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The Role of Assumptions in Shaping International Support of Local Peacebuilding

The Role of Assumptions in Shaping International Support of Local Peacebuilding

Photo Credit: Peace Direct 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Autesserre, S. (2017). International peacebuilding and local success: Assumptions and effectiveness. International Studies Review, 19, 114-132.

Talking Points

  • Many international peacebuilding actors operate according to “unsupported, untested, and potentially flawed assumptions about peace, peacebuilding, and the role of outsiders and insiders” that fundamentally shape their interventions and can lead to less successful and even counterproductive local peacebuilding outcomes.
  • Examples of dominant assumptions whose perpetuation can weaken or even damage local peacebuilding include the following: that all “good” things (e.g., democracy, free markets, etc.) go together and facilitate peacebuilding, that international peacebuilding support is necessary, and that those living in conflict areas lack and need what international interveners have.
  • Whether international peacebuilding actors “channel resources effectively or poorly… largely depends on how interveners value local knowledge and input.”
  • International peacebuilding actors should critically examine and even challenge the widespread assumptions that inform their interventions, as doing so will enable them to interact with local peacebuilders as true partners—recognizing their distinctive contributions, benefitting from each other’s expertise, and challenging each other’s biases—leading to more effective peacebuilding.


Despite growing recognition of the importance of local, “bottom-up” peacebuilding efforts, it is yet unclear the extent to which international peacebuilding actors support these local efforts or merely get in the way. Séverine Autesserre therefore asks, “whether, how, why, and under what conditions international interveners”—including UN peacekeepers and other agencies, non-governmental organizations, donors, diplomatic missions, and/or regional organizations—“can contribute to successful local and bottom-up peace efforts.” In this article, she argues that many international peacebuilding actors operate according to “unsupported, untested, and potentially flawed assumptions about peace, peacebuilding, and the role of outsiders and insiders,” often leading to less successful and even counterproductive outcomes for local peacebuilding. When international actors challenge these assumptions, however, and go about their work differently, local peacebuilding efforts often become more effective.

Local: “[A]t the level of the individual, the family, the clan, the district, the province, and the ethnic group when it is not a national-level one… Local stakeholders…do not form a homogeneous community: They usually comprise many political, economic, social, and religious subgroups and hold very varied (and at times conflicting) interests and traditions.”

The author bases her analysis on a large body of data gathered over years of ethnographic research on peacebuilding programs, actors, and processes, mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (2001-2016) but also in Afghanistan, Burundi, Cyprus, Israel/Palestine, Kosovo, Nicaragua, South Sudan, and Timor-Leste, both in field locations and at organizational headquarters. This data includes field observations, participant observations, and 718 interviews, along with program documents, project evaluations, and other studies on peacebuilding. She counts “a peacebuilding project, program, or intervention [as] effective when a large majority of implementers (international and local peacebuilders) and intended beneficiaries (including local elite and ordinary citizens) perceive it as having promoted peace in the area of intervention.”

To begin, the author notes that current scholarship on peacebuilding does not say much about what accounts for effective international support of local peacebuilding. While recent studies have pointed to the positive contributions of international efforts to macro-level, “top-down” peacebuilding processes, others have suggested that international efforts may have limited impact or even detrimental effects at the local level, sometimes contributing to human rights violations or weakening democracy and local economies.

The lack of evidence for which factors contribute to local peacebuilding success means that international interveners instead rely on assumptions when developing their programs. Looking at so-called organizational “theories of change”—the often explicit, but sometimes implicit, understandings about how and why certain activities will bring about particular desired outcomes—the author notes that these are often “unrealistic or overly simplistic,” relying on dubious assumptions about how a program’s activities are likely to influence peace rather than on empirical evidence.

Despite the central role played by assumptions, however, little research has examined how assumptions influence peacebuilding outcomes. Accordingly, the author develops a theoretical framework for understanding how certain assumptions become dominant and then spread within international peacebuilding culture, as well as why these assumptions are rarely questioned and how they shape which peacebuilding strategies are seen as appropriate and which are not. Notable among the factors contributing to the spread and unquestioned entrenchment of particular assumptions are the socialization of new international organization staff and the unequal power dynamics between local and international peacebuilders.

To conclude, the author illustrates her argument with three widespread assumptions, examining how their perpetuation can weaken or even damage local peacebuilding and then how challenging them can lead to better peacebuilding outcomes:

