7 Approaches to Local Ownership and 4 Problems with Trickle Down Peacebuilding

2 May 2019

What would an international framework for peacebuilding support look like that is a better fit for sustaining peace and preventing conflict than what we see today? How do we ensure that those who know best how to create sustainable peace in a country, the local actors, are supported in their peacebuilding efforts in the best possible way?  These were the questions framing a recent workshop hosted by Conducive Space for Peace and Humanity United in New York City.

What is Local Ownership?

Local ownership is the idea that people have capacities and resources to support peace and development and to transform conflict. Local ownership begins with local people analyzing their situation and recognizing their capacity to make change. Libby Hoffman of Catalysts for Change offers an image of concentric circles. The community is on the inside. They are the primary leaders, healers, and agents of change. And there are many other stakeholders who can help support that inner circle. Local ownership is a question of how those on the outside support those on the inside. The image of a fern frond coiled in support offers a metaphor.

Why Does Local Ownership Matter?

The concept of local ownership is a matter of both ethics and strategy. From an ethical point of view, it is common to hear “nothing about us without us” as a slogan from local communities around the world. People generally don’t like other people trying to solve or impose solutions to their problems.

From a strategic point of view, the people closest to a context are most likely to understand local capacities for peace and local drivers of conflict. To exclude them is a costly mistake.

This is why international frameworks from the OECD and UN name local ownership as a key principle. It is why peacebuilding organizations like Interpeace, the Berghof Foundation, the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative,  CDA Collaborative, Life and Peace Institute, Saferworld, Conciliation Resources, and many other groups debate the nature and requirements of local ownership and outline their principles of partnership with local communities.  And it is why peacebuilding scholars like Susanna Campbell and Severine Autesserre’s are focusing their research on how the global peacebuilding infrastructure support and/or undermine local ownership.

The Historical Context Inhibiting Local Ownership

Local ownership of peacebuilding takes place within a long history of colonialism, where people of European origin ruled over people in other regions. Colonialism was backed up by an ideology of white supremacy, a false idea that white Christian people are smarter and more ethical than people of color and non-Christians. These wicked ideas created a paradigm for the current economic and trade system where international corporations profit from extracting resources from communities of color. These ideas also set in motion the liberal paradigm of a state system that relied on a strategy of “pacification” of local actors. Pacification strategies included dividing local populations so they would fight each other, re-education strategies so they would internalize the ideology of white supremacy, and brute force to repress both nonviolent and violent social movements.

Advocating for local ownership of peacebuilding takes place within this long and brutal history. Centuries of pacification tactics have resulted in a lack of empowerment and agency in some areas. If local people seem to rely on outside resources, it is due in large part to a deliberate economic structure that leaves resource-rich countries in the southern hemisphere impoverished as corporations extract their wealth.

7 Approaches to Local Ownership

  1. Locally-led Analysis

Local ownership begins with people analyzing and understanding their own situation. Brazilian educator Paolo Freire popularized this idea in the 1960s with his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed in which he described a method of facilitating local people’s analysis and “conscientization” of the factors that oppressed them. Freire’s method developed in response to a “banking” method of education where other elite outsiders decided what people should learn and how they should think.  At the same time, Black South Africans began the Black Consciousness Movement that would argue that Black people could speak their own language, think their own thoughts, and work for their own liberation.

Local people who speak local languages, understand local history, religion, and politics are the best placed to carry out conflict assessment processes. The reports of Western teams on what is driving conflict have resulted in billions of dollars of wasted development and peacebuilding aid in programs that lacked an accurate theory of change. Without local robust participation in conflict analysis processes, any program planning is likely to result in ineffective programming and a waste of resources.

 2. Local Capacity Building

Today, many peacebuilding training programs emphasize “north-south” learning, suggesting that the knowledge is in the north and it is transferred to the south. Local ownership works best with South-South exchanges and trainings where people learn from each other to analyze their own situation and develop their own responses. John Paul Lederach and Vernon Jantzi drew on Paolo Freire’s pedagogy in designing the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) at Eastern Mennonite University in 1995.  The program brought together local peacebuilders from around the world in a setting where training focused on analyzing their own context and sharing and developing strategies for response together with other local peacebuilders. As a training center for South-South exchange, the model of this peacebuilding institute spun off to the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI), the West African Peacebuilding Institute (WAPI), the African Peacebuilding Institute and other local capacity building centers. Many of the graduates of SPI went on to become trainers in other regional peacebuilding institutes. This further facilitated South-South learning.

