What is Peacebuilding?

A review of diverse definitions to help you figure out what is peacebuilding…

by Taylor O’Connor | 25 July 2020

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

“The absence of a shared perception of what constitutes ‘peacebuilding practice’ remains a challenge.” — White Paper on Peacebuilding (2015) by Geneva Peacebuilding Platform

Let’s do an experiment, shall we?

Step 1: Put ten peacebuilders in a room. I won’t ask where you find them or how you got them there. This is all up to you.

Step 2: Ask them each to define the term ‘peacebuilding.’

Step 3: See what happens…

You know what you’ll get? Ten different answers. And you might wonder, “are they all talking about the same thing?”

So in the end, the answer to the question — “what is peacebuilding?” — is exactly this… it depends on who you ask.

To get a better understanding of this, let me give you a bit of background first. I’ll also share some examples of peacebuilding definitions, some reflections on where these fall short, and finally, I’ll share some thoughts on what I think peacebuilding should be and what it can be for you.

Here we go!

Where the concept of peacebuilding came from

Peacebuilding as a concept was first coined by peace studies scholar Johan Galtung back in the 70s. Having earlier developed the concept of structural violence, Galtung’s called for the creation of peacebuilding structures to promote sustainable peace by addressing the causes of violent conflict, and to support holistic mechanisms for conflict resolution. In an academic article from 1976, he wrote, “structures must be found that remove causes of wars and offer alternatives to war in situations where wars might occur.”

Peacebuilding began being introduced into the UN system in response to a 1992 report entitled An Agenda for Peace by then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. And over the years, how peacebuilding is understood and put into practice around the world has continued to develop.

In the meantime, the concept has evolved both in academic circles and across the international aid industry. The concept itself is understood and applied quite differently across these three groups: academia, the UN, and international aid actors.

In this article, I hope to bring a little understanding to the reader about how each of these groups understand the concept, discuss briefly some limitations therein, then offer a more humanistic concept that I hope you will appreciate.

Academic definitions

Academic definitions tend to be diverse. There are a good handful of leading Peace Studies scholars and even more Universities with established Peace and Conflict Studies programs, each with their own definitions and frameworks. Let’s look at three examples to get a sense of things.

As the man who created the term, let’s see what Galtung has to say:

“Peacebuilding is the process of creating self-supporting structures that remove causes of wars and offer alternatives to war in situations where wars might occur.” — Johan Galtung

Another important thought leader on this is John Paul Lederach, currently a Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame. He has written several excellent books on peacebuilding and was the founding director for the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.

“[Peacebuilding] is understood as a comprehensive concept that encompasses, generates, and sustains the full array of processes, approaches, and stages needed to transform conflict toward more sustainable, peaceful relationships. The term thus involves a wide range of activities that both precede and follow formal peace accords. Metaphorically, peace is seen not merely as a stage in time or a condition. It is a dynamic social construct.” — John Paul Lederach

The University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies is one of the world’s leading centers studying the causes of violent conflict and strategies for sustainable peace. Kroc Institute faculty and fellows conduct interdisciplinary research on a wide range of peace and justice topics. Let’s see what they have to say:

“Peacebuilding is the development of constructive personal, group, and political relationships across ethnic, religious, class, national, and racial boundaries. It aims to resolve injustice in nonviolent ways and to transform the structural conditions that generate deadly conflict. Peacebuilding can include conflict prevention; conflict management; conflict resolution and transformation, and post-conflict reconciliation.” — Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, University of Notre Dame

The Joan B. Kroc Institute even has this cool wheel of not just peacebuilding, but ‘strategic peacebuilding.’ Nice one Joan B. Kroc Institute!


Strategic peacebuilding paths by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, University of Notre Dame

Definitions put forth by peace theorists and universities each tend to be quite unique. There are some patterns to be observed, however, which we’ll cover later after reviewing the other two groups.

United Nations

How the term peacebuilding is understood and applied across UN agencies is interesting. The UN does have a general concept of peacebuilding meant to guide agencies who engage in peacebuilding efforts; however, numerous agencies have also developed their own definitions.

Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s Agenda for Peace (1992) laid the foundation of the UN’s understanding of peacebuilding. In it, peacebuilding is not described as a term in itself, but quantified as ‘post-conflict peacebuilding,’ explicitly noting that it be employed after a war or conflict has taken place. The definition offered of ‘post-conflict peacebuilding’ is as follows:

“Action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict.”

The conceptual basis for peacebuilding for the UN system was later codified in a resolution adopted by the Secretary General’s Policy Committee in 2007:

“Peacebuilding involves a range of measures targeted to reduce the risk of lapsing or relapsing into conflict by strengthening national capacities at all levels for conflict management, and to lay the foundations for sustainable peace and development.”

UN agencies (like UNDP, UNESCO, UNICEF, etc.) differ in how they approach peacebuilding. Some have a more fluid understanding of the concept, while others have developed their own unique definitions and associated frameworks. To get a sense of how UN agencies have operationalized peacebuilding, let’s see one example. Here is one from UNICEF, as laid out in their Conflict Sensitivity and Peacebuilding Programming Guide of 2016:

“Peacebuilding is defined as working ON conflict, with an intention to produce ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’ peacebuilding outcomes, to: reduce the risk of a lapse or relapse into violent conflict by directly addressing root causes and consequences of conflict; strengthen national, community and individual capacities to address conflict constructively; and lay and support foundations for sustainable peace and development.”

This bit about primary and secondary outcomes links up with their planning, monitoring, and evaluation systems. The distinction about working ‘ON’ conflict is associated with their description of conflict sensitivity as working ‘IN’ conflict. It makes sense for the purpose of operationalizing peacebuilding in UNICEF, but definitions like this were not intended for those working outside of UNICEF. You see something similar with other UN agencies involved in peacebuilding.

Cognizant of the diverse interpretations and application of the term peacebuilding across UN agencies, the UN’s Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) put forth yet another definition to guide efforts of diverse agencies:

“Peacebuilding is rather the continuum of strategy, processes and activities aimed at sustaining peace over the long-term with a clear focus on reducing chances for the relapse into conflict…. [It] is useful to see peacebuilding as a broader policy framework that strengthens the synergy among the related efforts of conflict prevention, peacemaking, peacekeeping, recovery and development, as part of a collective and sustained effort to build lasting peace.”

In conceptualizing peacebuilding as ‘a broader policy framework,’ PBSO’s definition is practical for their purposes of developing a cohesive UN strategy at the policy level, but like other UN definitions, this does little for anyone operating outside the UN system.

NGO and international aid definitions

Definitions of peacebuilding by NGOs and others involved in the international aid industry are also all over the place. With no standard definition or unifying body to guide them, each organization has developed its own concept and approach. Some organizations are dedicated to peacebuilding and may have a particular perspective on it, while others are more aligned with the political objectives of whichever country is sponsoring the aid to be distributed.

Let’s take a look at some of these. First, I’ll give you a few examples from groups whose sole purpose is about peacebuilding. Note that each organization has more expansive definitions, but I kept it concise for practical purposes here.

“Peacebuilding is about bringing together the different actors that are engaged in the rebuilding of a country.” — Interpeace

“Peacebuilding is about dealing with the reasons why people fight in the first place and supporting societies to manage their differences and conflicts without resorting to violence.” — International Alert

“Peacebuilding is about addressing the underlying causes of conflict. It helps people to resolve their differences without resorting to violence.” — Conciliation Resources

In 2018 a collective of peacebuilding NGOs like these led a campaign to get peacebuilding in the dictionary. I don’t think it worked because I couldn’t find it in any dictionaries online, but good effort. Campaign members agreed to use the definition by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an organization that works at the policy level of international aid.

“[Peacebuilding is] 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.” — Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

If you look at this definition and the previous three, all include only contexts affected by violent conflict. The first also focuses exclusively on the period following a conflict, notice the focus is on ‘actors that are engaged in rebuilding a country.’

To get a sense of how political actors in the aid industry define peacebuilding, let’s take a look at the Department of International Development (DFID), the United Kingdom’s government department responsible for administering overseas aid. Peacebuilding is a part of their overall funding strategy, and their concept of peacebuilding is outlined in a 2010 practice paper: Building Peaceful States and Societies.

