The Local in Peacebuilding: What We Can Learn From Community-led Organizations

Women gather inside a "peace hut" in Liberia. (UN Photo/Andi Gitow)

Today is the International Day of Peace, sometimes unofficially known as World Peace Day. The United Nations General Assembly declared it a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples, in 1981. In the intervening years, much research has been done on peace and on the factors that contribute to a peaceful society—key among them being the existence of justice and equality for everyone. Peace, of course, is the central goal of all the work of international actors and in order to understand how to promote it, we need to recognize how peace is built on the ground and how initiatives at the grassroots contribute to building and sustaining peace.

In recent years, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been working to reform the UN’s approach to peace and introduced the prevention and sustaining peace agenda. The definition of sustaining peace contextualizes peacebuilding within the full spectrum of the conflict cycle, rather than solely an action taken after conflict ends. This reframing shifts the starting point of thinking about peace to understanding risk and resilience in a society, and preventative rather than reactive approaches. Central to this is the prioritization of the local and ensuring that the work of the international community compliments and supports the initiatives of local actors.

In order to operationalize this line of thinking there is a need for greater understanding of peacebuilding network structures, including their comparative advantages and challenges. Too often, priorities for peacebuilding are set by national elites and international stakeholders without adequately consulting or incorporating local knowledge and expectations, without sufficiently recognizing the often significant influence and reach of local civil society organizations, and without creating adequate space for their participation in—if not leadership of—peacebuilding processes.

A new report released by the International Peace Institute (IPI) examines the work of community-led peacebuilding networks with the aim of identifying approaches for more inclusive and integrated peacebuilding. There are eight case studies from Burundi, the Central African Republic (CAR), Colombia, Kenya, Liberia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe, written by local peacebuilders working in each country, reflecting a wide range of organizational types and contexts. The diversity of networks reflects the diversity of environments in which they have emerged.

Some of the countries examined, including South Africa, Colombia, and Liberia, have comparatively long histories of robust civil society engagement. Many of the networks, like Redepaz in Colombia and the Peace Huts in Liberia, emerged from grassroots social movements in response to violence, injustice, political and economic marginalization, or lack of effective or equitable service delivery by the state.

Elsewhere, such as in CAR and Burundi, civil society organizations remain nascent as a force for social change. Rather than emerging organically at the grassroots level, civil society networks may be the result of local NGOs collaborating with and receiving support from international NGOs, the UN, or the national government. The Central African InterNGO Council, for example, was created following discussions between the government, donors, and civil society to create a platform to advise them on projects and programs. The civil society networks range in size and reach from a few member organizations operating in a handful of communities to nationwide networks such as the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka, which has over 3,000 village-level societies and some 1,500 full-time employees. Liberia’s Peace Huts started as part of a campaign by the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, an informal network with an estimated 23,000 individual members, the majority of whom are women. Regardless of their size, grassroots organizations are at the core of each network’s structure and play a central role in its decision-making processes.

The networks are often a mix of formal and informal structures. Members generally elect officials to head a central secretariat and are represented in the network’s decision-making bodies. However, the extent to which the secretariat directs the operations of provincial and local structures and the degree of grassroots influence on central strategies vary, as does the extent to which networks’ decisions are binding or voluntary for members. Redepaz in Colombia, which comprises hundreds of peace and development organizations, has several national and regional administrative bodies, but local nodes constitute its core. PeaceNet Kenya started as an umbrella organization but became an independent entity increasingly engaged in direct programming. In other cases, like the Peacebuilding Network of Zimbabwe, a network may be coordinated by a single member but have all members collectively make decisions.

The cases underscore the organizational, political, and financial advantages and risks to operating as part of a broader network. Organizationally, networks expand civil society organizations’ geographic reach and allow them to access more diverse knowledge, expertise, and constituencies. They also help them expand their horizontal relationships (with one another) and vertical relationships (with national, regional, and international organizations). As Stephen Kirimi notes in the case study on Kenya, “By functioning as networks, organizations are… able to penetrate communities and areas that would otherwise not be easy for single entities to reach, especially if they are non-local.” The increased reach of networks can further incentivize new members to join. In Colombia, Nicolás Chamat Matalla notes that, “As networks have increased their territorial presence, more organizations and initiatives have decided to join, further increasing the number of members and diversity of the programmatic agenda.”

Moreover, networks can help organizations respond to shifting needs and realities more flexibly and rapidly and adopt more holistic approaches. As Senzweshile Ngubane and Patrick Kanyangara observe in their study of networks in Burundi, “CSOs operating in networks are either able to respond rapidly through advocacy or have the capability to address challenges across the country by virtue of having access to timely information.” However, managing network members’ diverse opinions, expectations, and capacities can be challenging.

Politically, networks can face challenges in determining when and how to partner with governments, how to avoid state capture, how to stay impartial while advocating for change, and how to work in constrained or closing political space. As Kirimi notes, being influenced by party politics “damages the credibility of the network in the eyes of the community.” Most networks emphasize their political nonpartisanship—and in some cases their religious non-affiliation—so, as Chamat Matallana describes, they can “criticize allies when necessary, including the government and international donors.” In Colombia, Both Ruta and Redepaz described their interaction with the government as “an ongoing negotiation in which their territorial coverage, human capital, and local know-how add to their bargaining power.”

At the same time, participation in a network can be a source of resilience, particularly in the face of political violence. The flexibility and dynamic membership of networks may make it more difficult for the state or armed groups to target a single person or organization. The Burundi case study suggests that it may be easier for networks than for individual organizations to lobby officials and take action in countries with limited democratic space; by dispersing activities among their members and unifying their messaging, they can make it harder for the government to silence them.

Lack of predictable and sustainable funding and increased reliance on project financing, mainly from international donors, is one of the main challenges facing most peacebuilding networks. This can create competition for scarce resources among network members, or between members and the network secretariat, and can cause networks to align their projects with donor agendas. But networks can also open up access to international funding to smaller organizations that lack the capacity to navigate complex donor requirements on their own.

On this international day of peace, as we consider how to build and sustain peace in an increasingly divided world, it is important to remember the role of local ownership of peacebuilding design and practice, to take local knowledge fully into account in designing peacebuilding programs and assessing conflicts, and to strive for the meaningful participation of local peacebuilding actors. As the case studies in the report demonstrate, communities affected by violence and political turmoil are often several steps ahead of the international community in mobilizing for political change, building bridges across divided communities, helping those dealing with trauma and loss to heal, seeking redress for injustice, and giving voice to those made invisible. In the search for new approaches to connect local-level initiatives to international programs and to move local knowledge from the bottom up, community-led peacebuilding networks may have a key role to play.

Lesley Connolly is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI).