Peace Science Made Accessible, Understandable, and Useful.

The Link Between Local- and National-Level Peacebuilding After Military Victory

The Link Between Local- and National-Level Peacebuilding After Military Victory

Photo credit: Andreas Jopp

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Piccolino, G. (2019). Local peacebuilding in a victor’s peace. Why local peace fails without national reconciliation. International Peacekeeping, 26(3), 354-379.

Talking points

In the context of local peacebuilding after a military victory:

  • The lack of national reconciliation that characterizes a victor’s peace undermines local peacebuilding, especially in neo-patrimonial systems that maintain a link between national politicians and local communities.
  • The national and local levels are fundamentally linked via at least three mechanisms: (1) the defeated group’s elite-level promulgation of (often ethnically based) counter-narratives challenging the state, (2) local-level supporters’ (ethnic) identification with the persecution and victimization of the defeated group’s national-level leaders, and (3) the defeated group’s awareness of being socio-economically disadvantaged by the political power and hence socio-economic gains of the victorious group in a neo-patrimonial system.
  • Local peacebuilding risks being co-opted by national-level elites who may benefit from a depoliticized focus on the local level—“interpersonal harmony and everyday interaction”—as it takes pressure off the need to address difficult national-level issues.
  • In Côte d’Ivoire, national-level concerns—“biased transitional justice; flawed democratization; ethnic favouratism”—became obstacles to local social cohesion programs through “a web of clientelist networks” and “socio-psychological mechanisms” that facilitated supporters’ identification with their national-level leaders, linking national and local levels and reinforcing division at the local level.
  • Meaningful, effective peacebuilding “requires action at both [local and national] levels.”


Although the recent emphasis on local peacebuilding is critically important, Giulia Piccolino’s new research cautions against overemphasizing local peacebuilding to the exclusion of national-level political reconciliation. By critically examining some assumptions made by the so-called “local turn” in peacebuilding, especially in the context of military victory and neo-patrimonial systems, she reveals the ways in which local and national levels are linked and influence one another in peacebuilding processes. Applying her framework to Côte d’Ivoire, she asks how a “victor’s peace” and the lack of elite-level reconciliation at the national level affected local peacebuilding processes, particularly social cohesion programs.

Neo-patrimonial system: A system whereby “a façade of Western-style bureaucratic state coexists with patron-client networks… [whose] existence… creates a very strong bond between national politicians and local communities. Politicians and high-ranking civil servants use access to public resources to entertain their clientele, rewarding local elites, such as customary and religious leaders, in exchange for their support. They are also expected to perform other actions benefitting their local constituencies, such as appointing clients to public servant jobs and allocating infrastructural works and developmental projects to their local strongholds… Especially in times of economic crisis, [neo-patrimonialism] results into an intense competition between factions and communities over resources. When a politician from a given community is barred from political power in the capital, his clientele loses access to economic opportunities and public-sector jobs.”

Critiquing key assumptions in existing research regarding the primacy and inherently radical potential of local peacebuilding, the author notes that national-level politics and elites can hamper, as well as co-opt, local peacebuilding efforts. Drawing on previous scholarship on elite-level ethnic manipulation, the micro-dynamics of conflict, horizontal inequalities, and neo-patrimonial politics, she identifies three mechanisms to explain how the national and local levels may interact in peacebuilding processes—in particular, how the lack of national-level reconciliation in the wake of military victory can influence and even undermine local peacebuilding:

  • Defeated political leaders may try to mobilize the grassroots, reinvigorating counter-narratives, including ones emphasizing ethnic identity, to get their supporters to disengage from the state.
  • Local community members may identify with persecuted national-level leaders, casting their persecution as victimization of the whole ethnic community.
  • In neo-patrimonial systems, members of the victorious group are likely to benefit socio-economically, as that group’s leaders will have the most political power and therefore greater access to public goods to dole out to supporters. Likewise, members of the defeated group are likely to lose socio-economically, generating a sense of grievance.

These processes may fuel resentment in the defeated community not only against the state but also against local community members aligned with those in power, thereby catching local peacebuilding programs in “the struggle between irreconciled national elites.” Additionally, the state may find it advantageous to use local peacebuilding programs to “appease the constituencies of the losing side and reassert its authority.”

Côte d’Ivoire, where in 2015 the author conducted 20 grassroots focus groups and 90 elite-level interviews, provides a relevant case for examining these dynamics. Although there was a peace agreement between rival ethno-political parties in 2007, the contested 2010 presidential elections sparked a crisis that ultimately resulted in Alassane Ouattara’s military victory and presidency. Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo was detained by the International Criminal Court, while war crimes on Ouattara’s side were never prosecuted, leading to the perception of unevenly implemented transitional justice. Gbagbo supporters promoted a victimization narrative and often boycotted elections, while Ouattara’s political party dominated the government.

Social cohesion programming and discourse, with a focus on inter-communal dialogue and community-based development, emerged and was officially endorsed by the Ivorian government in 2012. The author suggests that the Ouattara administration had an interest in promoting social cohesion activities, as a focus on the local level took pressure off addressing difficult national-level political issues related to transitional justice and democratization.

Tracing the three mechanisms explored earlier, she finds that “’social cohesion’ at the local level was often undermined by unresolved national level questions.” First, defeated supporters of Gbagbo promulgated a counter-narrative to their grassroots constituencies—often through national-level figures with links to their home villages—that cast Gbagbo and his supporters as anti-colonial heroes victimized through the intervention of former colonial powers, a questionable electoral process, and a “victor’s justice” that unfairly imprisoned them and instituted ethnic discrimination in civil service. Adopting this counter-narrative, ordinary Ivorians were primed “to disengage from state-led initiatives and to be suspicious of the rhetoric of reconciliation and ‘social cohesion’, which they saw as a tool in the hands of the government”—ultimately to the detriment of local peacebuilding activities. 

To understand why regular people might adopt the pro-Gbagbo counter-narrative and go along with leaders’ denigration of local peacebuilding efforts, the author looks to the second and third mechanisms outlined above: “ethnic identification” and “the clientelistic nature of Ivorian politics.” Persecution against co-ethnics was “interpreted as an attack [on] the entire community,” with those directly persecuted represented as “brothers,” “daughters,” and so on. Furthermore, political patrons were also cast as relatives, due to their ability to provide for their communities. Patron-client relations also heightened the sense among community members that they were no longer “’provided for’ [with] their ethnic leaders [ ] in prison or excluded from power,” while other ethnic groups had greater access to public goods.

Overall, interviewees expressed the view that both the source of ongoing tension and the responsibility for reconciliation rested with leaders at the national level, not with local communities. National-level concerns—“biased transitional justice; flawed democratization; ethnic favouratism”—became obstacles to local peacebuilding through “a web of clientelist networks” and “socio-psychological mechanisms” that facilitated supporters’ identification with their national-level leaders, linking national and local levels and reinforcing division at the local level. Meaningful, effective peacebuilding, therefore, “requires action at both [local and national] levels.”

Informing Practice  

Although the focus of this research is on the link between the national and local levels and how concerns at bothlevels must be addressed for peace to emerge, an underlying theme is the inadequacy—indeed counter-productiveness—of military victory as an instrument of peace. Although military victory is meant to signal who wins and who loses a conflict, with the assumption being that the victor then gets the political outcome it favors, the reality is that the victor has to contend with the other side’s damage, victimization, and defeat. None of us can ever be completely isolated from one another; our conditions and fates are inextricably linked. The pain the victor inflicts on the defeated—instead of solidifying control—will rear its head in new and perhaps unexpected ways in the years that follow, complicating any hope of preeminence, or even stable political order.

This insight is as relevant for international wars as it is for civil wars. Almost two decades after invading Afghanistan and militarily routing the Taliban, the U.S. and its allies are struggling to name a clear political achievement to justify the over 150,000 lives lost, whether Afghan, American, or allied, while violence continues. In Sri Lanka, more than a decade since the government declared military victory over the Tamil Tigers, the country’s Tamil community continues to call for justice for those killed during the final months of the war, while a failure to resolve the political issues at the center of the conflict has meant the continued marginalization of the country’s Tamil and Muslim populations, as well as occasional violence perpetrated by and against them.

The additional insight that local peacebuilding efforts can be used by powerful national leaders to depoliticize reconciliation seems equally germane to both contexts. Note the U.S. government’s support for various local peacebuilding and violence prevention programs in Afghanistan —through USAID and USIP, for instance—while it has maintained an immense military presence there over the years and avoided addressing its own implication in the root causes of the conflict. Likewise, local peacebuilding, reconciliation, and development initiatives proceed in Sri Lanka while the government has failed to embark on any serious accountability measures for war crimes, maintains an overwhelming military presence in the country’s North and East, and avoids addressing the political demands of the country’s Tamil and Muslim communities. Although it would seem that such instances—marked by an insistence on resolving conflicts without violence while maintaining and using massive military force—would elicit cognitive dissonance, that seems not to be the case when people consider themselves or their countries or groups the exception: we are the ones who are using violence righteously to prevent violence; never do we consider our own violence to be part of the vicious cycle itself.

In the end, military means create more problems than they solve. And, once these problems are created, they must be addressed—at all levels. Hiding behind local-level initiatives will not make the broader, structural problems go away. The balance is in ensuring that peacebuilding includes processes that are meaningful to and directed by regular folks at the community level while also addressing large-scale political concerns and elite-level relationships that can otherwise impede these local-level processes and relationships. [MW]

Continued Reading

International Crisis Group. (2020, May 26). Côte d’Ivoire: Defusing electoral tensions amid polarized politics. Retrieved on August 26, 2020, from

Maurer, K. (2019, September 9). Witness to a war. The Washington Post. Retrieved on August 26, 2020, from

Keenan, A. (2019, May 17). Picturing Sri Lanka’s undead war. International Crisis Group. Retrieved on August 26, 2020, from

Seoighe, R. (2019, May 31). Sri Lanka ten years after the war: The Tamil struggle for justice continues. The Conversation. Retrieved on August 26, 2020, from


International Crisis Group:

National Peace Council (Sri Lanka):

Key Words: local peacebuilding; national-level elites; military victory; victor’s peace; neo-patrimonialism; national reconciliation; Côte d’Ivoire; social cohesion

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

Next article The Role of Assumptions in Shaping International Support of Local Peacebuilding
Previous article Recognizing the Hidden Politics of Local Peacebuilding