Peacebuilding and Local Ownership: Post-Conflict Consensus-building

By Timothy Donais. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

By Stephen Baranyi (reviewer)

Even in official international circles, it is acknowledged that mainstream approaches to peacebuilding have, since the end of the Cold War, failed or produced only partial successes. The “New Deal” that Northern donors and 19 fragile and conflict-affected states reached in 2011 acknowledges those mixed results and opens the door to more locally owned approaches.

Timothy Donais’ book provides the background and analysis needed to understand what is at stake and what might be done to foster local ownership in deeply divided societies. Based on a reading of the scholarly literature as well as his own research and experience in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Haiti, the book is a must-read for activists, professionals, students, and teachers engaged in conflict transformation, peacebuilding, and development.

In the first four chapters, the author provides a nuanced analysis of the policy and academic literature on local ownership and peacebuilding. He begins by revisiting critiques of externally driven, liberal approaches that attempt to generate local buy-in to supposedly universal norms and institutions like multi-party democracy and market-oriented economic policies. He contrasts that approach to communitarian views, often advocated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), according to which international actors should return responsibilities to domestic actors who are more familiar with local needs. Donais reveals the problematic assumptions underlying both perspectives, before presenting his original argument—that peacebuilding is more likely to last if it is rooted in negotiated, hybrid strategies that gradually reconcile broadly based local social agency with universal norms like respect for human rights.

Great ideas, but can they be put into practice in contexts like Afghanistan? Beginning with the society he knows best, Donais suggests that a new search for lasting peace in Bosnia might begin by re-engaging a broader diversity of civil society associations beyond the elites and NGOs on whom the international community has relied since the Dayton Accord. Those associational networks could be crucial to forging more effective approaches to major challenges like sustainable livelihoods, state accountability and inter-communal cooperation.

On Afghanistan, Donais argues that the international community should also reach out to a wider spectrum of civic groups, including rural associations that are animated by traditional cultural norms, to promote the multi-layered negotiations required to build lasting peace. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that such a shift seems unlikely in the near future due to the convergence of Western military-technocratic strategies and elite capture of the post-9/11 Afghan state.

The author’s last case is Haiti, a country that has not recently been through war but has suffered from crises of governance, natural disasters, and foreign interventions since the mid-1980s. There too, he argues that international actors need to reach out beyond the urban elites and NGOs who have been their main interlocutors, and look beyond the liberal reforms they have prescribed since the 1980s. For example, that would include supporting farmers’ movements that have denounced trade liberalization and called for a policy shift towards food sovereignty.

Donais’ vision of broadly based peacebuilding practices that still aim to attain certain liberal ideals is compelling, especially given his demonstration of how it might be adapted in distinct contexts. The author acknowledges the dilemmas that hybrid approaches imply, including the compromises that grassroots actors might reach with national elites in order to build peace.

The book also implicitly raises many questions for further research and learning-oriented action. How could transnational networks of civil society organizations, including the peace and women’s movements, more effectively nurture broad-based coalitions for transformation in fragile and conflict-affected countries—at a time when neither traditional Northern donors like Canada or emerging donors like China are particularly sympathetic to bottom-up approaches? That is a major challenge facing civil society organizations that are engaging in the follow-up to the 2011 New Deal. On a more theoretical plane, how much space really exists for a more consensus-oriented third way—or are critical, post-colonial theorists right to argue that the alignment of Western and endogenous power relations makes it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to attain that ideal in contexts such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Haiti?

Reviewed by Stephen Baranyi, University of Ottawa.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2012

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2012, page 31. Some rights reserved.

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