Can Peacebuilding Work for Sustaining Peace?

A female artist works on a mural during a campaign called "Open Day of Art" in Sanaa, Yemen, on March 15, 2018. (Hani Al-Ansi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

The last decade has been marked by increasing skepticism as to the viability, and indeed effectiveness, of the state-centric, liberal assumptions and frameworks that have informed the practice and expansion of peacebuilding. Ever since its introduction by Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s “An Agenda for Peace,” peacebuilding has been the target of growing criticism. A key question at this stage is how the commonly identified lacunae of the peacebuilding paradigm can best be addressed to foster greater ownership and effective implementation of the emerging concept of “sustaining peace.”

“Sustaining peace,” as a relatively new concept, gained prominence following the 2015 review processes on peace operations, the UN peacebuilding Architecture and  on Security Council Resolution 1325. All three reviews eschewed the language of peacebuilding in favor of sustaining peace. In April 2016, in response to the peacebuilding architecture review, the General Assembly and Security Council adopted substantively identical resolutions affirming the UN’s commitment to sustaining peace, as an overarching goal and a process for addressing the enduring challenges of violent conflict and laying the foundations for durable peace.

Make Peace the End Goal, But Don’t Prescribe a Shape

The application of peacebuilding as a paradigm for intervention in countries emerging from conflict must be understood in its historical context of the end of the Cold War, when the Western liberal ideal was viewed as the final, universal form of government. It is not surprising that subsequent interventions aimed at securing peace in the aftermath of a conflict would seek to “reconstruct” war-torn societies in the image of this ideal, with representative democracies, free market economies, and a rights-based approach to the rule of law.

Although divergent in emphasis and approach, critics of peacebuilding are unanimous in pointing out its roots in liberal values. Whereas some scholars continue to defend the relevance of these values while scapegoating predatory elites, poor implementation, or lack of political will for the failure of peacebuilding interventions, others reject their relevance as a pathway to peace altogether. From an empirical standpoint, regardless of whether the cause is an erroneous normative assumption, or the ineffective implementation of interventions, one can assert with some confidence that peacebuilding operations have not always had a successful track record for actually “building” peace.

The first critique of peacebuilding as a paradigm is that it has a highly deterministic vision of what peace looks like. This vision is molded in the image of those Western democracies who successfully refrained from fighting each other after World War II. Given the violent history of Western Europe for centuries before, it is somewhat presumptuous to contend that “democracies do not fight each other.”

Moreover, by the time peacebuilding took off as a paradigm, the pressing peace and security challenges were intra-state rather than inter-state violence. Nonetheless, some have argued that interventions aimed at building peace within countries are ultimately determined by their instrumental value to international order and stability as dictated by powerful nations. Concerns over terrorism or an influx of refugees are two factors, for example, that may dictate where “building peace” is a priority. The combination of ascribing a specific form to peace—a society founded on liberal values—and of instrumentalizing peaceful societies as a means of maintaining international order and stability—rather than as a goal in its own right—significantly narrows the scope and definition of peace to one that is deeply securitized.

Thus, the first parameter of a sustaining peace paradigm should be to focus on peace as the end goal, rather than as a pathway to stability, without imposing a pre-determined vision of peace. The priorities reflected in the liberal peace agenda—building state capacity, restoring state authorities, and transitioning to democracy through elections—do not necessarily align with the priorities of all populations. Peace settlements that tend to inform the mandates of some peace operations are usually elite-driven affairs from which most of the concerned population has been excluded, creating a legitimacy deficit in the implementation of peacebuilding interventions. The race towards establishing a representative democracy often comes at the cost of meaningful participation, further entrenching exclusionary patterns that are the hallmark of what Johan Galtung referred to as structural violence, and which ultimately leads to direct violence.

In order to remedy the disconnect between elite-driven priorities and the local needs of the population, some have called for the implementation of a popular peace as opposed to a liberal one. Popular peace is framed by local priorities and serviced through institutions which, if lacking, are supported through external cooperation. The forces of government and governance are thus combined to serve the “will of the people.” To some extent, even proponents of the liberal peace model have recognized that peacebuilding interventions have often grossly circumvented the will, needs, and agency of local populations.

Although the concept of a more inclusive and participatory approach to peace is itself not novel, the assertion that the definition of peace ought to be a participatory exercise and indeed a pre-requisite of interventions may be somewhat more contentious. In practice, this would mean that an inclusive and widespread consultative process aimed at defining the priorities and objectives of the population would have to precede any intervention aimed at sustaining peace.

This proposition faces potential roadblocks and dilemmas. One is how to engage directly with the population without making government officials feel that their unique prerogative, as elected, sovereign representatives to engage with their own people has been usurped. The flip side is how to partner with these representatives without risking that these consultative processes or projects will be captured for narrow political gains.

The other dilemma is definitional and relates to what constitutes “local.” Thinkers caution that the “local” is not a homogenous entity and should not be approached uncritically. Furthermore, power and authority are as contested locally as at the national level and not all local actors are contributors to peace.

Both of these dilemmas are amplified when transposed to a context that is beset by violent conflict, where societies are polarized and legitimate governments are nonexistent. As such, the exact timing for consultations on peace may have to be defined differently in each case, and may itself require being premised on certain conditions informed by these dilemmas.

