Community peacebuilding: Inclusion and equality in COVID times
As we are engaging in this week’s module on Inclusive Community Peacebuilding, I cannot help but reminisce. We are entering year 2 of the pandemic and how different does our world seem from the one I knew before. I have adapted to all of the changes as well as I can. Days at a time without leaving the house once. One year working from home in Mexico City without ever going back to the office. One year without my friends, nor going out to dance salsa. A year and a half without seeing my loved ones back home in the Netherlands. Feeling further away and disconnected from the various personal and professional communities I belong to than ever. Changes I can handle – my basic needs are covered, life simply goes on and at some point in the future things will probably run its normal course again. At least, for me.
Back in March 2020, while we all tried to grasp the severity of the pandemic as it swept around us, Madonna took a luxurious bath full of rose petals and stated that ‘COVID is the great equalizer’. It was already abundantly clear back then that this is a blatant misconception. The harmful effects of this pandemic are not and will not be distributed equally.
What about the more than 137 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean whose education is put on hold, in many cases for over a year? In November 2020, UNICEF published that a staggering 97% of the region’s students are still deprived of their normal schooling. Here in Mexico, for example, those who are privileged enough to access private education have been home-schooled for a year using Zoom. Far from ideal, but way better than those in public education. Only 40% of students have access to stable internet. So, what’s the solution? Millions of children are now receiving their education via state-run distance learning programmes offered via television and radio. Which means limited hours and zero direct interaction with classmates or teachers to receive extra support and explanations. What does that do to our education systems? What does this mean for the overall development of this generation?
It exacerbates already existing inequalities and inequities. Interrupted learning leading to a disruption of children’s development, coupled with increasing school drop-out rates, aggravated risks to child labour, enhanced risks of domestic violence, gender-based violence and violence against children, and further economic repercussions in the years to come.
And this only scratches the surface of the short and long-term impacts of the lockdown on society overall. We face enormous challenges, now and in the future. As for us in the fellowship, while we are trying to continue our work in the various (fascinating!) fields that we are active in, how do we maintain our impact and quality standards in community development and peacebuilding from a distance? How do we create meaningful and positive change during -what seems to be a never-ending lockdown? The idea of inclusive community peacebuilding is one of meaningful, equal and true participation, ownership and leadership of communities. Involving the voices of all those who are affected by programmes or initiatives at every stage of the process. It seems simple and straightforward, but unfortunately in practice it is not. Too often communities are side-lined and interventions built on assumptions, foreign agendas and the best of intentions that do not take into account local needs, voices or realities.
Our visions on community peacebuilding and the many examples of good practice and of persistent pitfalls that we discussed this week were based on our direct and in-person work experiences in communities. It makes me long for the days that I was still able to travel and co-facilitate workshops and meetings with rightsholders for my own work in human rights education. Human connection and direct interaction at its best. We are now largely depending on organizing and mobilizing in digital and distance-learning spaces. Yet, those who do have internet are absolutely overwhelmed and tired of Zoom and Google Hangouts, as am I. And experience shows that those we may specifically seek to include who are part of marginalized communities, such as indigenous peoples, at-risk youth, refugees, people with disabilities, rural communities and LGBTIQ+ communities, are harder to reach and involve if we can only rely on digital communication. All my best intentions aside, working on inclusion and equality seems harder than ever.
Looking ahead, how do we ‘build back better’? How do we reduce the widening inequality gap? Whatever the reconciliation and recovery challenges that await us in the future, the idea of inclusive community development is of vital importance here. But, let us please be more vigilant against tokenistic inclusion and participation. Our political and international arenas have to radically and urgently change its mind-set and practice in this respect. If we truly want inclusive community development and peacebuilding, it requires that we take a long and hard look at ourselves. All the best intentions aside, to be true champions of equality and equity we need to reflect, unpack and act better upon the power dynamics that come into play. The international development and humanitarian aid sector itself is a world full of oppression and privilege, stereotypes and prejudices, micro aggressions, micro politics and dominant development discourses. Official aid for development is a political instrument and a political process in itself. Civic driven change, political agency and power dynamics are main drivers for in- or exclusion. To acknowledge that is the very minimum. To act upon it would be a great step forward.
Imke van der Velde – The Netherlands/Mexico
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30