Local peacebuilders share views on challenges to sustaining peace

Local peacebuilders share views on challenges to sustaining peace

The passage of the dual resolutions on peacebuilding and sustaining peace two years ago indicated a commitment by member states to building and sustaining peace, understood as “a goal and a process to build a common vision of society, ensuring that the needs of all segments of the population are taken into account.” However, nearly two years later, questions remain as to whether discussions on sustaining peace are reaching beyond UN headquarters, and above all, how this new term resonates with local peacebuilders.

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By Sapna Considine and Lesley Connolly

The passage of the dual resolutions on peacebuilding and sustaining peace two years ago indicated a commitment by member states to building and sustaining peace. Sustaining peace, according to the resolutions, should be broadly understood as “a goal and a process to build a common vision of society, ensuring that the needs of all segments of the population are taken into account.” Central to the goal of sustaining peace is the recognition that in order for peacebuilding to be effective, it must be locally owned and informed through people-centered approaches.

The proven impact of inclusive processes on long-lasting peace is considerable. Establishing close partnerships with local actors allows for a better understanding of key concerns and needs. Rather than more traditional approaches that impose peacebuilding plans and strategies from the outside, a main focus in sustaining peace is to strengthen the capacities of national and local actors in the design and implementation of plans and activities, with the aim of including all populations within a society.

However, nearly two years later, questions remain as to whether discussions on sustaining peace are reaching beyond UN headquarters, and above all, how this new term resonates with local peacebuilders. In order to gauge the views on sustaining peace by those most impacted by conflict, the International Peace Institute (IPI) and Peace Direct (PD) developed an informal, qualitative survey in May 2017, and shared it with local peacebuilders and peacebuilding organizations. This informal, qualitative survey received approximately 40 responses from peacebuilders from Bangladesh, India (Kashmir), Nepal, and Sri Lanka in Asia, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen in the Middle East, Colombia in Latin America, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Gambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe in sub-Saharan Africa.

Three central challenges were highlighted by survey respondents:

The Need for Innovative and Long-Term Funding

One of the most prevalent barriers for civil society peacebuilding organizations is access to financial resources. Thirty-two percent of respondents said that lack of funds or resources were the biggest challenges to sustaining peace, followed by political or physical violence and threat to security (24 percent), government and structural obstacles (18 percent), and religious intolerance (18 percent). Lack of funds make it impossible for peacebuilders to, for example, travel across districts to reach communities affected, hold public forums where actors can converge and share ideas and solutions on key conflict issues, and galvanize the support of young people to deter them from crime and exploitation. Peacebuilding activities tend not to be expensive or resource heavy, as often funds support local travel, communication, and meetings. Unfortunately, groups suffer from lack of core funding, as there is a tendency of donors to want to fund activities.

In addition to accessing funds in the first place, long-term funding commitments are also a barrier to success. As one survey respondent noted, “To create sustaining peace requires long-term involvement with the grassroots, yet many funders favor short-term programs. Building peace is not linear, it is usually a case of two steps forward and one step backwards and therefore requires patience and a commitment to stay the course.” Building trust and seeing changes within a community takes time, continuity, and consistency, and can be easily undone. The barriers of short-term reporting deadlines and the need for measurable indicators and outcomes inhibit effective projects that can address the structural root causes of conflict. There is also interest in funding “what works,” but uncertainty as to what this actually is and where to invest funds in order to sustain peace.

Part of the above two challenges is attracting investment in unstable environments which are deemed too risky to many donors, despite studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of such investment. A UN-World Bank study on conflict prevention found that investment in prevention would save anywhere between $5 billion and $70 billion per year for the affected country and international community combined. The 2017 Global Peace Index notes that every $1 invested in peacebuilding can lead to a $16 decline in the cost of armed conflict. Economic modelling of peacebuilding cost-effectiveness shows that “increased funding for peacebuilding would be hugely beneficial; not only to peacebuilding outcomes but in terms of the potential economic returns to the global economy.”

As highlighted in the UN Secretary-General’s report on peacebuilding and sustaining peace, there is a need for more innovative approaches to financing including building better relationships with the private sector, and public-private partnerships. Initiatives such as the UN’s Global Compact are good starting points to engage the private sector on how to work with and invest in peace and development agencies. The Global Compact’s Business for Peace platform, specifically, assists companies in implementing responsible business practices in conflict-affected countries.

Added to this, businesses should support national governments to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by working to strengthen public institutions and in developing and implementing regulations and practices that promote long-term peace and development. Pooled funds and blended finance offer new tools in generating private sector investment in development initiatives. Pooled funds have a strong record of accomplishment in “strengthening coherence and coordination; broadening the contributor base; improving risk management and leverage; empowering the resident coordinator and providing incentives for collaborate.” The challenge, however, is how to incentivize the private sector to invest in peace and development where conditions are risky and returns not necessarily as high.

