Funding needed for the next 20 years of the women, peace and security agenda

This article concludes ASPI’s 2020 series on women, peace and security.

As we celebrate 20 years of the women, peace and security agenda, many—if not most—of the conversations I have with practitioners, advocates and activists working on WPS turn to the issue of implementation. One person I interviewed said, with no small degree of frustration, that everyone is concerned with ‘how you bridge the gap between the UN Security Council at the political level and the implementation of the agenda concretely on the ground with concrete results that make a difference in the lives of women’.

Significant gains have been made over the past 20 years. But in terms of institutionalising the agenda, increasing women’s participation in peace and security governance, and building institutional structures to protect against, investigate, and ultimately prosecute, sexual violence in conflict, there are many areas in which progress is stalling or going backwards.

Making a difference in the lives of women requires a concerted effort across diverse contexts and across diverse spheres of practice—including policymaking, advocacy, academic research, training, programming and service delivery in conflict-affected and fragile settings, and grassroots peacebuilding and conflict-prevention efforts. Moreover, tensions can arise between different manifestations of WPS as local actors pursue their specific priorities and objectives.

This complexity necessarily precludes any simple answers to the question of how the WPS agenda will continue to develop over the next 20 years.

There are three guiding principles for engagement with the WPS agenda across the various contexts within which it unfolds, however, and these relate to the most salient lessons I’ve learned from almost 20 years of research in this field: the formal rules matter, culture matters and money matters.

The rules matter

Although the WPS agenda now extends far beyond its formal codification in the series of 10 Security Council resolutions, there’s no doubt that the text of those resolutions matters a great deal. What they say forms the touchstones of the agenda, the formal rules to which WPS actors return for guidance or to promote accountability.

The resolutions themselves are, of course, each the product of sustained negotiation (for better or for worse). Critically important language is often moved from the body text (the ‘operative paragraphs’) to the preamble during the negotiation process, as language in the preamble has a norm-setting function but doesn’t mandate action.

The resolutions are ultimately adopted by the Security Council, and UN member states—usually those that are ‘pen holders’ on WPS issues—are responsible for producing iterative drafts. There’s scope, however, for diversifying resolution-focused activity at UN headquarters, and for increased representation of perspectives from civil society.

A foundational principle of the WPS agenda is that the meaningful participation of diverse women in decision-making processes and institutions of governance transforms those processes and institutions, achieving outcomes that are more inclusive and more just. The same principles should guide the drafting of resolutions adopted under the title of ‘women and peace and security’ to ensure that the text reflects and is informed by the women whose lives the resolutions seek to change.

Culture matters

One of the many lessons learned from 20 years of WPS practice is that context is important. In our analysis of national action plans, for example, my colleagues Caitlin Hamilton and Nyibeny Naam and I noted just how diverse those plans are: they emphasise different ‘pillars’ of the WPS agenda and different topics within those pillars, and they are situated differently within the machinery of government (with some interesting regional variations in this dimension).

These differences are a reminder that context matters—what is a significant WPS priority in one context may not resonate across borders. The recognition of culture specificity, and the ways in which different groups in different contexts enact WPS differently, is an important bulwark against criticisms of the agenda as an imposition from the global north that denies agency to the many WPS actors in the global south.

Interestingly, beyond the immediate national context, there may be regional cultures of WPS developing. Katrina Lee-Koo and Barbara Trojanowska have written on WPS in the Asia–Pacific, for example, adding to studies of WPS and ASEAN, and there are some important studies on WPS in the African Union as well as in the EU, NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. These studies draw out regional practice, and together generate insights about similarities and differences across the different contexts.

Thinking regionally functions as a useful reminder that ultimately the WPS agenda is an object of political contestation like any other policy framework or governance regime. Paying attention to cultural influences and the interplay between culture and WPS practice is an important element in understanding how to create conditions for successful implementation.

Money matters

While there may be cultural diversity in WPS practice, and different national and regional articulations of WPS priorities, there’s one consistent concern among WPS supporters: the lack of adequate funding for WPS initiatives.

A commitment to funding peace work is embedded in the architecture of the agenda: three WPS resolutions mention funding not only in the preambles but also in the operative paragraphs that mandate action. Despite this, a ‘lack of financial resources, coupled with insufficient political commitment by decision-makers—from national governments [and] the UN alike—are commonly named the key factors for the disappointing implementation of the women, peace and security agenda’.

As two decades of WPS work draws to a close, and we face the near certainty of increased austerity measures worldwide in response to the pandemic-induced economic downturn, the question of sufficient and consistent funding is sharper than ever.

Money matters directly, as a way of resourcing the initiatives that are set out in national, regional and international plans and guidelines, and also indirectly, as a way of signalling political will. Political commitment to women’s rights and gender justice must be both underpinned and signalled by the investment of ongoing resources and the recognition of women’s work.

It was women’s agency that mobilised support for the foundational resolution, and it is women’s work that has largely motivated the successes of the WPS agenda over the past 20 years. Realising the principles of the agenda means creating political, social and economic opportunities for women, and that involves making political, social and economic investments. The next two decades of WPS work must be funded.