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Recognizing the Hidden Politics of Local Peacebuilding

Recognizing the Hidden Politics of Local Peacebuilding

Photo credit: UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Obradovic-Wochnik, J. (2020). Hidden politics of power and governmentality in transitional justice and peacebuilding: The problem of ‘bringing the local back in’. Journal of International Relations and Development, 23(1), 117–138.

Talking Points

In the context of local peacebuilding and transitional justice efforts in the former Yugoslavia:

  • A Western ideal of “the local” can be a site of exclusion where local actors have different levels of power, enabling some locals to govern the conduct and participation of other, less powerful locals.
  • Those local actors who can navigate the donor and other international agency world become complicit in “making decisions about which (other local) marginalised voices are heard, and under what conditions,” leading to the (re)production of power hierarchies, regulatory practices, disciplinary rules, and roles for “experts” and “subjects.”
  • There is a need to apply the same analytical scrutiny to “the local” that is applied to international actors to “reveal the hidden power relations and politics” operating there.


Support for locally led peacebuilding and transitional justice efforts implies a welcome and necessary shift away from internationally imposed, top-down interventions. But this approach can ignore existing power dynamics and inequalities between locals: Who decides which local voices are heard when, and which ones are not? Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik contributes to this discussion, arguing that a Western “imaginary local” can be a site of exclusion where more powerful locals are able to govern the conduct and participation of less powerful locals. Looking to the former Yugoslavia, the author investigates how non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—who are key actors in transitional justice processes through project-based initiatives—and actors “with the ‘good’ kind of local agency” become complicit in “making decisions about which (other local) marginalised voices are heard, and under what conditions.” Monetary and material support from donors and other international intervention agencies leads to the (re)production of power hierarchies, regulatory practices, disciplinary rules, and roles for “experts” and “subjects.”

Peacebuilding: “A broad range of measures implemented in the context of emerging, current or post-conflict situations and which are explicitly guided and motivated by a primary commitment to the prevention of violent conflict and the promotion of a lasting and sustainable peace.”

(Development Assistance Committee. (2008). Guidance on Evaluating Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Activities – Working draft for application period. Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development)

Transitional Justice: “[T]he restorative and retributive judicial and nonjudicial measure initiated within a state to address historical injustices with a view to contrive peace.”

To illustrate how the turn to “the local” can be problematic for transitional justice, the author examines the local power dynamics and politics of a grassroots initiative called RECOM.[1] RECOM is an example of an aid-dependent, local transitional justice initiative composed of 2,000 non-governmental, community-based, and international organizations (including the European Union from which it receives monetary support). The author analyzed 125 publicly available transcripts of RECOM’s main events to understand the interactions between NGO facilitators (self-described local “experts”) and individual participants (victims or “subjects of reconciliation”).

Her analysis reveals how donors and other intervention agencies made problematic decisions about which type of locals to support. Donors sought the growth of civil society and local ownership and, thus, cultivated the formation of multiple local NGOs. Different donors use terms like “national and local civil society” or “inclusive” without offering clear definitions. As a result, those locals who were best suited to understand and successfully respond to funding calls (perhaps through a specific educational background) and who had the social, political, or economic capital to operate like an NGO would speak on behalf of all locals. In other words, locals whose agenda was aligned with that of the donors—“imagined ideal locals”[2]—would succeed in shaping narratives in the peacebuilding process. Other local actors—organized or not—were viewed as less support-worthy and were thereby excluded. Moreover, donors’ emphasis on projects and project-related language (“targets,” “objectives,” “steering group,” “expert group,” and so on) “create[d] their own social worlds and frameworks through which power relations and ideas [we]re reproduced.” Projects, in this context, were based on the norms created by Western donors and institutions that tended to carry forward existing inequalities at the local level based on who was able to elicit donor support.

RECOM typified this approach through projects, events, and publications that included specific kinds of “valid” activities and narratives, including assumptions that public deliberation was key to confronting the past, that NGO-led projects were the appropriate way to engage with “the local,” and that reconciliation should drive all transitional justice efforts. At events, NGOs positioned themselves as experts with authoritative knowledge of “the local,” thus controlling how others would participate. For example, experts and project work were privileged over hearing voices of victims. Victim testimonies—which only made up a small part of the public events—needed to fit the organizers’ framework as to how to deliver their stories. The “victim” label itself was problematic, since it turned those individuals and groups into subjects of, and not participants in, transitional justice. Those who had no affiliation with NGOs or other types of organization lacked public visibility to meaningfully participate in the transitional justice process.

