Decolonizing Peacebuilding

Why Race and Power also Matter in the Peacebuilding Sector

The report “Race, Power and Peacebuilding” looks at the peacebuilding sector using a “decolonizing” lens through consultations of peacebuilders around the world. Shannon Paige, Policy Associate at Peace Direct and lead author of the report, talks about why it is important to decolonize peacebuilding.

Robert Bosch Stiftung
Nash Weerasekera
November 09, 2022

Why was it necessary to engage explicitly with “Race, Power and Peacebuilding”?

Shannon Paige: Following the publication of our first report on decolonization, “Time to Decolonise Aid,” we were pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest generated. Though we were being invited to present our findings in a number of spaces, it was primarily organizations working in the development and humanitarian aid sectors who were contacting us. We felt that, as a peacebuilding organization, it was important for us to examine the particular ways that structural racism might manifest in our own efforts. It would be only too easy to believe ourselves, as peacebuilders, to be exempt from feeling the legacy of colonialism due to our sector’s non-colonial origins, professionalization, and strong morals. During our consultative process, peacebuilders were adamant that the peacebuilding sector is impacted by structural racism and unequal power dynamics. Producing “Race, Power, and Peacebuilding” was an opportunity for Peace Direct to invite the wider peacebuilding sector to join us in an honest reflection on how our sector’s norms, practices, and terminologies may inadvertently reinforce and exacerbate certain unequal power dynamics in already fragile contexts.


Shannon Paige serves as a Policy Associate and leads Peace Direct’s research and advocacy efforts around decolonizing the peacebuilding system and the development of the organization’s US peacebuilding program. She is the main author of “Time to Decolonise Aid” and co-author of “Race, Power, and Peacebuilding.”

What perspectives are included in the report?

Just as with the first report, our priority was to center the experiences of Global South peacebuilders and peacebuilders belonging to marginalized identity groups, including, among others, women peacebuilders, youth peacebuilders, and peacebuilders of color. For “Race, Power, and Peacebuilding,” we wanted to learn from our first report and be more intentional about inviting the perspectives of a diversity of peacebuilders. To help us accomplish that, we had the honor of partnering with GPPAC, ICAN, and UNOY. Peace Direct has long admired and collaborated with these organization in the past, but we were especially keen to have them as collaborators for this report as they are experts at engaging with various marginalized groups. We were fortunate to have a chance to learn from and with them how to engage certain underrepresented communities in conversations around decolonization. To that end, we are proud of the diversity of perspectives represented by the various activists, academics, and practitioners.

Terminology and language are factors that exclude local peacebuilders from the sector. What are possible ways forward towards greater inclusion?

While there are many changes to the sector’s language and terminology that can facilitate greater inclusion, during our research, we found that peacebuilders were calling for simple changes, such as making sure that outputs are translated into languages they speak, avoiding jargon, and defining it when needed. However, there are more substantial changes, especially regarding peacebuilding concepts and terminologies. And these changes would require more time for a project’s development and more input from local communities than is often built into the project design.

During our consultative process, a proposed solution was to build additional time into the timeline and be more intentional about creating space for Global South peacebuilders to engage with the conceptual design of any peacebuilding effort. Language accessibility is so often limited merely to the language spoken, but our research highlighted the importance of Global South actors playing a central and leading role in establishing the conceptual foundations of a project. Our epistemologies, our understandings of seemingly shared concepts like peace or justice, are influenced by our culture and our language. As a sector, we need to create more opportunities for people working across various communities to gather and identify where differences might lie to better develop more representative terminologies and concepts.

“The inclusion of local practices and knowledge is paramount to the lasting success of any peacebuilding effort.”

Quote fromShannon Paige
Quote fromShannon Paige

Local practices and knowledge are often not acknowledged by the international peacebuilding actors and donors. In which ways, however, do they enhance international peacebuilding efforts when integrated into peacebuilding?

The inclusion of local practices and knowledge is paramount to the lasting success of any peacebuilding effort. Long before the international community turns its attention and resources to responding to a conflict, there are local actors on the ground who have dedicated hours of their time and resources to addressing it. To successfully incorporate local practices and knowledge, local actors must be involved. There are many benefits to working with, and deferring to, local leaders. The most obvious thing is that they are experts in the local practices, beliefs, and approaches, allowing the international community to ensure that their peacebuilding concepts and approaches are context-sensitive and resonant. They can help navigate the language and culture, ensuring that the very conceptual framework is appropriate to the culture and priorities of the local community. 

Regarding local priorities, by ensuring there is meaningful local inclusion and leadership, the international community has the opportunity to ensure that their efforts are, to some degree, accountable to the local community, as the local leader is accountable to their community. This will likely increase the community’s sense of ownership over the peacebuilding effort, which will increase their investment in its success. 

For an international peacebuilding effort to have a significant degree of accountability to the local community will likely build trust in the international actor and in the project. That trust and a sense of ownership can have an incredibly positive effect, ensuring that the impacts of an international peacebuilding effort are sustained within a particular community.

Through the meaningful incorporation of local practices, knowledge and leadership, the international community could be understood as partnering with the local community to work collaboratively to address conflict, instead of the peacebuilding effort being the latest foreign imposition, with little input from or impact on the local community.

How can private donors, like the Robert Bosch Stiftung, contribute to changing the peacebuilding sector?

Private donors have one of the most important roles in decolonizing the peacebuilding sector— they determine what is and is not considered within the sphere of peacebuilding. Following the publication of our first report, I heard time and again from peer INGOs that, while they were interested in the idea of decolonization, they were concerned that, at best, they would receive no funding to do that work, or that, at worst, they risked being sidelined altogether. Our sector, like all branches of the nonprofit sector, can be timid for fear of upsetting those with the funds.

When it comes to sensitive and potentially controversial topics, such as decolonization, where the wider sector might be timid, I believe that private donors have the opportunity to be bold. Just as the Robert Bosch Stiftung foundation invited me to speak about decolonizing the peacebuilding sector, so too can other private donors create spaces for these conversations. For many smaller INGOs, once they know they can address controversial issues and remain in relationship with various private donors, many will begin to be more vocal about their intention to decolonize and more imaginative as to what the future of peacebuilding might look like.

Peace Direct, together with GPPAC, ICAN, and UNOY released their report “Race, Power and Peacebuilding”. The report looks at the peacebuilding sector using a “decolonizing” lens through consultations of peacebuilders around the world. The result is an in-depth analysis of the current status quo and unequal power dynamics within peacebuilding.

Here you can download the report
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