Money Doesn’t Build Peace – People Do! Implications for Philanthropy in Contested Societies

By Celia McKeon, Assistant Trust Secretary, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

We all know that it’s not money that builds peace, but people. The complicated process of moving from violent conflict to what might conceivably become sustainable peace only happens if people take risks to enable that transition. It is the actions of people at all levels of society that make the difference, often over many years, and with many set-backs and false dawns along the way.

What does this mean for the role of philanthropy in contested societies? This was the topic I was asked to speak on at a workshop at the recent European Foundations Centre conference in Sarajevo. There are many possible approaches, but as the grants officer for the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust’s (JRCT) programme in Northern Ireland, I focused on identifying lessons from the Trust’s experience of funding there for the last four decades.

By way of background, JRCT is a responsive grant-making Trust based in the UK, whose mission is to support people working to transform the underlying causes of conflict and injustice. As a Quaker trust, we aspire to put the values of equality, peace, truth and sustainability at the heart of our work.

It was these values which led the Trust to establish a grant-making programme in response to the escalating conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. From the outset, we have been mindful of the sensitivities of being a British funder in a Northern Ireland context. We are aware that the degree to which we are seen as an internal or external actor varies according to the political perspectives of those we engage with. We remain careful to stipulate that we take no position on the constitutional arrangements within the island of Ireland.

How we have framed our approach

Although the focus of our grant-making has evolved over the years, I believe five aspects of our approach have remained consistent:

1.Listening carefully

As a British-based Trust, it has been clear to us that our grant-making priorities need to be informed by those with deeper experience than ourselves of the conflict and its challenges. We have sought to listen carefully to a wide range of views, and attempted to ensure that this is a constant process by structuring it explicitly into our practice. This has involved recruiting local experts to advise our grant-making committees, undertaking periodic formal consultations with a range of stakeholders and engaging in ongoing dialogue with applicants and grantees about the enduring and evolving challenges of the conflict.

2.Avoiding a prescriptive approach

We have maintained a responsive approach to grant-making, based around broad priorities. While there have been some shifts in emphasis at different points over the last four decades, there has also been a good degree of continuity. Our priorities are currently defined as 1) strengthening human rights and equality; 2) supporting inclusive, non-sectarian and participatory politics; 3) supporting processes of demilitarization and 4) dealing with the past. Throughout our engagement we have placed strong emphasis on strengthening women’s agency in the conflict transformation process.

3.Transparency about our values

A third element of our approach is to be transparent about our values (peace, equality, truth and simplicity), and to seek to understand the values of our applicants and grantees. This has been particularly important when taking risks to reach out to groups who have stood outside the peace process.

4.Supporting community-based responses in the context of a strong analysis of power

Our analysis is that sustainable transformation of the conflict needs to be grounded in and responsive to the needs of communities, at all points in the process. In practice, this has meant resisting the temptation to chase the glittering prize of funding “the deal”, and instead supporting the emergence of the enabling environment required to make change possible. At the same time, the Trust has also been ready to support work which has challenged the interests of the power-brokers, including the UK government.

5.Engaging flexibly for the long-term

Finally, we have considered peace-building to be a long-term process, needed long after the ceasefires have been negotiated and the political deals signed. We have tried to offer our grantees maximum flexibility in the use of our funds, on the basis of a regular dialogue about the needs associated with unpredictable and sometimes rapidly changing circumstances.

The ‘impact’ question

Measuring impact is one of the thornier challenges facing practitioners and funders working in contested societies. Conflict transformation is a complex process, comprising many interventions at many levels. Engaging with and seeking to understand this complexity is essential, but so also is the need for humility about expectations and attribution. It is often quite hard to know in advance which interventions might make a critical difference, and sometimes also unclear for a long time afterwards!

In this context we have found it helpful to encourage our grantees to articulate clear, achievable goals – even if these may be quite modest – and then to explore with them how these fit into the wider picture. It has also meant that sometimes we have needed to keep faith with processes where little appears to be happening – because we believe that these processes need to be in place when the time becomes ripe for shifts to occur.

It has also meant accepting that some aspects of change are easier to measure than others. Structural changes – in legislation or policy, for instance – can be relatively simple to assess, although can never be taken for granted as irreversible. Work which is concerned with transforming relationships – which is a key element of peace-building work – can often be harder to measure. It is our experience that there is often no substitute for qualitative data in these scenarios, and that it is vital to allow enough time to pass for a realistic assessment of the processes that have taken place. It is also important to consider whether it is more appropriate to measure change across a cluster of grants or funding programmes, rather than look to attribute specific outcomes to an individual project.

Finally, we have found it important to be honest about the fact that none of us has all the answers. We often don’t know what will be required to enable a process of transformative change. We can learn from experience, seek to develop a strong analysis, test it widely, and explore the risks and opportunities of different approaches with those who are proposing them. We can commit to learning from what doesn’t work as well as what does. But at the end of the day, we know that in conflict transformation, we cannot buy outcomes. We can only invest in people and processes, aiming to put our resources at the service of those who share our values, as they experiment with the art of building a sustainable and just peace.