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Peace solutions: Learning from what works and adapting to a changing world

Opening session at the 2017 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development
Opening session at the 2017 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development


Over the past 70 years, international frameworks to deliver peace and development have evolved considerably to accommodate transformations in the global security and geopolitical landscape. Through bodies like the g7+, fragile and conflict-affected states have mobilized to advocate for the New Deal Principles and take ownership of their own development. The advent and growth of the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) demonstrate increasing awareness about the importance of regional security and economic integration.

At the international level, perhaps the best normative example is the Sustaining Peace Framework. Enshrined in dual resolutions passed last year by the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council respectively, the Sustaining Peace Framework represents a major step towards addressing the structural shortcomings of the multilateral system and better connecting instruments and interventions designed to deliver peace and security, development and human rights, and humanitarian assistance.

Although significant progress has been made, the multilateral system faces new challenges that demand its continued evolution in order to remain fit for purpose. Protracted conflicts and complex transnational threats, such as climate change and violent extremism, are fuelling displacement and perpetuating humanitarian emergencies. Meanwhile, growing income disparity and increasing polarization are providing ample space for grievances within states. Rising nationalism and cold war-levels of militarization are straining relations between states and the consequent withdrawal of support and financing from donors and global powers for multilateral institutions could disrupt important new initiatives, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Accord. Against this backdrop of uncertainty, the fourth annual Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development set out to identify examples of ‘what works’ in preventing conflict and sustaining peace. Lessons and illustrative cases from the Forum sessions are discussed below.


The meaningful inclusion of marginalized populations

Inclusion is often stressed as a critical element of peacebuilding, but it has a number of different meanings. Forum sessions with inclusion as a focus were challenged to find practical examples of what is working to promote inclusion and how inclusion is contributing to peace. While some sessions focused on the inclusion of specific demographic, economic, political or geographic groups, others concentrated on the inclusion of actors from different sectors (i.e. government, civil society, non-state actors, the private sector) or levels of engagement (i.e. local, national, regional, international).

The importance of women’s inclusion in peace and development processes was raised in several sessions both from a rights perspective and with regard to the effectiveness of recent women-led conflict prevention, conflict resolution and transitional justice initiatives. One such example, the Women’s Situation Room (WSR), was highlighted for its positive impacts on several African elections. The WSR trains women as election observers and non-violent advocates, and connects civil society organizations with police and electoral officials to monitor electoral violence and coordinate responses to prevent escalation. Since it was piloted in Liberia in 2011, the WSR has addressed thousands of incidents and mobilized hundreds of women to engage in national electoral processes. Sessions also identified specific mechanisms designed to help peacebuilders incorporate a gender perspective in their peacebuilding approaches. The Better Peace Tool, for example, offers different strategies to overcome six structural barriers to women’s inclusion in mediation, conflict prevention and peacemaking.

In Sri Lanka, lessons learned about the importance of inclusion are starting to be put into practice within the ongoing transitional justice process. In order to identify abuses perpetrated during the country’s civil war, the conflict’s root causes and other historical grievances, the Sri Lankan Government has engaged civil society organizations to help facilitate extensive community consultations. Although the outcomes of these efforts are yet unknown, they illustrate a newfound effort to connect the national peacebuilding agenda to local priorities and increase civil society’s participation. In Colombia, the evidence of success is more readily apparent: the achievement of a peace agreement is heavily attributed to the mobilization of civil society, especially women’s groups, and the way in which community perspectives expressed in local dialogues fed into formal negotiations. Although the first agreement was rejected through a referendum (perhaps reflecting the complexity of inclusivity), the level of inclusion lent legitimacy to the peace process and contributed to its ratification at the end of 2016.

However, not all of the cases discussed were positive. A session on Lake Chad was an opportunity for policymakers to discuss solutions with climate experts. A 90 per cent decrease in Lake Chad’s surface area since 1973 has increased competition for resources among pastoralists, fishers and farmers and recent pressures have contributed to high levels of displacement and violence. Partly due to their lack of knowledge about ongoing initiatives, local communities have been unable to advocate for their needs regarding land and water use. Yet, these communities have the local knowledge and resilience necessary to find sustainable solutions. Discussants in the climate–fragility session suggested that regional insecurity could be reduced by including rural communities in natural resource management and risk mitigation initiatives, following the path of other communities that have faced such insecurity.

