Donor support is vital to local peacebuilders and a growing body of literature is revealing specific ways the relationship between the two can be enhanced. When I interviewed peacebuilders from different regions and compared their responses I found some core issues that were notably consistent.

Sometimes development concepts fail to adequately capture feelings on the ground. (Photo credit: Chris Preager)

In a series of unstructured interviews, peacebuilders of all stripes repeatedly raised some closely related concerns

  • the top-down rather than collaborative strategic and operational approach;
  • limited sensitivity to the nuanced local realities peacebuilders operate in;
  • shortcomings in the indicator-driven approach to designing and evaluating programmes; and
  • the assumption of concepts and values that are meaningless or misleading to the people whose lives they are designed to affect.
While the sample for this study was small and cannot be considered representative of any broader population, it was very diverse, and these core issues were identified by at least half of the respondents.

The top-down approach

Donors were reported to have designed programmes and then sought local partners to implement the activities. This limits the two parties’ strategic alignment to the scope and duration of the pre-designed project, or to jointly implementing an activity for different strategic purposes. This fails to capitalise or build on local organisations’ experience, knowledge, values and strategic aims.

A lack of sensitivity to local realities

One respondent found that locally-led projects were as much as ten times cheaper
Peacebuilders implementing donor-designed projects reported that often simple alterations would better tailor activities to their dynamic context, as well as save resources and increase the impact and sustainability. One respondent found that locally-led projects were as much as ten times cheaper.

Another peacebuilder suggested that if donors were willing to make minor concessions to locally-felt preferences, stakeholders are more likely to continue activities after donor support ended.

Donors' internal organizational imperatives are distancing them from the situation on the ground. Complaints included that donors' operational staff are too focused on their careers, posted too briefly to have an impact on the long-term drivers of conflict, and inadequately informed of the local context.

Evaluation difficulties

Indicators used in the design and evaluation of programmes were found to over-simplify and create blind spots in project management, yet also be inadequately standardised for cross-contextual evaluation and learning. If a need cannot be measured with an indicator, for example the local adoption of activities, or victims' varied needs, donor management practices tend to undervalue it.

Foreign concepts

Some concepts rooted in international development research were found to inadequately capture nuances in stakeholder perception and imperatives, complicate understanding between peacebuilders’ constituents and external agencies and were occasionally used to obscure outsiders' political or managerial judgements. Differing understandings of participation and justice were two examples.

Foreign values

External values and imperatives ... can disrupt local processes
The tensions between donor and local values force peacebuilders to balance giving voice to local concerns and maintaining local credibility and trust, with reorienting themselves enough to obtain donor support.

External values and imperatives carried by external reconciliation, justice and counselling activities can disrupt local processes. Both sets of issues are most keenly felt in contexts of greater political repression or violence. Externally-driven reconciliation processes were seen as rushed and shallow, and several raised the punitive emphasis of the International Criminal Court as destabilising for people more focused on the pragmatic obstacles to recovering and moving on.


These categories are not clearly separated, but illustrate tensions that must be balanced in a constellation of relationships that must straddle enormous political and practical differences, in fraught and rapidly changing contexts, which everyone is attempting to influence on their own terms. These findings highlight the local perception of those balances.

Ultimately, the stronger the pressure to adopt foreign concepts and values  to obtain funding and satisfy donor management procedures, the further local peacebuilders are drawn  from their constituents and the harder they have to work to maintain their local credibility. This means they are  less able  to understand and meet local needs and develop local leadership.

Projects designed in detail by outsiders also make it difficult or impossible to build upon pre-existing strengths of peacebuilders and processes they already have access to. This  hinders the social adaptation of the project and long-term institutional change. The need to regularly measure outputs, and many donors' short project timeframes, bias activities towards the quick and shallow rather than those that will make long term changes and impacts. Synergies are missed through the over-specification of discrete projects.


These findings suggest that donor-supported interventions are sometimes considered insufficiently tailored to a local  context, and that peacebuilders could be more empowered and better protected from donors’ organisational imperatives.

The cultural gulf between donor HQ and local decision-maker needn't be a problem if meaningful feedback is allowed and taken into account. (Photo credit: Chris Preager)

The Programa de Desarollo y Paz del Magdalena Medio in Colombia, whereby a local organisation defends donor-supported local projects from donor demands, has been very successful.

Steps such as enabling implementers to comment on future programmes during design and implementation would help. Donors' conflict and impact assessments should be more nuanced. A more strategic engagement (pdf) with civil society by donors might identify synergies and build upon local analysis and social assets. A greater investment in relationships seems worthwhile. Developing local trust and advice networks should also help. Enabling a more locally-empowered relationship better able to collaborate, innovate and adapt seems promising.

There was unanimous consensus that donor support is invaluable in enabling civil society organisations to operate, and a risk-averse and politically cautious approach is understandable in such contexts. The opinion was that if communication between donors and civil society organisations could be improved, at a strategic or operational level, then benefits in terms of project efficiency, sustainability and stabilising impact would result.