  • All good things go together. Intuitively, “good” things like education, youth employment, democracy, free markets, and so on should facilitate peacebuilding. Conversely, “bad” things—like corruption or illicit economies—are widely believed to hinder peacebuilding. In fact, empirical studies have demonstrated that the former can exacerbate socio-economic problems and even promote violence, while the latter can sometimes contribute to stability and economic resilience.
  • International peacebuilding support is necessary for the emergence of peace. In fact, international efforts may be unnecessary and can even be counterproductive. Local peace is often cultivated by normal folks engaging in daily activities that prevent violence and calm tensions but that are frequently missed by researchers focusing on formal peacebuilding processes. And sometimes the presence of outside actors can even interfere with locals’ efforts.
  • Those living in conflict areas lack and need what international interveners have, whether “knowledge, skills, qualities, [or] resources.” To be sure, many local peacebuilders interviewed mentioned the importance of international resources to their efforts, but there have also been cases where international funding has “destroy[ed] local capacities and projects rather than enable[d] them.” Whether international peacebuilding actors “channel resources effectively or poorly… largely depends on how interveners value local knowledge and input.” Those who endorse the traditional “knowledge hierarchy” in peacebuilding, buying into its assumptions about the location of expertise, lose out on valuable sources of knowledge for effective peacebuilding. Those who recognize the expertise and competence of local authorities and community members, however, challenge these assumptions and thereby set the stage for more effective peacebuilding. In this approach, local and international peacebuilders work together as partners, recognizing their distinctive “perspectives, networks, assets, and leverage” (to quote Anderson and Olson[1]) and challenging each other’s biases.

In short, when international peacebuilding actors critically examine and even challenge the widespread assumptions that inform their interventions, they will support and interact with local peacebuilders in ways that benefit from local expertise and therefore better facilitate effective peacebuilding.

Knowledge hierarchy (in peacebuilding contexts): An unequal system where “the most valued expertise is that of foreign interveners who are trained in peacebuilding techniques and who have extensive experience in a variety of conflict zones. By contrast, and although there are exceptions, country knowledge is much less valued, and the knowledge of local people is usually trivialized. This knowledge hierarchy legitimates and justifies the interveners’ claim that they have the capacity and expertise necessary to help resolve the host populations’ problems.”

Informing Practice

Rather than provide practitioners with specific prescriptions for effective peacebuilding, this research suggests a more fundamental re-examination of the very premises of peacebuilding work. There seem to be a few clear implications of the research for its intended audience—international peacebuilding actors wishing to support local peacebuilding—especially in the area of program design, monitoring, evaluation, and learning (DME&L). First and foremost, at the very least, international peacebuilders should make the assumptions that inform their theories of change—and therefore the activities they undertake—explicit, so they can be held up to scrutiny and revised if necessary.

Second, international peacebuilders should undertake an honest assessment of which and whose knowledge they value to inform their analysis and program design—one clear location where racism rears its head in international affairs and peacebuilding, the implicit assumption being that international interveners (often white folks from Europe or North America) have expertise that locals in conflict-affected areas (often Black or brown folks) lack. (For more on these neo-colonial dynamics, see another analysis in this special issue, “Local Knowledge Disparaged in Peacebuilding.”) The next step after this self-assessment is then, again, for international peacebuilders to be ready to have their basic premises critiqued by local partners and stakeholders. Doing so is likely much harder than it sounds, as organizational and personal identities can be tied up in particular kinds of peacebuilding activities. Yet, a readiness to engage in critical introspection—carefully and systematically, with a plan for how to incorporate new insights into overall program design—is essential for organizational learning and ultimately peacebuilding effectiveness.

Third, on a related note, international peacebuilders who have not yet done so should shift how they think of their role and their relationship with local peacebuilders. Instead of thinking of themselves as bringing in something substantive that local actors lack, international peacebuilders can notice the different structural positions they and local peacebuilders occupy, providing each with distinctive “perspectives, networks, assets, and leverage” to contribute to peacebuilding processes. This awareness can then lead to a profoundly different kind of relationship—a genuine partnership—based on mutual recognition, respect for one another’s expertise and opinion, and acceptance of mutual constructive criticism.

Finally, the insights here about how particular assumptions become dominant and spread point to the need for structural changes in organizations to better enable questioning and dissent, both by local partners and stakeholders and by local and international staff—especially newcomers who are not yet fully socialized into the organization’s assumptions and practices and who therefore may still hold onto a useful outsider’s perspective that does not yet take these for granted. Whether this means creating a formal process early on in employment whereby new staff members comment on what they have noticed and flag questions/concerns about organizational assumptions and practices, or regularly eliciting feedback from local partners and stakeholders along the same lines, these individuals should be rewarded, not penalized, for critical opinions and their insights taken seriously. Ultimately, the reflexivity and power parity central to all of these recommendations can translate into peacebuilding programs that are more responsive to local knowledge, processes, and outcomes and therefore more effective. [MW]

Continued Reading

Stern, L. (2019, March 7). Community-based participatory research with marginalized communities. M&E Thursday Talk, DM&E for Peace. Retrieved on August 25, 2020, from

Ernstorfer A., & Barnard-Webster, K. (2019). Peacebuilding design, monitoring, and evaluation: A training package for participants and trainers at intermediate to advanced levels. Peacebuilding Evaluation Consortium. Retrieved on August 25, 2020, from

Eronen, O., Patokallio, M., O’Gorman, E., & Salonen, L. (2018). Critical friend: An innovation in evaluation and learning for peacebuilding. CMI Peace Broker. Retrieved on August 25, 2020, from


Stopping as Success: Transitioning to Locally Led Development:

Key Words: local peacebuilding; international peacebuilding; assumptions; culture; local expertise; knowledge hierarchy; peacebuilding effectiveness; international organizations

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

[1] Anderson, M., & Olson, L. (2003). Confronting war: Critical lessons for peace practitioners. CDA. Retrieved on September 2, 2020, from

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