The State of Peacebuilding 2018: Twelve Observations

Over the last couple of months, there have been a variety of global peacebuilding conferences, including the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s “PeaceCon” in Washington DC, the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform’s annual Geneva Peace Week, the Build Peace conference in Belfast, and the Paris Peace Forum. These events brought together scores of participants from civil society, the UN, and government representatives. There are some common themes emerging from conversations at these global gatherings. As a participant in the first two conferences, I sat through dozens of panels and presentations and then talked with colleagues who attended the other conferences. These observations are a result of those experiences.

  1. Expanding Acceptance of the Concept of Peacebuilding

There is increasing acceptance of the terminology of peacebuilding, and its relevance as a field. UN diplomats, academics, government officials and civil society groups at all levels use peacebuilding language, refer to common international frameworks, and shared concerns and approaches. The word “peacebuilding” is now officially in major dictionaries thanks to a global campaign. The mainstreaming of peacebuilding means there is a recognition that pursuing and sustaining peace is worthy of study, of careers, and of investments and programming by governments and international organizations. The field deserves a round of applause for mainstreaming the concept of peacebuilding – this is a significant achievement.

  1. Rebranding and Shifting Terminology

The field of peacebuilding faces a shifting landscape of terminology. Institutions branded themselves with terms like conflict mitigation, management, prevention, resolution, and transformation decades ago. These terms reflected approaches that shared key values and approaches, nuanced with some distinctions as well. In 1992, then UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali’s Agenda for Peace report defined peacemaking, peacekeeping, and post-conflict peacebuilding. But civil society had already been using the term peacebuilding for many years and defined it as a process occurring in all stages of conflict, not just as post-conflict. Recognizing the tension between how the UN and civil society defined the term peacebuilding, in 2018, the UN coined the term “sustaining peace” to reflect the ongoing work to pursue peace before, during, and after violent conflict. Any new field of study debates terminology. However, the near obsession and competition between terms in the field of peacebuilding is now an unfortunate feature of a field that seems to spend a significant amount of time debating terms at the cost of discussion on other priorities.

  1. Distinguishing between Profit, National Security, and Peacebuilding Values

The growth of the peacebuilding field has come with growing interest from the private sector and governments concerned with national security, stabilization, countering violent extremism (CVE), and state fragility. Dialogue and coordination between civil society, governments and the business sector is important, but requires a framework for understanding the different goals and theories of change as detailed in The Handbook on Human Security. Whenever we are engaging across communities – whether we are teaching about peacebuilding in military academies or hosting military generals giving keynote talks at peacebuilding conferences – we need to identify both our common ground, and our differences, including distinct peacebuilding goals, priorities, and values, and layout our ethical principles that guide such interaction. Careful framing and articulation of civil society peacebuilding values and priorities – as described in this policy brief – needs to be in the forefront, without an assumption that everyone in the audience understands or knows the differences.

  1. Ignoring Local Innovation

The rapid spread of peacebuilding language and practice has unfortunately carried with it the false myth that the field is based on top-down expertise and experience. This is false. The field of peacebuilding developed from the ground up as people in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific regions innovated new ways of transforming conflict, healing trauma, and preventing violence – often based on Indigenous and tribal methods of dialogue and mediation. Now that those in powerful halls of government and academia claim expertise in peacebuilding, this bottom-up history of the field has become more obscure.

During the Geneva Peace Week, local peacebuilders from Nigeria asked how this has come to be – that panels of experts in Europe and North America talk about case studies and practices innovated in the global south. Most of the expertise and innovation in the field is coming from those on the front lines. Those like me in the northern hemisphere listen, learn, and collate the wisdom and best practices from those in the south. But we are not the true experts. We need to remind ourselves where knowledge comes from and acknowledge the vast local capacity that holds communities together. Programs like Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, the Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict, Peace Direct, Build Up and Peace Accelerators are all examples of peacebuilding that recognizes local leadership and innovation. We need to keep insisting that those in power recognize local capacity in peacebuilding skills, practice, and knowledge.

  1. Resisting Neo-Colonialism

Colonialism and white supremacy rest on a prevailing myth that the world works best when white men are in control. We often dance around that sentence and try to word it more diplomatically. Every time someone in a Western government or international organization argues there is “no local capacity” or looks for “implementing partners”, they are reflecting an intransigent colonial attitude that “we know best” – that white people know better than people of color. This idea is not abating in Western governments. In some circles, there is growing openness in embracing colonial structures and white supremacy or even white nationalism.

