Collective Impact in Peacebuilding – What Have We Learned?

03/2019 | Polly Byers

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By Polly Byers, Former CDA Executive Director

Collective Impact in Peacebuilding – What have we learned?

As challenges for humanitarians, peacebuilders, and development actors continue to grow, and as new forms of violence and threats emerge, so too, does the imperative to find more effective responses. The recent focus on applying the concept of ‘collective impact’ to peacebuilding is reflective of the interest in exploring new approaches to peacebuilding and enhancing collaboration and coordination between the range of national and international stakeholders.

For nearly 20 years, CDA’s research on why so many peacebuilding efforts were unable “to add up” to greater impact provided the conceptual groundwork for the growing work on collective impact. In 2017, with support from Humanity United, CDA produced A Framework for Collective Impact in Peacebuilding, adapting the framework for “Collective Impact” elaborated by FSG. A series of case studies on the conditions under which networks contribute to changes at Peace Writ Large (PWL) level provided evidence to further refine the Framework, and highlighted several initial issues outlined below.

What Have We Learned?

One might fairly ask, is there anything really new here? Is collective impact just another name for coordination and collaboration, or a framework to codify basic common sense?

While it is common sense, CDA’s experience has demonstrated that a conscious approach to collective action is much more disciplined and comprehensive than a beefed-up approach to coordination. Founded on a set of principles to support collaboration in complex conflict environments, the Framework focuses on five core conditions or considerations for undertaking collective action.

Not surprisingly, one of the most consistent findings from CDA’s case studies was the need for flexible approaches that adapt over time and are grounded in the specific conflict context. In contrast to traditional programs with predetermined deliverables and timelines, adopting a collective impact approach allows for organic program development without the constraint of prescribed outcomes or deadlines.

Another key lesson was the critical role of local leadership and the importance of maintaining the independence of the networks – by definition, collective impact efforts are locally owned and led processes. The case studies also highlighted the sensitivity around the involvement of outsiders as facilitators, particularly the risk that outsiders can be perceived to exert too much control, as well as the catalytic role the outsiders can play.
While the case studies documented a wide variety and divergence in approaches, they consistently underscored that mutual trust and shared values were the essential foundation for collective efforts; they provide the glue for effectively navigating the sensitive and often contentious terrain of resolving conflict and building peace, particularly when organizations might be competing for funding.
The case studies also revealed challenges for donors. To support this more open-ended approach, collective impact requires a different model of strategic philanthropy – flexible, sustained support for processes versus products over a long period of time with no pre-determined outcomes.

What’s Next?

Even at this nascent stage, the evidence to date makes it clear that by no means a silver bullet, collective impact has the potential to become a useful addition to the peacebuilding tool box. The issues raised make it equally clear that more work is needed to understand how, when, and under what circumstances and situations it can be most useful.

While promising, it is important to understand that undertaking collective action is challenging – it is both labor and time intensive. Therefore, applying a collective impact approach is not going to be feasible or appropriate for all, or perhaps even most, situations. More evidence is needed on its value in different contexts, how it can be adapted, and particularly how collective impact can be used in relation to other approaches for cross-sector collaboration.

While the case studies underscored the importance of certain aspects of the Framework, like local leadership and support structures, there is much to learn about their details and permutations. For example, although core ‘backbone’ or support functions seemed important, existing research indicates the need for greater understanding of their structures and roles in different contexts. Learning from mistakes – what didn’t work and why – will be one useful avenue of inquiry to understand the dynamics that both inhibit and support collective impact.

Finally, funding for collective impact efforts is a significant challenge. With the exception of one of the case studies, funding is a serious constraint. Not only the level of financial resources, but as importantly, the type of funding that is normally available, runs counter to the flexibility needed for collective impact efforts. Fundamentally collective impact requires a radical shift in donors’ mindset: a willingness to support open-ended processes over the long-term. The challenge for donors is to adopt a flexible and iterative approach to support existing skills and capacity. The challenge for networks, and an important part of future research, is to explore self-financing alternatives to avoid reliance on external funding.

Given the increasing demands and evolving challenges across the peacebuilding-development-humanitarian spectrum, it is incumbent on us all to learn more about collective impact. Further work is needed – through a collective effort of civil society, international organizations, donors, and governments – to continue to learn, adapt, and understand its full potential.

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