Enough Is Enough: It’s Time to Take Local Actors Seriously!

In the words of Dr. Stella Voutta, traditional conflict resolution and peacebuilding are broken. Afghanistan is a case in point, with other examples sadly on the horizon. Instead, the world needs to trust more in local solutions and ownership. A call for a new approach to international peacebuilding.

Dr. Stella Voutta | September 2021
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japatino via Getty Images

As we mark this year’s International Day of Peace, the overall picture is bleak: Since 2010, the number of violent crises has increased by almost a third from 139 to 180, according to the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research’s Conflict Barometer. The recent months’ tragic events in Afghanistan are just the latest example of how the international community’s existing system of conflict resolution and peacebuilding is broken.  

Without change, by 2030, up to two-thirds of the world’s population living in extreme poverty could be affected by armed conflict, fragility, and violence, according to the World Bank. Conflicts account for around 80 percent of humanitarian aid needs, with 235 million people already reliant on such assistance. A study published in 2020 by the Norwegian Peace Research Institute Oslo concluded that almost half of all conflicts between 1989 and 2018 were found to have flared up again, even following a peace agreement. 

Almost half of all conflicts flare up again

This is exactly what may well unfold in Afghanistan. It remains for the Western community to establish in detail why its involvement in the country – or at least its attempt to play a role in state or even nation building – can, after twenty years, only be seen as a failure. What is already clear, however, is that its failure to adapt measures to local needs or to involve local actors were major oversights.  

This was apparent long before the hasty withdrawal of Western troops this summer. The only parties to the peace negotiations that led to the Doha Agreement in February 2020 were the U.S. government and the Taliban. Not even the Afghan government at the time had been included in the talks. This was a missed opportunity to initiate an inclusive  peace and dialogue process that could have encompassed society as a whole and reflected a wide spectrum of perspectives. Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that multiple civil society peacebuilding projects were not able to have an impact on society as a whole, despite many resolutely pursuing an inclusive, locally-led approach. We can only hope to achieve “positive peace” – a state that encompasses not simply the absence of physical or personal violence but also of structural violence, such as various forms of discrimination – if all levels of society are involved, including the relevant governments.  

Peacebuilding must be based on the needs of local actors

Certainly, the international community has long been aware that, in order to be sustainable, successful conflict resolution and peacebuilding must be both inclusive and based on the concrete needs of local actors. In 2016, for instance, United Nations member states adopted the Sustaining Peace agenda. They called for a recalibration of UN peace strategy by focusing on the long-term stabilization of peace rather than the short-term resolution of armed conflicts.  

Nevertheless, it must be said that it is not only in Afghanistan that such talk has thus far been followed by very little walk. Five years ago, the 15 largest donor countries along with 15 major aid organizations signed the Grand Bargain agreement, which stated, among other things, that 25 percent of funds for emergency humanitarian aid should flow as directly as possible to national and local aid organizations. However, in 2019, only 2.1 percent of said funds actually went directly to these key actors on the ground.

Grand Bargain – talk has been followed by very little walk

Of course, the fact that local peace actors continue to pursue their work in Afghanistan in spite of everything gives at least some cause for hope for the country. Overall, however, the tragedy of what is unfolding in Afghanistan serves as a warning: If the Western community fails to systematically recalibrate its peace and conflict work, further disasters could soon follow. In the West African state of Mali, where the German armed forces are involved in the UN’s MINUSMA mission as well as the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM), the international community is facing critical questions: How effective is the intervention when  the numbers of victims of violence in the region are reaching record highs year on year instead of falling?  

Many actors in the region in fact question the military, counterterrorism-focused approaches by international missions and their partners, namely national governments. Instead, they call for greater human security through peacebuilding and conflict transformation. One example of this is the People’s Coalition for the Sahel, a network of local civil society organizations. By taking local needs into account, it aims to find sustainable solutions to the rising number of civilian victims of violence, the glaring deficits in governance, and the lack of trust in the state.

An opportunity for Mali: „People‘s Coalition for the Sahel“

When it comes to shaping international peacebuilding on the ground, stakeholders who themselves feel the impact of the conflict and have first-hand experience of its driving forces need to be much more involved. For Mali, as well as for the neighboring countries of Niger and Burkina Faso, the People’s Coalition has set out the four most pressing challenges from a local perspective. Furthermore, it has also proposed approaches to ensure lasting solutions and indicators against which achievements can be measured.  

Unlike in Afghanistan, in Mali there is still an opportunity to support an inclusive, society-wide process while international troops are present. Proposals such as the People’s Coalition are based on local ownership, meaning they may well continue to see support from the local government and population, even after a withdrawal of international troops. 

We need the courage to relinquish control 

Advancing local conflict transformation  and peacebuilding is no easy task. In any conflict, the international community needs time to understand the context, find suitable partners, and build mutual trust. Yet what it needs even more is the courage to relinquish control. Such courage continues to falter in the face of institutional hurdles as well as paternalistic and (neo-)colonialist world views entrenched in the minds of many decision-makers. The example of Afghanistan demonstrates, however, that Europe, the USA, and other states cannot shy away from such efforts. Only by systematically recalibrating efforts toward local approaches can future International Days of Peace paint a brighter picture of global peace. 

Portrait Stella Voutta


Dr. Stella Voutta is Program Director Peace at the Robert Bosch Stiftung. The Foundation contributes to sustainable peacebuilding by supporting local approaches in selected regions and within the global peacebuilding system.

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