As part of our series on human rights for Human Rights Week, in today’s post Erik Meinema investigates how the neoliberal context in which NGOs and peacebuilding organizations operate influence their capacity to protect and promote human rights through contributing to peacebuilding processes around the globe. The neoliberalisation of peacebuilding, he argues, leads to an increased focus of NGOs on donor demands and building alliances with politically powerful actors, while drawing attention away from the peacebuilding potential of youth, and social, cultural and religious dynamics within conflict situations. These restrictions consequently hamper grassroots NGO capacity for promoting human rights. Does post-secularism potentially offer an alternative?
When I was finishing my master thesis on youth peacebuilding in Indonesia in the summer of 2012, I came across a vacancy for an intern position at the United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY), a network NGO that links up youth peacebuilding initiatives from throughout the globe. I liked that this NGO fully acknowledged youth as peacebuilding actors and was motivated to continue working on a subject that I found meaningful and interesting. I decided to apply for this position and a few weeks later, I was working at the UNOY office in The Hague. My main task as the new Africa Training Officer was to organize a training session for UNOY member organizations from Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia and South-Sudan.
When I started working for UNOY, I was on a tight schedule immediately, as I had only three months to organize a week-long meeting in Nairobi where youth from several East-African countries were going to meet each other. Practically this meant finding participants, arranging a venue and accommodation, and making sure that all the participants had the flights and visas they needed to attend the training. After a few weeks of working for UNOY, it struck me that I had not talked about any particular conflict, peacebuilding strategy or historical, cultural or religious context at all, as I was fully occupied arranging practical matters.
Unfortunately, this lack of attention for specific conflict situations and local cultural, historical and religious dynamics proved to be more of a rule than an exception. When I tried to find out what kind of conflicts our East-African partners were facing and what strategies local youth had to deal with these problems, I realized that the last time UNOY had extensive contact with its East-African partners was during an earlier training over five years ago. In the meantime, UNOY had been too busy with other projects to get in-depth knowledge on the work their partner organizations in East-Africa were doing and what kind of problems youth are facing in their respective localities. The consequence was that I could only learn about the partners I was going to work with by checking out their websites, if they had one. Without any in-depth knowledge on the work, context and experiences of the youth I was about to work with, I felt that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to develop a training course that could actually contribute to the peacebuilding work they were doing in the field.
One of the main reasons why UNOY had been so busy with other projects and regions is because getting funds for new projects is the only way for small NGOs to keep their organization up and running. This experience is not unique to UNOY, but sadly becoming more common in an era where marketization, privatization and the logic of neoliberalism are increasingly infiltrating the development and humanitarian aid sector. The struggle to survive and continuously develop new projects explains why a lot of the internal learning effort within UNOY is directed towards obtaining donor money. This is not a conscious choice to direct attention away from in-depth knowledge about context and experiences, rather a necessary survival strategy. In the five months that I worked for UNOY, I got the opportunity to participate in several internal trainings on ‘fundraising’, ‘proposal writing’ or ‘approaching possible donors’. Furthermore, I was asked to give a training on ‘networking and advocacy’ to volunteers at another NGO myself. During one of these sessions in which several small NGOs participated, a fellow NGO-worker explained how it is not unusual that more than 250 organizations respond to one call for proposals when the Dutch government has for example one million euros to spend. Each of these 250 organizations subsequently hands over a 100+ page project proposal. This means that for every million euros spent, at least 25 000 pages are written, read and evaluated before any actual program is started, a task which would take one person at least ten years full-time work to complete. Instead of critically evaluating this situation, we were advised how to make our own proposals stand out by presenting our programs as unique, and being sensible to what potential donors would like to hear.
