Colombia

2021 is not about development. It is about peacebuilding

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Following a very difficult year, 2021 arrived full of uncertainties and challenges. Social conflict, inequality, trauma, mental health issues, and economic crises are among the challenges communities are now facing as a result of COVID-19.

Countries are struggling to guarantee access to COVID-19 vaccines for all, and are having to adopt new approaches to recover from the global crisis the pandemic will no doubt leave behind.

Recovery will be at the top of all political agendas, but the recipe to salvage economies, societies and mental health will need something different from the usual tools employed for aid and development. In her latest article, our local correspondent in Colombia, Lina María Jamarillo, analyses the sort of recovery we need to prioritise, and what it will mean for peacebuilding.

Despite the difficult context, local peacebuilders have been the ones still working to respond a non-violent manner

Shifting gears by starting with communities

For decades, governments and countries have centred on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the most effective mechanism to further development within the most vulnerable societies. Military and defence responses have been at the crux of security considerations, and peacebuilding has long remained an abstract concept. Advances in equality, education and healthcare are indisputable, however COVID-19 has shown how fragile those advances can be.

Now, in the midst of a humanitarian emergency comparable to the First and Second World Wars, it seems it is time for this paradigm to change. Societies need to ensure recovery amid difficult social and economic conflicts within a context in which sustainability is not taken for granted. Principles and ideals such as resilience, non-violence, dialogue, caring for others, reconciliation, and transformation will be critical elements for societies to re-stabilise in the coming years. Peacebuilding holds all those principles at its core, both in conceptual and practical terms, and so it will be necessary to look to peacebuilding as a more accurate approach to recovery, and promote new narratives around development, growth, and security.

Peacebuilding work must be prioritised, urgently, so that global recovery and response activities not only address security, development, and human rights, but incorporate care, empathy, resilience, and dialogue. To elevate peacebuilding as an umbrella concept in a pandemic and post-pandemic world, it is necessary to advocate and support local peacebuilders' work. Their experience is key to identifying the best ways to respond to current challenges.

Colombia’s peace, an overlooked victim of COVID-19

Colombia illustrates how relevant it is to encourage this shift, not only to protect and sustain peacebuilding actions and processes, but to boost social and economic recovery within the country. In Colombia, the peace process has been one of the victims of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the process was already weakened, but since the government’s efforts shifted to tackling the spread of COVID-19, the little attention given to the implementation of the peace agreement was further reduced.

As well as halting the peace process, the pandemic has negatively affected security. This was mostly seen in the territories most affected by violence, where illegal armed groups have instrumentalised pandemic restrictions to reinforce their social control through violence and coercion. Despite the difficult context, local peacebuilders have been the ones still working to respond a non-violent manner. Some initiatives have worked: denouncing human rights violations against social leaders, and crimes against former combatants in their ‘reincorporation’ process. For instance, La Paz Querida, a well-recognised organisation working to strengthen local capacities for peacebuilding, created the Observatory of Living Leadership (Observatorio Para el Liderazgo Vivo), an initiative that analyses the security contexts in all the territories in which crimes against social leaders have taken place.

Despite the difficult context, local peacebuilders have been the ones still working to respond a non-violent manner

Keeping peace alive from the grassroots

Despite the challenges listed above, civil society have continued their efforts to keep peace alive; participating in spaces created alongside the peace agreement, such as the Territorial Councils for Peace, and other institutional meetings for the implementation of the Development Program with a Territorial Approach (PDET). Other initiatives such as the Red Joven (Youth Network) continue to work on creating dialogue around memory and conflict transformation through the creation of non-violent narratives; inviting survivors, ex-combatants and peacebuilders to share their experiences. Other peacebuilders, moved by care and empathy for others, have turned to support humanitarian action and solidarity activities aimed at helping vulnerable communities during COVID-19 restrictions. El Derecho a No Obedecer (The Right to Disobey) has taken the lead in mobilising against xenophobic behaviour towards the Venezuelan diaspora, and advocating for migration and human rights to be key areas of sustainable peacebuilding, even if they are not highlighted in the implementation agreement itself.

Social leaders, activists, and human rights defenders in Colombia are all peacebuilders. They all understand that even if they arrive via different approaches, their purposes are deeply interconnected and determine social, economic, and political realities. Their work has been key to transforming environments vulnerable to violence into resilient communities and spaces of protection.

Social leaders, activists, and human rights defenders in Colombia are all peacebuilders

Looking ahead

It is time for the international community and decision-makers to recognise that current global threats are not only the result of developmental and security gaps, but a consequence of the lack of principles that oriented our transition to development. Peacebuilding, either as a conceptual framework or a practice, brings a level of moral imagination to more rigid development approaches; forming ideas about what is good and right, and acting on these ideas for the service of others. In difficult circumstances where empathy and solidarity is crucial, this moral imagination is a key component of recovery.

2021 will be a challenging year for the international community. It will be vital to rethink the way that local peacebuilders are encouraged and supported. Their involvement in the recovery process we have ahead of us is vital. Political leaders also need to adjust their power dynamics; moving away from pragmatism and realism, and focussing instead on solidarity, inclusivity, and dialogue - opening democracy to more innovative and participatory places. Our understanding of recovery from COVID-19 should not be limited to the number of children that have access to education, or the percentage of people that benefit from free healthcare systems. If we get it right, it will be about how well we create opportunities to reconnect the changes we make to our unsustainable lifestyles, and how empathetic we are to accept that we are all equally vulnerable. Peacebuilding is about conflict transformation, and in such conflicting times, societies should be prepared to understand recovery as an opportunity for transformation.