The peacebuilding field has noted in these policy briefs (see links) the problems with stabilization, and the contrast between peacebuilding and stabilization. But at its core, most government personnel advocate for a patronizing foreign-imposed “stabilization” where the assumption is there is no need to map local capacity or support local leadership – instead stabilization is mostly about western “experts” developing institutions and programs and then “handing off” to locals once who are presumed to be less competent.

When I worked in Afghanistan and Iraq, I saw firsthand the lack of capacity of the foreign experts who knew nothing of the local languages, politics, religion or history. Some of these white “experts” were fresh out of college or grad school. Their patronizing approach to Afghans and Iraqis, some of whom hold graduate degrees in transitional justice and conflict transformation, ignored all the local capacity that existed. The new stabilization agenda just seems to repackage old ideas. It interprets state fragility and government corruption as a problem of capacity rather than a problem of power and political participation. Countries are falling apart not because local people are not capable. Countries are fragile and unstable because dramatic injustices, government corruption and global economic policies extract wealth from the poorest people on the planet and distribute wealth to elite leaders.

  1. Advancing Evidence-based Approaches and Resisting Profit-Making Approaches

The field of peacebuilding has worked hard to generate evidence to evaluate what works, like the DM&E for Peace network. The 2018 peacebuilding conferences included many panels sharing this data, as well as evaluation methods. Donors want to invest in programs based on more than goodwill. But at the state level, most investments continue toward hardware and expensive military operations despite the dearth of evidence that these approaches are effective. The increase in terrorism correlates with the astronomical investments in counterterrorism, as detailed in The Ecology of Violent Extremism. Counterterrorism policies of isolating and punishing groups that use terror benefit weapons dealers and contractors who profit from security approaches with huge expense to taxpayers despite a striking lack of evidence in their effectiveness. After 17 years of counterterrorism in Afghanistan, there are more Taliban today than in 2001. Widespread evidence that local people finding their own solutions, generating their own programs, and preventing violent conflict are more strategically effective in achieving security, and far more cost-effective is not translating into shifting public investments. The field of peacebuilding needs to come to terms that the obstacles to greater investments in peacebuilding are not a lack of evidence, but rather the profit-making military-industrial complex where wars make money for arms dealers.

  1. Preparing for the Impending Global Climate and Migration Crises

For the most part, major peacebuilding conferences in 2018 did not address the scale or urgency of the impending crises of global climate change and mass migration. Dystopian predictions of the future with rising sea waters, massive fires, devastating floods, widescale droughts and mass extinction of insects and animals demand a significant urgency in our preparation and crisis planning. The peacebuilding community’s focus continues to dwell on past failures of peace processes rather than look toward the onslaught of future crises. While we must continue to work on evaluation, inclusion or sustainability of peace processes, our continued focus on these aspects of peacebuilding risks the possibility that we are delaying the type of urgent planning necessary.  What should the peacebuilding community be doing to prepare for the mass migration that will take place as rising sea waters displace tens of millions of people in the decades ahead? How can we prepare locally-based mediation teams, humanitarian leadership, and build the response mechanisms necessary for the decades ahead?

  1. Responding to Democratically-elected Authoritarians and the Online Mainstreaming of Violent Extremism

The global community is facing an unprecedented rollback in democratic freedoms. Authoritarian leaders are grabbing power through contentious elections where public frustration translates into support for anti-establishment populists and the spread of misinformation, disinformation and polarizing messages on social media. Simultaneous attacks on democracy come from diverse sources, including authoritarian countries like Russia and China, terrorist groups in the US, Europe, Africa and the Middle East/South Asia, and a declining faith in the concept of Truth, professional news journalism, and global institutions and rule of law.

The peacebuilding community has yet to address head on the crisis of global institutions and democratic norms. While the field of peacebuilding has begun to catch up with the vast positive potential of “peace tech” for improving the scale of peacebuilding, the field is not at all ready to address the mass polarization and crisis of information brought by social media technology. How can we address the significant polarization and disinformation taking place on social media that are undermining democracy and social cohesion? How do we stop the mainstreaming of violent extremism and hate speech taking place on social media? The field of peacebuilding has mostly relied on small-scale training, dialogue, and programs that reach relatively small groups of people. Just as a house can be burned down more quickly than it is built, so too can years of careful social cohesion programs fall apart through the fires of social media’s disinformation, polarization and hate speech, as detailed in this new policy report on a peacebuilding perspective on the social media crisis.

