In November 2018, the Paris Peace Forum, the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron, aimed to bring together key participants in global governance — “states, international organizations, local governments, NGOs and foundations, companies, experts, journalists, trade unions, religious groups and citizens” — to help build peace.
While the delegates discussed peace in grand halls in Paris, violence escalated again in Congo, leaving several U.N. peacekeepers dead. Burundi was once a model of international peacebuilding success. Now, the Burundi government increasingly uses violence and oppression against its critics.
Some analysts see these examples as evidence that multilateral peacebuilding efforts do not work. True, international peacebuilding efforts have yet to stop the violence in many war-torn countries. But even in countries fraught with violence, international peacebuilding efforts can build peace — though perhaps not in the way we expect. My research suggests there is another way to approach peacebuilding.
Top-down policies reinforce global, not local, priorities
International peacebuilding is implemented by multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations; bilateral aid agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); and private contractors. These organizations are accountable to countries, governments and donors outside of the conflict-affected country. The United Nations is accountable to its member states. Bilateral aid agencies are accountable to their legislatures, politicians and taxpayers. NGOs report to their governance boards and funders.
This sets up a situation in which North American or European-based officials at the organization’s headquarters insist that greater accountability to them will improve peacebuilding outcomes. But while international peacebuilders may facilitate the process, it is the people in conflict-affected countries who build peace. This means successful peacebuilding requires accountability to governments and people within the conflict-affected country.
In one interview for my book, an NGO worker in Congo explained that country-based initiatives carry out their interventions as planned — regardless of the actual needs of local peacebuilders.
“There is so much pressure to be accountable . . . complying with the rules and regulations and not having any corruption or fraud. There is not much appetite for failure. You often have problems because you don’t have time to train people. We don’t even have any reflection time. If an activity is not a big failure, we just go onto the next thing.”
In my 15-year study of peacebuilding in conflict-affected countries, I repeatedly heard similar complaints. When country-based staff received more demands from headquarters, they had less time to listen and respond to the needs of the people they were there to help.
In many cases, the headquarters of peacebuilding organizations assess “success” by whether country offices spend their allocated money as planned, rather than progress toward difficult, context-specific peacebuilding goals. One international staff member operating in Juba, South Sudan, explained: “People focus on spending. They have so much to spend and so little time. People spend 40 percent of their time talking about their burn rate [the rate at which they spend allocated funds].”
International policymakers assume they can improve peacebuilding through these types of top-down controls and policies. Top-down demands strengthen the influence of international policymakers — usually at the expense of the priorities of peacebuilders in conflict-affected countries.
Better peacebuilding is possible by improving local accountability
My research in Burundi, Congo, Nepal, South Sudan and Sudan shows that successful international peacebuilding is possible. It requires intervening organizations take the opposite approach and make themselves accountable to local stakeholders — the people whose lives are actually affected by conflict.
Accountability to local stakeholders requires the intervening organization to give people in the conflict-affected country the authority to evaluate the peacebuilding activities. In response to this real-time feedback, the intervening organization then makes corrections to the program.
For example, when the Burundi Leadership Training Program (BLTP), run by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, gave participants the authority to help determine future dialogue activities, several participants identified a crucial need. In 2004, the Burundian military and former rebel group had become deadlocked in negotiations about the allocation of posts in Burundi’s integrated army. Participants asked the BLTP to organize a dialogue for the rebel and army negotiation teams.
The BLTP held a targeted dialogue session, which resulted in an agreement that helped to advance the integration of the Burundian rebels and military into a unified interethnic army. Of course, this single effort did not prevent Burundi from descending into further violence later on, but many analysts argued the integrated army in Burundi was necessary for its 1993-2005 civil war to end.
Local accountability may require constructive rule-breaking
Responding to stakeholders within the conflict-affected country requires significant innovation by international country-based staff — and may require constructive rule-breaking. Responding to the needs of a diverse group of local stakeholders may necessitate bypassing or breaking rules set up to make country office staff accountable only to their bosses and politicians back home.
My research shows this effectively requires staff to work very long hours. Staff have to satisfy the most urgent demands of their bosses at headquarters first and then respond to the needs of their local collaborators — two sets of priorities that do not always align.
In many cases, these country-based staff succeed despite top-down accountability to their bosses and politicians back home, not because of it. They are able to make their international bureaucracies do things they were not designed to do. They make their country offices nuanced, nimble and quick.
The ambition behind the Paris Peace Forum was on point: Those involved in global governance can help build peace. But building peace will require greater accountability to local, not global, stakeholders. One first step would be to give country-based staff permission to innovate and create local accountability frameworks. Top-down, and often misguided, policies that limit the room for local accountability and innovation risk undermining the primary sources of peacebuilding success.
Susanna P. Campbell is an assistant professor at the School of International Service of American University. She is the author of “Global Governance and Local Peace: Accountability and Performance in International Peacebuilding.” (Cambridge University Press, 2018)