Addis Meeting Examines Local Knowledge for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding in Africa

In recent years, the UN and other international organizations have frequently used terms like “national ownership,” “local ownership,” and “inclusivity” to reflect the growing importance of the concept of “the local” in the field of international peacebuilding and statebuilding. But although these principles and practices increasingly call for local inputs to conflict resolution, there are still many shortcomings when it comes to the way local knowledge is leveraged for peacebuilding and statebuilding purposes.

Often, UN engagement with local actors is limited to interaction with national counterparts, rather than with a broader segment of the local population. How can international peacebuilding and statebuilding efforts better interact with, and learn from, local populations? Can local perspectives be successfully captured to help and support countries emerging from conflict?

A September 4-5, 2014 IPI regional meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia sought to address these questions. Titled after the IPI project by the same name, the “Leveraging Local Knowledge for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding in Africa” meeting gathered a diverse group of civil society members and academics from across the region, as well as representatives of the UN and regional organizations. During the two-day conference, participants presented their research findings and addressed some of the conceptual and practical challenges to locally-informed peacebuilding and statebuilding.

“We have a consensus around the need to build a bottom-up peacebuilding policy and inclusive statebuilding policy that is anchored in, respectful of, and responsive to local needs, local capacities, and local knowledge,” said Gwinyayi Dzinesa, an independent research consultant and a member of the “Leveraging Local Knowledge” project’s advisory board. “But on the whole, international actors still don’t know how to do this.”

The participants noted that structural barriers such as inadequate state institutions are among some of the key obstacles to the full inclusion of locals. In recent years, international actors tend to prioritize statebuilding—the strengthening of state institutions—over community-level peacebuilding activities, they said.

This means that as resources are devoted to statebuilding efforts, there is little or no coordination with, and inclusion of, local communities. In many cases, people are left with a perception that they are excluded from the national reconstruction process. The solution, the panelists noted, would be to bridge this gap by engaging in a comprehensive statebuilding that addresses both state- and local-level institutions.

“To promote local knowledge, you need to work on two levels,” said Ali Iman Ahmed, Somalia program manager at the Life and Peace Institute. “First, reach out to grassroots actors who have the knowledge to share; second, reach out to policymakers to hear this knowledge and to build inclusive national peacebuilding policies.”

One of the purposes of the two-day meeting was to gather the researchers and practitioners currently involved in the project and encourage them to share their findings, raise questions, and receive advice as to the way forward.

Webster Zambara, senior project leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, discussed his experience with on-the-ground peacebuilding in his native country of Zimbabwe. In the aftermath of election-related violence in 2008, Mr. Zambara delivered non-violence and conflict-management training in the rural district of Gutu. Unlike other efforts, his approach trained locals inclusively and in line with local norms and terminology, which helped prevent further outbreaks of election-related violence in that community.

“Inclusivity leads to fairness and trust,” Mr. Zambara said, “which should be continually reviewed and evaluated to promote ownership and sustainability.”

Other projects assessed the importance of including local youth in peacebuilding efforts.

Nestor Nkurunziza, an assistant professor of law at the University of Burundi, said that in countries where youth make up a large percentage of the population, this is essential. His research describes programs that seek to engage youth in peacebuilding and reconciliation in Burundi, a country with 65 percent of the population under the age of 20.

In reflecting on his findings, Mr. Nkurunziza argued that the lack of a comprehensive and implemented national youth policy created obstacles for these locally-led initiatives. His case study demonstrates the importance of a supportive and responsive national government for efforts carried out at the local level.

The Addis meeting was the second regional meeting convened to assess progress on the “Leveraging Local Knowledge” project. The project will culminate in a final publication to be released in December 2014 which will include detailed and concrete policy recommendations.