In contexts affected by shrinking space—the imposition of formal and informal measures that aim to restrict civil society engagement, including violation of the rights of association, expression and peaceful assembly—inclusion of civil society is especially challenging. In some cases, international actors’ demonstrations of solidarity with civil society have helped to relieve restrictions imposed by repressive regimes. For example, when the Egyptian women’s rights defender Mozn Hassan was banned from travelling to Sweden to receive the Right Livelihood Award, the awarding entity travelled to Cairo to hold an award ceremony for her. In addition to attending the ceremony, European Union representatives put pressure on the Egyptian Government to drop charges against Hassan, whose case (and the associated travel ban) was eventually dropped.

Non-state actors (NSAs) were also named as a potential stakeholder group that is regularly excluded from peacebuilding processes and whose diversity continues to confound programming efforts. Some non-state actors, such as tribal chiefs, deliver services to their constituencies where state services are absent or inaccessible and should be included in security sector reform (SSR) and good governance initiatives. NSAs driven by a sense of alienation could be given political space to engage, but often are not. Some militias have been disbanded and included in demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) efforts, such as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Civil United Front (CUF) in Sierra Leone—although unfortunately failing to include female combatants—while others have been maintained, with varying results, as part of the state’s security apparatus, including in counterinsurgency efforts. In various cases, public demands for ‘mano dura’ (‘firm hand’) approaches and repressive responses by state security and justice institutions towards NSA groups involved in organized crime and terrorism, including returned fighters from Syria, have failed to address the root causes of violent extremism and have perpetuated conflict, as both the state and NSAs have flouted the rule of law and violated human rights.

Finally, despite recognition among leading peacebuilders that young people and their perspectives should be incorporated into peace and development processes, few concrete examples of how to do so effectively were provided at the Forum. This may be due to the relative novelty of youth inclusion to the field of peacebuilding. As such, it remains a challenge and will be reflected in the planning for next year’s Forum. Looking ahead, implementation of UN Resolution 2250 (S/RES/2250) should provide specific insights into what works for integrating youth and youth perspectives into peacebuilding.


Why inclusion matters: building a quality peace

Regardless of their focus, all of the Forum sessions that raised inclusivity as good practice reflected on its quantitative and qualitative dimensions. Being present at the table or just in the room does not always mean that an individual or group influences outcomes. As one frustrated participant noted: ‘We are now participating in many spaces where we weren’t invited before. And we’re participating, and participating, and participating . . . but our voices are not reaching the high-level policies.’ Meaningful inclusion must therefore overcome structural inequalities, so that all stakeholders are afforded sufficient authority to influence decision making or otherwise effect change.

Traditionally, peacebuilding has occurred in post-conflict settings to avoid the recurrence of conflict.  However, the Sustaining Peace Framework urges global action to prevent ‘the outbreak, escalation, recurrence or continuation of conflict’ using a variety of tools to address drivers across the violence and peace spectrum. This approach goes beyond the temporal elements of a conflict cycle and relates to the holistic and flexible responses necessary to prevent conflict, often referred to as a comprehensive approach (although this has different meanings to different actors). A comprehensive approach may integrate several techniques or practices into a single intervention or comprise a variety of distinct interventions with complementary, integrated functions. Sessions on the forthcoming UN–World Bank report on the Sustaining Peace Framework explored this continuum further, focusing, as the report will, on what has worked and what is working in preventing violence along the spectrum.  

Among the most common subthemes in discussions on comprehensive conflict prevention was the importance of building trust and social cohesion. In the session on preventing violent extremism, discussants identified three trust-building measures as particularly effective: (a) the establishment of grievance mechanisms; (b) the creation safe space for dialogue between communities, civil society organizations and law enforcement; and (c) anti-corruption initiatives. The first two build trust by addressing legacies of poor governance. The effectiveness of stemming corruption relates to the latter’s role in generating and exacerbating grievances, which is linked to radicalization, and the exploitation of corruption and grievances by violent extremist organizations.

Furthermore, discussants in the session on security and justice sector reform agreed that corruption and abuses of power undermine the effectiveness of state security and justice sector institutions and their legitimacy in the eyes of the public, while the actions of state security actors against alleged terrorists and suspect groups in various settings were viewed as drivers of violent extremism. Likewise, transparency in defence and security expenditures can reduce perceptions of corruption and abuse. The knock-on effects of trust building are seen in the provision of community safety, which has been shown to contribute to public trust in police. Community policing programmes in rural Ukraine and Myanmar were cited as two examples of where trust built between local communities and security forces increased the legitimacy of a country’s reform initiatives. 


New approaches and adaptation

Arts- and technology-based interventions are increasingly being employed in combination with traditional peacebuilding techniques and, in some cases, as an alternative to them. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, open creative spaces and participatory film-making projects ran alongside national SSR and DDR dialogues and targeted women, youth and trauma-affected individuals who were not included in the latter process.

