Peace and Pandemics: How COVID-19 will impact violence and what we can do about it

As the world prepares for and responds to the direct health impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus, those of us who work on reducing violence and preventing conflict are also bracing. The coronavirus pandemic is already producing knock-on effects for safety at the individual level, the community level, and – potentially – at the international level.

Recognizing and naming the risks we face is imperative, as is highlighting the positive steps being taken to reinforce peaceful resilience, to remind ourselves of our common humanity, and to re-invest in the international systems of cooperation that are more critical now than at any time in the past decade.

Below are six areas we should be prioritizing from a conflict and violence perspective, followed by a roadmap to help us chart a pathway forward:

Increases in domestic and intimate partner violence. Over 35% of women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence, much taking place within the home, by intimate partners or family members. Isolation and quarantine requirements will force many women to remain inside with their abusers. Last month, during China’s quarantine, there were three times as many calls to police reporting domestic violence incidents than the previous year. Simultaneously, resources – shelters, outreach by social workers, law enforcement intervention – will be more limited as funds dry up, staffing tightens, and priorities shift. Women are essential voices in reinforcing peace and social cohesion. And, yet, when crisis strikes, their bodies, as the WHO has said, become battlefields.

An increase in firearms deaths. The United States dominates the global arms industry. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, sales of firearms in the US have spiked, as indicated by a 300% increase in processing of background checks. Many of these purchases are being made by first time gun owners, some of whom will have limited training on proper handling and use of a firearm. Unsecured guns in the home kill eight children every day in the US and increase likelihood of death from suicide and domestic violence. Given relaxed regulations on sales of guns overseas, a proliferation of weapons could ultimately result in more trade of firearms to countries nearby, including those already struggling with exceptionally high levels of violence such as Mexico, El Salvador, and Jamaica. More guns will make families less safe in both the short and longer term.

Increased violence resulting from lack of trust. Trust in governments is declining around the world. During the recent outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a lack of trust in governmental and international response resulted in over 300 attacks on health workers in 2019. Such incidents are not only immediately destructive, they limited the ability to fight the deadly spread of Ebola. Just when we need them most, the intentional undermining of our systems of international cooperation over the past decade has and will continue to allow conflict to take root. It is partly for this reason that there has been a 140% increase in armed conflict since the year 2000. Unsupported international systems of assistance will further undermine the ability to deliver aid and stop the spread of COVID-19 to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including the millions trapped in Northern Syria right now.

We will see an increase in human rights abuses. The lack of trust in governing institutions is partly a consequence of a rise in authoritarianism across the globe, where both civic and journalistic space are diminishing. Political leaders will use this emergency to further consolidate power. States will take action against civilians resulting in abuse of human rights and limitations on freedoms in the name of pandemic abatement. We will see further negative impacts to processes of democracy, even in places with strong democratic traditions. Elections in the UK and US have already been postponed, where we will see cries of foul play by political actors down the road.

Fear will be used to incite violence. While some will respond to the pandemic with calls for greater cooperation, others will turn into fear and violence. Already we have seen attacks on foreigners in Ethiopia, people of Asian descent around the world, and a rhetoric among leaders that aims to use the virus to fan the flames of identity-based otherism. Social media will allow such fearmongering to spread, creating opportunities for maligned actors to further their manipulations of popular content for strategic aims. The use of social media to foment violence is well documented, from Myanmar to India to Brazil. There is no reason to expect that COVID-19 will not be subject to social media manipulation as well.

Extreme number of displaced persons will suffer even more. As people look inward to protect themselves and their loved ones, the world must not forget that the COVID-19 outbreak is taking place at the same time that there are over 70 million people forcibly displaced as a result of conflict, violence, and persecution. Not only are displaced populations at particular risk of the health impacts of the coronavirus, the underlying breakdown of peaceful order will continue. As governmental and philanthropic organisations shift funding to invest in immediate public health needs, attention risks shifting away from maintaining the ceasefire in northern Syria, consolidating gains in Ethiopia or halting arms sales fueling violence in Yemen.

It is hard to consider the scope of the challenges ahead and think optimistically – and yet, we must. Luckily, we have roadmaps to help chart a path forward. Those who dedicate their lives to making people and communities safer – the peacebuilders of this world – can light our way.

