19 March 2013: Local people have a central role to play in conflict resolution and transformation, says a Burundian peacebuilder.

DSCF8305At the end of November 2012, I attended a three-day conference ‘Peacebuilding in Africa: Bridging Theory and Practice’ gathering practitioners and academics from diverse countries of the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa. It provided a platform of learning, exchange and understanding on how to reduce the gap between theory and practice in peacebuilding practices.

A person stripped of identity is stripped of his/her sense of being and sense of dignity.
The conference highlighted the importance of identity and the influence of both tangible and intangible aspects in the process of conflict transformation. Generally, when resolving conflicts and striving to achieve peace, the big focus is on the tangible aspects such as public infrastructures, power sharing between opponents and transformation of justice systems. While these signs are important, they are not the only indicators of peace and development. There are other complex and intangible aspects within a conflict zone that need special attention. Identity is one of them and is highly valued as individuals define themselves by their belonging to a certain clan, ethnic group or territory. A person stripped of identity is stripped of his/her sense of being and sense of dignity.

In most African contexts, identity has been used negatively to manipulate, stigmatise or divide, occasionally causing extremely violent conflicts. In the case of Kenya for example, identity has been utilised as a central peacebuilding tool to bring about positive change. As people identify themselves at a personal, relational, structural and cultural levels, practitioners and academics in peacebuilding field need to carefully consider this important element in their peacebuilding efforts. Failure to understand the value and importance of identity perception may lead to false and superficial reconciliation.

Local actors

External actors have failed to comprehend conflict zones and dynamics, and most importantly have ignored the contribution of local people
Much discussion has been had on the differences between local and external peacebuilders. Where the former has been shown to play a decisive and important role in peacebuilding, the latter have proved to be ineffective or counterproductive. External actors have failed to comprehend conflict zones and dynamics, and most importantly have ignored the contribution of local people, resulting in controversial and partial conflict resolution. They are also more likely to explain conflict situations using simplistic dominant narratives.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) is a case in point, where the main explanations for conflict, namely natural resources, sexual and gender-based violence, and the lack of good governance, are too simplistic and yet dominate the narrative given by external actors. Whilst it is true that these explanations help bring the conflict into the international spotlight, there is also a risk that they overlook other root causes of the conflict. In the case of DR Congo, this has resulted in prolonged peacebuilding missions and interventions from both the UN and International Non-governmental Organisations (INGOs), with limited achievements on the ground and a continuation of the conflict in the east of the country.

DSCF8318 Séverine Autesserre, Columbia University

After carrying out research into peacebuilding intervention, Séverine Autesserre from Columbia University reported her findings:

By valuing external expertise at the expense of local knowledge, [it] can prevent peacebuilding efforts achieving the desired results. Cultural and societal misunderstandings between the local and expatriate communities can distort the image and mutual perceptions of the other. Further, the working methods and often strict security standards of international organisations can contribute to deepening this gap in understanding.
Expatriates are frequently offered leadership posts, whilst locals are offered less commanding and influential posts, and rarely have any input on peace interventions. According to Séverine Autesserre, knowing the local language, region and culture should be as important as technical expertise and international experience, in order to engage more effectively within the peacebuilding context.

I decided to share with the audience the case studies that Peace Direct documented through “Ripples into Waves” and my memorable experience of meeting the mixed active group of women peacebuilders of Ruyigi that have revealed and confirmed the central role of local actors.  Lively and interactive exchanges around the theme of utilising local resources helped participants understand that local actors are as important as expatriates, and that local ownership, exchange of knowledge and expertise between international peacebuilders and the local community, and a long-term commitment to influencing the effectiveness of peacebuilding, are all vital for a more peaceful culture to thrive.

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