State of Peacebuilding 2019: Seven Observations

After attending several large peacebuilding conferences last year, I wrote a blog on 12 observations on the state of the field of peacebuilding in 2018. This year, I again attended several diverse conferences of peacebuilders from around the world at Wilton Park’s conferences on peacebuilding in Afghanistan, and African peacebuilding, the first Summer Institute for Peace Engineering in The Hague, the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s PeaceCon in Washington DC, the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace “Building Sustainable Peace” conference, andBuild Peace conference sponsored by Build Up, University of San Diego Kroc School of Peace Studies and Activate Labs.Here are some reflections on our 2019 conversations on the field.

  1. De-Centering Peacebuilding: The Evolution of Ownership and Narratives

The field of peacebuilding began in the 1980s, as civil society groups transformed from social movements to institutions that operated more like NGOs. There was no talk of “local ownership” then because most peacebuilding was local. Early books about conflict resolution, conflict management, conflict transformation and peacebuilding acknowledged the local nature of peacebuilding, sometimes openly acknowledging the tribal and Indigenous origins of processes like dialogue, mediation and restorative justice. The books From the Ground Up and Into the Eye of the Storm document some of the initial responses from North Americans asked to help local civil society in their effort to build peace.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Hewlett Foundation invested over $160 million in building conflict resolution programs in the US, particularly academic institutions. These institutions created graduates. As governments and international institutions “discovered” peacebuilding and built programs around it, the language began shifting. Official recognition of the field of peacebuilding brought new funding and a higher profile for our work. But it also came with a colonial-minded, top-down model.

Local civil society organizations who had innovated many of the processes of peacebuilding came to be called “implementing partners” as in they were “hired” to implement the peacebuilding plans conjured up in Western capitals. Concepts of “Do No Harm” and “Conflict Sensitivity” became necessary as Westerners with good intentions, but a lack of capacity to anticipate unintended consequences, realized their peacebuilding programs could cause harm. Younger scholars now document the myriad of problems brought by a top-down approach to peacebuilding.

“Local ownership” and “inclusion” of local peace actors are pitched as “new” approaches to peacebuilding. But these are hardly new ideas. Rather they are corrections to neo-colonial attitudes that come to the field of peacebuilding just assuming “there is no local capacity.” This false narrative that “trickle down peacebuilding” started at the UN and is now trickling down to civil society has pervaded recent literature. Many have never been exposed to the real history of the field of peacebuilding that emerged from local efforts. Institutionalizing peacebuilding brought dictionary definitions, funding, educational programs, and wide recognition. But the centralized narratives have undermined local ownership and re-written the history of the field of peacebuilding by taking away the fundamental agency of local actors.

  1. Increasing Local Governance in the Environmental Climate Crisis

In 2019, it became clear that there are two massive forces changing human relationships: environmental climate change and social climate change.

The climate crisis continues to overwhelm state capacity and the global humanitarian system with epic fires, floods, droughts, storms, mass extinctions, and rising sea waters become more dire. Local governance will have to increase. Local governance will be a necessary element of adapting and responding to climate shocks amidst the climate crisis. In 2019, a number of peacebuilding institutes committed themselves to devote more of their time and resources to addressing the climate crisis and how it interacts with other factors driving conflict. The questions I posed in last year’s reflection on the state of the field regarding the climate crisis are not yet addressed: 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 next three decades? How can we prepare locally based mediation teams, humanitarian leadership, and build the response mechanisms necessary for the decades ahead?

Over the last five years, peacebuilders have become more articulate about the centrality of governance to peacebuilding. Peacebuilding isn’t just a crisis-oriented set of tactics to prevent violence or reach peace agreements. Peacebuilding that pays attention to local governance is essential for imagining a future of managing climate shocks and chronic mass migration.

  1. Analyzing Tech-Fueled Polarization and Terror in the Social Climate Crisis

Technology is fueling social climate change. Half of the world is on Facebook, a massive social media platform that controls news and access to the internet in some countries. Facebook and its subsidiaries like WhatsApp, along with other mega platforms like Google, YouTube, and Twitter, are shifting democracies and altering conflict dynamics around the world. While social polarization, democratic backsliding and the increasing public appeal for authoritarian leadership were happening before social media technology, these platforms lend themselves to disinformation, polarization, and undermining public trust in institutions and the concept of “facts” and “truth”.