As a first step, we must acknowledge that unless we address the global tilt towards inequality, the above phenomenon will not only worsen, they will consolidate. As the UN Secretary-General has said, “Income disparities and a lack of opportunities are creating a vicious cycle of inequality, frustration and discontent across generations.” Inequality directly contributes to fueling violence, undermines our ability to reverse cycles of poverty as called for in the Sustainable Development Goals, and undermines a sense of collective respect in humanity. Calls are being made to respond to the current crisis with attention paid to addressing long-standing inequalities, including those between genders. We would do well to heed such advice.

Second, it is long past time to rebuild our faltering governing systems, placing real value in the legitimacy of institutions. In the short term, in places from Nairobi to Chicago where governments have failed to deliver safety outcomes for all residents, we are seeing credible messengers share information on how to address COVID-19, providing a protective layer in areas where trust in government is low. These efforts should be supported to both address COVID-19 and potentially build a stronger platform for future transformation of public sector investment, something that must start by listening. Re-investment in our institutions extends to our international systems of cooperation as well. Tackling the coronavirus and the fallout it will bring cannot be accomplished by one nation alone. It’s well overdue to respect, fund, and staff our international institutions to support not only direct service, but also the nuanced negotiations to recover from this pandemic. 

Finally, listening to people also reinforces social cohesion more broadly, which is crucial to helping communities recover from disasters. People want to feel part of something, including at times of crisis. This is particularly important in contexts where trust is low. Creative social networking has already begun taking place within the context of COVID-19 pandemic as people, companies, and governments reinforce the power of collective resilience. Recalling the methods proven to reinforce resilience will be crucial in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Indeed, there are already lessons about how governments can communicate the public health imperatives in such ways that calm fears and support best practice.

The spirit of the protests witnessed around the world in 2019 will not die as a result of COVID-19. The tools of communication may shift, but the message will be the same. People demand respect, voice, and agency at the individual, community, national, and global level. Crisis breeds creativity. We can come out of this better, healthier, and more peaceful. But only if we try.

Rachel Locke is Director of Impact:Peace at University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice.

Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies – new website

I am currently leading the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies initiative –  a group of member states, international organizations, global partnerships, and other partners, convened by the governments of Brazil, Switzerland, and Sierra Leone, and supported by the Center on International Cooperation. Many of you will have seen our Roadmap, and information about the initiative on here, at events, and on other websites.

We have just launched the new Pathfinders website – take a look and find out the latest on the implementation of the SDG16+ targets.

Roadmap for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies – HLPF side event

Every time I read the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, I am struck again by the magnitude of the task of delivering them. The agenda hails itself as “supremely ambitious and transformational,” which is all well and good, but only if there is equivalent ambition in implementation.

At the Center on International Cooperation, our focus is on the targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies – not just those in SDG16, but in all Sustainable Development Goals.

We started with violence against children, helping create the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. With the partnership, we contributed to the INSPIRE strategies, the first time the international community has united behind clear recommendations to policymakers on how these forms of violence can be prevented.

Over the past year, we have supported the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a group of member states, international organizations, global partnerships, and other partners that has been convened by the governments of Brazil, Sierra Leone, and Switzerland.

Based on existing country leadership and best practice, the Pathfinders have developed a roadmap for 36 targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). For the first time, this tracks a way forward for turning the ambition of the SDG targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies into reality.

You can read the roadmap here.

Today, the draft roadmap was presented at a side event at the High-level Political Forum in New York. Here’s what the UN Deputy-Secretary General, Amina Mohammed, had to say about the roadmap:

The roadmap proposes three cross-cutting strategies:

  • Invest in prevention so that all societies and people reach their full potential.
  • Transform institutions so that they can meet aspirations for a more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable future.
  • Include and empower people so that they can fulfill their potential to work for a better future.

It sets out nine catalytic actions: on violence against women, children and vulnerable groups, building safer cities, prevention for the most vulnerable countries, access to justice, legal identity, tackling corruption and illicit flows, open government, empowering people as agents of change, and respecting rights and promoting gender equality. around a common agenda.

The roadmap is the result of an extensive process of consultation and debate, and will be finalized in the coming weeks. We will then launch it in September, at the High-level week of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly.

