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Maximizing Our Contribution to Building Peace and Reconciliation

© Brandon Hamber

Paper presented at the Standing Community Convention,
16 December 2002, Armagh City Hotel, Northern Ireland

The term "peacebuilding" has become increasingly prevalent since it was used by Boutros Boutros-Ghali—then United Nations Secretary-General—in announcing his Agenda for Peace in 1992. However, it is challenging to speak about peacebuilding and reconciliation because definitions are not readily available.  Definitions and approaches are often dictated by the inherent political assumptions of practitioners and policymakers, and by their social context.  Voluntary groups, communities at large, policymakers, politicians and funders often have very different definitions and even desire different outcomes from a peacebuilding and reconciliation process.

One definition of peacebuilding, posed by Morris (1), is that it “involves a full range of approaches, processes, and stages needed for transformation toward more sustainable, peaceful relationships and governance modes and structures. Peacebuilding includes building legal and human rights institutions as well as fair and effective governance and dispute resolution processes and systems. To be effective, peacebuilding activities require careful and participatory planning, co-ordination among various efforts, and sustained commitments by both local and donor partners”. The idea of peacebuilding as a long-term process is shared by many international practitioners, with most including reconciliation and the re-establishing or mending of damaged interpersonal and social relations as a vital component thereof.  But in the main, most see peacebuilding and reconciliation as about a process rather than an event, or series of events and activities.

One difficulty, however, is that a genuine appreciation of what “a long-term” commitment to peacebuilding and reconciliation process involves is seldom understood.   Peacebuilding initiatives in many countries are generally driven by funding cycles and an “outcome and indicators” model of evaluation, rather than by what is actually required over an extensive period of time—that is, an approach that genuinely reflects social complexity in divided societies, and acknowledges that the process of building lasting peace is as important as (or at least generally defines) the outcome.

In Northern Ireland it currently seems as if peacebuilding is largely being discussed in the context of the PEACE II programme, which sees peace and reconciliation resulting from increased economic opportunity.  As Avila Kilmurray, from the Community Foundation of Northern Ireland, comparing PEACE I and PEACE II, recently noted in SCOPE: “There was still the ambitious objective of peace and reconciliation, although this was to be achieved through greater economic opportunity and more economic openings for the disadvantaged.  The legacy of the violence was to be addressed through the building of social skills rather than social capital.  Peace II is essentially an economically driven programme with a whiff of post-conflict societal change about it” (2).  Avila Kilmurray goes on to say that this creates challenges and opportunities for peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.  I will not repeat these excellent observations, or dwell on the value of having funds injected into this area. 

I would like—for purposes of evaluating how PEACE II is being conceptualised and implemented—to add three critical points. Firstly, peacebuilding or peace—using the logic of ‘employability’ as a cornerstone of this—appears to have become an ‘outcome’ driven process, despite the fact that different groups have divergent understandings of what a peaceful outcome is and that their views will naturally change over time. Peacebuilding—it appears—and contrary to most theoretical and international understandings of what is needed for peace and reconciliation—is not seen primarily as a sustainable social process that can adapt and change as the social context develops over time.  Currently, success is measured by the number of people employed, or by ‘bums on seats’ as it has become common for people to say here.  Although this is important, there is little evidence to show that this is how peace is maintained and sustained in the long-term.  Ironically, the demand for evidence-based outcomes that the current PEACE II funding emphasis falls foul of its own logic. That is, there is little evidence that employability and creating opportunities for inclusion, although undoubtedly helpful, will in and of themselves produce the desired outcome of peace. 

Clearly, PEACE II is built on the assumption that sufficient ‘social capital’ exists to maintain the peace in the wider context, and that there is enough ‘social capital’ to somehow spontaneously encourage the owners of the ‘bums on seats’ to interact with each other more and more over time, and build new enhanced relationships. This ‘event’ driven and linear categorised understanding—mirrored in concepts such as ‘target groups’ so prevalent in PEACE II which pose as descriptors of ‘real’ life even though social reality bears little resemblance to them—runs counter to actually what is needed, or going on in the society.  This is particularly true in areas where social division in the post-settlement phase is getting worse, and where complex social situations and entrenched differences are at the root of ongoing conflict. 

