Partners in peace : discourses and practices of civil-society peacebuilding

M. van Leeuwen

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU

    Abstract

    This study looks into images, and assumptions, of civil-society peacebuilding and its support by international development organizations, and how this relates to politics and practices of peacebuilding on the ground. It is built principally on a series of case studies of peacebuilding interventions and organizations working in southern Sudan, Burundi and the African Great Lakes Region, and Guatemala. This study underscores the importance of implicit assumptions in contemporary peacebuilding work. International support to civil-society peacebuilding is often guided by simplified notions on conflict and the potential roles of civil society in bringing about peace. To arrive at better peacebuilding practices, it is necessary to know more about what civil society is, how it works, and how the assumptions motivating its support work out in practice. This requires exploring the everyday peacebuilding practices of civil-society organizations. In particular, attention needs be given to the organizing practices of peacebuilding organizations, how they operate and develop, to the different meanings attributed to peacebuilding by the diverse parties involved, and to how understanding peacebuilding is part of organizational politics.
    In fieldwork and analysis, I applied an actor-oriented approach. Such an approach helps to clarify how policies and interventions of organizations result from the everyday practices of organizations and the people and authorities of the communities where they implement their programs. A core notion in this study is discourse, referring to collective practices of ordering or ‘framing’ in the minds of actors, who make sense of their experiences through coherent schemes. Discourses are often seen as implying power: as dominant traditions of looking at the world which eliminate alternative visions, or as affecting social relations through diverse ways. Organizations may use discourses strategically, for example, to legitimize interventions. Discourse can be highly political, promoting particular agendas for development.
    While acknowledging the power of discourse, this study focuses on discourse as a cognitive process. To be able to operate and to respond to the complexity of conflict and peacebuilding, development organizations simplify reality. But simplifying reality always implies that parts of reality are lost or remain underexposed. In the case studies, I reflect on the consequences of simplification, and explore how development organizations can better take account of the necessary simplifications they make. In practice, it is often difficult to separate the cognitive exercise of ordering from the politics of ordering - the two often interact or go closely together. Simplification always implies political choices by prioritizing certain problems and interpreting particular interventions as the most appropriate. The study argues that to understand ordering requires giving equal attention to the several attributes of discourse. This research approach is elaborated upon in chapter 1.
    Chapter 1 also reflects on my experiences with an interactive research approach. Through such an interactive approach, I aimed to develop a sense of ownership over questions and recommendations by the civil-society organizations involved in the research and so enhance their peacebuilding work. In my experience, an interactive approach enhances the depth of ethnography and analysis of findings. Carrying out research with (instead of only on) organizations facilitates relations of trust and witnessing organizing practices from within organizations, and enables discussing findings with research partners. It stands out in this study that rather than a research methodology, the interactive character of research should be seen as an intention. The extent to which research becomes interactive cannot be planned, nor assured by the adoption of particular interactive methodologies. Rather, the interactive character of research develops with the advancement of collaboration. Crucial to this process is mutual commitment, which depends on the flexibility of the research and research partners, the expected benefits for the participants, the extent to which expectations are satisfied along the way, and the enthusiasm of individual participants. The interactive character of research is also affected by organizational changes and changing interests. Practically, this means that a researcher needs to ensure that space for participation and non-participation is maintained throughout the process.
    The subsequent two chapters analyse international discourses and policies of peacebuilding, and look at a general level at how organizations make sense of conflict. Chapter 2 analyzes how over the 1990s, peacebuilding discourses developed that attributed a major role to civil society in realizing peace. Though seeming consensus on peacebuilding evaporated with the anti-terrorist policies after 9/11, and peacebuilding roles taken on by international NGOs and local civil-society organizations were reclaimed by donor governments and multi-lateral agencies, many international and local organizations continued to be involved in peacebuilding. Nonetheless, consensus on what peacebuilding should look like remains absent. Development actors differ considerably in prioritizing particular domains, and do not agree on the sequencing and interdependence of particular interventions. Moreover, practices of civil-society peacebuilding implicitly build on strong assumptions about the roles civil society, the state and international actors should play in peacebuilding and governance.
    Chapter 3 analyses how those policy trends and emerging discourses regarding peacebuilding and civil society are reflected in the work of particular international development organizations. The chapter demonstrates that peacebuilding is not just an opportunistically applied policy label but has acquired different meanings in practice. Definitions of peacebuilding in policy strategies reflect the different backgrounds of organizations. At the same time, local conditions set limits and pose specific opportunities for peacebuilding. The chapter illustrates that rather than that international development organizations change their practices when new discourses come into fashion and replace previous ones, practices of organizations follow slower. Newer and older discourses continue to be relevant in the practices of organizations. This provides room for manoeuvre to organizations who find in this multiple grounds to legitimize a large range of intervention strategies. Policies are an ongoing process, and are shaped along the way by diverse participants, a theme that is elaborated upon also in the next chapters.
    The remainder of the study discusses case studies of the everyday practices of civil-society peacebuilding in a variety of countries. Chapter 4 analyses the organizing practices of a local women’s peace organization in southern Sudan. The case underscores how the practice of policy making and implementation is more related to the internal dynamics of an organization than to the planned objectives of the intervention. The chapter highlights that to better understand civil-society peacebuilding we need qualitative approaches that give central attention to dynamics of peace organizations. These include the history of an organization and the context in which it develops, the way conflict is experienced in the every day life of local people, the way how actors in and around organizations give meaning to the organization and its practices, and the politics of organizations. The chapter outlines such an approach, presenting five properties of local peace organizations that need be taken into account when supporting local peacebuilding.
