Investing in Proximate Peacebuilding

Humanity United is committed to cultivating the conditions for enduring peace and freedom. This month marks the launch of our refreshed peacebuilding strategy that supports that mission. The vision that guides us in our strategy is a transformed global system in which international cooperation on peacebuilding is defined and driven by the agency and power of proximate peacebuilders. That means those closest to cycles of violent conflict should be the ones defining both the shape, and the pathways, toward sustainable peace. To move towards that vision, Humanity United will focus on supporting networks that can start to weave together into a vibrant ecosystem, where proximate actors can make meaningful change in their own contexts and begin to spark broader global change.

At the beginning of March 2020, I celebrated with Humanity United’s Peacebuilding team as we marked the launch of our first peacebuilding strategy. Within two weeks, COVID-19 changed everything. From a distance, we watched, we listened, we engaged virtually, and we tried to offer support as best we could, both to our partners and to ourselves. Luckily for us, peacebuilders, social movement activists, and other proximate actors around the world kept working and connecting. They showed the world what happens when you allow those closest to the context to take the lead, and also developed new models for what it means to accompany this work. Above all, they proved that, in a global landscape racked by multiple simultaneous crises, our first question must be “what do proximate peacebuilders want to do?”

There are multiple ways HU can engage proximate peacebuilders. For this strategy, we are focusing on four core thematic areas of work and two country-level engagements where we see potential global impact emerging from the work of proximate actors. Across the portfolio, much of our engagement will flow along three intersecting themes that emerged very clearly to us over the past few years.

First, we will support proximate networks and connect those closest to the work.

At its core, this work is about people naming what peace looks like in their context and the international community following their lead. We invest in relationships that allow diverse groups of people to work together towards a shared goal. These relationships and connections create multiple forms of power that are needed for the healthy system we work towards. That kind of collaboration creates avenues for people to use their power and agency to transform cycles of violent conflict into positive peace. This is why it is so important to listen to and follow proximate actors: they know what peace looks like and they know the pathways, and areas of focus, necessary to achieve that peace. If given the chance, they have the power to make sustainable peace happen.

The relationships within and between these networks are not a “back door” or a second thought, but are the engines for powerful innovation, and political change. Proximate peacebuilding actors and social movement leaders best understand the contexts in which they live, and have the most profound insights into how to address challenging proximate and regional conflict dynamics. In his book “A Hidden Wholeness,” the writer Parker Palmer talks about “standing in the tragic gap” or the tension felt between the reality of now and the world you want to see. That gap is bridged through relationships, the building, connecting, and deepening that happens when people from different perspectives come together to work towards a shared vision of the future. We see these networks and relationships as a sweet spot for engaging with and accompanying to operate proximate actors, showing up in the way they most need to achieve their vision for peace.

Second, we want to expand the definition of who is a peacebuilder.

Over the past three years, we witnessed people from all walks of life use the power and agency they have always had to carve out and lay claim to what peace can look like in their contexts. Through supporting work at the intersection of peacebuilding, nonviolent social movements, and human rights, we have found that the most effective peacebuilders don’t always even consider themselves peacebuilders. Almost all of them have jobs outside what we as a field have historically and narrowly defined “peacebuilding” to be. They just did what they thought needed to be done to end cycles of violence or repression. They led local dialogues. They took part in nonviolent social action. They connected with and learned from others in the human rights sector. They opened businesses that supported community-driven work and provided a safe space for peacebuilders, activists, and anyone wanting peaceful transformation to meet.

It is time to expand the lens of who plays a role in building and deepening relationships that bring positive and sustainable peace. Widening and deepening that invitation can bring more people into working together towards a shared vision for what they want to see in their communities, their countries, and the world.

Third, we will be vocal in our calls for transformed philanthropic practice.

We have been called upon by our partners to not sit by, but to engage with them. That means building efforts to shift philanthropy from being impact-obsessed to people-centered, and using advocacy, our own learning and lived-experiences, and our own relationships to shift philanthropic practice. We want to increase the collaborative funding available to proximate actors and change the way it is given out. It was not too long ago that Humanity United was focused more on a narrowly defined conception of “impact,” with very little recognition of the voices of those most affected by the harmful systems we wished to shift. We have learned our way through mistakes, increased trust with our partners, and yes, achieved successes to find the path we are currently on. As Humanity United shifts towards trust-based philanthropy, we want to influence and be influenced by private philanthropic practices that support the power of those closest to the context.

Our call to action is that in a world racked by crises, now is the time to invest in proximate peacebuilding.

As Melanie Greenberg writes in our strategy introduction, in the current global landscape dominated by rising authoritarianism, shrinking civil society space, and a new Cold War mentality, networked spaces for healing, innovation, creativity, and peace promise new avenues for social transformation. The people who are creating and inhabiting these spaces view their engagement together as radical acts of politics and imagination. These spaces not only contain the seeds within them for deep transformation at a proximate and global scale, but they also provide avenues for personal transformation through individual and collective healing. We are excited to support those transformative and healing spaces at a time when so many crises threaten to overwhelm us into complacency or frantic shifts based on the crisis of the day. We will remain focused and walk alongside our partners and grantees as we work towards a world where peace is defined by those who are closest to the context.