The Pathfinders will then continue their work as a platform for action. The group will not displace existing activity, but will act as a ‘docking station’, bringing partners from across the world together around a shared vision.

The focus is on the High-level Political Forum in 2019, when Presidents and Prime Ministers will gather for a summit on the 2030 Agenda and ask ‘what have you achieved over the past four years?’

Will we have a good answer to that question?

Action/2015 –the official verdict or why coalitions are totally worth it

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On April 22nd, about 160 countries are expected to officially sign the Paris Climate Agreement which was negotiated last year. It was one of the two international deals agreed by Heads of State in 2015 which made it such a critical year for international development and for millions of activists and citizens around the world. The second was the agreement of the new Sustainable Development Goals-  or the Global Goals –  which provide a new and ambitious framework to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change.

The global coalition – action/2015 – was formed because of those two historic deals.  It brought together civil society around the world – from the big organisations like World Vision to small grassroots groups and networks– to campaign together across sectors and geographies.  As Head of the action/2015 campaign for Save the Children, one of the organisations at the heart of the action, I was one of those campaigners.

With the signing of the climate deal this week and the independent evaluation of the campaign concluded (which you can read here), it feels like a pretty good time to step back and reflect on what worked, what didn’t and what we can learn for the future

When action/ 2015 was first conceived, lots of people were sceptical. And there’s no denying it was ambitious. The idea of bringing together diverse sectors from climate and development across hundreds of countries with different cultures, languages and attitudes to campaigning in just under two years seemed pretty unachievable to many – especially those who had worked in coalitions before! I have to admit when I started on the campaign at the end of 2014 I had similar qualms – could we really pull it off?

But, I’m proud to say the campaign proved the sceptics wrong. The official evaluation highlights in its 7 main conclusions that one of the key impacts of the campaign was that global civil society groups learned to work together. I would caveat that to say that action/2015 helped them to work better together but the sense of solidarity that grew across the campaign was undeniable. it worked because of the campaign’s loose, fluid structure that meant individual organisations or national coalitions could take the content and tactics they liked, adapt them to their own contexts and leave the bits that didn’t work for them.  It was also crucial that this was not a campaign with specific policy asks but was  focused on mobilisation.

“The main reason we got involved is because it is a unique campaign. It links global to local, and it aims at mobilising citizens. This was unique meaning that we usually target policy makers, but this was more about masses, numbers, reaching out to everybody. And that attracted me. It was something different.” , Participating organisation, Africa

The other main point that leaps out is the conclusion that ‘action/2015 made meaningful steps towards Southern ownership of a global campaign’. By the end of the campaign 80% of its members were based in the South.  The campaign’s centre of gravity definitely felt like it was much more in the cities, towns and villages of India or the streets of Costa Rica and Kenya than Northern capitals.

Big NGOs did play a driving role in the campaign, but in a different way than in previous campaigning. I’m proud that Save the Children took much more of a backseat, deploying resources and support to help civil society all over the world campaign.

It certainly wasn’t an easy campaign and we didn’t get everything right. In many ways we were building the car as we were driving and there’s no doubt with more resources and time  we could have achieved more but what the campaign did achieve should not be dismissed. Millions of people mobilised to take action, a new generation of activists inspired, some amazing backers from Malala to One Direction, a strong basis laid to ensure the successful implementation of both deals and a new model of campaigning.

So the big question now is what next?  The evaluation sets out 10 lessons. Some of them might sound obvious like leaving enough time for planning and the importance of proper evaluation but these are often the mistakes made again and again.

Tax injustice, the refugee crisis and global health challenges like Zika – these are all issues that have been hitting the headlines. The new frameworks we have could arguably have helped prevent many of the inequalities that lead to and exacerbate s these and similar crises and they can definitely help reduce their likelihood in the future. But that won’t happen unless people know about the deals and are able to hold their leaders to account. That’s why a sustained and concerted campaign building on the momentum and goodwill generated last year is vital.  We need to campaign less about the frameworks themselves but campaign about them through the real life lens of people’s lives.

