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Putting People First in Times of Crisis

The US should be using peacebuilding techniques to counter conflict at home.

Words: Maher Akremi and Caroline Smith
Pictures: Pawel Czerwinski

As recent protests have reminded many, racial conflict is pervasive in America. For centuries, Black people and people of color have been subjected to a system that actively oppresses, murders, and brutalizes them. This system permeates every aspect of decision-making, including, most recently, the pandemic response, with deadly effects. To be more effective at saving lives, we must begin addressing the roots of racial conflict in our COVID-19 response. We can begin to do this by drawing inspiration from established peacebuilding techniques that have been successful across the globe.

Peacebuilding is rarely discussed in a US context, but our country also experiences the kinds of conflict that peacebuilders try to solve. Peacebuilders work in conflict-affected communities to foster peace and safety. Peacebuilding addresses the root causes of conflict to encourage stability, healing, and accountability. Critically, peacebuilders implement programs with contextual understanding of the communities where they work to avoid exacerbating or creating conflict. Using conflict-sensitive frameworks, they strive to solve the problems that exist, not make current ones worse.

While some efforts to stop the virus have been more sensitive to discord around race than others, overall, they have heightened tensions. Policies like mask requirements and social distancing exacerbate worries in communities that are consistently subject to racial profiling. People of color not only worry about contracting the virus but fear harassment at the hands of America’s police system while trying to keep themselves and others safe. Black communities are being targeted for unequal enforcement of social distancing rules. And the murder of Ahmaud Arbery shows that even engaging in socially-distant activities like going for a run is a life-threatening endeavor as a Black person. We must social distance and wear masks while at the same time ensuring that every person is safe while doing so.

A conflict-sensitive approach to COVID-19 requires addressing the underlying racial conflicts in our society that are making our response less effective.

A conflict-sensitive approach to COVID-19 requires addressing the underlying racial conflicts in our society that are making our response less effective. This could look like community members enforcing social distancing measures — instead of police — to create a safer environment and increased community participation. Another important step would be creating spaces for dialogue, a central tool in peacebuilding. This is essential because most responses have been top-down, but only those living in communities of color know how policies are failing and what needs to be done. An open digital forum could build relationships and mutual understanding between government, enforcement officials, and everyday people. A similar tool was used successfully in the Mano River region in West Africa where peacebuilders facilitated dialogues between policy-makers and citizens to bring to light the community members’ concerns and solutions to the Ebola pandemic in 2015. Applying this method to the US would make communities safer by uplifting voices that have thus far been ignored in how responses should be designed and enforced. Approaches that focus on local actors help avoid harm and improve social cohesion between communities and decision-makers.

More troubling still is that the pandemic is a larger threat to Black communities. Approximately 24% of COVID-19 deaths occur in Black communities which make up only 12% of the US population. In some areas, the proportions are even more skewed. 74% of COVID deaths in the District of Columbia have occurred in the Black community. While the data is incomplete, it is clear there is a serious imbalance that is a result of racial disparities in our health and economic systems. Unfortunately, this situation is likely to get worse in the coming weeks in the wake of protests across the nation against police brutality. These protests are powerful and necessary. But it is important to acknowledge that the Black communities at the heart of this vital movement face an increased danger from COVID-19. Our nation must counteract the disproportionate risk of the virus in the Black community while still supporting this movement by distributing resources and personal protective equipment to chronically underfunded healthcare centers in economically disadvantaged and predominantly Black and Brown communities.

Adapting our methods to existing racial conflict is key to our crisis response if we truly want to ensure the health and safety of all. For peacebuilders, the first step in preparing to work in a place is to study it, learn from local partners about their communities, and understand the context. A prime example is Search for Common Ground’s work to promote stability and gender equity in the lives of vulnerable individuals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As peacebuilders, Search monitors conflict in the region to comprehensively understand the communities in which they work and adapt their programs to new and existing conflict to build security. Similarly, the first step to integrating conflict-sensitivity into the US COVID-19 response is to collect — and make public — data on the racial identity of those impacted. A more fundamental problem to data collection is accessibility. Chicago, New York City, and many cities in Texas have failed to ensure equal access to testing in communities of color. If we can’t fully see the problems, we cannot solve them.

A second wave of the virus is underway, if the first ever ended at all, and communities of color are likely to be hit hardest once again. Until we start to use lessons from the peacebuilding sector to exact long-term, systemic change to address racial disparities, this crisis and future crises will only get worse. To ensure all individuals in the US can live safely, our responses must prioritize the safety of people of color. COVID-19 is anything but a “great equalizer;” failing to adapt to that reality only compounds the irreparable harm being done to many in our communities.

Maher Akremi was the fall 2019 Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, where he focused on locally-led peacebuilding, and technology & peacebuilding.

Caroline Smith is a fall 2019 Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at Win Without War, where she focuses on forced migration, global authoritarianism, and conflict.

Maher Akremi and Caroline Smith

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