Investing in People and Enhancing Resilience for Sustaining Peace with Adaptive Peacebuilding

A man is speaking amid a group of displaced people from Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. According to IOM, nearly a million people have been forced to flee violence in the province, with 30 percent in relocation sites, temporary centers and host community extensions. (Chris Huby//Cover Images via AP Images)

One of the key issues Japan is highlighting this month during its presidency of the United Nations (UN) Security Council is the revitalizing and strengthening of UN efforts to sustain peace. After years of decline, conflict-related civilian deaths have increased sharply, and there are questions as to how the UN can better help prevent and manage conflict in a complex and volatile peace and security environment that is starkly different from when the UN was founded in 1945. Armed conflicts have become more violent, recur more frequently, and have become more complex to prevent or resolve. In Syria alone, the UN Human Rights office estimates that more than 306,000 civilians have lost their lives due to violent conflict over the last 10 years. Other conflicts that have caused the most deaths in recent years include Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, and, since 2022, the war in Ukraine.

As a direct result of these and other conflicts, it is estimated that over 100 million people have been forced to flee their homes. The UN’s humanitarian appeal for 2023 is over US$50 billion. Clearly, there is a need to invest more in preventing, managing, and resolving conflict, including by continually revisiting and updating the UN’s peace and security concepts and approaches, as the UN Secretary-General outlined with a New Agenda for Peace in his Our Common Agenda report.

In advance of the open debate that Japan is hosting on January 26, Ambassador Ishikane Kimihiro said that to reinvigorate peacebuilding efforts, one must invest in the people affected by conflict as agents of change. The role that people play in restoring and sustaining peace in their own communities is also one of the main findings of research undertaken by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The project found that context-specific approaches to peacebuilding that empower local agency is a key element that influences the self-sustainability of peace processes.

Context-specific Approaches and Adaptive Peacebuilding

Context-specific peacebuilding refers to bottom-up or homegrown approaches to achieving and sustaining peace based on local or national cultural, historical, and political understandings of peace. It differs from approaches to peace where the values and concept of peace are imported from elsewhere. The people affected by the conflict determine the ideas or content, priorities, and values, and the peacebuilding process is aimed at (and limited to) facilitating a participatory process that helps to strengthen or generate new social institutions through local and national ownership and leadership.

The project found that context-specific, participatory, and adaptive peacebuilding contributes to more self-sustainability. This empirical evidence is consistent with the theory of complex adaptive systems, where the capacity for self-organization in a complex system, such as a community affected by conflict, has a direct bearing on its social cohesion, resilience and adaptive capacity. The premise is that investing in strengthening the self-organizing capacity of communities and societies—in other words, helping them to strengthen their social institutions and social networks—will help build the resilience, adaptive capacity, and social cohesion they will need to prevent or recover from conflict, and to consolidate, further grow and sustain the levels of peace that they have been able to achieve.

Empirical Evidence in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East

One of the objectives of the research was to assess the potential of context-specific, participatory, and adaptive approaches in a number of recent (and in some cases ongoing) conflicts. To do so, the project studied peacebuilding experiences in a variety of countries and policy contexts. The case studies included Colombia, Mozambique, Palestine, Syria, and Timor-Leste, which represent different conflicts in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and involve a diverse range of peacebuilding actors and contexts. As peacebuilding research has been dominated by Western concepts and practices, our research (to be published as a book in March 2023) also explores the peacebuilding approaches of two countries in the Asia-Pacific region, namely China’s peacebuilding role in South Sudan and Japan’s effort to promote peace in the Philippines, in order to assess the degree to which these countries have engaged in context-specific, participatory and adaptive peacebuilding.

The Colombia peace process, which followed the 2016 Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP), demonstrated the effectiveness of adaptive approaches to peacebuilding that were attuned to local needs and contexts. The research found that the adaptive approach that was used to implement the 2016 peace agreement was more successful in consolidating and sustaining peace in Colombia than previous attempts. International and local peacebuilders often worked together and used bottom-up and adaptive approaches to address local concerns and needs throughout the country.

Similarly, the case of Mozambique showed how adaptive approaches to peacebuilding, which focused on context-specificity, national ownership, and adaptiveness, had more positive outcomes than earlier attempts influenced and driven by externally imposed concepts of what a peace process should look like and how it should be managed. The effectiveness of the shift toward adaptive approaches in Mozambique confirmed that peace needs to emerge from within to be self-sustainable and that peacebuilding programs should stimulate self-organization and resilience in order to prevent, manage, and sustain peace.

Major peacebuilding donors in Mozambique, including the European Union, are following this trend and developing more context-specific approaches. Localized international non-governmental organizations such as the Community of Sant’Egidio (CSE) and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) provide examples of how international peacebuilders can contribute to sustaining peace through adaptive approaches that focus on context-specific, participatory process facilitation, institutional learning, and addressing cross-cutting issues such as poverty, inequality, and education as part of a more holistic approach to peacebuilding.

The Syrian case study examined the use of adaptive peacebuilding approaches by the UN Special Envoys, the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, and local actors such as the Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) initiated by the third and fourth Special Envoys, and the National Agenda for the Future of Syria (NAFS), established by the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA). These approaches, which prioritize local participation and resilient institutions, have been successful in promoting dialogue, building networks and trust, and generating momentum for peace gains in the absence of a nationwide ceasefire or peace agreement. The positive outcomes of these adaptive approaches suggest that they can be effective in supporting a more self-sustainable and locally-driven national peace process in Syria.

Overall, the case studies explored in the book found that the most effective context-specific approaches are those that are rooted in the history, culture, and current reality of the people affected by conflict, and show a link between the extent to which a peace initiative is context-specific and adaptive and its level of self-sustainability. They also show that context-specific and adaptive approaches to peacebuilding—ones that invest in people and encourage the active participation of affected communities—are more effective than top-down and determined-design approaches because they stimulate the emergence of local social institutions that work to promote and sustain peace.

JICA’s research, Adaptive Peacebuilding: A New Approach to Sustaining Peace in the 21st Century, will be published in March 2023.

Cedric de Coning is a Research Professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), and Senior Advisor at the African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). Rui Saraiva is a Research Fellow at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Ogata Sadako Research Institute for Peace and Development. Ako Muto is an Executive Senior Research Fellow at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Ogata Sadako Research Institute for Peace and Development.