Building Peace Amidst COVID19: Voices from our Peacemakers From Around the World

Two Women in Burundi

By Jennifer Bradshaw, Daniel Orth, and Kroc IPJ PeaceMakers

Before COVID19 radically upended the lives of billions of people around the globe, peacebuilders were already facing enormous challenges in building safer and more inclusive communities. As we live into the new reality created by the pandemic, many of the same conflict dynamics and peacebuilding challenges still exist. Some challenges have been exacerbated by COVID19, while the health crisis has also given birth to new ones.

The Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice (Kroc IPJ) works with peacemakers from around the world to end cycles of violence, by learning from and with them. With the rapidly evolving challenges created by COVID19, we connected with these peacemakers to understand the impacts COVID19 is having on their peacebuilding work. In particular, we reached out to peacemakers from communities and countries that are not making the daily headlines but are nonetheless greatly impacted by the virus. These included: Afghanistan, Bosnia, Brazil, Iraq, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Serbia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Syria. 

Through these conversations, five major themes emerged about how COVID19 is reshaping their peacebuilding landscape, accelerating existing challenges, and creating new drivers of violence.

1) Ex-urban Migration:

With the threat of COVID19 especially acute for residents of overcrowded urban environments, many individuals have made the decision to flee cities and return to their hometowns in rural areas. The flood of people into these small, rural communities is creating pressure on already scarce resources and bringing conflicting parties back into contact with one another.

While there has been extensive media coverage of the massive internal migration caused by India’s 21-day lockdown mandated with only four hours of advance notice, there has been significantly less coverage of how COVID19 has created new migration-related challenges in other countries. In Nepal, for instance, tens of thousands of people have left the capital of Kathmandu to return to their rural villages, with one Kroc IPJ partner suggesting that the city retains only 30-40% of its previous population. 

A similar story is playing out in Nairobi, Kenya where one peacemaker reported, “Most of the financially-abled families have left the city and gone to their villages for safety. Yesterday all the bus stops in the city leading to rural homes and villages were full of passengers.”  

2) Elite Rent-Seeking Behavior:

Many elites are financially capitalizing on the need for social isolation and the quarantining of individuals potentially exposed to COVID19. According to one of our peacemakers, for instance, political and business elites have compelled sick and potentially exposed individuals to stay in medical facilities that they own or, when they become too full, their hotels. Individuals are then charged significant sums for their stays in these facilities, often beyond what they or their families are capable of paying. Youth aligned with these elites and their political parties, many of whom are no longer able to earn a living from their previous work in the informal sector, are playing the role of enforcers, forcibly collecting payments and often running into conflict with youth from rival parties and/or ethnic groups. 

3) Under Threat Online:

As many of our peacemakers are forced to move their work to online platforms, they feel they are at greater risk. Our peacemakers shared that they were already under threat from authoritarian governments cracking down on civil society before COVID19, and now, with the majority of their work being done online, governments are able to track and monitor them more easily. Many of our peacemakers do not have or know the best measures to take to protect themselves against such threats.

We are seeing these new online concerns playing out on Zoom, which lacks proper security protocols such as not having end-to-end encryption. This has allowed the content of thousands of online video meetings to be hacked and their participants identified. Also, governments are seeking to undermine online privacy measures in the name of COVID19. Whether it’s direct attacks or mining of people’s data (i.e. their movements around cities) the work our peacemakers once did offline is now under new threats as it moves online. As one peacebuilder shared, “I myself have been the victim of cyber attacks which has led me to stop using online social platforms, but I also don’t know what is my alternative now? How do I connect safely with my partners now that all of our work is online?” 

4) The Threat of Increasing Extremism and Gang Violence:

As many key articles have highlighted, domestic and other forms of violence are on the rise during these times. Furthermore, resources are being pivoted away from peacebuilding measures and towards addressing the pandemic. As our peacemakers highlighted, these cases are not unique to just a few contexts, and are occurring in more and more countries. A peacemaker from Pakistan explained, “With the greater focus and devotion of resources to COVID19, less attention is being paid to the extremist groups. These groups are seizing this opportunity to grow in strength and reach into more communities within my country and region.” 

Additionally, in other countries gang violence may be going down in the short term as governments pull back aggressive measures towards them to focus on COVID19. However, our peacemakers shared concern that this violence will return and possibly increase in the future as they are seeing gangs able to gain more ground while the government is focusing elsewhere. As one peacemaker from Brazil described, “We are also very worried because low-income neighborhoods dominated by militia and drug gangs can expand their control over these territories during this period where police are focused on addressing COVID19 issues - such as enforcing curfews, social distancing and medical support.” 

5) Creeping Authoritarian Rule and Abuse by Police:

Various reports have raised the concern that COVID19 is allowing governments to consolidate and increase their power in the name of ‘protecting their citizens during the pandemic’. Through our conversations with our peacemakers, we heard that this consolidation of power is having direct effects on increasing violence against citizens. As one peacemaker from Kenya shared, “To enforce curfews [during COVID19], the government has deployed security forces and this has created a tension among people and the police, especially in the coast where women and men were brutalized as they waited for a ferry, and a young Muslim boy was killed by police in one of the informal settlements.” Other peacemakers in places like the Middle East and Eastern Europe are seeing their governments seizing this crisis as an opportunity to develop measures that weaken the protection of civilian’s online privacy, threaten the rule of law and roll back democratic values. Under such governments, our peacemakers are asking themselves: what will the state of their civil society and rule of law look like post COVID19 as their governments roll back important human rights? 

At the Kroc IPJ, we are committed to working with peacemakers to end violent conflict. This includes playing our part in confronting the new peacebuilding challenges that emerge from COVID19, while staying steadfast in addressing the issues that existed before the crisis. We are dedicated to supporting our peacemakers, from Kenya to Sudan, Nepal to Pakistan and in countries around the globe. Our hope is that by raising awareness about these challenges early on, the peacebuilding community can take action to address them in their infancy, before they further compound already complex environments and cost more lives. 

Interested in learning more about the ongoing work at the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice? Learn more here


Jennifer Bradshaw
(619) 260-4189