Campaigning is about trying new things and being prepared for some things not to work.Yes if we were to do action/2015 again I’d do some things differently but I would keep the same level of ambition and the open, inclusive campaigning model. action/2015 has built a huge appetite for campaigning together all around the world which we must harness. I can’t put it any better than one of the action/2015 campaigners from Africa – “I got more friends and when you have more friends you feel stronger.

NGO air miles? Whose bright idea was THAT?

Remember a time when people went out and joined hands in the streets to demonstrate their passion about the issues they cared most about? Well, forget all that sentimental crap and get with the 21st century, my friend. These days, it’s all about the NGO airmiles.

NGO air milesThis is an excerpt from the website of the Global Citizen Festival, next weekend’s jamboree in Central Park at which Coldplay, Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, and Pearl Jam will extol the virtues of the Sustainable Development Goals. Wondering how to get hold of a ticket? Answer: you have to go on an “Action Journey” (yes, really). Once you accumulate 65 points from taking actions like the ones above, presto! – you’re entered into the lottery for tickets.

Now, call me old fashioned, but isn’t the point of mobilising people for demonstrations to show politicians clearly that said demonstrators really care about the issue in question? True, that clarity may have got a bit blurred once demonstrations started turning into free U2 gigs like Live8. But that’s nothing to the mixed messages we’re sending politicians once they start to wonder if the people tweeting them about water and sanitation are actually just after free Beyonce tickets.

Worse than that, we’re also sending people the implicit but still unambiguous message that the SDGs aren’t worth caring about in and of themselves; that we understand that of course we’ll need to throw in some freebies in order to get you to give a shit about ending poverty by 2030, or bringing today’s levels of inequality under some kind of control, or ending violence against women and kids. Seriously? Is that really our model of activism?

Why the SDGs flunk the partnership test

Among the many useful elements of this year’s OECD Development Cooperation Report on partnerships, which is out today, is a handy 10 point checklist for what makes for a successful partnership.

The list comes courtesy of Hildegard Lingnau and Julia Sattelberger, who have co-authored a summary chapter that distils lessons learned from the various contributors’ chapters (among them one by me on public-private partnerships) and from a dozen case studies that explore a range of different partnerships in practice.

And while the list can certainly provide a good basis for gauging partnerships – more rigorous quality control of which would definitely be welcome – the thing that struck me as I read it was that their ten criteria were also not a bad basis for evaluating the larger undertaking that all these partnerships are supposed to contribute to: the Sustainable Development Goals themselves and the emerging Global Partnership that they are intended to help catalyse.

So, partly humorously and partly seriously, I went through the OECD’s partnership checklist and gave the post-2015 story so far marks out of 10 on each of the checklist’s points – an exam grade, if you will, on the state of the SDG agenda. Continue reading

How to make the Addis Financing For Development summit a success


A couple of weeks ago, preparations for July’s Financing For Development summit in Addis Ababa passed the 100 days to go mark. Unfortunately, the summit is at this point not on track to meet the high expectations for it. It faces a mutually reinforcing set of problems, including:

  • Confusion about the summit’s intended outcomes – with too many issues on the table, and a serious lack of clarity about what success would look like on each;
  • A lack of agenda setters – so far only the co-facilitators (Norway and Guyana) are really leading the process, but their room for manoeuvre is constrained by the need for them to remain neutral honest brokers; and
  • Insufficient political will – the result of the summit not yet being on heads’ or finance ministers’ radars, as well as it not being a top 2015 priority for civil society.

So what would it take to turn things around and make Addis a success? One of the essentials is a clearer political narrative – one that explains what the summit is for, what’s new this time around (as compared to Monterrey in 2002 or Doha in 2007), what it could achieve, and why high level policymakers, and above all finance ministers, should make the effort to attend. This short note (pdf), produced with colleagues at the NYU Center on International Cooperation, is an attempt to start thinking this through over just a couple of pages – any feedback and suggestions for improvement gratefully received.

More broadly, we also need a harder-edged political strategy. This paper (pdf) – which was circulated earlier this month, and so doesn’t reflect last week’s FFD talks in New York or the IMF / World Bank Spring Meetings – sets out a few ideas. Again, feedback warmly welcome.

(And on the overall SDGs agenda, David Steven and I also just published the latest in our series of What Happens Now? papers taking stock of where the process stands and where it might go next – you can download that here.)