Recognizing Complexity, Targeting Resilience

Although peacebuilding has been largely outcome driven in seeking to neutralize conflict, sustaining peace should nurture a society’s resilient capacities to address conflict in a constructive manner.

Much of peacebuilding practice and policy, including the recent resolutions on sustaining peace, is wedded to the notion that peace and conflict form a necessary binary. As a result, peacebuilding interventions are conceived as a package of interventions aimed at addressing the root causes of conflict and are informed by the assumption that removing the causes of conflict will result in peace. The factors associated with peace are understood to be the inverse of those leading to war and conflict.

Empirical research has shown that the processes for averting or mitigating the causes of destructive conflict are different from those aiming at building and sustaining peace. What the former produce is negative peace, i.e., the absence of war or violence. The latter processes are driven by a broader conception of peace that includes such considerations as justice, human rights, economic equality, and other positive aspects of human and social development. These distinctions seem to elude even more forward-thinking propositions for building and sustaining peace that rightfully point out the need to prioritize prevention, but fail to recognize that peace, rather than conflict, can itself be the starting point for proactive policies aimed at building peace.

The inevitability and even desirability of conflict in human social organization has been discussed at length since the early days of peace research, with scholars such as Jean Paul Lederach contending that conflict is in fact a driving force for innovation in society. Violent conflict is an altogether different issue, but conflict, manifest in the competition between ideas or resources, it is argued, ultimately drives the emergence of new ideologies, systems, and institutions. A recent resurgence of interest in complexity theory goes further in suggesting that a society’s capacity for self-organization is nurtured by confronting conflict. The liberal peacebuilding agenda, in its attempt to control political and social spaces to ensure security and stability, has in fact undermined the emergence of self-organizing capacities within societies.

Recognizing that conflict is natural has led to a growing interest in resilience on the part of peacebuilding actors. Rather than attempt to eradicate conflict, the focus should be on ensuring that societies have the capacity to address conflict in a constructive manner. To some extent, this is already reflected and incorporated in peacebuilding initiatives that target building the capacity of  conflict resolution institutions and mechanisms. Nonetheless, many of these capacity building initiatives reproduce the deterministic stance of liberal peacebuilding by seeking to foster a preconceived set of capacities.

A society’s capacity to self-organize and respond to conflict constructively—as opposed to violently—is nurtured over time. While it can be supported by external actors, it must ultimately emerge from within, by drawing on the society’s context-specific attributes. To take a concrete example, the case of Senegal. Scott Strauss conducted an analysis of the Casamance rebellion in the country, examining why it did not devolve into a genocide or a full-blown civil war. He concludes that a central factor was the narrative of a diverse but unified country, to which independent Senegal’s founding president, Leopold Senghor, remained fully committed. Subsequent heads of states, albeit to varying degrees, have upheld this narrative, which in combination with the strength of the army and an openness to dialogue, has contributed to managing this conflict mostly peacefully over the past thirty years.

The starting point for fostering resilience in this manner needs to be the context, not a generic template for capacity building. Sustaining peace should thus seek to facilitate inductive processes that assist knowledge to emerge from the local context—where this knowledge is provisional, subject to continuous renewal and adaptation.

Although there is a plethora of sophisticated conflict analysis tools, there exists much less research and development with regards to the analysis of resilience and local capacities. Recent efforts to study peace proactively include the frameworks for assessing resilience for peace, developed by the international peacebuilding organization, Interpeace. Another initiative, still underway, is the Human Peace Project. Using a multidisciplinary approach, and regrouping experts from a variety of backgrounds, the project has embarked on the systematic empirical study and ethnographic observation of over 120 peaceful societies and communities in order to develop a conceptual model of the core dynamics of sustainably peaceful communities.[1] While reiterating that context matters and that each society will have to discover its own pathway to peace, research such as that being conducted by the Human Peace Project do contribute to a more proactive approach to peace, one that begins to untangle peace from its necessary attachment to conflict.

Sustaining Peace Moving Forward

Now that the General Assembly decided in 2016 to discuss the issue under a new item entitled “Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace,” the above considerations, if heeded partially or fully, may contribute to reducing the mistrust with which some member states still view the sustaining peace agenda. They may also create a more propitious environment for a less guarded and bold dialogue during the forthcoming high-level meeting convened by the President of the General Assembly under the same agenda item. More importantly, these considerations could help inform national and international practitioners to make peacebuilding truly work for durable, positive peace, taking into account the recommendations made by the UN Secretary-General in his recent report on peacebuilding and sustaining peace.

Youssef Mahmoud is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Anupah Makoond is Program Coordinator for the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Peacebuilding and Reconstruction Polls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

[1] Peter T.  Coleman,  Douglas  P.  Fry,  Larry  S.  Liebovitch,  Jaclyn  Donahue,  Joshua  Fisher,   Beth  Fisher-Yoshida,  and Philippe  Vandenbroeck. 2017. ‘The  Science  of Sustaining Peace   Ten  Preliminary  Lessons  from the  Human  Peace  Project’ -unpublished conference paper.