding Commission to the president of the General Assembly, ahead of the April 27 high-level debate on the same subject. Those who followed the debate could also argue that the resolution draws on the common language that can be gleaned from the official summary of that debate or from the outcome of the various round tables and related background papers that had preceded it.

But for those who have followed the intergovernmental negotiation process leading up to this resolution, such a partial reading does not tell the whole story. It overlooks the fact that this is the first time the General Assembly (GA) membership unanimously agreed on the use of assessed funding for peacebuilding and sustaining peace, among other financing modalities, and recognizes the benefits of peacebuilding for the “countries concerned” without confining the peacebuilding agenda to a specific region. Its adoption by consensus would not have been possible without the extensive listening exercises and intergovernmental consultations co-facilitated by Kenya and Sweden. Through their combined multilateral diplomacy they were able to forge compromise where widely divergent views would have dictated otherwise.

Such a cursory reading of the resolution would also miss the historical significance of the explicit and implicit political messages it was sending to the secretary-general and UN membership at large, to the Fifth Committee and indirectly to the Security Council.

Key Messages

Under the terms of this long-awaited resolution, the Assembly affirms its commitment to consider all options for adequate, predictable and sustainable financing for peacebuilding, including through voluntary, innovative, and assessed funding and other means of resource mobilization. In this connection, it notes the significance non-monetary contributions can play in peacebuilding efforts.

Among other provisions, the resolution stresses that assessed funding is not meant to be a substitute for voluntary contributions, and encourages all member states and other partners to consider increasing their contributions to peacebuilding and sustaining peace activities. It stresses the importance of multi-year, flexible, and risk-tolerant funding commitments, including pooled funding. It also encourages the secretary-general to develop a strategy for resource mobilization from the private sector in support of financing for peacebuilding. 

One of the key messages the resolution is sending to the secretary-general is that his repeated call, including in his Common Agenda report, for adequate, predictable and sustainable financing for peacebuilding has been finally heard by the General Assembly. Operative paragraph 17, while not explicitly mentioning the $100 million annually he had requested from assessed contributions, clearly conveys that the provision of assessed contributions to financing for peacebuilding would represent “a shared commitment of member states to peacebuilding and sustaining peace.” As such, the resolution is reflecting the sentiment of the membership that the peacebuilding and sustaining peace agenda is not an ancillary activity but a core mandate of the organization, and its implementation cannot and should not depend solely on voluntary contributions.

Addressing the Fifth Committee, the Assembly, in paragraph 18, expects it to translate this above-stated, political commitment into tangible action. It encourages it “to continue and conclude” its consideration of the report of the secretary-general on investing in prevention and peacebuilding, including by requesting the secretary-general to review the terms of reference of the Peacebuilding Fund in close consultation with member states.  It should be noted in this connection, that the Committee, unable to reach consensus on the subject in its May session, decided to defer the matter to the main part of the 77th session. Time will tell whether some of the views expressed by key member states in their explanations of vote—including accountability in the use of assessed contributions and the criteria for approving funding—will enable the Committee to find consensus and deliver on the mandate entrusted to it by the resolution.

In addition to the explicit messages outlined above, the General Assembly is sending an indirect message to the UN membership at large. Namely, unlike the Security Council where polarized geopolitics and structural limitations have at times sucked the oxygen out of multilateral cooperation, the Assembly, despite its decisions not being binding, can still forge consensus and demonstrate leadership on the core mandate of the organization as it relates to peace and security.

What arguably facilitated the adoption by consensus of this landmark resolution is the removal in the early phase of the negotiations of the notion of “fragility” and related set phrases used to describe the plight of conflict-affected countries. Some member states and key regional groupings objected to its use. It conjures up the ideology of failed states and the unsuccessful interventions carried out under its banner. The use of fragility as a policy framework by international financial institutions and in the liberal peacebuilding arena tends also to obscure the colonial and post-colonial foundations of present day political systems judged to be failing or fragile. Most importantly, such a discourse tends to marginalize indigenous peace systems that enable some societies under stress to be antifragile.

