Advancing local ownership of peacebuilding: Moving beyond paternalistic capacity building

SungYong Lee

1 February 2018


Local Ownership and the Western Paternalism in Peacebuilding

How do local peacebuilding actors develop their own models of post-conflict reconstruction? This question has been subject to extensive academic discussion since the limitations of mainstream liberal peacebuilding models became evident in the late 1990s. On the assumption that peacebuilding will be more legitimate and sustainable when local people control and/or influence the design and implementation of their own peacebuilding programmes, various ways to promote local ownership as an alternative/supplement to the liberal models have been explored. In field practice, national/local ownership has been recognised as “the single most important determinant” of effective peacebuilding (UNSG 2002) and many peacebuilding agencies adopted a range of strategies to enable local actors to participate in their own peacebuilding programmes. In academic debates, an extensive discourse has formed to explore various dimensions of local ownership from conceptual, theoretical and empirical perspectives.

Despite the innovative and constructive nature of this critical scholarship, the practice of local ownership promotion has exhibited varied limitations. One prominent challenge was international agencies’ paternalistic nature in promoting local ownership. In 2015, for example, I reviewed the contemporary practice for local ownership promotion and confirmed that the power disparity between donors and local peacebuilders continued to persist and that the role of local peacebuilding actors examined in these studies tended to remain that of ‘customers’ who select one of the options provided by external actors or who give feedback and comments on the ongoing programmes.

New Developments for Authentic Local Peacebuilding

Then, is it ever possible for authentic local ownership of post-conflict peacebuilding to be developed under the strong influence and advocacy of external intervention? If it is, what strategies do local peacebuilders adopt to increase their own ownership? How different are the locally-driven models from traditional liberal peacebuilding? To explore these questions, I have conducted a multiple field studies to two Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia and Mindanao, the Philippines, between 2014 and 2017. My conclusion has been that there are examples of local peacebuilding that indeed demonstrate more advanced level of ownership. I identified four distinct patterns discernible in the various ways in which local practitioners have increased their influence on peacebuilding programmes over time, thereby compromising the external influence. Each pattern demonstrates theoretical significance and limitations as a local model of peacebuilding.

  1. Ownership inheritance from external donors is to a great extent an externally-driven process for promoting local ownership, and is more relevant to the organisations that were initially developed through external advocacy. These organisations usually train young local staff by letting them participate in various programmes and subsequently select a few prominent individuals as potential leadership successors. Then, once they have been promoted to higher positions over time, these local staff members assume key leadership roles in the organisations. Successful examples demonstrate a high-level of local ownership in most decision-making process. Many of them have their own internal structure and procedure for gathering and incorporating the views and needs of local community residents that the organisations support. Having said this, the local staff members involved had usually worked for their organisations for a significant amount of time and had learned to comprehend and internalise the working principles and underlying philosophy of their organisations. Key values of the original founders are likely to be regenerated – rather than challenged – by local peacebuilders. A given local leadership’s thorough understanding of the social context is frequently utilised to promote their organisation’s liberal values in ways that local populations find easier to accept.
  2. A contrasting approach to ownership development entails local actors’ efforts to reduce their reliance to external material aid by mobilising operational funding from their own resources. Some popular types of programme include community-based tourism, fair trade of local artisans’ products, micro-financing and regular donation campaigns. Although these programmes do not usually raise enough funding to cover all operational costs, the funding enables the organisations to have stronger negotiation power towards the working principles set by Western donors. Unfortunately, the zeal to attain financial independence where social conditions are not yet ripe occasionally encourages local peacebuilders to put means before ends, especially as most of these organisations do not have many individual members that can make substantial financial contributions, and instead must rely on business-like programmes to gain sustainable income.
  3. Another widespread strategy for enhancing local ownership is to build more pragmatic forms of collaboration with international donors. Having spent a significant amount of time dealing with external donors, local peacebuilders have a good understanding of which themes, operational principles and outcomes donors like to see. Hence, local peacebuilders have developed non-frictional forms of conflict mitigation. When initiating new programmes, they have good opportunities to incorporate their communities’ needs into peacebuilding projects and to justify them by ‘branding’ them with a liberal theme. From a theoretical perspective, these pragmatic approaches to collaboration by local peacebuilders demonstrate a dual structure of power in local peacebuilding programmes: while international aid providers control the official processes for promoting development, aid recipients dominate the unofficial mechanisms through which peacebuilding is undertaken. On the flip side, such strategies can also be adopted unscrupulously, with local agencies occasionally making vague and unrealistic promises to secure more funding. In these cases, local peacebuilders eventually create their own barriers and cause them to lose credibility with external funders.
  4. There are traditional/religious forms of peacebuilding that are developed from the outset by local religious figures or traditional leaders. These local leaders generally enjoy a relatively strong reputation within their respective local communities, which enables them to deal with the challenges posed by political authorities or economic constraints. The forms of such peacebuilding tend to be less institutionalised, and thus have not relied significantly on material or advisory support from external donor communities. Hence, these programmes represent one ideal type of locally-owned peacebuilding, demonstrating distinct features in their process of development, structures of organisation, and operational features that are strongly supported by the values and interests of these central figures and involved patrons. Nevertheless, it is still questionable whether the visions that these traditional or religious actors project accurately reflect the needs and perspectives of other local population members, especially youths. For instance, in both Cambodia and Mindanao, traditional/religious leaders (who are predominantly male) are frequently opposed to significant social change, preferring instead to maintain traditions.

Partnership: Moving beyond binary conceptualisation of international vs. local

Many local peacebuilders in Cambodia and Mindanao have presented strong potential to promote advanced ownership of their programmes as well as limitations that should be addressed to offer good foundations for stable peace and sustainable development. More importantly, the findings confirm that the binary conceptualisation of ‘local versus international’ is becoming less relevant in contemporary peacebuilding. In fact, the operational features of the abovementioned local peacebuilding programmes demonstrate varying mixtures of models developed by local communities, civil society sectors in the Global North, bilateral aid agencies of donor countries, and international development organisations. Moreover, a given single local peacebuilder’s perspectives frequently fail to accurately represent the varied needs and perspectives of the diverse communities that they aim to support. In short, while it is important to expand the space for reflecting localities, such promotion of local ownership may also require a more nuanced approach than that which follows from the simplistic understanding of ‘taking ownership from the international and giving it to the local’. Instead, it may require an effective and mutually-respectful partnership between peacebuilding actors with different backgrounds, the aim of which could be to build in a way that reflects and accommodates the multiple needs and interests of the local communities that they want to support.


Further reading

SungYong Lee (forthcoming 2018), ‘‘Local Peacebuilders’ Ownership Development in Southeast Asia’, in: Sean Byrne, Thomas Matyók and Imani Michelle Scott (eds.), Routledge Companion to Peace and Conflict Studies, London: Routledge.

SungYong Lee (forthcoming 2019), Local Ownership in Asian Peacebuilding: Locally-Driven Peacebuilding Development in Cambodia and Mindanao, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


Image details

Title photo caption: Cambodia: Women planting rice in the province of Takeo.

Title photo credit: UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran


About the Author

SungYong Lee

SungYong Lee is a Senior Lecturer at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand.

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