“Peacebuilding aims to establish positive peace. It has three inter-related elements: 1) supporting inclusive peace processes and agreements, 2) building mechanisms to resolve conflict peacefully, and 3) addressing causes and effects of conflict.” — Department of International Development (DFID)

In the definition, you can see exactly what types of programs they fund, in line with priorities set out by the U.K. government.

Here’s one by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), an entity established by U.S. Congress in the 80s that is “dedicated to the proposition that a world without violent conflict is possible, practical, and essential for U.S. and global security.” They are involved in a broad range of peace work in contexts where working for peace advances U.S. geopolitical objectives. Their expansive concept of peacebuilding seems to be a catch-all for any program they may support.

“Peacebuilding may include providing humanitarian relief, protecting human rights, ensuring security, establishing nonviolent modes of resolving conflicts, fostering reconciliation, providing trauma healing services, repatriating refugees and resettling internally displaced persons, supporting broad-based education, and aiding in economic reconstruction. As such, it also includes conflict prevention in the sense of preventing the recurrence of violence, as well as conflict management and post-conflict recovery. In a larger sense, peacebuilding involves a transformation toward more manageable, peaceful relationships and governance structures — the long-term process of addressing root causes and effects, reconciling differences, normalizing relations, and building institutions that can manage conflict without resort to violence. — United States Institute for Peace (USIP)

Lastly, Alliance for Peacebuilding is a network of over 100 organizations working to end violent conflict and sustain peace. Their definition, and their work in general, aims to bring cohesiveness across a broad range of NGO and international aid peacebuilding entities.

“Peacebuilding is an elastic term, encompassing a wide range of efforts by diverse actors in government and civil society at the community, national and international levels to address the immediate impacts and root causes of conflict before, during and after violent conflict occurs.” — Alliance for Peacebuildin

Towards a human-centered approach to peacebuilding

If you are a peacebuilder or aspire to be one, but are not involved in academia, the UN or the international aid industry, unfortunately, available definitions don’t really apply to you. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Peacebuilding is expansive. If existing definitions are limited, we need new ones.

And for peacebuilding to be more relevant to regular people, I propose a more human-centered understanding of the concept. But first, it’s important to recognize the value of existing definitions and identify their limitations. So let’s take a look at what definitions of peacebuilding tend to cover, and what they tend to exclude, that in my opinion should be considered peacebuilding.

What definitions tend to cover:

  • There is a major focus on war, violent conflict, and humanitarian crises, particularly in the period after a war or conflict.
  • There is a lot on peace processes and mechanisms for resolving conflict
  • They are heavy on governance, structures, and policy level
  • There is a lot of talk about addressing the causes of (violent) conflict

What they do not (or seldom) cover:

  • There is little about preventing a war or violent conflict, and almost nothing that can be applied to development contexts.
  • The implication of most of these is that they focus exclusively on developing countries, excluding the developed world.
  • Few consider addressing unjust social structures that produce poverty, injustice/inequality, exploitation, militarization, the arms trade, etc. (that are present in any country or context)
  • There is little that would lead us to recognize forces in powerful countries that create the conditions for violent conflict in other countries
  • None of them talked about building peace at the individual level (unless they talk about individual capacities to build peace, to ultimately influence structures)
  • Few discussed building peaceful relationships between people
  • There is little on addressing the effects of conflict, and how addressing the effects of conflict is also linked to conflict dynamics

A more in-depth critique of peacebuilding practice will come in a later post, but for now, I’m pleased to share a definition of peacebuilding that I developed myself. I put in a lot of reflection on this during the past few years so that it can be as practical and relevant as possible for regular people. I’d say it’s a human-centered approach.

For me, peacebuilding is essentially an approach adopted by individuals or groups who meaningfully engage with issues they care about in an effort to build a more peaceful and just world. It includes a wide range of actions, activities, and life choices aimed to transform conflict, delegitimize violence, deconstruct systems that produce inequality, heal suffering, or otherwise remove the causes of war and violence. Building peace should reduce the separation between people and lay the foundation for a more just society.

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