3. Local Research Partnerships

Today, much of the research on peacebuilding is carried out by Western research institutes and universities who extract knowledge and case studies from the south. (As confession, I am a part of this knowledge industry.) The Dutch Security and Rule of Law Fund is an example of an approach to local ownership in research. The Fund supports partnerships between research institutes in Europe or North America with local research and practice organizations in conflict-affected countries. The research fund requires applicants to demonstrate local needs and framing of the research, theories of change, and research dissemination strategies to directly impact local peacebuilding policy and practice.

4. Local Unrestricted Funding

Today, most funding for peacebuilding comes with burdensome paperwork requirements requiring significant staffing and resources for writing extensive proposals and carrying out monitoring and evaluation to meet funder reporting guidelines. Local peacebuilding organizations spend a significant amount of their time being accountable “up” to funders rather than being accountable to and listening carefully with local communities.

In 2004, Peace Direct began offering direct grants to support local peacebuilders. The Swedish Development Agency (SIDA) is also one of the few sources of unrestricted funding for peacebuilding. Its flexible guidelines allow for local peacebuilding organizations to respond to emerging issues and opportunities, and to focus most of their attention to accountability to local communities. Unrestricted funding sources that can support local peacebuilding initiatives are essential to ensure that local people can innovate solutions and foster local resiliency. Unrestricted funding is also helpful to enable support for social movements in the form of hiring lawyers to support activists, transportation for activists, and media work to spread the word of local efforts.

Traditional Western funders express dismay at their own guidelines, recognizing the limitations they put on local peacebuilders. They cite their own lines of accountability and fiduciary responsibility. But the bottom line is this: Western foundations spend millions to fund other Westerners to supervise people of color in conflict-affected regions. There is a significant financial cost to this infrastructure, this system limits local ownership and innovation, and there is little proof that it leads to improved peacebuilding.

5.  Locally-led Planning and Implementation

Before the global peacebuilding infrastructure, local people planned and carried out their own peacebuilding.  The global infrastructure too often separates this process. Western elites use their own conflict analysis reports written by Western elites to plan local programs. Then they seek “implementing partners” from local communities to implement plans designed by outsiders. This is a backwards, colonial mentality.

There are dozens of examples of robust local ownership of peacebuilding including joint planning and implementation of peacebuilding programs. In the Philippines, for example, the Bantay Bayanihan forum brings together government, military, police and civil society leaders to jointly analyze conflicts and potential human security threats, and jointly plan and implement interventions.

6. Locally-led Monitoring and Evaluation

It is important to understand if efforts to build peace are working. But the indicators used to measure effectiveness need to be locally defined. Peace Direct’s report on “Putting the Local First: Learning to Adapt When Measuring Change” emphasizes the principles and procedures for locally-led monitoring and evaluation.  Pamina Firchow’s book Reclaiming Everyday Peace: Local Voices in Measurement and Evaluation After War also provides examples and guidance on local ownership.

7. Democratic Policymaking

In too many cases, policymakers in Western countries make decisions about the lives of people in conflict-affected countries without ever meeting or listening to anyone from that country. Policymaking continues to be a colonial venture, with people with money and weapons making decisions about the lives of people in far off places.

Much of the field of peacebuilding is based on Contact Theory, the idea that people can change their perceptions and behaviors by being in contact with other groups. Democratic policymaking where the people impacted by policies have relationships with and input into the policies that affect them is an essential part of supporting local ownership of peacebuilding.

Democratic policymaking puts a face and tells a story of the impact of policies on local people. In regard to policy, local ownership means connecting local peacebuilders to global policymakers.

The Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict began as a network of local peacebuilding organizations aiming to influence global policy on conflict prevention. In 2003, GPPAC began the important work of bringing local peacebuilders to the United Nations and Regional Organizations to advocate for peacebuilding policies. In 2006, I started the “3D Security Initiative” which later became the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s “3P Partners for Peacebuilding Policy” program to bring local peacebuilders to the US Congress to provide feedback on the impact of US policy on local peacebuilders, and to provide alternative policy options to better support peace. Today, Peace Direct also brings local peacebuilders to inform and shape international policies.

4 Problems with the Upside-Down Narrative of the History of Peacebuilding

The tremendous growth in the field of peacebuilding is both a blessing and a curse. In 1990, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali wrote An Agenda for Peace and set into motion what is today a UN Peacebuilding Architecture.  This evolution of funding support and infrastructure to support peacebuilding has many benefits for creating the institutions and the support for diplomatic solutions to political conflict, and investments in addressing the factors driving conflict. But the high-level attention to peacebuilding has also come at a cost to local ownership of peacebuilding.

There is now a prevalent myth that peacebuilding is an invention of the UN that must now trickle down to the masses. Trickle down peacebuilding assumes that elite political actors are the main engine of peace. Conflict analysis is driven by Western elites who are sent out in teams to diagnose local problems. They fly home to Western capital cities and design peacebuilding interventions. Then they send out request for proposals to find local “implementing partners” who will carry out their master plans.

This approach is upside-down for four reasons:

1.The origins of peacebuilding norms, approaches, and skills are local. They originate from communities around the world who have traditional methods of managing conflict and have innovated social movements and methods for social change. A steady flow of community-based peacebuilding experts has made their way up to working at the United Nations. Peacebuilding has trickled up to the UN. Its origins are in communities in every corner of the world.

2. The global infrastructure supporting peacebuilding has emphasized institution building and capacity building. While worthy aims, this professionalization of the field may be having an unintended impact of weakening volunteerism and mass social movements. Local peacebuilding efforts often include nonviolent social movements that included large numbers of people boycotting, participating in vigils, protesting, or taking collective action. Nonviolent tactics shifted power to enable dialogue and negotiation to be more likely to lead to change. If community leaders are given 9-5 jobs running institutions, they may be less likely to organize social movements or to participate in broader strategies for social change outside of an institutional framework. And the more peacebuilding organizations try to “speak up” to their funders and global policymakers, perhaps they are in turn doing less “listening down”?

3. The increased attention to peacebuilding among global elites contributes to a perception that local people have not already been building peace. Western elites speak of “new,” “surprising,” or “unexpected” local actors and approaches to peacebuilding. Local people – including youth and women – have been involved in local peacebuilding for decades if not centuries. While western awareness of these local efforts may be new, emphasizing local people as “surprising” or “unexpected” actors in peacebuilding echoes a long paradigm of colonialism, white supremacy, and white man’s burden.

4. Polarization and violent extremism are increasing in Europe and North America. Yet most peacebuilding still takes place in conflict-affected countries in the South. The experts in addressing these challenges requires “local peacebuilders” from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere to resource peacebuilding efforts in these Western countries. Growing levels of poverty and disparity require applying the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals SDG’s in Western countries as well. But the focus of Western elite peacebuilding experts is still on countries in the South. Perhaps local ownership of peacebuilding requires Western elites to look now at what is local for them: their own divided, conflict-affected communities and cities.

There are many remaining questions about local ownership. What have we lost in building a global peacebuilding infrastructure? Where should we be in 20 years?  How will climate change and migration affect global governance and local ownership?  What is the role of corporations in investing in peacebuilding to address the costs of conflict and the costs of their negative externalities?

The struggle is likely to continue – la lucha continua – for local people to be the primary actors in their own development and peacebuilding efforts.




  1. How brilliant. Thank you Lisa. Maybe we should borrow the words “Trickle Up” from the NGO with that name (that my daughter works at) doing poverty alleviation with the ultra-poor and re-purpose it to our peacebuilding world.

  2. Excellent reflection Lisa…sobering and humbling. Looking forward to further exchanges on the approaches and problems and how to make our collective work on peacebuilding more impactful and reflective of already existing capacities at local community levels.

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