Force Commander of the United Nations Operation in Burundi (ONUB), Major-General Derrick Mbuyiselo Mgwebi, addresses a military parade during activities organized in observance of the International Day of UN Peacekeepers in Bujumbura, Burundi on May 27, 2006. (Mario Rizzolio/UN Photo)

I first went to Burundi in 1999, for a now-dismantled early warning organization. The war was in full swing but the peace process was gaining momentum. I worked for UNICEF and the International Crisis Group in Burundi from 2000 to 2002 and have returned regularly since then to research the behavior of international organizations, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and bilateral donors in conflict-affected countries. Over this time, Burundi’s political and security reforms have been interspersed with political violence. The current crackdown on civil society, independent journalists, peaceful demonstrators and members of the opposition threatens to extinguish the fragile peace that these actors were so pivotal in fostering.

However accurate, Burundi has been considered one of the few cases of international peacebuilding success. Over the past 15 years, supported by key international and regional actors, Burundian politicians agreed to and implemented several peace agreements, developed a vibrant civil society and independent media, and held peaceful democratic elections in 2005. After 2005, a tug-of-war ensued between an increasingly authoritarian ruling political party on one side, and civil society, independent media and opposition on the other, contributing to the withdrawal of most political parties midway through the 2010 election campaigns. Nonetheless, Burundian journalists, civil society and, now, members of the general population remain committed to fighting against corruption and extrajudicial killings and for inclusive political institutions.

In 2006, the U.N. Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) – the core of the United Nations’ Peacebuilding Architecture – selected Burundi as one of the first two countries that it would try to prevent from backsliding into war. Despite the PBC’s commitment to Burundi, international peacebuilding is disappearing from the country. The United Nations in Burundi is arguably the weakest it has been since the war began in 1993, lacking a strong political representative based in the country. Most donors to Burundi provide only standard development aid that strengthens state institutions, rather than attempting to transform them. The African states that played such a crucial role in mediating Burundi’s peace agreements, are now largely indifferent or view President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term as legitimizing their own extended terms.

Burundi’s recent turmoil could lead the United Nations, regional states and international donors to write off Burundi as a peacebuilding failure and turn their attention to more strategic regions. The 2015 review of the U.N. Peacebuilding Architecture offers the opportunity to raise awareness of Burundi’s continued peacebuilding need, and improve the world body’s peacebuilding capacity based on crucial learn lessons from U.N. peacebuilding in Burundi.

I’m completing a book manuscript – “Global Governance and Local Peace” – in which I show that international donors, INGOs, and the U.N. Peacebuilding Architecture have made important contributions to Burundi’s post-war transition (see also my evaluations of the U.N. Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) in Burundi in 2010 and 2014). I find that through several smart, targeted interventions, the PBF helped to reduce deadlock in Burundi’s Parliament, support crucial reforms in the Burundian army, and establish Burundi’s Independent National Commission on Human Rights. The head of the PBC Burundi Country Configuration, in turn, played a crucial diplomatic role that the U.N. secretary-general’s representatives in Burundi (four of whom were effectively kicked out of the country between 2005 and 2015) could not play.

But these cases of success were not the norm. Most projects funded by the PBF failed to change Burundi’s institutions. Some of them even did harm. For the most part, PBF-funded projects were simply standard U.N. development or humanitarian activities — largely disconnected from Burundi’s complex political, security or social reality.

The PBC seems unwilling to help prevent Burundi from backsliding into war. It barely responded to the withdrawal of most opposition parties from the 2010 elections and the escalating violence that surrounded them. Its feeble reaction to the current crisis testifies to the weakness of this U.N. body that once held so much hope.

My research identifies two crucial lessons for reforming U.N. peacebuilding to make it more capable of delivering results.

Lesson 1: Global accountability needs local accountability

U.N. peace operations and U.N. development and development agencies are directly accountable to their headquarters, not to the people in the conflict-affected countries they are trying to transform. This global accountability undermines the United Nations’ peacebuilding effectiveness on the ground. Organizations focus their systems, staff capacities and resources on fulfilling globally determined targets and plans. Within a dynamic context, these analyses, plans and targets quickly become outdated and irrelevant.

To counter this tendency, the United Nations’ successful peacebuilding projects in Burundi developed local accountability mechanisms and bottom-up coherence. Local accountability mechanisms were strong country-level partnerships with civil society members, likeminded government officials, and/or community members, who gave the United Nations regular feedback on the effectiveness of its projects and recommend ways to improve their relevance and impact. Bottom-up coherence facilitated joint actions by different U.N. organizations in response to specific events in the Burundian context. This enabled the United Nations to leverage its capacities to respond to specific problems, rather than spend hours developing a common strategy, plan and targets that would soon be irrelevant.

Lesson 2: Implementation must be both technical and political, and backed by strong field-level leadership

The U.N. Peacebuilding Architecture is grounded in the belief that once the United Nations has developed the right analysis and strategy, the corresponding projects simply need to be implemented by staff members with technical expertise. Most U.N. entities and member states organize their activities along this traditional political-technical divide. Those at the top of the hierarchy focus on political concerns whereas those who implement projects focus on their technical implementation, without adjusting the project to fit changing circumstances.

But, for peacebuilding activities to address the potential determinants of conflict or peace, they need to be sensitive to political dynamics and adapt as these dynamics change. This is not only true at the strategic level, but also at the technical level where the actual transformation of local behaviors and institutions takes place. In Burundi, the successful PBF-funded projects involved country-level U.N. leadership and their close staff members in the design, implementation and monitoring of the project. These key staff members used their political leverage to overcome bureaucratic barriers within the world body and help staff resist possible intimidation by domestic actors who wanted to maintain the status quo.

Despite the focus of political scientists on the failure of peacebuilding, my extensive research in Burundi shows that internationally supported peacebuilding activities can help create inclusive and representative domestic institutions. I find that doing so requires the United Nations, bilateral donors and INGOs to circumvent slow bureaucratic systems, develop keen political awareness, and reach beyond the tall walls of their compounds to engage with the people and institutions that they aim to transform.

Susanna Campbell is a post-doctoral researcher at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, with the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding. Some of this post draws from earlier synthesis of her research, prepared for FUNDS.