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The Importance of Local/International Relationship-Building to Peacebuilding in Bougainville and Sierra Leone

The Importance of Local/International Relationship-Building to Peacebuilding in Bougainville and Sierra Leone

Photo Credit: Elections Bougainville 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Boege, V., & Rinck, P. (2019). The local/international interface in peacebuilding: Experiences from Bougainville and Sierra Leone. International Peacekeeping, 26(2), 216-239.

Talking Points

In the context of Bougainville and Sierra Leone:

  • The nature of cross-cultural relations between local and international actors deeply influences peacebuilding processes, and therefore analysis that pays attention to these relations can reveal otherwise “ignored, underexplored, or underestimated” factors critical to understanding the success or failure of peacebuilding outcomes, including those related to security or reconciliation.
  • In Bougainville, strong, trusting relationships and everyday engagement between internationals and locals translated into the success of an unarmed peacekeeping force and responsiveness to locally meaningful approaches to reconciliation “deeply rooted” in religious/spiritual faith and practice.
  • In Sierra Leone, the emphasis on relations between internationals and national-level elites—with little interaction or trust-building at the community level—translated into a reliance on armed peacekeeping forces (nonetheless unable to prevent some attacks) and armed compounds apart from communities, as well as more attention to large-scale, secular justice and reconciliation institutions than to locally meaningful reconciliation processes and ceremonies.
  • Since relationships are so critical to peacebuilding processes and outcomes, peacebuilding practitioners should focus on building strong relationships with local partners and stakeholders informed by genuine dialogue, cultural sensitivity, and self-reflection.


What would we notice and better understand about peacebuilding if we looked at it as consisting of everyday cross-cultural interactions between local and international actors? Recent research by authors Volker Boege and Patricia Rinck attempts to find out. They examine two countries widely considered “successful” cases of peacebuilding—Sierra Leone and Bougainville—but which manifested very different forms of local/international interaction in order to find out how the nature of local/international relations shaped peacebuilding processes and outcomes. With a focus on three areas in particular—(1) relationship-building and trust, (2) approaches to security, and (3) spiritual dimensions of reconciliation—they ultimately demonstrate that differences in local/international cross-cultural relations deeply influence “processes and outcomes of peacebuilding interventions.”

Locals (or insiders): Those who “are from the place in which peacebuilding is carried out.” “[A] significant marker of being ‘local’… is… being conflict-affected—as victim or perpetrator, or as victim-turned-perpetrator (or vice versa), as combatant or civilian, as refugee or internally displaced, as directly affected or with close links to directly affected people… [and also carrying] a sense of life-long belonging: to a specific place and a group of people bound by kinship ties, shared customs and culture, deeply connected to land…” 

Internationals (or outsiders): Those who are “from a place more or less far away, coming to support… who, for one reason or the other, entered the place to address the locals’ need for peacebuilding and are on the ground only temporarily.” “[T]hey can leave whenever things on the ground get dangerous, while locals usually cannot.” International peacebuilders also tend to inhabit distinct spaces and share a distinct culture.

The authors conducted and analyzed interviews with a wide range of local and international peacebuilding actors in the two countries, informed by years of broader field experience there. While both Sierra Leone and Bougainville have “remained relatively peaceful” and are considered peacebuilding “success stories,” Sierra Leone is emblematic of mainstream liberal peacebuilding led by elite-level international intervention, whereas Bougainville is illustrative of a “liberal-local hybrid form of peace” characterized by direct international/local relationship-building and strong local agency. The former focused on national-level political, economic, and security institution-building but somewhat neglected reconciliation and “root causes of the conflict” related to “state-society relations.” The latter, by contrast, focused on grassroots reconciliation but set aside some broader political and institutional questions.

Liberal peacebuilding: Efforts in conflict-affected societies to support the creation of liberal institutions—especially liberal democratic governments and market-oriented economic systems—which are assumed to limit the chances of relapse into armed conflict. The liberal peacebuilding project has been criticized for importing liberal institutions and implementing them in a top-down fashion without adequate attention to local context, privileging “international”/Western expertise over local expertise, and reinstating colonial relations between the “developed” and “developing” world.

A focus on international/local relations highlights differences between the two cases in three areas. The first, most fundamental area of difference is in the nature of these relationships themselves and the corresponding trust built. Whereas internationals in Sierra Leone engaged predominantly with national-level elites, resulting in little trust between non-elite locals and internationals or even state institutions, internationals in Bougainville ultimately built trust with local community members by engaging closely with them on an everyday basis and being of direct service to them (providing/facilitating transportation, meeting venues, communication, medical services, and so on, sometimes bending the rules to do so). These relationships then crucially shaped the other two areas of peacebuilding examined: security provision and reconciliation processes.

In Sierra Leone, international actors engaged in armed peacekeeping, which not only failed to prevent some attacks but also further limited opportunities for relationship-building, as “[m]ission personnel stayed in armed compounds, and there was not that kind of direct everyday interaction with local people in the communities.” Instead, the international mission focused on national-level security reform and disarmament efforts rather than local security issues—with unsatisfying results, especially for those in rural areas who still face insecurity. Furthermore, the elite-level focus of the mission meant that most international attention and resources related to reconciliation were devoted to large-scale secular institutions like a special court and truth commission, with only limited support of local reconciliation processes and ceremonies that were often more meaningful for local communities.

