More Than an Invitation: NGOs’ New Vision to Deepen Civil Society Engagement in UN Peacebuilding Review

Community members in dialogue at KCITI in Eastleigh, Kenya during a Life & Peace Institutes workshop, October 18, 2022. Credit: Kloe Tricot O’Farrell

By many accounts, the most prominent international peacebuilding model is increasingly becoming unviable. Developed in the 1990s and 2000s, the “liberal peacebuilding” model (as it’s commonly called) is being questioned, updated, and challenged, though its staying power has persisted, due to the continued contributions of international aid agencies and joint funding initiatives that come through multilateral institutions like the United Nations (UN). In recent years, however, there has been a scaling down of funding from donors who have traditionally supported liberal peacebuilding, as changing geopolitics has shifted their priorities to defense and security sectors. At the same time, large-scale challenges such as migration and forced displacement, demographic changes, urbanization, and digital technologies are raising questions among peacebuilders as to how these can be addressed through social cohesion and community-centered actions.

Against this backdrop, in 2025, the UN will conduct the fourth comprehensive peacebuilding architecture review as mandated by the 2020 General Assembly (A/RES/75/201) and Security Council (S/RES/2558) resolutions. The review allows the UN to evaluate its global standing within the evolving peacebuilding field and consider how much of a leadership role it wants to play in setting the direction of peacebuilding. Yet, this requires the organization to make an honest examination of its role in perpetuating the liberal peacebuilding model, and a frank assessment of what useful engagement looks like.

It has been widely recognized for decades that the strength of the peacebuilding community comes from its multitude of actors. How, then, can the UN ensure the meaningful participation of new voices; create spaces that elicit creative conversations and ideas; and be open to recommendations for new approaches? One way would be to change its approach to conducting the review and create a new working modality based on new forms of UN partnerships that allow space for genuine engagement and reflection. This would allow meaningful participation from a broad range of voices to participate, including community organizations, social movements, networks, national non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and international NGOs. If the UN embraces this opportunity, it could play a significant role in facilitating a shift toward a new vision of peacebuilding.

Why is Meaningful Engagement Elusive at the UN?

Multilateral institutions consistently struggle to meaningfully engage civil society in the global policy space, despite their overt recognition of civil society’s importance over the past decade. This recognition has come in the form of multilateral initiatives, frameworks, and resolutions that have focused on local peacebuilding and civil society’s vital role in addressing the drivers of conflict to build long-term sustainable peace.

For example, in 2016, the UN Secretary-General issued the Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace Agenda (formalized by twin Security Council and General Assembly resolutions (S/RES/2282 and A/RES/70/262) which acknowledges the central role of national and local actors in advancing sustainable peace. In parallel, the Inclusive Peace Agenda gained global momentum in 2000 with UNSCR 1325 and the subsequent resolutions that make up the women, peace, and security agenda and the more recent youth, peace, and security agenda.  In 2023, the UN launched nine policy briefs (including the New Agenda for Peace), making up the Secretary-General’s “Our Common Agenda,” which highlights the importance of engaging civil society. And currently, there are ongoing civil society consultations and inputs taking place for the “Pact of the Future,” the outcome document from the UN Summit of the Future happening this Fall.

Yet, in practice, civil society in the global space is defined too often by tokenistic, shallow, ad-hoc and one-off engagements between global policymakers and local peacebuilders. When invited, peacebuilders and community leaders are regularly brought into spaces where they face bureaucratic hurdles, formal methods of working, and specific language and terminology that can be exclusionary, making it difficult to engage. Both the location (the United States and European capitals, commonly) and the structure (formalized panel discussions) are decided by those who live outside conflict environments. Other practices such as last-minute invitations, lack of funding for travel, and visa and immigration concerns are all additional barriers to meaningful engagement.

Additionally, there are serious questions among local actors (especially those who work in peacebuilding) about the relevance of the multilateral system. Their general impression of the global peacebuilding architecture is that its institutions respond slowly, it lacks flexibility, and it is largely inaccessible to local actors.

All this adds up to global conversations without the participation and inputs from those most affected and those responsible for implementing policy decisions.

