Executive Director Jon Bellish explores an often overlooked actor within the peacebuilding process who can successfully bring implementers and donors together and help avoid common development pitfalls: "The Broker."
Peace and sustainable development require many actors working together across multiple issue sets, vantage points, and organizations, which requires coordination, continuity, and confidence built on trust.
In theory, these are understandable but, in practice, they have become harder to fully realize. In coordination, often the practicalities are never formally decided, so an ad-hoc system of loose cooperation develops as different organizations meet and form partnerships. Or the hierarchy of partnership skews outcomes.
In confidence or trust-building, we see organizations seeking to technocrify the work in order to scale up, sometimes forgetting that human beings are part of the essence of our work, which requires that trust be built through time and shared presence. And continuity can seem to shift on the tides of changing political agendas, geopolitical perspectives, and funding cycles.
How can we begin to solve these issues that create a sustainable practice toward peace? While we understand the certain set roles within this work like “implementing partners” and “government donors,” there’s another role that can help bridge the gap between the theory of development and the practice: “The Broker.”
A “Broker” is an entity or organization with political impartiality and relative financial independence vis-a-vis the protagonists (i.e. donors, implementers, and beneficiaries). This allows them to move freely among different stakeholder groups, across conflict lines.
Because peace and sustainable development require working across multiple different issues, multiple organizations must work together to achieve it. From a theoretical standpoint, this has become common knowledge, but it has proven very difficult to achieve in practice.
In many cases, the practicalities are never formally decided, so an ad-hoc system of loose cooperation develops as different organizations meet and form partnerships. Sometimes, particularly in cases where one actor is much larger than the rest, a more hierarchical system emerges in the form of a pathway to decide how to make collective decisions.
Acting as a “broker,” however, can bridge the gap between ad hoc and overly hierarchical structures. Brokers network within the network. Brokers can connect different parts of the system, gathering localized bits of information, synthesizing it, and sharing it across the system.
Brokers can work by maximizing the information all of the different participants have about what everyone else is doing, giving the participants the information they need to avoid duplicating others' work and maximizing their impact. This allows the network to grow stronger and larger while still holding together. This can happen through a myriad of mechanisms and systems but especially through periodic reporting and tracking.
Interpersonal trust is one of the most underrated forces in global development. We have convinced ourselves that, in order to work at a large scale, foreign development professionals need to technocrify their work to the greatest extent possible, stripping it down to its essence in order to scale massively. In doing this, we forget that human beings are part of the essence of our work, and the fact is that building trust takes a tremendous amount of time and a shared physical presence. It simply cannot be faked.
This quote from Anne Snyder, Editor-in-Chief of Comment Magazine and the host of Breaking Ground, really captures the depth of what it takes to build trust:
“We tend to trust those with proven integrity, with skill and a reliable track record of following through. We trust those who have our best interests at heart, especially those who have demonstrated a willingness to suffer for us. We trust those who display grit when the going gets tough, and even more so if we’ve experienced that tough in tandem. And, crucially, we trust those with whom we have frequent and regular contact, a shared project, a common experience, and, in the most powerful instances, the same love.”
Synder illuminates a key need within our field: there needs to be more overlap between those who are deciding where aid resources go and those with community relationships. This is where the Broker steps in.
Brokers can ensure that the right local actors participate in the design and planning phases of a project. They can verify to communities and donors that the requirements of the project have been met. They can create space for resolving conflicts as an intermediary. They can empower and guide local actors through the process of creating and implementing lasting solutions.
Over time, as the broker is able to facilitate positive-sum solutions and generate “wins” for different aspects of the system, mutual confidence among the protagonists will grow and become self-reinforcing.
The short duration of funding cycles has long been lamented in development circles. However, since development resources originate from within the government, the fact of the matter is that development is political, and government donors will want to keep the prerogative of changing their policy priorities on political cycles (i.e., 1-5 years).
As different as successive donor initiatives might seem to the implementers, to the populations we are meant to serve, they are not that different. From their perspective, a series of trainings, workshops, subsidies, and pieces of infrastructure “show up” where they live. The fact that this workshop or that infrastructure was made to serve a different policy priority or beneficiary group is relatively immaterial. To help local communities navigate the evolving political and policy intentions of donors, there needs to be a permanent presence that works flexibly and nimbly within the flow of funding.
This brings us back to the need for more effective coordination. When strategic coordination is prioritized, the various different tasks within a project can be orchestrated more efficiently. The shifting policy priorities among foreign and local governments would impact beneficiaries on the ground to a lesser degree, and the effort would almost certainly result in deeper and more sustainable social outcomes.
A Broker can easily step into this role to mitigate the shifting political tides and their impact on the mission and vision on the ground. Working within these systems, the Broker can ensure that the next project is additive to prior projects as donor priorities change. And while entities can come and go, the Broker can provide a stabilizing middle ground as a permanent presence in the community, even as projects and implementers inevitably change.
Re-imagining peacebuilding through the lens of the “Broker” can provide a unique approach to some of development’s most intractable problems.
We know that sustainable peacebuilding and development require increased coordination, confidence, and continuity on the part of resource holders and technocratic outsiders. Making this a reality will require us to rethink roles within the field.
In coordination, brokers can connect the gaps in the system. Through confidence, brokers can mediate conflicts and ensure the inclusion of local actors. Finally, in continuity, brokers can remain a permanent presence long after changing projects, policies, and election cycles.