Far, far away? The United Nations and local peacebuilding


Conflict and post-conflict contexts are complex and we are used to stressing that “none is like the other”. Context matters. However, there is one element characterising most conflict settings: The UN usually is already there. But how do you engage with a global, member-states-based organisation in local peacebuilding practice? The Parallel Session “Far, far away? The United Nations and local peacebuilding” was meant to provide both practical answers to this specific question as well as an insight into recent policy processes at the UN with regard to peacebuilding. To this end Dr. Susanna Campbell (The Graduate Institute Geneva, Switzerland) and Bautista Logioco (United Nations Peacebuilding Support Office, USA) shared and discussed their experience with the participants of the session.

FriEnt’s Favourites

  • The report of the Advisory Group of Experts suggests to move from “peacebuilding” to “sustaining peace” as a sort of paradigm shift. The underlying idea is to overcome fragmentation between relevant actors in the UN system.
  • Yet, system-wide coherence in turn is not necessarily a panacea for overcoming challenges in sustaining peace and might even be counterproductive if it ends up in cumbersome and complex strategy processes and coordination efforts at UN Headquarters. What is needed is coherence in the field.
  • The Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) according to various assessments is the most agile and promising part of the Peacebuilding Architecture in the narrow sense. Access for civil society organisations (CSOs) to the PBF might be eased in the future.
  • There are various entry points for civil society actors to feed in their perspectives or work together with the UN Peacebuilding Architecture. Yet, too intensive involvement might not be desirable either, since the best value of civil society probably lies in providing feedback and criticism – as long as the latter comes in constructive/helpful forms.
  • The blind spot: Corruption and sustaining peace!


The session started with a focus on the current setup of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture in the narrow sense, namely the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) and the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO). However, as it undergoes its second review process since being established in 2005, it is now widely recognised, that the challenges for the UN in peacebuilding reach way beyond these three institutions. In fact, it was emphasised during the session that one of the problems of UN peacebuilding was, that it has been more and more reduced to the activities and agenda of the Peacebuilding Commission, once it was setup. In stark contrast to this, the current review process takes into perspective the role of the wider UN system in peacebuilding. The review process started with a report by an Adivsory Group of Experts (AGE) that has been publicly presented in June this year and will now enter the intergovernmental negotiation phase.

Recommendations of the AGE report

The AGE report was the main point of reference for the debate. It entails a central paradigm shift: Instead of the rather technical term peacebuilding – that in the UN context is strongly associated with the above mentioned three institutions – it suggests to speak of “sustaining peace”. Framed this way, the importance of thinking outside the institutional silos of “peacebuilding”, “peacekeeping” and “political affairs” becomes more obvious. While the UN definition of the term peacebuilding already for some time explicitly pointed to this cross-silo relevance, the ongoing fragmentation in the UN system proved that this insight had not trickled down very far. Accordingly it was hoped, that such terminological shift might finally facilitate the necessary shift in mindset and help overcoming the fragmentation of the system in trying to “sustain peace”. Further crucial recommendations of the AGE report envision lighter forms of engagement for the Peacebuilding Commission (compared to its country-specific constellations), an improved relationship between the PBC and the Security Council and – perhaps most relevant for peacebuilding actors in the field – a strengthening of the Peacebuilding Fund.

A Peacebuilding Fund for the Secretary General…brings together peacebuilders in the field

The Peacebuilding Fund received unanimous praise in the discussion from various participants. Ac-cordingly the recommendation of the AGE report to strengthen the fund and make its budget more predictable was welcomed. Its specific value is due to the fact that quite often UN missions (and sometimes agencies, too) in conflict-affected countries lack operational resources to address crucial peacebuilding needs. Furthermore, the budget lines provided by the fund already facilitate a coherent approach across different silos and actors. They require the involvement of civil society and various parts of the UN universe on the ground in conflict analysis and project design which is exactly what was called for in the session: to start with context in order to achieve coherence in peacebuilding practice in the field. While such a “bottom-up coherence” approach was received quite favourably, the more general discussion about the merits of more coherence was rather controversial. While it was agreed that fragmentation and silo-thinking in the UN are a substantial problem, it was questioned whether system-wide coherence is realistic or even desirable. Especially if pursued at the Headquarter-level, it was argued by some, the call for coherence might result in turf wars between different units as well as cumbersome and over-complex strategy formulation and coordination processes.

International and local peacebuilding actors and the UN: Entry points and limits to engagement

The discussion in the parallel session quickly turned to very pragmatic aspects of working with the UN in the field. Two aspects were of particular interest, namely the accessibility of the PBF for civil society actors and other forms of involvement of civil society in the peacebuilding work of the UN. With regard to the option to access funding by the PBF, it was clarified, that as of now, funds are only available to UN agencies in the respective countries eligible for PBF funds. Yet, these agencies are already encouraged to involve or even partner with CSOs in their peacebuilding programmes.

Beyond concrete funding, the PBF itself already reaches out to include civil society perspectives. One example cited was the PBF engagement in Madagascar where a two-level engagement process made sure that local civil society organisations could give substantial input in the inception phase of the PBF engagement. Furthermore the PBF also reaches out to peacebuilding CSOs in New York. In the course of the debate one concrete option to increase and systematise civil society input to the work of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture was seen in civil society Networks like the Civil Society Platform on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS) associated with the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding or with the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO). At the same time some reservations to civil society involvement in UN peacebuilding activities surfaced as well. It was stressed that CSO actors need to take care not to be turned into mere “implementing agencies”. And even more generally it was emphasised, that the main added value and primary function of civil soc
iety is to serve as a critical corrective – by too intensively including CSOs in the design and implementation of peacebuilding projects, their potential as a critical voice might be diminished. The other way round it was also emphasised, that CSOs are not meant to be representative of a society as a whole and the question “which” civil society should be involved is particularly sensitive.

Further points of discussion and open questions

In addition to the aforementioned threads of the debate, some well-known arguments were re-emphasised in the course of the debate. Most importantly there was a strong reminder that peace-building is severely hampered by the flawed time horizons of our engagement: The international society rushes in to support peace processes without proper awareness of local context, international experts rotate too fast and exit strategies are pursued too early for sustainable peacebuilding results. Furthermore we need to revise expectations of what international peacebuilding support actually can achieve and the most crucial determinant for success lies with leadership in the field.

Finally two important more general aspects could only be flagged but – due to time constraints – were not discussed in any detail: the role of media in conflict contexts and peacebuilding projects is so far still underappreciated and a big challenge to achieve sustainable peacebuilding outcomes is rarely acknowledged as such: corruption. Both points need to be put on any future new peacebuilding agenda.

Marius Müller-Hennig

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