The Case for Locally Led Peacebuilding

Jessica Berns

1 December 2016

To improve the capacity of European governments, foundations, and civil society organizations (CSOs) to prevent, maintain, and build peace, support for locally led peacebuilding is vital. The situation is similar for the U.S. government, foundations, and CSOs, so we can learn together how to increase the impact of peacebuilding work taking place in fragile and conflict affected nations as well as in our own divided societies.

In his August 1 blog post in this space, Richard Jackson shared a number of common explanations from scholarly literature about why European peacebuilding isn’t adding up. One explanation is that peacebuilding is not locally driven. Another is that it’s too top down and institution focused.

For these exact reasons I am part of a number of US-based initiatives, including working groups at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Peace and Security Funders Group, to create more awareness of the value of local peacebuilding and ignite funding support for locally led work. Groups like the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (an EU-CIVCAP Partner) and Global Platform for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, both in Europe, along with a number of European-based civil society organizations are also making the case.


What is locally led peacebuilding?

In 2014, a group of funders, practitioners, and academics came together to discuss locally led peacebuilding. From Europe, Peace Direct and Concordis International participated. Out of that meeting, a clear definition was created, one that others are adopting:

“Locally driven peacebuilding is an approach in which the people involved in, and most affected by, violent conflict work together to create and enact their own solutions to prevent, reduce, and/or transform the conflict, with the support they desire from outsiders. This is an inside-out, bottom-up approach that involves mobilizing local capacities, knowledge, and resources.” (p. 2)

While local ownership is key to this definition, locally led peacebuilding also recognizes that there are roles for different actors: insiders and outsiders. Local knowledge, experience, and creativity is critical to making and keeping peace, but outsiders also have an important role to place in accompanying and supporting local efforts. The same meeting provided examples of the roles that outside practitioner organizations, academics, or funders, can play:

“This can take a variety of forms including, but not limited to, providing spaces in which they [local peacebuilders] can develop and enact their own peacebuilding strategies, amplifying their solutions to decision-makers, offering technical and financial support, and connecting local expertise and perspective to international decision-makers, policy makers, and ongoing international dialogue.” (p. 2)

Locally led peacebuilding recognizes that ‘local’ is also a term in flux. For instance, is a Lagos-based CSO doing work in Northern Nigerian to build community resilience local to the conflict there? No. However, they are certainly local to Nigeria in a way that a London based CSO is not.

An example of locally led peacebuilding in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s South Kivu region is the work of Foundation Chirezi. The foundation has created mixed-gender and women only peace courts (baraza courts) to offer access to justice that is consistent with local traditions. Such courts facilitate trust and relationship building and are a pathway to peace over violence: “As the baraza courts in South Kivu demonstrate, however, when local peacebuilders are empowered to lead in designing and implementing programs, they reduce violence and advance positive change in powerful and lasting ways.” The Foundation’s work is supported in part by Peace Direct (UK).

In post-war Guatemala, where violence is ever present and the democracy fragile, young people across the capital have organized to reclaim their communities and public spaces. Groups have come together and self-organized to create public art, clean their streets, and build their own capacity as peacemakers, with financial support from American Friends Service Committee.

These are but two of many important locally led initiatives creating more opportunities for peace.


Why locally led?

What makes the ‘locally led’ element so valuable that its very absence could undermine the effectiveness of peacebuilding? With so little funding dedicated to peacebuilding overall, why should we consider more funds for local initiatives? Why should governments and EU level mechanisms create more simple ways to provide modest amounts of funds to local groups, so that those groups can lead and not simply implement? In answer to these questions, I propose three reasons:

  1. Central to peacebuilding is (re)building trust, engaging in inclusive dialogue, and strengthening social cohesion. These approaches are most powerful when they are designed and driven at the local level, born from the creativity, capacity, and commitment of those local to conflict.
  1. Locally led peacebuilding, as part of a broader, holistic strategy becomes even more powerful. For example, in Liberia a group of motorcyclists, many of whom were ex-combatants from the civil war and notorious for disrupting political campaigns, began working at the community level in Monrovia to increase civic engagement of their members and contribute to community cohesion. Three years after initiating the Pen-Pen Peace Network they are now working beyond Monrovia and with the Liberian National Police, the National Elections Commission, and other groups to create a peaceful climate in the lead up to the 2017 presidential elections.  The Pen-Pen Peace Network is supported by the Purdue Peace Project (US).
  1. Local peacebuilding often costs less that peacebuilding designed from afar and that relies on external experts. While there is little known about the cost effectiveness of peacebuilding approaches overall, initial evidence demonstrates that locally led peacebuilding has the potential to be more cost effective. In early 2017 Milt Lauenstein Philanthropy (U.S.), where I serve as a Consulting Advisor, and the Institute for Economics of Peace (Australia) will launch findings from novel research on peacebuilding cost-effectiveness.

While there is a strong rationale for supporting locally led peacebuilding, there are also potential risks and challenges entailed for the EU, European CSOs and donors. For example, a donor providing a sizeable grant may feel that their local partner doesn’t have the capacity to handle large sums of money. And how can local organizations meet the reporting requirements set by international organizations? On the other hand, how can donors monitor and assess impact? The answers to these questions require flexibility, adaptability, and creative thinking on the part of governments and other donors in the EU. For instance, EU crisis prevention and peacebuilding instruments such as the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP) should continue to emphasize opportunities to fund initiatives at the local level, with a particular focus on embracing local organizations as decision makers, not just implementers.

A critique I often hear is that locally led peacebuilding only addresses micro-level conflict. Some argue that locally led peacebuilding (sometimes referred to as peace writ little) does not impact Peace Writ Large. Collaborative for Development Action has found three conditions under which local peacebuilding can add up to Peace Write Large. And further, as a 2015 article in the U.S. magazine The Atlantic stated: “peace begets peace and violence begets violence.” We need to build peace community-by-community, nation-by-nation. To communities living amidst conflict, sustainable peace matters.

About the Author

Jessica Berns

Jessica Berns’s work over the last 20 years has been situated within non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and university-based programs.

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