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Local Knowledge Disparaged in Peacebuilding

Local Knowledge Disparaged in Peacebuilding

Photo Credit: Tine Frank/USAID 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Goetze, C. (2019). Learning in peacebuilding – Mission impossible? Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 13(3), 340-356.

Talking points

  • Because the United Nations (UN) places higher value in the career advancement process on professional skills like business management than on local knowledge, and the career trajectory of peacebuilders often includes rotations through various UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the broader field of peacebuilding is discouraged from valuing and integrating local knowledge.
  • There are limited ways in which knowledge is created and circulated in the field, resulting in the prioritization of knowledge that is “Eurocentric, promotes liberal ideas of leadership, government and individual equality and based on professional understandings that draw on education in an OECD country and professional codes” of business management. 
  • In peacebuilding missions, there is a tiered staff system wherein international staff sit at the top of the hierarchy, with advanced degrees from OECD academic institutions and the ability to move horizontally across adjacent professional disciplines, while local staff sit at the bottom of the hierarchy with severely limited opportunities for career advancement.  


Academic research on UN-led peacebuilding missions in conflict-affected societies typically concludes with recommendations for “better training and learning from the ground.” Yet, as Catherine Goetze points out, it is unclear who has the authority to propose and diffuse new knowledge for shaping the policies and procedures meant to foster peace. In practice, there may be structures in place that hinder the recognition and transmission of local knowledge in the peacebuilding field. The author investigates what knowledge is most valued and sought after in the UN peacebuilding system and, by extension, in the broader peacebuilding field in order to understand how knowledge is produced and circulated in peacebuilding. The author’s resume analysis of 560 UN staff and interviews with 202 UN staff employed between 2002 and 2012 concludes that the peacebuilding field privileges knowledge from OECD country academic institutions and affiliated sectors, such as the business world. Moreover, it actually discouragesthe integration of local knowledge.

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): An intergovernmental agency with 37 member countries, all self-described democracies and market economies, whose goal is to shape policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity, and well-being for all. Most members are high-income economies.

OECD country academic institution: A higher education institution located in one of the 37 member countries of the OECD, most of which subscribe to a liberal arts curriculum that can be traced to European origins.

In an effort to understand which knowledge is privileged, the author analyzes the career trajectories and professional skills of peacebuilders formerly employed by the UN. “Careers are the most important incentive for staff to formulate their knowledge” and, assuming that peacebuilders are motivated by career advancement, the skills and qualifications required for career advancement and recruitment reflect what knowledge the field values. Additionally, peacebuilding careers have a high rate of turnover due to short-term contracts and are constantly revolving through various UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and adjacent sectors. Because of this rotation and incentives for career advancement, the author extends her analysis of former UN peacebuilders to the broader peacebuilding field, which “involve[es] a wide range of actors and a decentralized complex of decision-making.”

The author identifies two key findings on the types of knowledge deemed legitimate. First, there are limited ways in which knowledge is created and circulated in the field, with knowledge from OECD country academic institutions or adjacent sectors as the dominant pathways. Attendance at an OECD educational institution and a specific set of professional skills, like business management, are regarded as “good” qualifications insofar as they contribute to recruitment and career advancement. All PhDs and 95% of post-graduate degrees of peacebuilders were awarded from universities in OECD countries. Second, as a result, the knowledge that is valued and incentivized in peacebuilding is “Eurocentric, promotes liberal ideas of leadership, government and individual equality and based on professional understandings that draw on education in an OECD country and professional codes” of business management.  

The author’s analysis also reveals a three-tier employment hierarchy of UN peacebuilders. The first and second tiers contain international executive and field mission staff, respectively, all of which have attended an OECD educational institution. The third tier is made up of local staff who have graduated from universities in the Global South and fulfill administrative and/or clerical roles. Local staff cannot compete for second and first tier positions because of certain requirements, namely a degree from an OECD country academic institution or travel limitations due to visa restrictions. Unlike the third tier, the first two tiers overlap considerably with adjacent sectors, as peacebuilders at these tiers cycle horizontally to relevant positions in other industries (e.g., diplomacy, national civil service, national politics, the business world, academia and think tanks, humanitarian assistance and development aid, and the legal field). Advancement from the second to the first tier occurs, but it requires horizontal mobility to an adjacent field for the staff member to be eligible for the upward movement to the first tier.

