“Playing with fire'  or “building peace, one tribe at a time”? 
Engaging with local non-state actors provides opportunities for peacebuilding, especially in places where the state is absent and solutions should be sought within communities. Most conflicts revolve around local disputes such as land or water allocation, legal affairs, poverty and unemployment. Finding local solutions to these local issues has been the foundation for recent peacebuilding interventions. In the third online debate of the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law, 30 international experts determined key factors for successful peacebuilding policies.They concluded that the best drafted development programmes will be meaningless if they fail to consider local actors and existing solutions before designing peacebuilding strategies.
Box 1. About the online debate
The Platform engaged the experts from different sectors and disciplines in its third online debate to better understand how international organizations and governments can effectively build peace with non-state actors in fragile and conflict-affected countries. Local actors include NGOs, traditional councils or local militias that provide alternative forms of governance and basic services to local populations, and ensure security. These informal alternatives which often coexist next to the state are called ‘hybrid forms of governance’.
The debate stirred fierce discussions on the pressing questions that local peacebuilding efforts face: can non-state actors fulfill the role of weak states? How can local views be meaningfully included in peacebuilding? And which local actors will move the peace process forward, and who are spoilers which only reinforce unequal power structures on the ground? The experts provided hands-on advice on these questions and urged international actors engaged in peacebuilding to take an in-depth look at the complexities of the local context – and at the risks their support for local authorities might hold.
Can non-state actors be accountable and legitimate partners in peace building?
Advocates of local power-sharing arrangements believe that local NGOs with established connections to communities are the most capable actors in providing social security. Cooperating with them supposedly increases international organizations’ accountability and legitimacy in peacebuilding interventions.The debate’s participants however heatedly deconstructed this simplified notion. Local actors who gained legitimacy through immediate relief efforts might fail to establish a basis for including the marginalized later in the development process. A solution to this could be standardized approaches to downward accountability for local organizations. David Connolly of The Hague Institute for Global Justice mentioned Integrity Action and Humanitarian Accountability Partnership as organizations providing practical guidelines to development projects on how to ensure integrity and accountability.
Communities can mediate between top and grassroots level, thus increasing the accountability of both spheres, Luc Ansobi of ACCORD argued. Romain Malejacq of CICAM added empowering communities economically and supporting local conflict resolution bodies, media and watchdog organizations as additional options. Local NGOs can thus be sources of accountability, but their impact on local communities needs to be closely monitored throughout the peace process.
Why are local non-state actors often excluded and how can they be included?
International governments are often hesitant to work with non-state actors, fearing that supporting these actors might compromise their own legal foundations. This poses a serious challenge, since non-state actors act outside the frameworks of international law, but might also provide essential services to local populations. Aaro Rytkönen of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers argued that only supporting national governments can significantly limit the effectiveness of peacebuilding, where tribal and local identities are often more important.
Involving local stakeholders does not guarantee true grassroots engagement or project success. International actors usually opt to work with larger local organizations that speak the ‘donor language’. Nepal Centre for Contemporary Research Director Bishnu Upreti held that these organizations, however, are often not connected to grassroots initiatives. Furthermore, international organizations struggle to identify effective, more community-based projects by smaller organizations. This language barrier and disconnect explains why many relevant local institutions do not even get a place at the negotiating table. Susanne Schmeidl of the University of New South Wales advocated for including councils of elders to supplement state structures, while Brenda Bartelink of Oikos suggested utilizing existing networks of traditional and religious peacemakers.
Partnership does not necessarily mean handing over full responsibility to local entities. Sukanya Podder of Cranfield University advised pragmatic cooperation with non-state actors. An example are the clan structures in Somalia where some non-state actors may provide welfare and justice, while also contributing to instability and violence.This triggered a vibrant discussion on how to avoid transferring governing power into the ‘wrong’ local hands. Civil societies are often polarized along the same lines as their societies, Thania Paffenholz of the Geneva Graduate Institute cautioned.Working with the most powerful local actors risks elite capture of the peace process and might reinforce unequal social hierarchies. The legitimacy of local actors within one social group might be viewed very differently by another group. Empowering certain local actors may thus further destabilize already fragmented post-conflict societies. Martine van Bijlert of Afghanistan Analyst Network confirmed that local stakeholders can be just as entangled in patronage and corrupt networks. In addition,many powerful local actors have vested interests in upholding the status quo of protracted conflict to maintain their authority.
What partnership models with local non-actors are effective?
The experts agreed that international peacebuilding actors should adopt a more modest attitude. As a result of current development practices, local organizations prioritize accountability to donors over accountability to communities. Participants acknowledged that international influence thus runs a real risk of being a destabilizing rather than a constructive force.
An option requiring less international engagement is detailed mapping of actors and incentives analyses, combined with flexible funding arrangements and capacity development support. ECDPM’s Volker Hauck suggested this helps identify local stakeholders who truly support the peace process. Gemma van der Haar contended that international actors should shift the analytical effort from ‘mapping actors’ to ‘following problems’. Determining local needs and finding out who people turn to with problems and why should be a priority. Romain Malejacq suggested fostering virtuous processes rather than building entire institutions as a first step towards democratic governance. Frauke de Weijer of ECDPM argued that managing local society’s expectations is essential to this facilitating role for international actors.
Changing approaches for international actors
Efforts should focus on how to increase capacities of weak governments rather than excluding them, according to LSE lecturer Kate Meagher. Keeping local government arrangements flexible to enable new legitimate actors to join is a key lesson from post-conflict peacebuilding in Rwanda, Burundi and Eastern Congo.
As the responses of participants showed, local actors are an indispensable partner in peacebuilding efforts. Reconciliation within communities, as well as building resilient societies equipped with conflict resolution mechanisms will provide a strong foundation for peace, reconstruction and development. Traditional fora for discussion, local media and social networks are relevant tools to engage local stakeholders in peace dialogues. Investing in umbrella bodies to host these dialogues and in peace education are other innovative means for development actors. Supporting local efforts in conflict-affected areas is a must, not a maybe, for international actors striving to contribute to sustainable peace.
The Platform would like to thank the experts who made this debate a very insightful event. We would like to invite you to contribute to our upcoming debates to improve policies in fragile contexts.
Box 2. Policy recommendations
Recommendations for policymakers
Recommendations for researchers
Recommendations for practitioners