Second, the logic of employability as the cornerstone of peacebuilding feeds into the idea that civil society groups and the political process are largely separate processes that are somehow on different trajectories and are unrelated.  To expand: the reasoning of PEACE II is this.  Out there in society, there are communities that exist as definable entities that are fragmented, ravaged by conflict and socially disadvantaged.  These communities require uplifting and job creation.  To some degree, of course, this is true—one would not want to dispute the value of job creation.  But the logic seems to run that this can be done by injecting funds and developing evidence-based economic programmes and training in these “target areas” in a specific timeframe.  This is meant to create stability and increase opportunities for peace and reconciliation over time. 

At the same time, other communities do not require the same level of attention as they are already developed economically.  This creates the first problem.  This reasoning implies that the conflict in Northern Ireland was only about these so-called discrete communities that show high disadvantage.  It sustains the myth that conflict in society can erupt in certain areas and sustain itself in isolation.  This further erroneously implies that genuine reconciliation is not about dealing with difference between social groupings and classes across society, but about moving those from ‘troubled’ areas on to the same footing as everyone else and this will solve the problem.  This may well help, but it is doubtful if it is that simple in a deeply divided society.  Obviously some strategic targeting is needed, but surely a holistic view of society is needed where all aspects of society are encouraged to engage in and take responsibility for peacebuilding and reconciliation work, not just ‘targeted’ communities. 

If Northern Ireland bears any resemblance to other international conflicts, unquestionably the conflict was sustained by both those ‘directly’ involved and those who choose to define themselves as ‘uninvolved’.  Recently, the Healing Through Remembering Project noted they understood the “conflict in and about Northern Ireland as a society-wide and systematic social problem…we all—including those in leadership positions and those who feel the conflict ‘had nothing to do with them’—need to take responsibility to set the situation right” (3). If this is true, then surely peacebuilding needs to proactively engage all these groups, and address the wider social context too, not just ‘targeted areas’.

In the same vein, somehow the political process within PEACE II logic is—to some degree—seen as irrelevant to the community-development process, and that the politicians through the peace-process have already created the context where peace at community level can flourish.  We all know this is not true.  But, more importantly, by treating the solution as simply one of economic development, as important as this is, it presents a very apolitical picture of communities and social groupings.  It implies that communities can be uplifted by their own efforts (which is true to some degree, of course) and through adequate benevolent funding from government sources.  In some senses this implies that community groups’ interactions at the political level are not as important as the give-and-take relationship of funding and vertical relationship to government. As such, this takes one’s eye off the proverbial political ball. 

Let me explain: the more PEACE II is seen as the mainstay of community development, the more groups and communities (however, you want to define the word community)  will start to understand their position in the society as being determined by how much funding they get from donors, rather than their long-term interaction with local and national governments.  This is evidenced by the complaints you hear about PEACE II.  Complaints—many justified I might add— are generally about criteria, the bureaucracy of filling in forms and how community groups are being treated by the funding agency.  You hear very little reference to how PEACE II should be evaluated as a major social development policy initiative of the Assembly, or political parties.  I feel responsibility for successes and failures of PEACE II, lies with the political classes, not simply with the image of the stereotypical evil Europe Union foisting this bureaucracy on people.  If PEACE II fails—and we are unhappy with what it is delivering—surely it means the government and political parties here have failed to protect the interests of their people within Europe and in the long-term.  They must take responsibility for it, as it is essentially a governmental policy initiative.  PEACE II, regardless of its origins, needs to be reoriented back into the political policy mainstream as it after all affects the well-being of the electorate. 

Third, and finally, it is recognised internationally that a vibrant civil society is the key to sustainable democracy and citizenship involvement in governance.  One of the core observations I make when comparing South Africa to Northern Ireland is that I feel civil society here is significantly more disempowered than in a developing country such as South Africa.  Although there is a flourishing community sector here, this sector is not significantly driving the peace process and social change.  Although civil society had some influence over helping ensure an Agreement was reached, the post-settlement challenges seem to be underestimated and PEACE II is not substantially helping in that regard.  As Sir Marrack Goulding, UN Under-Secretary-General from 1986 to 1997, commented recently on the post-settlement phase: “public participation becomes critically important. Popular support is needed to ensure that the process can withstand post-settlement squabbling and the assaults of its opponents. The questions then are how, and by whom, can the public be mobilized. The ideal conveners are long-standing, non-aligned local institutions. Often, however, in war-torn countries these institutions do not exist and have to be created” (4). 

