Re:think Peacebuilding – Kicking-off the debate 2015


Marc Baxmann & Natascha Zupan

“Seizing opportunities” was the theme of FriEnt’s first Peacebuilding Forum, which took place in Berlin in May 2014. Against the background of a changing global context for peacebuilding, the Forum ended with a strong call to re-think current peacebuilding policy and practice in terms of our partnership approaches, the responsiveness to local needs and the embracement of complexity concepts. However, there was a clear sense of optimism among participants that we are already moving into the right direction and that there are promising initiatives at both the policy and practice level.

But sadly, shortly after the Peacebuilding Forum we had to witness a summer of escalating crises and discouraging developments: the conflict in Ukraine not only challenges the European peace order but also has implications for the conflicts in the South Caucasus. In Syria and Iraq, the situation has escalated further, while war and violence have erupted (again) in Gaza, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and many other regions. Not completely surprising the events in summer 2014 were followed by a worsening refugee crisis that has been escalating all summer 2015 and which is set to continue into fall.

Between disenchantment and high expectations

In this situation high hopes are placed on peacebuilding and conflict prevention in order to reduce the pressures for people to leave their home countries, to tackle the root causes of displacement or to promote social cohesion between refugees and host communities – and above all to end violence and war.

In light of these developments we came up with two central questions during our preparations for the FriEnt Peacebuilding Forum 2015:

  1. How to reconcile the immediate needs of the multiple crisis situations with what we have learnt in the past 15-20 years of peacebuilding practice? I.e. that it can take a generation or more to foster peace and stability – especially after mass violence. And that peacebuilding thus requires a long term strategic approach based on locally-led processes and leadership.
  2. Is peacebuilding overburdened by the challenges and expectations – especially when we have to consider a shrinking space for governmental and civil society peacebuilding practitioners? Or do we need more courage and a new kind of realism in order to look for creative and collaborative approaches – based on the vast experience we have gained over the years?

These multifaceted questions constitute the conceptual framework of the FriEnt Peacebuilding Forum 2015. Without trying to anticipate the discussions at the Forum, let us elaborate a bit further on these issues.

1. Shaping peacebuilding policy and practice post-2015

The sheer scale and immediacy of the current crisis situations have understandably meant that the response to date has been driven by short-term planning. A promising initiative that can help us to refocus on long-term challenges despite acute crisis situations is the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This agenda lays out a comprehensive framework for global development until 2030. Peaceful and inclusive societies are part of the agenda (Goal 16), recognising that violent conflict hampered the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in many countries. Peace is also among the five key areas for the whole agenda (along with people, planet, prosperity and partnership) which gives rise to hope for a more integrated approach to peace and development. This is a much welcome achievement because, as Dan Smith put it at the 2014 Peacebuilding Forum, “the home of peacebuilding is not on the margin of development – it is part of what shapes people-centred development.”

However, this will require a new culture of collaboration between different actors. But the international community is still organised in humanitarian, development and peacebuilding “architectures”. It is crucial to redefine modes of cooperation and to share knowledge, experiences and resources as well as to define spheres of influence and responsibility for a better coexistence and cooperation of the humanitarian and peacebuilding community.

It is also crucial that the principle of universality of the 2030 Agenda – including Goal 16 – is taken seriously. In an interconnected world, the causes of conflict can never be entirely local. The dynamics of violent conflict are influenced by regional and global factors. At the same time, conflicts have impacts on global developments. Hopefully with the 2030 Agenda more consideration will be given to the impacts of globalised processes on local conflict situations and that this will encourage a much-needed shift from reaction to prevention.

However, it is important to recognise where the limits of the new agenda lie. Goal 16 is far from perfect from a genuine peacebuilding perspective. For example, while the headline of the goal focuses on peaceful and inclusive societies, the targets pay special attention to the role of effective institutions. While transparent, fair and effective institutions are important for peacebuilding, issues like social cohesion, reconciliation or trust are missing in the targets but are nonetheless prerequisites for achieving the SDGs in fragile and conflict-affected countries.

Additional agenda setting processes – including the 10-year review of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture and the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations – will provide important impulses for the further development of international peacebuilding policies and practice. At the FriEnt Peacebuilding Forum 2015 we want to elaborate on the next steps in the implementation of these international frameworks and the role that peacebuilding should play in this regard.

2. Towards creative pragmatism?

The escalating crisis situations in summer 2014 may not mark a turning point in the debate on the future of peacebuilding, but they at least accelerated existing trends in peacebuilding practice. On the one hand side there is disenchantment over liberal peacebuilding approaches and the beginning of a move towards more pragmatic approaches with regard to the means and ends of peacebuilding. On the other hand side the events in summer 2014 also made it clear that the space for peacebuilding is shrinking due to a variety of reasons.

In light of these dynamics, we recognise the need to rethink peacebuilding, reflect on changing roles and partnerships and seek for creative approaches. Especially pressing issues and questions from our point of view are:

  • If peacebuilding is a long-term, nonlinear process of (re)building institutions and relationships between different actors, we have to think more carefully about ways to conceptualise what it means to take the political dimensions and power struggles into account. What are gaps – and to what extend can we build on already existing promising practise?
  • If we recognise the importance of inclusiveness and ownership in peacebuilding, how do we deal with the fact that both concepts may contradict each other – especially in places where a government is not willing to embrace inclusiveness or where different social groups strongly resist “inclusion”?
  • Trust seems to be the “missing link” between institution building and inclusiveness. How do people in conflict-affected societies understand trust building, social cohesion or reconciliation – and how do external actors enter into a dialogue about these concepts with their partners? What roles can they play, keeping in mind that trust building and social contracts are essentially endogenous and politically sensitive processes?
  • Ongoing international policy processes have reaffirmed the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships as key elements to address global challenges. But how to translate this principle into practise, taking into consideration that facilitating multi-stakeholder processes at “eye-level” remains a challenge, not the least because they are set up under conditions of unequal economic and power relations?

Let’s start the debate

At the FriEnt Peacebuilding Forum we will look at the changing space for peacebuilding and try to find creative and realistic approaches. The peacebuilding community has derived a lot of insights from both its successes and failures, and devised and optimised sound approaches to build sustainable peace. Yet, most of its knowledge and potential remains untapped.

Assessing current policies and approaches as well as roles of state and civil society actors alike, the aim of the FriEnt Peacebuilding Forum is to identify promising peacebuilding practice and distil messages that can inform dialogue with other relevant actors from the global North and South.

Follow this space for more blog posts from the speakers and participants of this year’s Forum and feel free to join the debate and share your own experiences and views.