Nuanced agency in local-international peacebuilding:

In attempting to secure nonviolent transformation as a bottom-up mechanism, ‘uncomfortable voices’ may be ignored in favour of those more palatable to the peacebuilders. This is at the least a missed opportunity

Stefanie Kappler
18 December 2009
from War to Peace logo

It has been argued that the critiques of the liberal peace have become the new mainstream. At the same time, recent commentary has started to reflect the shortcomings of the liberal peace by specifically emphasising various actors’ failure to empower local societies. In this context, Diana Francis’ article about conflict transformation revisits people’s ability to bring about nonviolent transformations of conflicts as a bottom-up mechanism. This reflects an attempt to move away from the technical language often used by peacebuilding agencies in favour of a focus on the human side of peacebuilding – so often neglected in policies.

Francis is right to attempt to restore trust in human agency and people’s ability to make a difference vis à vis constraining structures rather than just being passive victims of what is being imposed on them. With her countless experiences in the field, she certainly knows what she is talking about, and she brings to bear reflections on several situations in which nonviolent conflict transformation has emerged from the grassroots. In the Basque Country, for example, the power of grassroots movements has developed a strong response to violence, in the realm of arts, music and other elements of life, while still retaining important parts of Basque identity.

Having said that, there is a risk of drawing a rather simplistic and one-dimensional image of local societies by focusing on a specific part of society, which reflects the idea of non-violent conflict transformation. In this context, Oliver Richmond has discussed a tendency of international authors and practitioners to romanticise the local, whereby local society is viewed as a specific homogenous unit in line with the goals of peacebuilders. Very often, this has been linked to a focus on civil society as a preferable local partner for international peacebuilding agencies, given that NGOs, usually classifying themselves as parts of civil society, were willing to or have been pushed into implementing the objectives of their donors, such as the professionalisation and ‘normalisation’ of society in Western terms.

This means that some actions on the part of the ‘objects’ of peacebuilding are considered as legitimate or even desirable, while other forms of behaviour tend to be seen in association with ‘spoiling’ the peace process and are thus either ignored and excluded from official policies, or even undermined by the latter. This has been the case in Kosovo, where Kosovarisation was deemed acceptable and even promoted by the international community, while the issues this raised for the minorities in the country were not seen to be worthy of consideration by a variety of international agencies engaged in Kosovo. Similarly, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the rights and needs of social collectivities, beyond assumptions about their ethnic structures or identities have played only marginal roles in the international peacebuilding project. Indeed those more marginal interests have only recently raised the interest of bigger organisations in the country, which are often unprepared to deal with these interests or the groups who hold them, and which might be in the process of developing a form of peace that is different from the internationals’ ideas on the future of the country.

By ignoring such ‘uncomfortable’ voices, one fails to acknowledge the complex and varied forms of agency existing on the ground. Resistance to peacebuilding is only viewed as legitimate if it is compatible with the ideas of the conflict transformation agencies. In that sense, conflict transformation becomes ‘society transformation’ by providing an ideological platform for social engineering, despite its ambition to empower the grassroots. This mechanism works in an indirect way, whereby selected sections of society are supported and encouraged to reinforce their visions of peace, which appears as a grassroots process on the surface. However, by excluding alternative and resisting voices, it is only those parts of society that are selectively engaged in peacebuilding that are intended to bring about transformation, while potentially large parts of local communities do not really get an opportunity to voice their needs and grievances. In that sense, a ‘peace constituency’, as Francis uses the term, is imagined as an abstract and more or less homogenous unit, which can bring about conflict transformation.

This denies a reality in which local communities are potentially non-violent, and at the same time also shaped by contestations and conflicts on an everyday basis. This may not lead to violence, but it is important to recognise how often peace is contested and processual, rather than an outcome of successful conflict resolution. The latter approach, elements of which shine through in Francis’ article, tends to idealise peace as a static product and fails to acknowledge that some manifestations of peace are superficial and oppressive. This is a rather easy way for the peacebuilding community to deal with conflicts such as in the Northern Irish case, where calling the situation a state of ‘peace’ makes it possible to avoid touching the deeper, discriminating and protracted issues of the conflict. By the same logic, referring to the situation in Somalia as ‘a violent conflict’ means that a withdrawal of peacebuilders may be justified when the security situation appears too fragile. People’s ability to work and survive around conflict is denied, which again serves as a rhetorical tool to disempower local society.  In fact, this only goes to show how contested the very notions of ‘peace’ and ‘non-violence’ are.

When we talk about ‘non-violent conflict transformation’, isn’t there a danger that we preclude alternative and challenging ideas of peace that may develop in hidden spaces? When Diana Francis talks about a move towards ‘genuine civilisation’, doesn’t this imply a specific recipe of civilised behaviour, which in turn can be used as a subtle way to depreciate the capacity of local actors to develop their own, alternative ways of moving to peace.

Instead we might have to scour the ‘depths’ of society to recognise those voices that operate in hidden spaces. Such processes are developing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where collectivities that have been excluded from the official conflict transformation and peacebuilding processes have started working ‘underground’ to carve out space for themselves where their more subtle – and potentially uncomfortable – ideas of peace can develop. In fact, several cultural organisations have started to develop counter-events to those promoted by international peacebuilding actors in order to respond more adequately to the nuanced identity and cultural needs of their society. In that instance, the simplified vision of local society on the part of the bigger donor agencies are countered by a variety of Bosnian initiatives challenging and resisting those imposed identities.

If international actors and practitioners want to respond to such processes adequately, they will have to recognise people’s ideas of their social lives and forms of peace so far unimagined within the boundaries of institutions. It does make sense for a practitioner such as Diana Francis to look at efficient ways of transforming societies into a peaceful form of living together, of course. But on the other hand, local versions of peace, both complex and contested, are often not efficient in a technological sense. It is therefore essential to engage with social processes in all their diversity, even though the outcomes of such engagements are not foreseeable and less controllable. 

However, if such processes are recognised and given a voice, forms of hybridity can emerge that are not necessarily damaging, as decribed by Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh.  This concept of hybridity is capable of recognising forms of peace that escape either the cooptation of international structures by corrupt local actors, or the domination of the international over the locals - processes which emerge in the constant encounter of the international with the local in locations beyond the official negotiation spaces where locals are forced into international structures. These contestations and conflicts over norms and policies can be seen as part of a complex peace process, rather than as spoiling the romanticised vision of a state of peace which often fails to materialise for the people on the ground. Then we might ask - what conditions must those hybrids fulfil to be mutually acceptable both to international and local agencies? How can they be open to resistance and allow people to get a stake in them?

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData