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The dilemma of local peace: Paradigmatic turn or myth?


Operating at the confluence of peace theory and practice, in this brief reflection, I grapple with the dilemma associated with the, now too familiar, notion of local peace both in its conceptual and practical dimensions. On the one hand, I seek to make a contribution to the deconstruction of the assumed conceptual certainty of what local peace means and the perceived rhetoric about its successes. On the other, I contribute to opening the window for a continued search for a better understanding of peace and the broader discourse on viable ways of ‘doing peacebuilding’ in the complex and ever-changing conflict dynamics in Africa.

The critique of liberal peace 

With the dawn of critical peace research, there seems to be an agreement among the academic community that attempts to build a global consensus on how to respond to armed conflicts of varying scales have failed (Lewis et al, 2018). This is even as the critique of liberal peace that has dominated peacebuilding since the end of the Cold War – heralded by Ghali’s (1992) ‘Agenda for peace’ – has recently surged. Many scholars seem to agree that liberal peacebuilding has failed to meet its promise as epitomized in the optimism of the 90s. Debate on international interventions, led by the UN and the international community (largely Western powers) and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), have come under intense academic critique (Fisher, 2018). Such measures have particularly been accused of being contextually insensitive and for imposing a neo-liberal Western model of governance with little or no regard to local authorities (Autesserre, 2012). As the critique of liberal peace grows, theorists have cast their conceptual fishing nets deep and wide emerging with concepts such as illiberal peace (Lewis, et al, 2018) and post-liberal peace (Richmond, 2016), among others. Even policy makers and peace practitioners have since toned down their optimism and are slowly seen to vacate their inclination to liberal peace as a magical ‘fix it’ approach to conflicts, particularly in the global South (Wallis & Richmond, 2017: 426).

The birth of local peace

The failings of liberal peace have birthed various conceptual discourses. It has equally resulted in the increase in and focus on local peacebuilding mechanisms. The notion of local peace is not strange in the discourse of peace and conflict given the fact that peace is too broad a concept. Following Galtung’s (1996) conception, peace in its positive connotation, is indeed broad to the extent that it lends itself to questions of analytical usefulness. Understandably, there is consensus within the academic and practice circles on ‘adjectification’ of peace. This departs from the conception of peace as a complex notion, signifying different things to different people at different times and places (Webel & Johansen, 2007: 7-8).

Following this thinking, adjectives come in handy in rendering the concept of peace analytically useful. Hence, peace is conceived as liberal or democratic when it goes hand in hand with a range of political and civil liberties or authoritarian when they are lacking. Peace is inclusive when many sectors of society become involved or elitist when it is based on elite pacts, such as Kenya’s famous ‘handshake’ whose assumed peace dividends have been questioned (Opalo, October, 12 2019). On the other hand, peace can be conceived as just when it holds perpetrators of violence accountable and takes into account different needs while it is viewed as unfair when only one side can assert its own goals or otherwise victor’s peace as is the case with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in Rwanda (Piccolino, 2015). Peace is stable if it lasts for a long time, or unstable if war recurrence happens as in Liberia, Burundi, South Sudan, among others. This selection shows that devoid of adjectives, the term peace is largely empty of content (Kurtenbach, 2019: 1).

Within this philosophy of ‘adjectification’, the emergence of the concept of local peace to the crisis of liberal peace can be appreciated. While many experts exhibit variations in their conceptions of local peace, the practitioner community seem to locate the concept around the ideas of peacebuilding processes involving locally-based actors, addressing local conflict dynamics through local mechanisms and/or strategies and tactics (Wise et al., 2019: 2). On the other hand, academics are still grappling with what local peace actually entails. For example, while in the ‘local turn’ Richmond (2011) seems to emphasize micro-processes with territorial connotation, Mac Ginty (July 02 2019) with his emphasis on ‘everyday peace’ seems to suggest the conception of local that connotes the ordinary. In this regard, Mac Ginty, helps us to overcome the binary between the perceived international-liberal and the local-illiberal competing conceptions of peace which the notion of territory does not do justice to.  However, in my view, with or without territory, the notion of local peace suffers significant conceptual defects that makes its analytical usefulness problematic.

