Peacebuilding, Prevention, and Sustaining Peace: Q&A with Susanna Campbell

Susanna Campbell speaks during an event at the International Peace Institute (IPI) in New York in June. (IPI)

Prevention and sustaining peace have been central themes at the United Nations (UN) over the past two years, consistently emphasized by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The Nelson Mandela Peace Summit held during the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly was yet another example of efforts to highlight the need for more focus on preventative approaches to conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and other topics—ending with the adoption of a political declaration and a reaffirmation by member states of the goals that Nelson Mandela worked for. Yet, despite these summits and debates, there is still a challenge in linking debates at the international level with on-the-ground actors and experience.

Susanna Campbell, an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service, attempts to bridge this gap using in-depth studies of organizations operating in Burundi and fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal, South Sudan, and Sudan. Campbell’s new book, Global Governance and Local Peace, provides in-depth analysis, from a ground-up perspective, on what works in implementing effective peacebuilding project. By examining the role of the UN, international non-governmental organizations and international donors in Burundi, she has contributed to the study of how to build and sustain peace.

In an interview with Lesley Connolly of the International Peace Institute, Ms. Campbell discusses her book and how international peacebuilding organizations can learn from the experience of those in Burundi and implement and support more effective peacebuilding initiatives on the ground.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What is the current state of the debate around peacebuilding, prevention, and sustaining peace? How have you tried to contribute to this in your book?

The debate has advanced tremendously in recent years and in my book I chose to focus on three themes central to it: local ownership, accountability, and the importance of country-office leadership. I show how these three components can work together to greatly improve the peacebuilding performance of the UN in conflict-affected countries.

Inclusive local ownership enables country offices to receive real-time feedback about their peacebuilding effectiveness. The importance of local ownership is a long-held mantra in the peacebuilding and development fields. The basic idea is that peace and development can only be sustained when the people in that country want to sustain it. So, I examine how organizations that are accountable to states, such as the UN, can help to achieve local ownership.

The catch is that the United Nations and other multilateral organizations are accountable to their member states. The UN is primarily accountable for doing what states want it to do, not what local people want it to do. Organizations like the UN can create inclusive local ownership only if they make themselves accountable to local stakeholders, not only to member states.

When informal local accountability is combined with top-down accountability for peacebuilding outcomes, then country-office leadership has an incentive to pay attention to local feedback and take regular actions to narrow the gap between their ambitious peacebuilding aims and the reality of what they are able to achieve in war-torn contexts. In constantly changing contexts, this local learning is necessary for the UN to achieve its peacebuilding aims.

A key component of the current peace and security agenda focuses on improving accountability of UN peace operations. I challenge the commonly held assumption that more accountability is inherently good for peacebuilding performance. In international peacekeeping, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding, the lines of accountability run to global actors not local actors. For the UN, this accountability runs to states. But the intention behind recent reforms to increase peacebuilding and peacekeeping accountability is not to do a better job at responding to states, but rather to do a better job at responding to people in conflict-affected countries. To do this, UN country offices also have to create informal local accountability.

I also find that success in peacebuilding requires innovative country-office leaders who are able to reconcile the top-down demands of member states and donors with the bottom-up perspectives of local stakeholders. To do this, country-office leadership may have to support their staff in taking the extra time to work with and learn from local actors, beyond the host government or employees of other UN agencies, international NGOs, or bilateral donors. Country-office leadership may have to help staff bend rigid procedures or rules that were not set up to respond to nuanced, fast-paced, local contexts. Country-office leadership may have to put their political clout behind staff who want to challenge the policies of the host government or international actors that they believe will do harm to marginalized groups or other local stakeholders.

In short, the ability of the UN to act politically and pursue its peacebuilding aims relies to a large degree on the ability of its country-office leadership to make the organization accountable and responsive to the local context.

Much of your book focuses on “informal local accountability” and its importance. How would you describe “informal local accountability”? How can the international community support this?

Informal local accountability describes whether or not the country office creates inclusive local accountability, giving authority to a representative group of local stakeholders to determine if the organization has achieved its local-level aims. Accountability means that a set of actors has the ability to determine the standards that an organization abides by, judge whether the organization has met those standards, and institute sanctions if it has not met those standards.

Informal local accountability can take many forms. The Integrated UN Office in Burundi (BINUB) created several innovative informal local accountability mechanisms. In one instance, it gave a highly respected local human rights NGO the authority to evaluate the effectiveness of a project that was reforming the Burundian intelligence agency, one of the primary perpetrators of human rights abuses. BINUB conditioned the release of funds on a positive evaluation from this local NGO. In another case, it gave a representative group of participants in a political dialogue project the authority to assess the ongoing effectiveness of the project and recommend changes to the project, which the project management chose to integrate into its decision-making process.

