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Pitfalls of Top-Down Peacebuilding


The top-down approach to peacebuilding has largely failed at creating sustainable peace in places such as Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq, and South Sudan. Yet, a small Congolese island in Lake Kivu has kept the peace despite holding known prerequisites for violent conflict. Their success is largely due to an emphasis on the local’s role in conflict transformation.

In the News:

“Every day, [conflict] reports tell a familiar story: There was violence, the United Nations got involved, donor countries pledged millions in assistance, warring parties signed agreements, and headlines praised peace. But the violence continues. We tend to look at what went wrong when we’ve tried to resolve conflicts. My new research takes a different approach and looks at what has gone right. To stop wars, an essential first step is to understand how people have actually succeeded in building peace.”

“In short, leaders try to build peace from the top down. They also rely on the knowledge and resources of diplomats, U.N. peacekeepers and other foreign interveners. This approach has had disastrous consequences. Battle deaths have risen by 340 percent globally in the past 10 years. The world has 1.5 billion people living under the threat of violence in more than 50 conflict zones. Wars have recently triggered the worst refugee crisis of the past 70 years. Here’s an exception — Idjwi, a Congolese island of peace in Lake Kivu. For the past 20 years, one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II has raged in Congo. Even the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world has failed to stem the flood of violence. Idjwi somehow avoided the conflict, although the island contains all of the ingredients that have caused generalized fighting in other parts of Congo: geostrategic location, mineral resources, ethnic tensions, lack of state authority, extreme poverty, and conflict over land and power, to name a few.”

“Ultimately, many successful examples of peace-building in the past few years have involved innovative grass-roots initiatives, led by local people, often using methods the international elite tends to dismiss. But perhaps these very efforts merit a closer look as a first step to changing the way we view and build peace.”

Insight from Peace Science:

  • Groups seeking to develop peace zones must understand the important role of local participation, the ties to local resistance forces, and the role played by external actors.
  • National and local peace initiatives are mutually influential. The success of one increases the chances of success in the other.
  • Direct participation of community leadership in civil resistance increases the likelihood of success.
  • Knowledge of successful resistance movements increases the effectiveness and strength of new peace movements.


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