The overlap between the peacebuilding field and related sectors has contributed to the field’s adoption of professional practices, like “projectism” by which NGOs adopt the organizational structure of temporary and task-oriented work teams from business management. Consequently, peacebuilders maintain that skills pertaining to budgetary and organizational management were of great value for career advancement. By contrast, local knowledge is largely irrelevant to having a successful career as a peacebuilder and is actually discouraged in the field. International peacebuilders discussed how they avoided contact with the locals for fear it would compromise their career prospects. If a peacebuilder is perceived to have “gone local” by becoming too aware of the local context of their mission, they lose credibility as an “objective” peacebuilder, which one respondent described as “the little bit of distance to the problem itself.” By valuing distance from the “problem” the local community is wrestling with, the (preferred) international perspective reinforces Eurocentric virtues (like objectivity) at the expense of other valuable and necessary peacebuilding traits like cultural or Indigenous knowledge.     

The author demonstrates that it is impossible for local knowledge to be interjected into peacebuilding given the current structure of the field. However, she argues, based on her findings, that new or critical knowledge could be carried into the peacebuilding field via adjacent sectors.

Informing Practice

This research suggests that, in order to benefit from an injection of new or critical knowledge, peacebuilding must receive a transfusion from an affiliated industry. Yet, affiliated industries suffer from their own structural challenges that can limit knowledge flow. Decolonizing affiliated industries, such as international development, think tanks, philanthropy, and research institutions—industries that the author suggests can transmit new information into peacebuilding—can transform the field of peacebuilding itself. Decolonization entails dismantling knowledge systems informed by colonial legacies and instead centering the experience and knowledge of Indigenous communities, effectively upending attitudes and behaviors that reinforce a Eurocentric approach. Decolonization is commonly misunderstood as a process to diversify, but rather it is the concerted effort to (re)center Indigenous knowledge that has been subverted by colonialism.

In order to decolonize, one must recognize the mutually reinforcing ideologies that shape the contours of international development writ large: white saviorism and colonialism. These ideologies reinforce global power hierarchies that position the Global North, a proxy for whiteness, uncontested at the top. Assuming Eurocentric knowledge as a default starting point is a manifestation of the white savior industrial complex (WSIC). The discourse characterizing the developing world as impoverished and prone to war perpetuates a system in which external forces—i.e., white saviors from the Global North—must step in and save non-white communities. This complex is evident in another analysis in this special issue, “The Role of Assumptions in Shaping International Support of Local Peacebuilding,” in which Autesserre calls out the untested assumptions peacebuilders rely upon to shape their work—for instance, that international presence is required for peace and that locals are in need of the knowledge and skills international peacebuilders possess. Likewise, viewing the world from a postcolonial perspective, which calls attention to how the legacies of colonialism shape present-day interactions between formerly colonized countries and the countries that colonized them, helps us understand how perceptions of the Global South are still shaped by colonial assumptions. Acknowledging how the WSIC and colonialism shape international development is a crucial first step and reveals how Eurocentric knowledge is privileged at the expense of local, Indigenous knowledge.

There is a call to action, echoed in many of the analyses featured in this special issue, for philanthropy organizations, research institutions, and think tanks in the international development space to continue to bring attention to the missing link of local perspectives. More importantly, they must advance Indigenous perspectives in hopes of filtering local knowledge horizontally into the peacebuilding sector. Tangible examples of how to decolonize include funding peace researchers and programs originating in the Global South; providing creative spaces for artistic exchange, performance, and dialogue; building diverse research and program teams; and including local knowledge and experience as job requirements. Working to center, via integration into programming, research, and professional qualifications, the perspectives and customs of local communities in fields adjacent to peacebuilding can, in turn, decolonize peacebuilding. Decolonization is more than just a seat at the table, it means valued membership and full participation in the process. [KH]

Continued Reading

Aronson, B.A. (2017). The white savior industrial complex: A cultural studies analysis of a teacher educator, savior film, and future teachers. Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, 6(3). Retrieved on August 28, 2020, from

Autesserre, S. (2017). International peacebuilding and local success: Assumptions and effectiveness. International Studies Review, 19, 114-132.

Cole, T. (2012, March 21). The white savior industrial complex. The Atlantic. Retrieved on September 1, 2020, from

Nair, S. (2017). Postcolonialism. In McGlinchey, S., Walters, R., & Scheinpflug, C. (Eds.), International relations theory(pp. 69 – 75). Bristol, UK: E-International Relations Publishing. Retrieved on September 1, 2020, from

Kallon, C. (2018, August 6). How do we decolonize peace research? PRIO. Retrieved on September 1, 2020, from

Key words: peacebuilding; international; local; knowledge production and diffusion; UN missions

This analysis appears in the Special Issue on Local, National, and International Peacebuilding of the Peace Science Digest in collaboration with Peace Direct.    

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