Yet few peacebuilders are paying close attention to the steady drip of news stories on social media’s impacts on peace and conflict. And even fewer are paying attention to how the economic model of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube run on “surveillance capitalism.” These platforms profit from collecting user’s personal data and selling access to specific targeted users to political and corporate advertisers. Platforms have a profit incentive to maximize user’s time and interaction on their platform. In this  extractive “attention economy,” platforms maximize the use of neuroscience and behavioral design to keep users on their platforms as long as possible. Social media platforms use secret machine learning algorithms that often seem to amplify highly emotional material such as hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories as this material seems to keep users on these platforms longer. Carefully calculated algorithms maximize extraction of user’s data and attention, like powerful hydraulic pumps.

These key engines seem to drive the way social media technology aggravates existing neurological, social, and institutional vulnerabilities. The human brain is vulnerable to addictive technologies and emotional hijacking. Human society is vulnerable to polarization and the narcissism of minor differences. And institutions like government, education, and media evolve slowly and face immense challenges to address the myriad of social and environmental challenges now facing them.

Tech engines amplify existing vulnerabilities contributing to an interrelated cascade of impacts including privacy violations, addiction, social isolation, depression, information disorders, dangerous speech, and violence are products of very specific designs built into the tech engines.

  1. Balancing Polarizing and Prophetic Speech

Humans are built for community, social contact, and cooperation. We can do more when we work together. Polarization inhibits society.

According to Republican pollster Frank Lutz, about a third of the 1,000 voters surveyed in the U.S. said they stopped talking to a friend or family member after the 2016 election.  A Pew Survey reported in 2016 that more than half of Democrats say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” And nearly as many Republicans say the same of the Democratic Party. Others note that polarization is more hype than reality, and that we actually agree on more than we think.

Peacebuilding aims to foster social cohesion. But peacebuilding also aims to build social justice. These two aspects of peacebuilding require different types of speech. On the one hand, finding common ground, active listening, and speech that conveys dignity for others is essential to build social cohesion and to depolarize.

But in the face of a devastating levels of information disorders that degrade notions of truth, fact, and science, many in the peacebuilding field (myself included) seem to struggle with paraphrasing fake news or practicing active listening with climate deniers.

Peacebuilding requires prophetic speech to protect human rights norms and to call humans to recognize the dignity of others. Throughout history, prophets like Archbishop Oscar Romero have spoken out against injustice, and denounced tyrants and violence. In doing so, they have increased polarization. It is hard to think of a dire time in human history or a religious teaching when prophets recommended keeping silent out of fear for polarization, or refraining from speaking out for fear of increasing polarization.

But at the same time, prophetic speech works best when its done with care, as noted when former President Obama preached against “call out culture” as an ineffective method of change. Angry speech is justified, but it is not a very effective strategy for change. Prophetic speech can speak truth while also being compassionate and recognizing the dignity of others.

A growing number of Americans believe incivility is a problem according to the 2018 Civility in America poll. But a 2018 NPR/PBS/Marist poll found most Americans (52%) opposed limits on speech imposed by “political correctness” or false notions of civility that reflect discomfort with necessary conflict.  Among people across the political spectrum, there is concern about the call for “civil discourse” if it prohibits the expression of anger or limits speech and First Amendment Rights. Some view “civility” as a call for compromise or passivity.

2019 offered peacebuilders new opportunities to experiment with efforts both depolarizing and prophetic speech. In 2020, peacebuilders have more work to do to strike a balance between concern for polarization and social justice.

  1. Increasing Synergy of People Power Plus Peacebuilding: Between Resistance and Transformation

In the 1960s and 70s, some of the founders of the field of peacebuilding began as nonviolent activists in The Philippines, Nicaragua, Kenya, and in the US civil rights movement. But a chasm has grown between those protesting in the streets and those working in the professional world of peacebuilding. The field of peacebuilding has made significant strides in articulating inclusive processes for addressing conflict. But underlying power imbalances often are significant obstacles to building inclusive societies based on democratic decision making or to designing inclusive peace processes.

Nonviolent action uses “people power” or collective action to shift power. The success of democratic decision-making processes and life on the planet are now cast in the midst of a power struggle between vulture capitalism backed by the brute force of authoritarian regimes versus people powered social movements using nonviolent tactics.

With waning international norms and international institutions, people power is already taking the up the slack. 2019 saw nonviolent action all over the world, from Hong Kong to Nicaragua, from Venezuela to 6 million climate protestors.

The crisis in democratic norms requires the peacebuilding field to take nonviolent action more 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 SNAP action guide.