Money Delivers Only Half the Peace

The overarching argument single-mindedly hammered since 2018 by the UN secretary-general in his various reports to the GA on peacebuilding and sustaining peace is that adequate, predictable, and sustained financing is necessary to effectively assist conflict-affected countries to build and sustain peace. He further argued that, because the demands for such an assistance has far outpaced available funding, additional resources were required to replenish the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF). In his March 2022 report on investing in prevention and peacebuilding, he recalled his vision of achieving a “quantum leap” in terms of overall contributions to the fund and renewed his call to provide funding from assessed contributions as a means “to provide for a modicum of baseline stability and predictability that the Fund currently lacks.”

The intense consistency with which the above arguments have been hammered out over the past several years gives one the impression that the means to an end (funding) has become an end in itself. The assumption underpinning this resource mobilization campaign is that securing more money to satisfy increasing peacebuilding demands will help sustain peace in conflict-affected countries. Readily available funds may indeed facilitate timely action to prevent violent conflict or soothe its ravages after it occurs. But such action, however laudable, may not by itself build self-sustainable peace. What it produces at best is half the peace or a modicum of unstable, negative peace.

How Can the PBF Work Better for Sustaining Peace?

For the Peacebuilding Fund to be a catalytic artisan of peace, several key conceptual and methodological shifts need to occur. The first would be to place a greater focus on durable peace outcomes and not just “quantum” of financing, thus righting the logic that seems to have been reversed.

The second shift would involve interrogating the dominant, international understanding of peace in “peacebuilding” which tends to tie the fortunes of peace to the presence or absence of conflict. The science of sustaining peace which has studied or measured the dynamics of peaceful societies has shown that there is no one way of conceiving of peace and multiple ways to work for it, drawing on local knowledge and wisdom. For many societies, including in Africa, peace is conceived as a complex non-linear, relational process of becoming, an ongoing quest, constantly in the making. In many of these societies, peace is often treated as the norm not the exception and when interrupted or threatened by violence, communities, however vulnerable or broken they may appear, tend to draw on their reservoirs of indigenous, self-corrective mechanisms to address interruptions.

This pluriversal understanding of peace beyond the absence of conflict has several practical implications for the PBF. For example, at the design stage, peacebuilding projects would identify not only the drivers of conflicts and how to urgently address them but also simultaneously map out the weakened but still resilient homegrown peace capacities and propose ways of strengthening them so they can sustain the short-term outcomes of the PBF projects.

Additionally, and in order to ensure genuine national ownership and leadership, external funding, including from the PBF should, to the extent possible, support initiatives co-designed and co-led by local communities, that allow for the transformative-not instrumental-participation of women and youth, in close collaboration with local and national institutions. This would mean, among other things, having these communities identify and integrate in the early stages of the project design the local infrastructures of peace which in their view would enhance the catalytic impact of external funding.

These communities should also be asked upfront to make non-monetary contributions, as suggested in the resolution, towards the implementation phase of the project, however modest these may be. Such contributions could take the form of building material, or other in-kind goods and services to maintain, for example, the physical structures of a school beyond the lifespan of the project. This would not only lessen dependency but may even discourage the tendency of some local beneficiaries to abandon their own “solutions” to take advantage of the material and financial opportunities offered by external projects.

The above examples are merely an illustration of what a project design process aimed at building peace from the inside out would look like. Using strength, rather than deficit-based approaches that build on what people know and what they have lay better foundations for self-sustaining peace. The resolution on financing for peacebuilding and the possible granting of assessed contributions, provide a unique opportunity for the fund to explore, in close coordination with other peacebuilding funds, these and other alternative approaches, where peace is treated as the entry point and end goal, even when transiting through violent conflict is inevitable.

Without seizing this opportunity, the fund is likely to sacrifice sustaining peace on the altar of agile and flexible spending and the achievement of short-term results, however appreciated they may be by those at the receiving end. More importantly, it may unwittingly entrench assumptions, biases and power dynamics inherent in the current donor system and its requirements that may inhibit local ownership and the emergence of peace from the inside out.

Youssef Mahmoud is a Senior Advisor at the International Peace Institute (IPI) and the author of “Whose Peace are We Building? Leadership for Peace in Africa” with Albert Mbiatem.