A theoretical analysis of liberal/international vs traditional/local approaches in CR

Peacebuilding and civil society in post conflict countries have been dominated by the idea of liberal peace. [1] The modern liberal ideas of human rights, liberal economy, and the rule of law have dominated both the practice and theory of peacebuilding. Since such initiatives have usually been accompanied by strong elements of statebuilding it led to the process being associated almost entirely with the idea of prioritising state institutions. Building strong liberal institutions is seen as the best solution for sustaining peace, managing, and containing conflict, while other liberal peace practices have been marginalised. [2] The truth is, the record of successes that liberal peacebuilding initiatives of this kind have achieved is very limited. It is argued that half of the liberal peacebuilding interventions fail within the first five years. Once the foreign troops withdraw, the elites return to their traditional ways, under the umbrella of liberal terms for their actions, practices, and statuses. Given these records, the peacebuilding agenda has not yet changed to accommodate these challenges. The liberal way of building peace is seen as a technical fix, superficial, and suffering from a legitimacy problem. Liberal peacebuilding is said to provide the kind of peace that “it believes people should have rather than one they might seek for themselves if their stakeholder status meant more than just participation in someone else’s idea of peacebuilding.”[3]


The idea that it is the whole process of liberal peacebuilding that fails has led critics to dismiss it to a certain extent and look for alternatives. It is assumed that in theory it sounds extraordinary but in practice it fails. However, the fact is that this may not be a strong argument. The main issue is that it is not what is implemented that may not be the best idea, but how it is implemented. Rejecting the idea of liberal peacebuilding as a whole in a way can suggest that liberal practices are rejected as well. The problem is the standard operating procedure that has dominated international interventions, which acts in the name of liberalism. Conflict is not a virus that needs a vaccine. The issues are different in nature, and even if they are similar, their context will be different, cultures are different and so is the baggage of history. Therefore a post conflict society will need a procedure that can ensure the future of the country will be shaped by a human rights agenda, and supported by the international community, rather than the international community dictating solutions to problems as most “liberal peacebuilding”/western interventions have promoted in recent years, and are not fit to accommodate the differences among conflict situations.

As no critique of one method is sound without alternatives, many have turned towards supporting local initiatives for peacebuilding practices. These initiatives are led by locals with insights into the culture, and work on the ground to address the needs of the people in the aftermath of violence. This came as a result of local values, traditions, and institutions being dismissed in conflict contexts, and seen as a problem and cause of conflict rather than potential grounds for change and peace to be promoted.

As opposed to the international interventions that are said to be “liberal peacebuilding” and emphasise universality/standard procedures when it comes to peace practices, the local approach, also known as communitarian, stresses the importance of integrating tradition and context into the development of institutions, and ethnics. In the past, communitarian approaches, which are characterised by “buy-in” and legitimacy, have only been able to flourish in areas with little external intervention. This is where the concept of local ownership comes in place. It sits at the crossroads between the relationship of outsiders and insiders in peacebuilding contexts. [4]

Local ownership theory promotes traditional and indigenous practices when approaching peacebuilding, or developing civil society structures. It draws on long-held practice, rooted in the customs of a certain area. These approaches are locally inspired, as opposed to the standardised methods and processes used by most International Organisations. The priority for these international, standard methods means that local customs such as the alleviation of grievances through storytelling will be sidelined, particularly when it comes to the process of justice and reconciliation. In indigenous and traditional approaches, though they differ from one area to another, it is possible to identify common traits. For example, most of these practices rely on the moral authority of respected figures, such as elders, or other respectable figures in the community. Decision making processes are characterised by transparency and participation, such as meetings taking place in public, and accessible places. The practices are more relationship centred than narrowly looking for an agreement by all means necessary.  Most importantly the key advantage of traditional, locally inspired approaches is that they do not require a wealth of resources and expertise from outside, but rather rest on the public understanding and acceptance. [5]

The danger here is that promoting a sole local fix approach might lead to falling in an extreme as well. The local ownership is key to promoting legitimacy and getting to the roots of the conflict, but the question is, in the aftermath of violent conflict, with results such as trauma, division, and lack of trust, do these communities have the capacity to build up a peace process that is sustainable? The fragility of the situation can lead to nationalistic elites gaining more ground for perpetuating a conflict should there not be an international presence to monitor and make sure the parties respect the agreements they signed up to and facilitate the way to a pluralist society that will protect its citizens.

Based on literature, there seems to be growing contradiction between liberal peacebuilding approaches to civil society and traditional approaches implemented by local actors rather than the international community. The critique against liberal peacebuilding is based on heavy western intervention that deals with conflict issues on the ground in a technical way that leads to a superficial fix of the problem. Liberal peacebuilding as a general concept means no harm nor is it intended to be short lasting. The problem with this approach lies in the fact that there is a standard operational procedure which does not fit all cases and should be reconsidered. In general terms it seems that in the past, the lack of sustainability can be blamed on lack of legitimacy of the process and the feeling of ownership of the peacebuilding process. In the case of Bosnia for example, the lack of local engagement led to the locals not buying into the process, and more importantly the heavily involved western community led to critiques of the process to go to the extent that the international community was blamed for neo-liberal colonialism. The critique of the liberal peacebuilding was then fought with arguments pro locally led initiatives and the theory of local ownership.

To conclude, in order for peacebuilding processes to be more sustainable there needs to be more local ownership, and the standard operational procedures have to be loosen to the extent that there is enough flexibility to take into account local customs and ways of dealing with conflict and justice. Leaving the locals alone to sort out their own problems in the aftermath of violent conflict might not be a sound competitor to liberal peacebuilding or intervention as in essence there is no guarantor to ensure that peace will be rebuilt. Also, considering the high levels of trauma and mistrust created by the conflict, there needs to be a neutral presence that will build up the capacity of the locals, and facilitate the peace process. Facilitation and capacity building are key words here, opposed to imposition and laissez-fair attitudes. Local ownership should be embedded into the process so that after the exit of the international community/guarantors, the locals would have trust into the process, and work for a peace process that will be able to stand without foreign mandates.


[1] Oliver Richmond (2007),  The Problem of Peace: Understanding Liberal Peace, In Globalization and Challenges to Building Peace, eds Ashok Swain, Ramses Amer, Joakim Ojendal, Anthem Press, UK, pp 17-38

[2] Timothy Donais (2012), Peacebuilding and Local Ownership, Post-Conflict Consensus Building, Routledge, UK

[3] David Roberts, Saving Liberal Peacebuilding From Itself, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, (August 2012) Vol 24 (3), 366-373

[4] Timothy Donais, op cit.

[5]Roger Mac Ginty (2010), Gilding the Lily? International Support for Indigenous and Traditional Peacebuilding, In Palgrave Advances in Peacebuilding, ed Oliver P. Richmond, Palgrave, UK


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