I am concerned that PEACE II—and civil society structures, community groups and funding bodies—are failing to fully comprehend what is needed in a post-settlement phase.  Independent civil society, or what Goulding calls non-aligned local institutions, need to be protected and critical partners (i.e. those organisations who support the settlement but feel it needs to be continually evaluated from a non-aligned perspective and embedded to succeed) have to thrive for peace to be maintained and built.  The building of civil society structures that are solely concerned about enhancing citizenship, getting the public to access political institutions, and make sure the public shape government policy in the future, in the long-run is as important as ensuring social development and ‘employability’.  I am concerned that the civil society structures that can play this vital role are being decimated in a flurry of PEACE II applications that move them away from their core purpose of embedding democracy and building public participation in governance.  An active civil society is the cornerstone of any social development programme, not the other way around.  I think it is fair criticism to note that strategic thought on how democracy, participation and good governance will be ensured over the long-term is being sacrificed to the lure of funding, which does not support such activities.

To this end—and in conclusion—I feel there is little vision of what a vibrant civil society will look like in the future in Northern Ireland.  This is peculiar considering most international best practice would tell us that this where peacebuilding begins and where the roots of its sustainability lies.  A sound peacebuilding vision should be the starting point for embedding peace.  If ‘employability’ is subsequently considered a key objective for achieving this vision then that is all good and well, but this should come after the strategic peacebuilding vision with civil society at its core has been mapped out, rather than the vision being driven by concepts like ‘employability’. 

At the moment, one method of ensuring greater community involvement (e.g. European Structural Fund measures) is in the process of largely shaping what peacebuilding is.  Of course, PEACE II  and its underlying assumptions has its advantages—but I predict, if you will allow me to be pessimistic for a minute, it will have destroyed the community sector and public participation in governance within a decade.  Political participation will remain the “privilege” of political parties, not citizens.   At the current rate public participation in government will be reduced to voting in elections as it is in the majority of the rest of Europe (despite the fact that Northern Ireland will predictably have ongoing social problems and ‘legacy of the conflict’ issues for many years to come), unless peacebuilding as a process is discussed and strategised as a legitimate post-settlement process in its own right, and is not shaped by the dictates of PEACE II to the degree it currently is.  This is a task of government, but civil society groups, funding bodies and community groups should be vigorously taking the lead on this.

As John Paul Lederach(5) notes, what is needed for genuine peacebuilding is to “explore peacebuilding as processes of change within a more expansive view of context and time relevant to but not limited by the discrete chronology entertained with the term post-agreement.  The key challenges are these:  1)  How to create an adequate vision of change processes in time?  2) How to provide genuine engagement of the public sphere; and 3)  How to keep the moral imagination alive”. 

The origin of PEACE II—and the way it is conceptualised and being implemented, as well as the way politicians and certain sections of society seem to distance themselves from it rather than engaging with it as a critical policy issue—does not feed a dynamic view of peacebuilding.  Continuing engagement and ongoing strategic foresight—as well as permanent public and civil participation in governance—is the foundation of a durable peace.  Sustained grassroots peacebuilding work across the society, attitudinal change, and in many cases actual peacemaking is still very much needed.  I remain to be convinced that a long-term perspective is at the forefront of the current PEACE II programme, or that it is sufficiently enhancing the ‘moral imagination’ of this society and tapping the full creativity of the work needed to guarantee lasting peace.

Brandon Hamber is an independent research and development consultant.  He is an Associate of Democratic Dialogue in Belfast and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in South Africa.  All correspondence to


(1) Catherine Morris, What is Peacebuilding? One Definition.

(2) Avila Kilmurray, PEACE II – A shadow of its former self? In Scope, Dec/Jan 2002/2003, pp. 10-11.

(3) Report of the Healing Through Remembering Project (2002).  Belfast: Healing Through Remembering Project, p.15.

(4) Catherine Barnes (Ed), (2002), Owning the process: Public participation in peacemaking, Accord: an International review of peace initiatives.  London: Conciliation Resources.

(5) John Paul Lederach (2002).  The Horizon of Peacebuilding: The Strategic Challenges of Post Agreement Change. RIREC Conference, September 26, 2002.

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