This article advances the idea of a ‘popular peace’ to address the lack of legitimacy that undermines orthodox peacebuilding projects. This concept would refocus liberal institution-building on local, democratically determined priorities, in addition to internationally favoured preferences (such as metropolitan courts and bureaucratic government). A popular peace approach could help to create social institutions around which a contract could evolve as a foundation for durable peacebuilding.
Advocates of liberal peacebuilding insist that through elite institutionalisation, peacebuilding implants particular liberal values from the top down. Critics reject this idea, maintaining that the approach fails to engage with popular needs, undermining the sources of political legitimacy that lie at the heart of stability and durability. Elite institutionalisation could be said to compromise the extent to which liberal peacebuilding is meaningfully liberal, participatory or democratic.
Even advocates of the liberal peacebuilding orthodoxy concede that the Liberal Project is not achieving local or international security. The lack of local legitimacy is the key to understanding why peace does not prevail as intended:
- Priorities are not designed domestically and do not privilege the institutions locals would favour to deliver their needs.
- Whilst the process claims to be democratic and inclusive, local people are included primarily in the technical moment of elections.
- The process lacks any means of deliberation and dialogue to render inclusion and participation sufficiently meaningful to generate local legitimacy.
The study suggests that the provision of local needs is central to generating local legitimacy, and thus in turn stability and peace. A concept of ‘popular peace’ could bring together considerations of the global and the local. This form of peacebuilding would be more genuinely representative, participatory and democratic than the prevailing model. It would emphasise institutional growth that serves the popular will and engenders a greater likelihood of loyalty than one in which institutions relegate or ignore public voices. It is important to note that:
- There is no standardised blueprint for such a popular peace, since everyday lived realities are influenced by an enormous range of social factors.
- Peace is particular to context and messy rather than formulaic, reactive rather than rigid. It is better suited to spontaneous contingency and complexity than the ready rubric of orthodox peacebuilding.
- Liberal institutions can still lead the way, but they could serve the popular will before that of elite actors in the North and South. Critical research could develop methods for identifying local priorities to which global governance could respond.
- The degree to which priorities and institutions are relevant to local people’s everyday lives will determine the extent to which a population views them as legitimate and accepts the state.
- Popular peace cannot be defined or determined by outsiders, but outsiders can at least act to remove some of the impediments to its realisation.