Is All Peacebuilding Local?

Like just about everything else, peacebuilding has its fads. Sometimes, a fad may simply reflect what’s hot at the moment and can disappear overnight. That happened to the pogo sticks and hula hoops of my youth, both of which seem to be making belated comebacks today after which they will probably fade back into oblivion again.

I don’t expect today’s newest peacebuilding fad, locally led peacebuilding to go the way of the hula hoop or pogo stick or disco or anything else of that nature.

Locally Led Peacebuilding

The obsession with community based peacebuilding has a pair of inteconnected roots, two of which reflect why it is likely to survive. First is our (belated) realization that a good half of the agreements reached at the national level don’t  last. Here, think simply of the Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine. Second, even more of those agreements address the interests and needs of national actors rather than the lived experiences of people on the ground, which has led British colleagues, in particular, to complain about the liberal peace—a term that often leads to confusion on the part of Americans who use the “l” word in a different way.  Linguistic confusion notwithstanding, agreements that only address national level political concerns

Five Examples

The importance and likely enduring nature of locally led peacebuilding can be seen in five of the initiatives I considered while writing From Conflict Resolution to Peacebuilding, although only three of them got a lot of attention in the book itself.

  • Opting Out of War. Boston based CDA did not invent the idea of local peacebuilding. However, research by founder Mary Anderson and her team certainly put it on our intellectual map. Their 2013 book, Opting Out of War, introduced us to two key ideas. First, communities could and did literally opt out of war, as Tusla did in Bosnia during its genocidal civil war. Second and more importantly, their research drew our attention to positive deviants, outliers, or bright spots—unusual examples that we could build on to produce more far-reaching outcomes, including peace.
  • The Nepal Project. In the book, I pay the most attention to the twelve-year long initiative in Nepal led by John Paul Lederach and funded by the McConnell Foundationl To make a long story short, they helped community peace builders—especially women—develop and sustain a variety of projects. Some of them, in turn, spawned leaders who also began to have an impact at the national level. As anyone who follows the news knows, the Nepal project itself did not lead to lasting peace. However, there is little doubt that it helped that troubled closer toward peace and reconciliation.
  • Peace Direct is the most prominent group doing work on and, especially, funding local peacebuilders around the world. Peace Direct itself does not carry out projects. Rather, it identifies, supports, and, when possible, funds locally based groups. If you follow the links the in the previous sentence, you’ll find examples of its work in more than a dozen countries around the world. And, it has begun mapping local peacebuilding initiatives in the United States and the United Kingdom, where it’s headquarters are located.
  • The Purdue Peacebuilding Project also supports locally based peacebuilding efforts around the world. It focuses its efforts around initiatives whose long and short term impact can be measured. In particular, the project’s team tries to identify situations in which violence could interrupt and then works with local teams to prevent it from happening. In part because it is university-based, the Purdue Peace Project emphasizes systematically gathered evidence that projects are having their desired impacts as reflected in the recent book on local peacebuilding which it sponsored. I’ve reviewed their book elsewhere.
  • Everyday Peace Indicators. This program probably has the greatest long term potential. Rather than drawing on the preconceptions of either local or expatriate peacebuilders, the Everyday Peace Indicators projects starts by talking to people in conflict zones themselves. That makes them the most local of the locally based peacebuilding projects. That’s the case because they ask average citizens whose lives have been touched by conflict to define what peace means to them. Only after rigorously collecting and analyzing those data does the team work with local residents to design peacebuilding projects using the kinds of action research methods first developed by Kurt Lewin more than half a century ago. The team has discovered both that peace looks very different to people on the ground than it does to national level elites and that locally developed projects can make a difference in what we referred to as people’s lived experiences.

A Pair of Challenges

To confirm that locally led peacebuilding is a fad that is seemingly here to say is not enough. We have yet to tackle two overlapping issues that local peacebuilding alone cannot answer.

  • Taking projects to scale. One problem with local peacebuilding projects likes in the fact that they are local. No one, yet, has figured out how wo take them to scale. At a recent talk, Roger Mac Ginty talked about building “horizontally” out from one local projects to others. A group I’m working with in the United States will probably try to take his advice to heart when we try to create a network of local peacebuilding groups capable of facing the challenges that will emerge after the 2020 election—whoever wins. Still, we have yet to seriously contemplate how we build on local successes to change the overall cultural norms that Americans (or any other population) have about conflict.
  • Changing the public policy paradigm. The ultimate goal is to change public policy. With the partial exception of the Nepal project mentioned above, no one who advocates locally led peacebuilding projects have yet tried to have an impact on national level public policy. Anderson’s successors at CDA have tried to do so conceptually in their recent book, Adding Up To Peace (which you can download and read for free), but their work remains at the conceptual level. That, too, is something our team is thinking about for the US after the 2020 election, since we know that we will face the same set of policy dilemmas on conflict related issues that we today. That said, there’s no guarantee that we will even come close to figuring this out.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.