Inclusive and Locally-Driven Partnerships

Peace cannot be imposed from outside or from the top down, it must be “woven into society from within and from below by fostering partnerships and incentives to maintain it.” The understanding that peacebuilding is best sustained through inclusive, people-centered approaches is spreading through the UN system. Furthermore, for interventions to be long-lasting and relevant, partnerships are needed between national and local governments, the international community, and other key stakeholders. It is well-known that local actors have a more robust understanding of prevailing political situations and dynamics on the ground and therefore know what to prioritize in terms of peace and development initiatives.

The survey results show a clear desire among local peacebuilders to work more in partnership with the UN and the international community to find more effective and durable solutions to the problems facing their communities and the global community. As one survey participant notes, “integration, understanding and acknowledgment of local perspectives on peace building are crucial. Understanding that the local actors have the capacities, which need to be acknowledged, to deal and transform their own conflicts is crucial. To sustain peace comes from the cultural practices of a community, this needs to be the starting point.”

This is a point picked up on in the secretary-general’s report where it is noted that the involvement of “civil society and local communities is instrumental in peacebuilding as well as in preventing violent extremism and addressing the conditions conducive to terrorism.” The challenge, however, is to know who the key actors are and how to engage with them. The UN’s engagement with civil society should take many forms including capacity building, joint planning and programming, and monitoring and evaluation that includes their views and perspectives. This should include improving groups’ access to funding, technical support, and capacity building to improve their ability to participate in programing. These efforts must reach all aspects of civil society, including youth and women’s organizations. It is worth noting that lessons learned and guidance are being developed on how UN missions can engage better with civil society and commitment has been made to ensure that, in consultation with civil society, further guidelines on system-wide engagement with civil society for sustaining peace are developed.

Operational and Policy Coherence: Focusing on Enhancing What Works

Since the common goal of sustaining peace is to reduce and avoid further tensions by addressing the root causes of conflict, the importance of coherence and coordination in guiding the actions of all actors is vital. The report of the secretary-general mentions that fragmentation across UN efforts is undermining its ability to support actors as they work to build and sustain peace. This coherence dilemma has been seen in “scattershot, incoherent and occasionally contradictory or competitive” peacebuilding efforts.

This challenge was also noted by survey respondents who emphasized that local communities are often undervalued, overlooked, overwhelmed, and kept out by UN interventions. As one respondent said, “sustaining peace starts from the bottom level and builds up. In the absence of solid and sustained local mechanisms that adhere to this vision, it is extremely hard for outside actors to create or impose peace at the local level. On the other hand, there has to be a solid collaboration between state actors, outside actors and local peacebuilders in order to reach a successful sustained peace.” Respondents also highlighted how their local efforts are having impact and could have more if the UN operated differently and valued their contributions. Indeed, other research has shown that recognition and respect are the first request from local civil society to the international community.

In addition, there is a need to ensure greater alignment between peacebuilding and development approaches. To further this aim the UN should carry out regular strategic assessment to develop a shared understanding of contexts. These assessments should have stronger links to integrated strategic frameworks and the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF). The role of the Peace and Development Advisors (PDAs) also offers an opportunity to ensure a more coherent approach to peace and development and provide in-country analytical and programmatic guidance to support UN programming to assist and strengthen national capacities for peacebuilding and prevention.

As we move towards focusing on what works in advancing sustained peace, there is a need to understand the challenges facing local peacebuilders and examine how to move beyond them or else these legal barriers to civil society operations as well as the direct threats and challenges to physical security, including harassment, intimidation, attacks, and even death pose a serious challenge without a ready solution.


What our survey results ultimately suggest is that the UN and international community at large still need to do more not only to reach out and inform local communities about the sustaining peace agenda and how it will impact their lives, but to listen and ensure a seat at the table for local civil society in crafting international agendas for peace and leading their implementation. As one respondent explained, “Instead of putting money into big word thesis and researches why don’t the UN/International community put this money into home grown solutions and then come up with strategies in peace building based on community understanding and capacity.” The international community must ensure that it does not develop and implement projects that replace initiatives or local capacities but draw and build on those that exist.

Sapna Considine is UN Representative for Peace Direct. She also serves as a Director at Strategy for Humanity, where she heads up New York operations and is a key lead on the multilateral portfolio.

Lesley Connolly is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI), where her work focuses on peacebuilding and sustaining peace, partnerships with the African Union and scenario based training for senior leadership.

This article was originally published by the Global Observatory. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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