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  • Writer's pictureJames Cox

Some thoughts on peacebuilding

Promoting peaceful societies is embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a central objective of development. It's a big shift from what was included as 'development' under the Millennium Development Goals, that preceded the SDGs. But what will it mean in practice to promote peaceful societies as part of mainstream development? Peacebuilding is something that is still not widely understood, and is not well connected to mainstream development. As a first step it is worth spending a bit of time to consider what peacebuilding is.

Peace: not just the absence of war

It is often convenient to think about things in terms of opposites: happy and sad, up and down, black and white. It might appear to be useful to think of peace as the opposite of war – or of conflict, or of violence. But the fact that already I have identified three possible opposites to peace suggests that a more nuanced approach is needed.

The impracticality of treating peace as a straightforward ‘opposite’ becomes apparent when you consider these three possible opposites for a moment. A war ends – say for example, the first world war. For the winners, peace has been achieved. But for the losers – Germany – the end of war does not bring peace, but rather two decades of economic and political turmoil that culminates in another far bloodier war that engulfs the ‘winners’ of the first. The peace that followed the second war was a different thing that pursued justice for those affected and rehabilitation of the losers with more success. (And yes, that is a vast simplification of the story!)

In another scenario, conflict between rival urban gangs ends. Perhaps one gang disbands and the other extends its territory. But have the underlying conditions that nurtured the gangs been addressed? Are there legitimate jobs for young people, are the police and courts effective, and is there a big gap between the haves and the have nots? External factors may change - new people may move in. New gangs will probably rise, seeking new conflicts.

Even at the smallest scales, violence and peace a not opposites. Violence against women in the home may not end just because a violent husband, returned from prison, promises not to repeat the act. If underlying factors like unemployment and deeply engrained attitudes about the status of women are not addressed, more violence (physical or psychological) will likely result.

A side note: I’ll use ‘violence’ as the general descriptive term as it is the one that best captures a common characteristic of all types of non-peace: that the threat or reality of violence at whatever scale becomes the default way in which disputes are expressed.

These three examples mentioned several factors that can contribute to peace or to violence. Economic opportunities may be limited. Old grievances may be unresolved. The rule of law may be weak, as may be other government services. Populations displaced by violence, natural disaster or climate change may appear. Social, political or gender inequality may be entrenched. There may be ideological differences between groups.

What drives conflict or peace: context

These factors and more may exist in any combination and are usually known as ‘drivers’ of conflict, or of peace. The mere fact of violence, or of its absence tells us nothing about these underlying factors. We need to take the time to look deeper.

This act of looking deeper is the root of peacebuilding. Peacebuilding begins with a simple commandment, that ‘context is king’. Understanding the many factors that can push people to either peace or violence is the first step to being able to do something about them. It's critical that this understanding is not gained and held only by one group, or by an external expert. Understanding of the drivers must be shared by enough of the affected people or groups that they can work together to pursue their collective determination to achieve peace. Without good, up to date context analysis, peacebuilding will fail.

What does peacebuilding look like?

Having understood context, what could a peacebuilding initiative actually look like? A full answer is long and diverse, and some may look like ‘traditional’ development activity, albeit with a different overarching goal. It’s worth noting that peacemaking (negotiating an end to violence) and peacekeeping (enforcing the cessation of violence) are specific interventions that obviously are closely linked with peacebuilding, but are generally considered separately. It is enough for now to note that peacebuilding can start before peacemaking and peacekeeping initiatives are in place, that they are all interdependent, and that the central importance of context is common to all.

So here is a brief list of some possible peacebuilding activities. Later posts will look at some in more detail, particularly as they may apply to the Pacific.

  • Participatory context analysis

  • Reconciliation between former combatants

  • Empowerment of women

  • Early warning/early action monitoring

  • Mobilisation of children and youth as peacebuilders

  • Human rights training

  • Ensuring access to justice for all

  • Promoting equality for marginalised or disempowered groups

  • Political reform

  • Building roads to connect a community to the economy.

  • Education programs

  • Youth employment initiatives

  • Vocational training

  • Reforming the taxation and government service delivery infrastructure

  • Resolution of land disputes

  • Training of secular and faith leaders

  • Advocacy to local authorities, national governments, regional bodies and the UN.

Peacifica is itself at the beginning of its peacebuilding journey. As good peacbuilders, we are going to start with the first item on the list: context analysis. I will outline more about our plans in the next blog.

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