“Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening. Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well-being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening.”
— E. B. White

Too often, the resolution of a war or civil conflict fails to bring real peace. In many disputes, an armistice leads not to “serenity and well-being,” but to institutional fragility, physical insecurity, a lack of justice and reconciliation, financial turmoil, thwarted development, and – all too often – resumption of the armed conflict.

Examples of places afflicted by chronic strife include Haiti, Timor-Leste, Sri Lanka, and territories in West, Central, and East Africa, in the Middle East, and in the Balkans.

Since its inception, the United Nations has conducted scores of peacekeeping missions. These operations – usually carried out by soldiers – focus on monitoring former combatants, supervising elections, and overseeing aid distribution. The goal is literally to keep the peace so that wider recovery initiatives can get underway in an atmosphere of security.

Although the UN has been coordinating these recovery initiatives for some time, it began applying the term “peacebuilding” to the wider agenda only in the early 1990s, with the publication of the Secretary-General’s report An Agenda for Peace. And although the UN’s peacekeeping apparatus is well-developed, until recently the UN had lacked the institutional structure needed to build the peace.

That deficit is now being addressed. A series of high-level UN panels, summits and reports culminated in the creation in 2005 of a new intergovernmental advisory body, the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC).

The PBC’s goals are reconstruction, institution-building, and sustainable development in countries emerging from conflict. The commission mobilizes the resources of international donors and financial institutions, national governments and troop-contributing countries, and advises on strategies for recovery. The PBC anchors a “peacebuilding architecture” that includes a dedicated trust fund and a supporting secretariat.

The commission’s substantive work is carried out by committees that deal with issues in specific countries: currently the agenda includes Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and the Central African Republic. An organizational committee sets the country agenda, coordinates the PBC’s relationship with other bodies, and guides the commission.

Evidence-based policy
The UN Security Council, meanwhile, has invited the Secretary-General to recommend a long-term program of action for the PBC. As part of the consultation process, Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) joined with the Peacebuilding Support Office and the Carnegie Corporation of New York to host a two-day roundtable in December 2008.

IDRC has been supporting research on and for peacebuilding since 1996. The purpose of this meeting was to mobilize research findings that will inform the UN’s peacebuilding work – in other words, to base policy on hard evidence.

The roundtable assembled more than 60 academics, researchers, and experts from the Americas, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. To encourage frank discussion, participants spoke under the Chatham House Rule – that is, in their personal capacity and off the record.

These specialists sought to elaborate the theory and practice of peacebuilding, and to outline a continuing research agenda that involves people from developing countries, especially countries affected by conflict. IDRC’s special contribution was its expertise in coordinating research for development and its global networks of scientists and experts.

Much of the discussion focused on clarifying terminology. For a start, participants defined peacebuilding as strengthening the capacities of a society to deal with conflict non-violently and in a sustained way – that is, in a way that does not lead to violence.

While the debate ranged across complex questions, it kept returning to a cluster of overlapping issues, such as the ambiguous role of the state, the need for local consultation in building peace, and the importance of pursuing “soft” or non-military paths toward social cohesion.

The resilient state
Speakers challenged the assumption that peacebuilding implies state building. In many countries, after all, citizens live in fear of the state – so why reconstruct it? The response: as a means to ensure public security, we have no alternative to the model of the nation state.

The viability of the state hinges on “legitimacy,” a portion of which is bestowed by the international community. Neighbouring states, for instance, may or may not recognize borders. Some of a state’s authority derives from its license to use violence as a last resort, but violence alone is insufficient to bestow true legitimacy. The give-and-take of continuing negotiation between citizens and state – in other words, a political process – is essential.

According to one speaker, this process must comprise participation, inclusiveness and responsiveness, all of which create the crucial resilience. “If you communicate with your citizens, and include all the various groups, then your state has the capacity to cope with change.” In times of crisis citizens will be more likely to trust the state than to seek alternative means of support.

The inevitability of the state entails that peacebuilding must be locally owned and locally driven. Domestic actors should coordinate reconstruction while external actors should play only a supporting role. As one expert put it: “The essence of the [peacebuilding] problem is impaired sovereignty. I would be tremendously concerned if the international community found it easy to coordinate outside assistance in a country – it would mean there is very little sovereignty present.”

Several participants demanded that the international peacebuilding community engage more thoroughly with researchers and practitioners from countries affected by conflict. All relevant local actors – and not just those who are easy to deal with – need to be involved and strengthened.

Seeking soft power
All this suggests that markers or indicators of the success of peacebuilding efforts should be revised to embrace the “soft” elements of social cohesion – those that foster teamwork, sharing, and a sense of community – rather than the “hard” instruments of coercion and violence.

One participant maintained that achieving this kind of cohesion, in fact, should be the central objective of any peacebuilding initiative: “The critical elements in peacebuilding are trust, legitimacy, confidence, collaboration, the capacity to work together. These are less tangible issues, but are actually the glue that makes a society work together. Our emphasis is on trying to understand the glue.”

Next steps
The roundtable tendered recommendations that the Peacebuilding Support Office will polish and incorporate in the Secretary-General’s report to the Security Council in May 2009.

Meanwhile, roundtable members agreed that much valuable knowledge about peacebuilding already exists. In addition to new studies, priority should be placed on improving access to the current knowledge base and on linking research and policy more firmly. One proposal introduced by participants was the creation of a new “global consortium” on peacebuilding research. This network would strengthen the capacity for investigation and analysis in war-affected countries while connecting researchers and practitioners to consolidate and apply the lessons of past research.

Gerd Schönwälder, PhD, is director of policy and planning for the International Development Research Centre. Previously, he served as deputy director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, and spent several years in Brussels as a European Union official.

Canada Leads
For more than 60 years, Canadian military personnel have promoted stability, provided aid, and helped rebuild infrastructure for communities disrupted by conflict through international peacekeeping.

Canada drew upon this experience when it became one of the first countries to promote the concept of peacebuilding. In 1996 Canada launched its own Peacebuilding Initiative, and in 1998 created a Peacebuilding Fund that was administered by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Within the UN system, Canada supported the 2005 creation of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), and the UN Peacebuilding Fund. The first Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support and head of the PBSO was a Canadian, Carolyn McAskie, a former vice-president of CIDA.

As of November 2008, Canada had contributed CA$20 million to the UN Peacebuilding Fund, an endowment designed to help governments carry out post-conflict initiatives in a sustained way.
In June 2008, Canada began a two-year term on the PBC’s powerful Organizational Committee, a key window of opportunity to steer the work of the PBC and to make a significant contribution to world peace.