  1. Using Narratives, Ritual, and Neuroscience to Spark Healing and Transformation

Neuroscience is increasingly making its way into peacebuilding research in new programs and research projects. In the 1990s, many peacebuilding scholars and practitioners intuitively recognized that dialogue, negotiation and mediation required critical thinking skills stemming from frontal lobe activity rather than emotion and autonomic responses to threats stemming from the older brain’s limbic system. In the 1990s, much of the field could be characterized as “anti-emotional.” At the time, negotiators and conflict managers paid little attention to trauma and emotions like fear other than to attempt to move them out of the way or make them irrelevant with “rational” processes.

Emotions play important roles in conflict to alert us to the importance of a potential threat, and to prepare the body to respond. But emotions can also hijack the parts of the brain involved in solving complex problems. Conflict and trauma trigger the older reptilian part of the brain that activates a “fight, flight or freeze” response to threats.

In the 1990s, there was little interest in my PhD dissertation exploring neuroscience, ritual, storytelling, symbols and other emotion-based processes. I distinctly remember one of my professors advising me I was “dooming my career” by focusing on what neuroscience could teach us about ritual transformation of conflict. Symbol-laden narratives and rituals harness the older parts of the brain while also engaging the frontal lobe responsible for critical thinking, and reality checking by anticipating potential outcomes of different behavior choices; key aspects of negotiation.

New research on metaphors and narratives for peace suggest that ignoring emotion is counterproductive. Understanding and harnessing the power of the reptilian brain that responds to stories, images, and symbols may be a more effective way of sparking transformation in us/them polarized conflicts or hardened positions on climate change or abortion.

As an example, Russian election interference in the U,S, and other countries uses “meme warfare” on Facebook. “Memes” are image-rich, metaphor laden messages shared virally on social media. Russians planted memes with the attempt of moving votes away from Hilary Clinton in the 2016 US election, or from the pro-EU stance and toward Brexit candidate in the UK.

Surely peacebuilders can recognize that if Russia is using memes as powerful weapons, peacebuilders should do more to harness the power of the arts. Instead of ignoring or overriding emotions, we need to use more arts-based and ritual-based methods to tap into the brain’s emotional engine, and understand that peace narratives can help to bridge the reptilian core and frontal lobes of the brain.

  1. Innovating Peace Engineering, Design Thinking

In August 2019, the Peace Innovation Labs in Stanford and The Hague collaborated on the first Summer Institute for Peace Engineering. The engineering deans of five major US universities were there to share their vision and desire to harness the immense power of the field of engineering in the pursuit of peace. Peace engineering isn’t just thinking outside the box. Peace engineering is engineers outside the peacebuilding box knocking on its walls asking those of us in the field to please stop boxing ourselves in with our limited NGO mindsets based on paradigms of resource scarcity.

If we really allow ourselves to dream big, we can imagine every city, every housing project, every computer program designed with peace ethics in mind. How can organizations and cities be designed to overcome racism and sexism? How can computer programs foster digital listening and finding common ground rather than increasing polarization? How can businesses be rewarded for building peace across intergroup lines? And finally, to this end, Stanford University’s idea of creating a “Peace Data Standard” to incentivize positive peace was the most exciting new peacebuilding idea I encountered in 2019.





  1. Just read your post. It was very good. The part that is missing is that neuroscience is finding that some of the differences between individuals is the result of differences in brain structure. Science will outlaw capital punishment because of these differences before religions convince people it is the moral thing to do.

    I am reading “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist”. Did you assign this book for your course last May? I am just a little past the middle but it already seems clear about how the main character is going to renounce his past.


  2. It’s undoubtedly the best read for me this year! Very informative,it has left me with mental searching.I particularly liked what I could call novel approach of what you alluded to as “harnessing the power of the reptilian brain that responds to stories,images and symbols may be more effective way of sparking transformation” for me this is the antidote for harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation/cut that am totally advocating against.Well congratulations for this masterpiece.I salute you!

  3. very inspiring. I have been in the practice f peace building and conflict prevention over 15 years in 3 continents and across 4 Peace keeping contexts. I have thus experienced post conflict, normal development assistance (called the UNDAF processes) and am now in humanitarian assistance . When you try to I have been asking these questions. One comes to realize in each of these 3 contexts(post crisis peace keeping; Development assistance; and Humanitarian response) the systems are locked up in their own paradigms and the lack of impact on the ground is largely attributed to these silos. This analysis is timely to bring the three together into realizing peace building is not static and not based on laid down rules, and tools.

  4. Lisa, so grateful you continue to share your wisdom with all of us who dream of and work for peace. I’ll be sharing this widely. Happy New Year!

  5. Great summary of some Important issues. Well done looking forward to addressing some of these with you next year in your `Toda programme! Thanks for all your peace building wisdom! Happy new year may it be more peaceful than 2019!

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