    The next two case studies look in particular at how the framing of conflict situations works through in interventions. Chapter 5 analyses how conflict and peacebuilding in the Great Lakes Region are increasingly framed in regional terms. In practice, however, local and international organizations have difficulty in analysing the regional character of conflict and arriving at collaborative regional strategies. Moreover, local civil-society organizations are deeply embedded in the politics of regional conflict. Consequently, the shift to regional peacebuilding approaches remains more theoretical than practical. A regional framing of conflict helps to understand conflict, but fails to inform intervention practice.
    Chapter 6 discusses the consequences of understanding land disputes in Burundi as short term problem, resulting from the massive return of refugees and displaced to their home communities. This particular framing of land disputes urged international and local organizations to initiate programmes for strengthening the capacities of local conflict resolving institutions. The case material shows that though the return of refugees was a factor in disputes about land, there is a lot of continuity between conflict-related and regular land disputes in Burundi. Many land disputes require first and foremost solutions at the political level, rather than at the local level. Moreover, the question was whether the strengthening of local dispute resolving mechanisms would enhance their legitimacy and accessibility, and could guarantee the protection of vulnerable people. While a framing of local land disputes in terms of an emergency helped to define interventions, this framing neglected the long-term, structural character of many land disputes.
    Chapter 7 tackles the question of what the official ending of violence implies for the roles, policies and practices of civil-society organizations. It discusses how Guatemalan civil-society organizations deal with agrarian conflict, ten years after the 1996 peace agreements. The case study shows how international organizations tend to assume that the peace agreements implied a switch to a peaceful situation, in which state institutions function, and civil society can effectively participate in the democratic process. This imagining makes them to assume that civil society now has to switch from protest to proposal, and to neglect the slow process of societal transformation in a post-conflict setting. The chapter argues that the pace and extent of societal transformation has a strong influence on how organizations can develop. It also illustrates that framing conflict and intervention is a continuous process, in which organizational politics play an important role. Finally, the chapter raises some questions on the overall roles of the international community in realizing peace. It argues that the increasing global influence on national governance processes effectively diminishes the power of local citizens to demand accountability from their governments for the processes of change initiated.
    Chapter 8, the conclusion of the study, argues the importance of looking at the everyday practices of peacebuilding. It points out how international discourses on civil-society peacebuilding have resonated in the policies of international development organizations. Over the last fifteen years many organizations have come to reflect on how their programmes contribute to peaceful societies. What emerged was not a circumscribed and shared peacebuilding agenda, but a shared preoccupation with the impacts of diverse interventions on peace and conflict. The precise reasons why organizations apply the term, what peacebuilding does and how it works cannot be read from mandates and policy documents. It requires one to look at the everyday politics and practices of organizations. The meaning of peacebuilding results from everyday negotiations of staff-members and stakeholders at different levels in the aid-chain, each with their own interests and perspectives. To understand peacebuilding, one needs to understand the history of organizations and individual staff members, and the multiple identities and realities organizations represent to the people participating in them, and explore the roles of both organizational politics and conflict politics in defining interventions.
    The conclusion also poses pertinent questions on the assumptions underlying contemporary peacebuilding work, in particular on the roles of civil society and governance. The particular roles civil-society organizations may play in peacebuilding and their most effective contributions to governance strongly depend on local conditions, and on how those influence organizations. International development organizations tend to have particular images of what civil society should do and look like and are eager to support only those organizations fitting their image. International support to local civil society needs to take more account of prevailing forms of governance and the history and development of civil society in a particular context.
    Finally, the conclusion lines out different processes through which organizations arrive at particular framings of the reality in which they operate. Such framings simplify reality in ways that create possibilities for intervention or restrict them. Framing involves cognitive processes of ordering and creating routine, as much as organizational politics. Organizations tend to separate emergency from normality, to focus on techniques of intervention, and to interpret contexts and peacebuilding interventions according to their own frames of reference and particular expertise. At the same time, organizational politics –intentionally or unintentionally– play a strong role in ordering. Organizations promote particular representations of reality that are in line with their possibilities for intervention, and that legitimize them to intervene, and that present their interventions in a-political terms.
    The chapter underscores the high expectations international organizations often have of their intervention. The study points to the need to observe modesty and connect to local agendas. Rather than to work on grand schemes of peacebuilding and taking the lead in societal transformation, they need to be partners in peace.


    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    Supervisors/Advisors
    • Hilhorst, Thea, Promotor
    Award date20 Jun 2008
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789085049562
    Publication statusPublished - 2008

    Keywords

    • war
    • conflict
    • social unrest
    • prevention
    • international cooperation
    • development policy
    • contemporary society
    • sudan
    • rwanda
    • burundi
    • congo democratic republic
    • guatemala
    • peacebuilding
    • peace
    • civil society
    • international conflicts
    • political conflicts
    • social conflict
    • conflict management

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