Romanticization of local peace

The perceived unquestionable significance of local peace as remedial to the maladies of liberal peace, championed by the international community led by the UN and western nations, has increased its uptake, on the one hand, and lessened the conceptual critique, on the other. As a result, we have seen a romanticization of the notion of local peace which has, regrettably, become a blinder that forecloses attempts to interrogate its conceptual and analytical viability and usefulness. Failure to substantively subject the notion of local peace to rigorous scrutiny runs the risk of embarking on a peacebuilding venture that will reproduce the challenges and failings of liberal peace that it seeks to overcome.

The conceptual quagmire

While many actors appear to agree on the aspects that qualify peace as local, there does not seem to be any practical and theoretical engagement of local peace from the philosophical point of view. For instance, do we have any known local ideologies of peace and are such ideologies, if any, different from what is perceived as non-local? In other words, other than conceiving local peace as involving local actors and done through local mechanisms – which essentially relate to the processes and approaches of resolving conflict – do we have any known ontological foundations on the understandings of peace that are uniquely attributable to the said local? Additionally, given that it appears compelling to discredit the notion of territory – due to the complications it creates – how then do we possibly localize any philosophy of peace? Would it not make sense to think of peace as a menacingly universal concept whose only particularity relates to how it is perceived and consumed by individual persons and groups? If this were to be granted and given the iniquitousness and interconnectedness of the world today, is it possible to conceive of such individuals and communities as local? What would be the inclusion/exclusion criteria; in other words, what qualifies an individual and/or a group as local and the other non-local? Should we go step further and grant that there are indeed groups of people that do not necessarily exercise movement from certain geographical territories hence local peace can apply to them in the proper sense of location hence confined to their own conceptions and approaches to peace, how would we escape the egregious error of ‘othering’ that underlie numerous social ills whose effects, such as imperialism, patriarchy and classism that the world reels from? This is especially the case, since it reproduces the ‘us’ vs the ‘them’ problem. Surely, we have not forgotten that the ‘us’ (liberal west) and ‘them’ (illiberal non-west) is a key undoing of the liberal peace paradigm. If we were to abandon territory – which I think we should – and adopt Mac Ginty’s ‘everyday, does local then not include everybody? If this be the case how analytically useful is the concept of local?

It is based on questions such as these that I deeply reflect on the notion of local peace and its conceptual shortcomings. This does not mean to suggest that I propose vacation of the concept of local peace but a recommendation that scholars and practitioners need to interrogate the conceptions and perceptions they hold as regards local peace.

Dubious narrative of success of local peace in Africa

Rampant ‘NGOnization’ and ‘projectification’ of peacebuilding disfavors local peace. Even as we struggle with local peace at the conceptual level, I contend that local peace, as implemented in many parts of Africa, has largely been spearheaded by NGOs whose approach to peacebuilding is typically through yet another deeply problematic notion of project cycle. Peace is a reality that is too complex, too fluid, too transient to fit in a typical project cycle model complete with logical frameworks and/or theories of change. Peace is too dynamic, too unpredictable and too difficult to measure that it easily elides typical Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) frames that inform NGO projects designs.

During my stint in the practice of peacebuilding within NGO setting, I have, for instance, felt frustrated with the reporting templates and indicator tracking traditions typical of NGO projects. I have equally encountered colleagues in the field who have expressed their displeasure with the manner in which peace projects are designed and implemented by various NGOs and I have met and interacted with practitioners who are genuinely concerned about this phenomenon. These experiences make me want to reflect on the assumed importance of NGOs in peacebuilding (Paffenholz, 2009) and their designs including the flaws related to funding models (Heideman, 2013.) among other factors. But, beyond this rather outward-looking and institutional approaches to locating insufficiencies associated with NGO peacebuilding, I equally question the intra-NGO dynamics, particularly by interrogating the characteristics of individual actors running these entities. In so doing, I bring to the fore the rather covert behavioral anomalies associated to the perceived failures of NGOs as agents of peacebuilding, specifically in African countries. 

Types of peacebuilders 

Recently I had a conversation with two peacebuilding practitioners. One is a veteran peacebuilding practitioner and the other is my former schoolmate. Both are overseeing, at varying levels and capacities, implementation of peacebuilding projects in various parts of Africa, work that they have done for several years. As we reflected – albeit lazily over a drink – on peacebuilding generally, through NGOs in Africa, three major categories of NGO peacebuilding practitioners emerged.

