Peacebuilding: Six Thoughts Worth Repeating

This summer at the European Forum Alpbach in Austria I joined three eminent diplomats in teaching a seminar on UN peacebuilding. There were more than 100 international students from 25 different countries in attendance.

My co-teachers were Terje Rød-Larsen, President of the International Peace Institute (IPI); Michael von der Schulenburg, Executive Representative of the Secretary-General for the U.N. Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL); and Thomas Mayr-Harting, Permanent Representative of Austria to the UN.

This rich, week-long conversation produced a few impressions that are worth repeating to a broader audience. These observations are not necessarily new, but are often lost in official U.N. gatherings concerning peacebuilding in post-conflict countries.

1) Peacebuilding is not a set of projects or institutions. Peacebuilding should not be seen only as a set of activities (security sector reform, support to elections, governance reform, etc). This cookie-cutter approach shows a lack of strategic thinking. Moreover, peacebuilding is not just the work of UN peacebuilding bodies (the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), and the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF)). An unfortunate side effect of the creation of a new UN peacebuilding architecture is the tendency to create a new silo to “contain” peacebuilding, instead of cutting across the well-established silos within the UN bureaucracy.

The majority of the UN’s peacebuilding efforts are carried out by its missions in the field, managed by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), and by the various UN specialized agencies, especially the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In addition, only six countries – Burundi, the Central African Republic, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – are presently on the agenda of the Commission, while many other are the focus of UN peacebuilding efforts. Attention only to the PBC gives a very shortsighted view of peacebuilding.

2. Peacebuilding is a process to achieve an overarching goal. Peacebuilding should be seen as a process, led by national governments and supported by the relevant international actors, to achieve the minimalistic goal of preventing a lapse or relapse into conflict, combined with the more ambitious and longer-term goal of building peaceful societies with a modicum of self-sustaining institutions. The objective of the international community is to make itself irrelevant and to be able to withdraw its support without consequence for the assisted country. In essence, peacebuilding is the “organizing principle” of the UN’s work in a post-conflict situation. My colleague Adam Smith examined the peacebuilding paradigm in a recent working paper.

3. Peacebuilding is fundamentally a political process. Building peace requires political mediation, negotiated compromises, dialogue with the political elite and the society at large, and an understanding of the political economy, history, and cultural context of the country emerging from conflict. This means transforming power structures, addressing patterns of exclusion, and the constant negotiation and renegotiation of expectations and relationships. It entails rebuilding the civic trust between citizens and their national institutions. It is about building a common state identity and a sense of belonging. It is the slow but steady work of rebuilding political processes that can manage conflict within societies without resorting to a return to violence.

4. Peacebuilding may need statebuilding, but they may collide as well. Legitimate and effective institutions are essential to stable peace, but the process of building states can re-initiate conflict or spark new tensions, as rival groups seek to seize the new institutions and gain in power redistribution. At the same time, peacebuilding and statebuilding may mutually reinforce each other. It is not only about elections and the institutions of decision-making and legitimization (governments, parliaments, constitutional processes, etc.). It is also about the institutions that can restore law and order as well as economic recovery, including revenue-generation, job creation, and the capacity to deliver basic services.

Incidentally, the establishment of law and order also creates a stable environment for investments. Statebuilding should not stop in the capital, but should also focus on traditional and local authorities and organizations that can deliver public services in areas where government outreach is absent. Michael Schulenburg stressed the importance of building seven key institutions or relationships based on his experience in Sierra Leone: political parties, central government, local government, security forces, the judiciary, non-state actors, and the media.

5. More coaches, fewer trainers. Because peacebuilding deals with political issues, the process of building peace is inherently domestic. In fact, peacebuilding is primarily a national challenge and responsibility, and local factors largely shape its pace and sequencing. International actors, such as the UN, can support this process with a sustained focus on national capacity development. But there is room for improvement concerning how the international community supports capacity building. International actors must listen to the real needs of the countries in question and provide qualified experts who speak the local language and who understand and respect the local culture. It is more about sustained coaching than delivering training courses. It is by providing positive support, feedback, and guidance that individuals will recognize ways in which they can improve how they do their jobs and, as a result, build stronger and more sustainable institutions.

6. Peacebuilding takes time. As Michael Schulenburg likes to say “peacebuilding is an attempt to cheat history.” What does he mean by that? Consolidating peace and creating strong institutions in a country is often a bloody and long-term affair. One just needs to look into European history to find many examples of how violence is inherent to the process of state formation. Moreover, states emerge over decades, even centuries, not months or years. As the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report pointed out, these are processes that in the best case scenario can take at least a generation. Sustained, long-term support to countries emerging from years of conflict is essential for a successful transition from conflict to a lasting peace.