International peacebuilding is more likely to succeed when it can connect with local- and community-level efforts. This was the main message of a policy forum on “Local Peacebuilding Successes: Lessons for the International Community,” held at IPI on March 13th.
The event gathered local peacebuilding leaders from the Central African Republic, Burundi, Guatemala, Mali, and Timor-Leste who shared their experiences working with communities on the ground and trying to restore peace in areas marred by conflict and instability.
While their recollections emphasized different aspects of local peacebuilding, they all agreed on one point—governments and international organizations need to become better at listening to their people, whose needs are often ignored or misunderstood.
“If the UN can engage with civil society organizations through consultations, it will have a better sense of what the local people need in terms of peace and security,” said Oulie Keita, a board member of the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP).
“And there is room for the UN to do so,” she added, saying that this is important, especially in places such as her native Mali where people are skeptical of the UN’s peacebuilding and peacekeeping work. “This will be a better approach, with local ownership, and people will feel more comfortable working with the UN,” she continued.
Other panelists noted that in these countries, governments are often unaware of the needs of their people and don’t factor those needs into the policymaking process. This is further exacerbated by the fact that international organizations and NGOs limit their interactions to state institutions, ignoring the rest of society.
Bernardo Arévalo de Léon of Interpeace in Guatemala said the key word here is “participation.”
“Participation matters because it’s fundamental for the process of building peaceful societies,” he said. “Peaceful societies are societies that have managed to bring together state institutions and structures of authority with the population in a relationship of trust and legitimacy.”
Participation is even more important in those areas where the rifts created by violent conflicts run deep in the fabric of society, the panelists said. Civil wars often leave scars that last long after hostilities end, thus leaving tension and hostility in the population.
In Burundi, for instance, the civil war that formally ended in 2005 created a lasting sense of mistrust between the country’s Hutu and Tutsi communities, said Adrien Niyongabo, a local leader of Burundi’s Healing and Rebuilding our Communities organization.
Recalling those years, Mr. Niyongabo said that mistrust had to be addressed, since it spread to all sectors of society, including those people who managed to escape the violence. “Even though we were not physically wounded,” he said, “our inner wounds were not treated.”
Community projects can go a long way in healing those wounds, he continued, something his organization is currently doing on the ground. These kinds of efforts can benefit from all types of participation, whether it’s by women, elders, or youth groups.
Martine Ekomo-Soignet said her work with the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) in the Central African Republic (CAR) has emphasized the valuable role young people can play. In CAR, she said, they tend to view the UN as a distant reality, a “high-level” one that only works on short-term programs, whereas they see themselves as the “low level” part of the equation, those who need long-term peacebuilding initiatives. This, she added, could be a problem that is intrinsic to the nature of the UN.
“I think the UN has a problem of institutional memory,” she commented. “It’s difficult for this institution to implement things, because of the turnover of UN staff there, change of political dynamics, and so on.” Ms. Ekomo-Soignet said one way to approach this would be for UN agencies working in the country to try to strengthen their connection with locals because they are the ones actually living the realities of conflict.
This point was also underscored by Luis Ximenes of Belun—an organization based in Timor-Leste—who said that all groups working on peacebuilding at the local level should be more attentive to the needs of young people and civil society groups. This “capacity-building” effort, he said, can really bring people closer together.
The event took place against the backdrop of a major peacebuilding review process currently underway at the UN. The call for national and local ownership in peacebuilding has been one of the louder voices in recent years, said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, senior policy analyst at IPI and the moderator of the event. “[And] in this year of reviews, we know that one thing is clear,” she added. “The nature of conflict… today and the frequency of relapse into violence require new strategies to build peace around the world.”