In Bougainville, close local/international relations resulted in very different security and reconciliation practices. To begin with, the international peacekeeping force was unarmed, a characteristic that both facilitated and was enabled by relationship-building. Bougainvilleans insisted on an unarmed force, as it made them feel safer, while also garnering their respect. Security was a product of the internationals’ “embeddedness in the community”—itself also partially a product of their unarmed status, which was critical to enabling relationship-building with stakeholders. As one commander put it, “What I am sure about is that if we had been armed, the result would have been just another failed peace intervention.” Furthermore, strong relationships and everyday engagement with local community members meant that internationals were responsive to and ultimately supportive of local approaches to reconciliation “deeply rooted” in religious/spiritual faith, incorporating ceremonies and ritual. In a society where “social relations are guarded by the spirit world,” this spiritual dimension was critical to the viability of reconciliation processes in Bougainville.

In short, peacebuilding analysis that pays attention to locally grounded, cross-cultural relations between internationals and locals can reveal otherwise “ignored, underexplored, or underestimated” factors that are critical to understanding the success or failure of peacebuilding outcomes, including those related to security or reconciliation. Moving from analysis to practice, the authors recommend that—considering how critical relationships are to peacebuilding processes and outcomes—peacebuilding practitioners focus on building strong relationships with local partners and stakeholders informed by genuine dialogue, cultural sensitivity, and self-reflection.

Informing Practice

The clearest recommendation that emerges from this research is for international peacebuilders—whether UN staff, officials from regional organizations, or those working with international non-governmental organizations (INGOs)—to be attentive to the kinds of relationships they are building with their local counterparts in the countries where they are working. In other words, it might very well make sense to prioritize these relationships over the actual “substance” of peacebuilding activities—whether microeconomic development or reconciliation or political reform or disarmament—as close, trusting relationships with local communities are ultimately key to effective peacebuilding interventions in a host of areas. Building strong and culturally responsive relationships means, in the first place, working and living in the community, not in an armed compound, but it also means listening and attending to the needs of community members and the practices meaningful to them—even, or especially, when these might fly in the face of organizational assumptions, regulations, or mandates. In short, relationship-building demands flexibility and responsiveness.

An important piece of this effort is for international peacebuilders to notice their own cultural baggage, as well as aspects of their organizations’ rules or practices that might get in the way of creating genuine and culturally sensitive connections with local community members. In other words, “culture” is not just something that belongs to locals, with internationals bringing in supposedly universal (and therefore “culture-free”) goods or values like human rights, democracy, and conflict resolution. The assumptions internationals make about these and how they should be implemented are just as culturally loaded as any local interpretations of or alternatives to them. For instance, as noted by the authors, the widespread Western assumption shared by many international peacebuilders that religion belongs in the private realm and therefore that public reconciliation activities should remain largely secular is itself culturally specific—and acting on it uncritically can result in reconciliation activities that fail to resonate with the people for whom they are intended. Adopting an ethnographer’s eye for one’s own culture and taking note of one’s own cultural assumptions and practices may help one take less for granted and be more responsive to unfamiliar approaches to peacebuilding emerging from local communities.

Finally, this research clarifies the security implications of strong, trusting relationships and should cause international peacebuilders to reconsider some of the assumptions they may hold about the necessity of armed forms of protection. As this research indicates, a reliance on armed protection can, in fact, impede the security that comes from community “embeddedness” by encouraging the “bunkerization” of international actors and making relationship-building between them and various local stakeholders more difficult, thereby reproducing the seeming necessity of armed protection. Rather, international peacebuilders should consider the security and other benefits of remaining unarmed and living in community with the people they are there to support. Although, at first glance, such an approach might seem to make internationals and locals more vulnerable, such a presence can instead facilitate access, relationship-building, and trust between “internationals” and a range of local stakeholders in a mutually reinforcing cycle that enables violence prevention and protection. [MW]

Continued Reading

Alliance for Peacebuilding and Peace Direct. (2020, July). Local peacebuilder perspectives on the U.S. Global Fragility Act. Retrieved on August 24, 2020, from

Goetze, C., & Bliesemann de Guevara, B. (2014). Cosmopolitanism and the culture of peacebuilding. Review of International Studies, 40(4), 771-802.

Hoffman, E. (2008). Reconciliation in Sierra Leone: Local processes yield global lessons. The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, 32(2), 129-141.

Gehrmann, R., Grant, M., & Rose, S. (2015). Australian unarmed peacekeepers on Bougainville, 1997-2003. Peace Review, 27(1), 52-60.

RNZ Music. (2019, April 2). Soldiers without guns: How peace in Bougainville was helped by waiata and haka. Retrieved on August 25, 2020, from


Peace Direct:

Fambul Tok:

Key Words: peacebuilding; local/international relationship-building; cross-cultural interactions; Bougainville; Sierra Leone; security; reconciliation

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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