Local Knowledge and Peacebuilding

Local Knowledge and Peacebuilding
This article was part of the Briefing Book prepared for the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations by IPI and CIC.


Following is a list of suggested reforms to improve inclusivity in peacebuilding.

Reform 1: Increase UN Support to Local Conflict Resolution
For details and evidence, see my book The Trouble with the Congo.
Local conflicts over land, resources, and political power sustain violence in many war and post-war environments. In the rare cases where there have been comprehensive bottom-up peacebuilding efforts, these initiatives have been successful in helping make peace sustainable.

However, the dominant peacekeeping culture usually precludes action on local conflicts. Most international actors interpret violence as the consequence of national and regional causes alone, and UN staff view intervention at the macro levels as their only legitimate responsibility. The resulting neglect of local peacebuilding regularly dooms the international efforts.
In addition to any top-down intervention, conflicts must be resolved from the bottom up. Whenever possible, local actors (subnational authorities, grassroots non-governmental organizations) should be in control of the bottom-up peacebuilding process. UN peacekeepers should increase financial, logistical, and technical support to these local actors.

Reform 2: Value More Local and Country-Specific Knowledge
For details and evidence, see my book Peaceland, part I.
Peacekeeping missions value thematic and technical knowledge over local and country-specific expertise. This has many unintended consequences that decrease the effectiveness of international efforts.
Although the UN should continue to hire individuals with thematic expertise, they should also recruit foreign staff with an in-depth understanding of local contexts and knowledge of local languages. They would do well to include these latter criteria in the periodic evaluations of their employees for retention and promotion.

Peacekeeping missions should also invert the prevailing practice of foreigners making decisions while local people merely assist or execute orders. Local staff and counterparts should do things themselves and act as the primary decision makers. Expatriates should remain in the shadows to help and advise.

Another important measure would be to progressively replace most of the expatriates with local staff. Peacekeeping missions could retain foreigners only in posts that no local candidates can fill.

Reform 3: Change Everyday Peacebuilding Practices on the Ground
For details and evidence, see my book Peaceland, part II.
Everyday routines of most international peacekeepers on the ground involve socializing primarily with other expatriates, advertising their actions, and living in fortified compounds. These practices are not just ineffective. They are often counterproductive to building peace.

International peacekeepers should socialize more with local counterparts. They should use more the acceptance approach to security, whereby protection depends on developing good relationships with local communities, armed groups, and power brokers. And they should keep a low profile and avoid advertising their actions.


Séverine Autesserre is an Associate Professor at Barnard College, Columbia University