Creating art allows communities to shape a public memory together and collectively envision a better future, which can elucidate avenues for reconciliation and restorative justice. Peacetech approaches such as virtual dialogue, enabled through arts-based viral messaging and interactive technological platforms, are being used to foster empathy and forge common identities between communities in numerous country contexts. Because these types of intervention allow participants to create or reclaim physical and psychological spaces that have been destroyed by conflict, they can succeed where traditional interventions may not. Unlike the technical solutions generated by many traditional interventions, arts- and technology-based approaches often respond to the psychological dimensions of conflict by changing perceptions and deconstructing narratives of difference They can also demonstrate the relevance of peacebuilding to ‘regular’ people (i.e. those not normally seated at the negotiating table) by engaging underrepresented communities, further promoting inclusion.

Peacebuilding practitioners are constantly grappling with how to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of their work. This is a function of donor requirements and the desire to meet targets set out in policy frameworks as much as it is about improving the experience of communities affected by conflict and fragility. While most Forum sessions included a measurement component of this nature, several discussions also pointed to evidence that measurement should be used in the service of institutional learning. In both contexts, the cases presented focused on new ways of applying data and approaching challenges, rather than on specific data collection mechanisms or how to ‘prove’ the effectiveness of a particular solution.

Quality data has always been rare in complex environments. However, new technologies are making new data and tools available to peacebuilders. In the session on mapping and information management systems, participants learned about the Electoral Risk Management Tool, which enables users to upload data and generate risk maps in order to design prevention and mitigation strategies in advance of elections. Speaking from a reconstruction perspective, a representative of the Government of Ukraine explained its efforts to map geocoded data on peacebuilding and recovery needs in the Donbass region against available resources, existing projects and relevant local and international implementers in order to target and coordinate interventions. In another session, discussants referred to CIVICUS, an online platform that monitors and compares the state of civic space across countries over time.

The Praia City Group on Governance Statistics formed in 2015 has a UN mandate to work with member states to produce governance statistics based on sound and documented methodologies, serving as a peer-learning network and facilitating the adoption of sound practices by governments and their statistical offices. Participants reflected that the peacebuilding community’s disproportionate focus on quantifying impact is driving investment and implementation strategies towards outputs that are quantitatively measureable, such as infrastructure projects and training sessions. In peacebuilding, sustainable outcomes may not be (immediately) measurable. In this vein, participants further stressed the need to broaden measurement approaches in order to capture qualitative indicators, such as prevention and accountability or changes in perceptions or attitudes.

A common characteristic of many of the successful tools and approaches shared during the Forum is their flexibility. In the session on adaptation and iteration, participants reflected on the need to treat learning as an outcome in its own right and to employ a problem-driven approach. In so doing, peacebuilders are able to test different solutions and make adjustments as the situation on the ground changes and new feedback is received. For example, when the political situation in Libya shifted and shrinking civic space suddenly restricted the capacity of civil society organizations, one human rights institute chose to redesign its financing model to support individuals rather than institutions, thus enabling the continuation of human rights work in the country.

Institutions that have successfully adopted iteration and adaptation into their organizational strategies often do so by extending programme design timelines, allowing for flexibility in delivery and increased risk tolerance.  This is reflected in staffing and training, moving away from an ‘expert’ model towards processes that foster collective intelligence and create space for learning.

For example, within the Omidyar Group, organizations have been building their systems practice, which allows them to take an interactive and adaptive approach to making social change. One of the insights has been that iteration and adaption requires decentralized decision making, so those closest to the interventions, and who get the best feedback, have more authority. Also, the process for strategy development starts by getting a systemic understanding of their context as a means for better finding opportunities for leverage, which then serve as the basis for building their strategies and activities. This also informs how the teams adapt, with integrity, as they learn more about their contexts.



Unlike other ‘best practice’ models, which assume that solutions from one context will necessarily produce similar outcomes in another, the Forum’s focus on ‘what works’ was intended to contribute to constructive dialogue on effective processes and innovative applications of peacebuilding tools that could be adapted to address similar problems across different contexts.

The examples above, and many more discussed at the Forum, demonstrate how the meaningful inclusion of marginalized populations, trust building, new tools and approaches, and the integration of learning and innovation into design can enable progress towards the Sustaining Peace Framework in spite of current geopolitical constraints. These concepts, together with recommendations and key takeaways from the individual sessions, will be further developed in the 2017 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development report, forthcoming in August 2017.


Kate Sullivan was the Programme Coordinator for the Peace and Development Programme.
Dr Marina Caparini was until recently a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI Governance and Society Programme.
Dr Gary Milante is an Associate Senior Researcher.