The fact that proposal writers are encouraged to please donor demands suggests that the time-consuming competition between Dutch NGOs not only severely limits their capacity to focus on their core tasks, but also influences the work they do once they get a project approved. This view is supported by Professor Cecelia Lynch, who argued in an earlier post on The Religion Factor that increasing neoliberalization of the development sector has led to an international development language that tends to promote solutions through results-oriented market discourses that prioritize efficiency. This has resulted in a globalized NGO discourse that requires organizations to formulate their work in buzz-word categories such as ‘trainings’, ‘capacity-building’ and ‘networking and advocacy’. As small organizations like UNOY often lack in-depth knowledge on the conflict situations they intend to work in, they have no choice but to frame their projects in this donor-pleasing development language of ‘partnership building’, ‘experience sharing’, and ‘improving project development skills’. Once a proposal is approved, NGOs get evaluated based on the norms and aims they have formulated in their project proposals, which means they only have limited freedom in developing their actual programs.
While the neoliberal development language that Lynch discusses may seem relatively neutral and therefore applicable to youth organizations worldwide, the assumptions within this discourse implicitly offer a specific focus that tends to neglect other aspects of youth peacebuilding initiatives. Instead of emphasizing the expertise, potential advantages and creativity of youth, they are seen as unprofessional and inexperienced, as they are in need of ‘training’ and ‘capacity building’, while their initiatives lack ‘organizational strength’. Instead of concentrating on creative solutions local youth have to build peace in their communities despite limited conditions, the main challenge for youth peacebuilders is perceived to be obtaining politically powerful allies and donor funds by improving networking, advocacy and proposal writing skills. Instead of asking how peace is perceived by local communities and looking for ways in which peace can be established, the work of youth peacebuilding initiatives is evaluated by the amount of project proposals they write and the efficiency of their work. Instead of investigating local ways in which societies are organized and the roles youth play in these dynamics, youth are encouraged to ‘build partnerships’ with politically powerful actors, such as governments, the UN and other NGOs, while locally relevant social, cultural or religious actors are often ignored. In other words, the assumption is that for East-African youth to be able to build peace, they need to learn how to participate in the neoliberal strategizing that is common within the Dutch NGO sector itself. While such a focus on business aspects can no doubt be of advantage to youth peacebuilding initiatives, it tends to draw attention away from other relevant aspects of their work and the peacebuilding potential youth themselves have.
During my fieldwork in Indonesia, I learned that youth can have unique advantages as peacebuilding actors and can play crucial roles in peacebuilding processes within their communities. Especially the in-depth knowledge youth often have of social, cultural and religious aspects of conflict situations serves as one of their major advantages. Although UNOY explicitly aims to focus on youth and their creativity, I have argued that the dominance of neoliberal language and competition within the Dutch development sector severely limits the capacity of small NGOs like UNOY to focus on the potentials of youth as peacebuilding actors. The neoliberal competition between NGOs also leads to an increased focus on donor demands, while directing attention away from in-depth knowledge about social, historical, cultural and religious aspects of conflict situations. This means that when NGOs try to defend human rights in conflict situations, they may formulate their projects in supposedly neutral donor-pleasing neoliberal terms, while ignoring opportunities to relate their efforts to social, cultural and religious conceptions of freedom, peace and human dignity that are locally relevant.
It is here that post-secularism could be of added value to the practice of peacebuilding, in the sense that a post-secular perspective leaves open the possibility that values such as justice, inclusion, freedom and equality may not best be pursued within an exclusively secular framework. A post-secular perspective gives opportunities to go beyond the mostly secular focus of neoliberalism on political and economic power, and look for ways to take multiple social, cultural, secular and religious views on conflicts, peace and human rights into account. It also opens up the possibility to move beyond the neoliberal focus on competition, efficiency and politically or economically powerful actors, and increase our attention for the ideals, experiences and views of people at the grassroots level of society. In this way, the stories and potential of youth within conflict situations can be better acknowledged and understood.
Erik Meinema is a recent graduate of the Research Master Religion and Culture in Groningen who did fieldwork on sexuality and youth in Kenya and Uganda and youth peacebuilding initiatives in Ambon, Indonesia.
 Luca Mavelli and Fabio Petito, ‘The Post-Secular in International Relations, An Overview’, Review of International Studies, 38 (5), 2012.