Going Beyond the Usual: the Role of the Intermediary

To overcome some of these barriers, the UN could look for ways to innovate its own consultation and engagement processes. One option is to partner with “intermediary” institutions to create new networks and thoughtfully expand engagement. In the peacebuilding sector, international NGOs like Saferworld, PeaceDirect, Conciliation Resources, and the Life & Peace Institute (where we authors work) play a key role as connectors between local civil society and national and global policy spaces. These intermediaries are increasingly aware of the power imbalances in the global policy space, and are making adjustments in response so that different peacebuilding and policy actors can engage, creating stronger relationships and deeper conversations.

Because civil society is not generally invited into formal policy conversations (except in the practice of inviting a single civil society representative to some meetings), engaging civil society can mean making new spaces or operating parallel spaces. For example, in 2023, Saferworld, the Life & Peace Institute (LPI) and Interpeace met with civil society from the African continent to gather inputs into the New Agenda for Peace process. Despite not directly engaging with the UN, civil society actors were able to share their perspectives on the role of the UN and the challenges facing multilateralism, along with recommendations on how to respond. Saferworld, LPI, and Interpeace could then use their relationships and positions as international NGOs to share and create visibility for these inputs and conversations.

Intermediaries also have flexibility in designing conversations that can neutralize power dynamics and enable more meaningful engagements. In 2023, LPI supported the Kenya Peacebuilding Architecture Review by inviting youth leaders from Nairobi’s informal settlement areas for a participatory mapping exercise. Youth leaders are highly influential in their communities, but are regularly left out of these processes. The meeting used a participatory mapping methodology that allowed the youth leaders’ expertise of their communities to shine. This active and participatory process also created opportunities for the Independent Panel of Advisors and the youth leaders to interact directly and have deeper conversations. Subsequent convenings brought together a diverse group of long-term peacebuilding practitioners from across Kenya and the greater East and Horn of Africa region. In partnership with the Independent Panel of Advisors, hypothetical scenarios were developed to address common challenges like land rights disputes and climate migration that regularly came up in cross-country consultations. The exercises allowed these staid peacebuilders to focus on the discussion at hand and apply their technical knowledge to build concrete recommendations and solutions in support of the panel.

Testament to the impact of new partnerships and convening methodologies on relationships and collaboration, there are indications that more global policy actors are recognizing the importance of civil society engagement. Increasingly, they are recognizing that, to get honest views, they need to bring in actors with trusted connections to a diverse network. This, in turn, requires financial support, like what the UN provided for the LPI engagement in the Kenya Peacebuilding Architecture Review. This support bolsters the importance of the role of the intermediary; creates the possibility for more significant time and focus to be dedicated to high-quality interventions; and acknowledges that many civil society actors are facing a “starvation cycle.” Finally, consistent engagement is critical to ensure that those engaged have been heard and are correctly represented in ongoing discussions, which builds trust and willingness for ongoing collaboration. It also increases the likelihood of public interest and acceptance of policy outcomes.


Ultimately, these examples highlight how intermediaries are working to change the means of engagement between peacebuilding policymakers and civil society organizations and advocate for diverse voices around the table. By building online forums, creating new spaces, and addressing power dynamics, global actors are starting to push boundaries on how to include civil society, upholding the call for inclusivity and closer engagement with diverse national and local actors in the UN’s Sustaining Peace approach (A/RES/70/262 and S/RES/2282).

Looking forward, the upcoming UN Peacebuilding Architecture Review provides a unique opportunity for the UN to shape the future of peacebuilding at a moment when sentiment toward multilateral institutions and the liberal framework guiding peacebuilding as a whole is changing. The way in which the review is developed and implemented, as well as the outcomes, offers a platform to tackle these contemporary challenges and guide the field of peacebuilding into the future. Central to this is the meaningful inclusion of diverse voices through innovative processes. Toward this end, the UN can work in partnership with intermediaries with a track record of organizing such inclusive and participatory processes.

Lesley Connolly is Team Leader, Global Policy at the Life & Peace Institute. Aaron Stanley is a Senior Global Policy Advisor at the Life & Peace Institute.