While RECOM disrupted the top-down practice of international intervention, it supported existing frameworks of power and inequality among local actors. Those power dynamics can be rendered invisible to donors and other intervention agencies, given that RECOM was, legitimately, a locally led grassroots initiative.

In sum, the author suggests applying the same analytical scrutiny to “the local” that is applied to international actors to “reveal the hidden power relations and politics” operating there. NGOs operate in a context that is donor reliant and project based, where “power, privilege and elitism are not acknowledged.” The task is to acknowledge the power dynamics between and among “internationals” and “locals” and unpack the “imaginary ideal local” in all interventions that support locally led peacebuilding. 

Informing Practice

This study provides a strong entry point for the peacebuilding community to become even more effective in their work by carefully examining local power dynamics. Peacebuilding organizations and donors have an opportunity to make informed program and funding choices that deliberately support processes inclusive of local voices, especially those that remain marginalized and under-represented.

Fortunately, this evidence-based critical assessment of local peacebuilding efforts does not fall into a vacuum of an unaware community of international peacebuilders or donors. The Peace and Security Funders Group recently published guiding principles and strategies for funders on how to best support locally led peacebuilding (see Continued Reading). They recommend funding peacebuilding processes over long time horizons instead of discrete “products,” as well as supporting mechanisms that make local efforts as inclusive as possible by “making sure women, youth, and marginalized groups are involved in meaningful ways.” The Alliance for Peacebuilding, together with our partners for this special issue, Peace Direct, likewise assessed local peacebuilding initiatives (see Continued Reading) and, among other priorities, emphasized the need to engage specific groups that traditionally would not lead or even participate in peacebuilding efforts. Groups “whose inclusion can help make peace more durable” include political, ethnic, or geographically specific groups, women and youth, particular castes, sexual minorities, people suffering from violence-induced trauma, displaced people and refugees, and ex-combatants. It is important to include these groups on their terms rather than placing them into a pre-determined framework where they are expected to fulfill a specific role.

But, despite best intentions, is it even possible for international actors to adequately address these local power imbalances? Building on insights from the research, a few suggestions help break down the daunting task and avoid some pitfalls:

  • The deserved critique of the role of donors and other intervention agencies should not be confused with resignation or inaction but rather should signal the need to be even more cognizant of the nuances of “the local.”
  • Donors and other intervention agencies need to be thoughtful about how donor money can create unwanted dependency scenarios and how a local “peace industry”[3] can develop. Those groups best equipped to speak “donor language” will likely determine what local peacebuilding looks like.
  • There is the danger that donors and other intervention agencies may create an “imagined ideal”[4] of locals. This can be avoided by conducting a comprehensive needs assessment that identifies all actors regardless of whether they are organized and speak donor/peacebuilder language (i.e., regardless of whether they are the “imagined ideal local”).
  • Donors and other intervention agencies must avoid selective empowerment by playing an active role in advancing genuine inclusion of all voices and not only those that speak donor and peacebuilder language. By using principles from ethnographic research, outsiders can make progress in perceiving social reality through the eyes of those creating it.
  • The analysis of visible and invisible power structures needs to be a fundamental element of all engageme A key approach can be the adoption of a “feminist curiosity” that refuses to take for granted the current state of affairs and explores how structural realities are created and maintained.[5] [PH]

Continued Reading

Peace and Security Funders Group. (2020). Funding locally-led peacebuilding: Guiding principles and strategies for funders. Retrieved on August 31, 2020, from

Peace Direct and Alliance for Peacebuilding. (2019). Local peacebuilding. What works and why. Retrieved on August 31, 2020, from


The International Center for Transitional Justice:

Alliance for Peacebuilding:

Peace and Security Funders Group:

Key Words: peacebuilding, transitional justice, Yugoslavia, local, local peacebuilding, international intervention

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

[1] RECOM stands for the “regional commission for the establishment of facts about war crimes and other violations of human rights in the former Yugoslavia, from January 1, 1991, until December 31, 2001.”)

[2] This term was introduced in Richmond, O. P. (2011). De-romanticising the local, de-mystifying the international: Hybridity in Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands. The Pacific Review, 24(1) 115–136. doi:10.1080/09512748.2010.546873.

[3] A term used in this study to describe how donor money turns peace into a business and job creation platform. 

[4] Richmond, O. P. (2011). De-romanticising the local, de-mystifying the international: Hybridity in Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands. The Pacific Review, 24(1) 115–136. doi:10.1080/09512748.2010.546873.

[5] Enloe, C. (2004). The curious feminist: Searching for women in a new age of empire. University of California Press.

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