These seemingly small acts have three linked effects. First, they ensure that the project has information about what is going right and wrong. Second, they can help to build trust between the country-office staff and local stakeholders, enabling a more open exchange of ideas and opinions. Third, they can help the country-office staff identify new opportunities in the context that they would not have understood or been aware of if they did not have regular feedback about the evolving dynamics.

In my book, I argue that the creation of informal local accountability requires the initiative and innovation of country-office staff. It is not something that can be imposed easily from above or achieved by checking a box. It requires that country staff spend time with local stakeholders to whom they are not accountable. It requires that staff take the time to set up and maintain these informal mechanisms. It also requires that country-office staff choose to listen to and respond to this local-level feedback, which may contradict the feedback that they are receiving from their bosses at headquarters. This, again, hinges on the willingness of the country-office leadership to support and enable this type of local learning. At times, this may require that country-office leadership and staff bend or break standard operating procedures established to hold them accountable to states, not local stakeholders.

Can you highlight some of the most impactful innovations taking place at the field level to advance effective peacebuilding projects? And how can international actors like the UN support this?

The most important innovation taking place at the field level is the creation of informal local accountability. Because informal local accountability can take many different forms, it is applicable across settings. But, importantly, if you try and replicate one type of informal local accountability across settings, it might lose its inclusive local accountability dimension. It may not be made up of a representative and inclusive group of local stakeholders. It may not be given the authority by the country office to provide regular feedback or help determine the direction and scope of the project.

The UN can do several things to help country offices create informal local accountability. First, the UN can begin to take stock of all of these mechanisms that have been created thus far to begin creating a catalogue of some of the potential options. Second, key people within the UN, such as peace and development advisors and monitoring and evaluation officers, can be charged with facilitating discussion sessions at the country level about informal local accountability and how it functions. Third, when supervisors go to monitor projects they could participate in informal local accountability discussions, ensuring that they receive valuable feedback and reinforce the importance of these efforts. Fourth, the UN can hire, retain, and promote people who exhibit innovative and entrepreneurial behavior that empowers local stakeholders to hold the organization accountable, potentially at the expense of standard operating procedures that focus on state-based accountability.

Burundi is a central focus of your study—one known for being a difficult environment for civil society actors due to government restrictions. How do these restrictions affect local ownership, and what are successful strategies for organizations to operate within hostile state environments?

My book examines the behavior of five organizations over a fifteen-year period in Burundi. During much of this period, Burundi had a very vibrant civil society. However, as you note, particularly since 2015 the situation for civil society actors in Burundi has become very difficult. My research shows three things about working in hostile state environments. First, in order for organizations like the UN to effectively work on peacebuilding in a particular country, they have to be able to prioritize peacebuilding as the primary objective for their respective country office. In countries like Sudan or Burundi that are hostile to international efforts to build peace, it may not be possible for country offices to pursue peacebuilding activities. Second, in countries where certain groups are clearly marginalized from participation in state institutions, it may be too risky for staff to create informal accountability routines that include marginalized groups, making it difficult to achieve peacebuilding aims. Third, the reduction of political space in these contexts may make it even more important for intervening actors to support fledgling civil society organizations and dialogue efforts that would not otherwise be able to survive, as they are the sole potential counterweights to the state.

Who should be read your book and why?

I wrote this book for people who want to understand how peacebuilding works on the ground. During my twenty years of research on peacebuilding, I have always been amazed at what innovative individuals can pull off in the face of enormous constraints. This is a story about human ingenuity. But it is also a story about humility. Peacebuilding is an incredibly difficult task. In the United States, we are still dealing with the residue of our civil war that ended over 150 years ago. International peacebuilding efforts are asking people to resolve these issues in just a few years. So another key theme of this book is that we should not think about peacebuilding efforts in an entire country as succeeding or failing. Some are successful and some fail. Given the experimental nature of the peacebuilding enterprise, we should not expect otherwise. A third theme of this book is that the international peacebuilding and development communities are bogged down by all of their best practices, which may not deliver good results on the ground. Instead, good peacebuilding practice relies on some pretty basic tenets. Figure out what is going on in the country. Talk to lots of different people from that country and check your understanding and assumptions, often. Be honest about your own successes and failures and learn from them, often. When it doesn’t work, stop. Try something else.