  1. Transforming Paradigms and Structures

The field of peacebuilding faces steep criticism of its inability to change the political and structural root causes of violent conflict. Status-quo loving governments and international organizations joining the field of peacebuilding emphasize investments in peacebuilding approaches that do not challenge state structures and powers. Approaches like inter-ethnic dialogue, livelihood generation, education for peace, employment generation, and peace education do not threaten the status quo and do not address the root causes of conflict.  And the Positive Peace Report finds that investing in single sector efforts, such as job creation or education, may actually increase violence as it increases expectations and capacity to work for change. Structural changes require dealing with corruption or shifting power balances in societies to address inequalities and disenfranchisement. The crisis of climate change also begs the attention, not for small-scale mitigation and adaptation approaches, but for addressing the underlying assumptions and paradigm of neoliberal resource extraction and unending economic growth rather than sustainable economies based on living in ways that do not deplete basic resources, produce climate-altering emissions, or destroy ecological systems.  The field of peacebuilding needs to address the need for developing new economic paradigms that support inclusive political paradigms necessary for human security and peace.

  1. Returning to Nonviolent Action as an Essential Strategy

Given the wave of authoritarianism and return of fascism’s ideal of the survival of the fittest, the field of peacebuilding needs to recognize that growing power imbalances and dramatic attacks on democracy necessitate strategic nonviolent action. Some of the founders in the field of peacebuilding began as nonviolent activists. But a chasm has grown between those protesting in the streets and those in the professional world of peacebuilding, who too often ignore power imbalances. The field of peacebuilding has made significant strides in articulating inclusive processes for addressing conflict. But underlying power imbalances often are significant obstacles to forming inclusive peace processes, and inclusive societies based on democratic decisionmaking.

Nonviolent action is a strategy for building “people power” to take collective action to shift power. The success of inclusive peace processes, the protection of democracy, human security and life on the planet depends, in fact, on whether there are social movements using nonviolent tactics to shift power so that broader political processes are in fact inclusive. The crisis in democratic norms requires the peacebuilding field to take nonviolent action seriously and to foster greater synergy between peacebuilding skills and processes and nonviolent action to address the increasing disparity of power in authoritarian-led countries, as detailed in this new action guide.

  1. Practicing Civility, Dialogue, and Finding Common Ground

Growing frustration among progressive and leftist groups has led to sharp denouncements of basic values in the field of peacebuilding. Some working for social justice denounce peacebuilding strategies as value-neutral, status-quo protecting. Some express concern about the core practices of peacebuilding: acknowledging the dignity in every human being, even those committing unspeakable brutality; practicing dialogue and transformative listening, even with those with whom we sharply disagree; and finding common ground, even when our differences with others are so significant.  There is confusion about the potential for resistance and civility to co-exist; for the idea that love is not just a moral nicety but a strategic imperative and that hate can be justified and anger is necessary, but that these are not strategies in themselves. The field of peacebuilding needs to engage in a robust conversation with others who share our belief in human rights and social justice but who denounce those of us who believe civility, dialogue or common ground are both moral and strategic methods of social change.

  1. Protecting Values: We need more Ethicists, not Technocrats

The field of peacebuilding now has thousands of competent program planners, mediators, facilitators, artists, and workers at all levels of society. This is an achievement. We are building peace. But the wide dispersion of skills with the technical capacity to do strategic peacebuilding now need a vision for how we will protect our values and ethics, which are under siege from all directions.

With the humanitarian and development communities, we have made progress in the protection of civilians. And obviously, this important works needs to continue – and expand.

But we also need to protect our values. The early visionaries in the field of peacebuilding spent just as much time talking about ethics as they did the technical skills of peacebuilding. Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Ken and Elise Boulding, Jim Laue, John Paul Lederach, and many others have preached about values. Donna Hick’s book on Dignity and Kevin Clements’ Politics of Compassion in an Age of Ruthless Power are examples of how values influence our technical practice. As a field, we need to remember our work is ultimately about a set of values and ethics.

Margaret Wheatley, the author of multiple books on leadership, argues in her newest book Who do we choose to be? that we need to prepare ourselves to create “islands of sanity” as we look toward the future and the chaos it is already bringing. We need to be thinking about how we will protect the values, and keep them alive during the years of chaos ahead.


  1. Thank you Lisa Schirch for this excellent critique. Here in Minnesota we are working hard to instigate, train, and support local capacity to build peace from the ground up.

  2. A powerful “tour d’horizon” that identifies the major challenges we confront, our level of willingness (or lack there of) to address them, and clear recommendations on a more meaningful way forward. Thank you, Lisa, for your leadership and your willingness to speak honestly about our own shortcomings as a community of practice.

  3. This is a great tip especially to those new to the blogosphere.
    Short but very precise information? Appreciate your
    sharing this one. A must read article!

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