Local ownership is accepted in theory but rarely practised in post-conflict peacebuilding. This paper from the journal Peace and Change explores understandings of ‘local ownership’ in contemporary peacebuilding and considers the challenges of operationalising it. New efforts are needed to bridge the international-local divide in the name of sustainable peacebuilding.
Local ownership is widely accepted as critical to sustainable peace. However, the example of Bosnia suggests that much of the progress in peacebuilding has been the result not of local ownership, but of international pressure and perseverance. How can this paradox be resolved?
Local ownership is the nexus where two competing visions of peacebuilding collide. The ‘communitarian’ vision emphasises ‘peacebuilding from below’, while the ‘liberal’ vision emphasises conformity with international standards of domestic governance. Under the dominant cosmopolitan paradigm, local ownership has often implied domestic political structures taking responsibility for implementing external policy prescriptions – a very limited and disempowering form of ‘ownership’.
Genuine local ownership has been impeded by several factors:
- The emergence of ‘liberal internationalism’ as the contemporary commonsense of peacebuilding. This implies a technocratic view of peacebuilding, where Western experts simply install the basics of the liberal democratic state.
- The ‘pathologisation’ of post-conflict societies by international actors, who perceive themselves to be more capable of acting in the best interests of the population than domestic elites.
- Practical timeframe-related difficulties. Local civil society may miss critical junctures in the peace process before they have time to organise themselves. Also, pressure to achieve quick measurable results in peacebuilding can lead to neglect of the messy, time-consuming and unpredictable business of nurturing local ownership.
External actors have generally placed excessive hope in domestic civil society, which is often weak and vulnerable to donor dependency, and/or politicised and part of the conflict dynamics. It is a mistake to assume that locals share a common agenda and purpose, and as dangerous to assume that ‘locals know best’ as it is to assume that ‘internationals know best’.
- Despite the risks and complexity, local ownership cannot be avoided; it is essential for sustainable peacebuilding. Experience shows that externally-driven reform processes are not durable. International actors must therefore pay greater attention to peacebuilding processes, as well as outcomes. Supporting local ownership is a highly politicised process of mediating between external and domestic visions of governance, and forging domestic consensus on fundamental issues.
- Local ownership will not just happen if international actors withdraw. Even ‘creating space’ for local actors may require intensive efforts to push away post-war political structures that block such space. International actors should combine capacity-building with ‘capacity-disabling’ – deliberate marginalisation of domestic political forces that obstruct peace – while remaining modest about what they can realistically achieve.
- The author suggests seeking a middle ground of local ownership coupled with international standards. Local ownership is not an ‘either/or’ question, but a delicate balancing act. The motives of both external and domestic actors must be questioned; but sustainable peacebuilding requires the sustained contributions of both internationals and locals.