Peacebuilding is an evolving field of study, policy and practice. It may appear more as a set of beliefs or injunctions than a coherent theory. Indeed, the notion covers a host of different meanings. Yet, considering its evolution for the last twenty years it is possible to identify elements that constitute a widely shared understanding of peacebuilding.
Peacebuilding is generically defined as initiatives that are designed to prevent the eruption or return of armed conflict. It consists of actions undertaken by national actors, with the support of international actors, "to institutionalize peace, understood as the absence of armed conflict and a modicum of participatory politics. Post-conflict peacebuilding is the sub-set of such actions undertaken after the termination of armed hostilities."17 Peacebuilding refers to a process that relies heavily on the commitment and efforts by local actors/insiders to break away from conflict and create a state and society in which peace can be sustained. Outsiders support them by providing financial, technical and human resources.
Peacebuilding is a broad project not limited to post-conflict situations
The first important element in that definition is that most actors now largely consider that peacebuilding does not apply only to post-conflict situations, although those may attract a greater level of attention. In post-conflict cases, the main goal is generally defined as preventing a relapse into conflict and creating a sustainable peace. Despite some disagreement regarding the rate of war recurrence, a general consensus holds that between one-third and one-half of all terminated conflicts tend to relapse into armed violence within five years.18 In other words, there is an empirical basis to the current emphasis on preventing a relapse into armed conflict. That said, many point out that short-term prevention should not be the end goal of peacebuilding, but rather a stage within the broader peacebuilding project of establishing sustainable, long-term peace. "The main issue is to gradually create conditions which will ensure that there is no reason to resort to destructive means again, and thus peacebuilding is a long-term activity beyond the immediate imperative of stopping the armed conflict."19
Peacebuilding encompasses a wide array of activities and processes
As an operating concept, peacebuilding encompasses a wide array of activities, functions and roles across many sectors and levels. It is "not only multi-dimensional but also multi-sectoral in terms of what the international community should be doing on the ground, multi-leveled in terms of how much should be done, and multi-staged in terms of when the international community should be involved."20
The prevailing approach to peacebuilding has been to conceptualize it along sectoral categories. Most, if not all, analytical and operational frameworks organize peacebuilding activities according to four or five pillars.21 "While various actors define these pillars differently, there is consensus that peacebuilding has political, social, economic, security and legal dimensions, each of which requires attention. Distinguishing it from conventional development, peacebuilding is understood to be a highly political project involving the creation of a legitimate political authority that can avoid the resurgence of violence."22 On this website, five pillars will be defined:
An overemphasis on a "sectoral" perspective may cause peacebuilders to lose sight of the broader picture and pay insufficient attention to crucial interaction effects and linkages among different initiatives across sectors. Moreover, such an approach offers little guidance as to the sequencing of peacebuilding activities. So it is important to pay attention to the cross-cutting challenges associated with peacebuilding. On this website, we will focus on five clusters of cross-cutting issues associated with:
Note that categorization of these challenges may change as our research develops.
Peacebuilding aims at structural prevention of violent conflicts
Another way to approach the content of peacebuilding is to distinguish between "operational prevention" (crisis-oriented, political-diplomatic, sanctions, military intervention, conflict prevention, preventive diplomacy) and "structural prevention" (democratic institution-building, relationship-building, prejudice reduction; power-sharing arrangements; reduction of social and economic inequalities, the promotion of the rule of law; security sector reform; education, etc.).23 This allows distinguishing the different types of actors and actions needed in a designated situation as well as the timing of their intervention.
Peacebuilding includes both tangible and intangible dimensions
Finally, it is important to note that peacebuilding should include both tangible ("visible," quantifiable) and intangible ("invisible," qualitative) dimensions. The tangible dimension consists of such things as the number of weapons destroyed, soldiers demobilized, jobs created, or dialogues held. The intangible dimension includes such phenomena as reconciliation between former antagonists, trust in public institutions, and new norms of dispute resolution. It is fair to say that most international peacebuilding initiatives have focused primarily on visible, tangible, and quantifiable outputs rather than on qualitative processes of change, which, admittedly, are much more difficult to induce and assess.
"The Security Council recognizes that peacebuilding is aimed at preventing the outbreak, the recurrence or the continuation of armed conflict and therefore encompasses a wide range of political, development, humanitarian, and human rights programs and mechanisms. This requires short and long-term actions tailored to address the particular needs of societies sliding into conflict or emerging from it. These actions should focus on fostering sustainable development, the eradication of poverty and inequalities, transparent and accountable governance, the promotion of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law and the promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence."
UN Security Council Presidential Statement
"Peacebuilding involves a range of measures targeted to reduce the risk of lapsing or relapsing into conflict by strengthening national capacities at all levels for conflict management, and to lay the foundations for sustainable peace and development. Peacebuilding strategies must be coherent and tailored to the specific needs of the country concerned, based on national ownership, and should comprise a carefully prioritized, sequenced, and therefore relatively narrow set of activities aimed at achieving the above objectives."
Conceptual basis for peacebuilding for the UN system adopted by the Secretary-General's Policy Committee in May 2007
17 Charles T. Call and Elizabeth M. Cousens, "Ending Wars and Building Peace," Coping with Crisis (Working Paper Series, International Peace Academy, March 2007), 3.