The first is a group of individuals who are out to build careers and enjoy the benefits associated with and/or accruing from holding various positions in NGOs and most cases with ambitions to transition to other big positions of influence and power, including in politics and international arena. This category comprises of ambitious career-driven individuals who, in most cases, are both knowledgeable and eloquent. These professionals are fully aware of the inadequacies associated with NGOnization and projectification of peacebuilding yet conceitedly project the ‘all is well’ image. They exude confidence and remarkable enthusiasm about what they do and speak highly about the assumed yet dubious successes of peacebuilding projects as captured and reported through standard NGO project cycles processes. Akin to what in ‘Amani Mashinani’ (2009) the late Bishop Cornelius Korir calls ‘peace mercenaries, and related to what has elsewhere been termed ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ (Eide, 1997), this category of ‘peacebuilders’ wield influence and feature quite prominently in the global ‘marketplace’ of peace discourse transactions. Armed with expansive knowledge of the subject, professional and technical skills and benefiting from vast experience and eloquence in their articulation of issues, they successfully create and sustain an impressive narrative of success. They are responsible for painting an image of great work and resounding accomplishments that often place the prevailing actual realities behind thick veils. This category of peacebuilding practitioners is at the heart of the prevailing romanticization; they are one of the key reasons local peace appears to be working simply because that is what they report and project.

The second is a group of people whom, for lack of better description, we thought are genuinely ignorant and/or generally na├»ve. They religiously attend to duty and work so hard within set parameters of project cycles without ever questing a thing. They unreflectingly hold those structures and processes to be effective and as unaffectedly contributing to transforming conflicts and societies. They will implement what is set out to the letter, harvest data based on set out indicators – even when they are irrelevant or when they are outright misplaced – and report on progress as required in often predetermined reporting templates. This is the group that works quite well with the first one, with the former as boss and the latter as ‘foot soldier.’ This is a category that tends to be ‘career peacebuilders’ with access to and influence over structures of peacebuilding largely in intra-state set-ups with networks that have international linkages. They dominate the national space, regularly commentate on topical issues on peace and occasionally represent their establishments on international arenas. When they appear in international settings, they become the, de facto, representation of ‘local peace actors’ hence they collaborate augment and advance the local peace successes narrative.   

The third and last category include a group of people who genuinely attempt to use available resources and frameworks within NGO setting to support the said local peace processes with the view to see communities transform and evolve into reliable, predictable and hopefully stable entities. This latter group is the one that most often than not get frustrated by the sheer contrast between what is reported internationally and the ‘local’ reality. We realized that they actually don’t last long. They tend not only to quit their jobs but also switch careers. I have so far met quite a number of them who have since evolved into other ventures. The problem with this third group is that by quitting, they actually contribute to maintaining the status-quo since they leave it unchallenged and intact full with its dubious narrative of local peace successes.  

The bottom line is that, doing peacebuilding through the NGO setting is largely flawed and what is on the ground is in stark difference from what is contained in beautiful reports held by donors in western capitals where funding for such processes is domiciled. I know that representatives of donor agencies do hold periodic visits to the field to ascertain the situation. But it is a plain truth that when such people conduct field visits, they will often hear and see what their local counterparts (NGO operatives) want them to hear and see. It is that simple. And therefore, the triangle is complete and the narrative of the success of local peace is created, validated and sustained. This is perhaps the reason for the insistence on and ‘romanticization’ of the so-called local peacebuilding which I here argue needs interrogation both at the conceptual and practice levels. As I said earlier, failure to interrogate the thinking and the ‘doing’ of local peace may end up reproducing if not reversing the paltry gains made through liberal peacebuilding’s nearly 30 years’ experimentation.   


Given such conceptual and practical challenges related to the notion of local peace, I think it is time to appraise the rhetoric of local turn and assumed purity and fit of local peace which is paradoxically been propagated by those perceived to be ‘non-local’ (the international community). While some scholars are actively promoting local peace on the basis of the challenges of liberal peacebuilding and ‘local’ peace actors – through NGO programmes – continue to vocalize what they argue are successes of local peacebuilding, conceptual ambiguities and practical flaws are arrayed contra the optimism of local turn as paradigmatic shift in the direction of realizing a viable alternative to the failings of liberal peace. This calls for a (re)evaluation of (i) the concept of local peace and (ii) the assumed successes of NGOnized local peace programmes and their assumed efficacy. This is important since it not only helps us to ensure conceptual clarity and sharpen our analytical approaches but also be cautious about the possible (re)production of the mistakes of the last two decades – associated with failures of liberal peacebuilding.

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The dilemma of local peace: Paradigmatic turn or myth? The dilemma of local peace: Paradigmatic turn or myth? Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on January 11, 2020 Rating: 5

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