Some Thoughts about the ‘Local Turn’ in Peacebuilding


*This post was originally published in Portuguese at Mundorama. This is a revised version of the original text.

Over the last 20 years the literature on peacebuilding has increasingly incorporated the concern with the ‘local’ (Lederach, 1997; Richmond, 2011; Donais, 2012; Mac Ginty & Richmond, 2013; Paffenholz., 2015). Back in the 1990s, this ‘local turn’ was linked to the idea of peacebuilding from below and the work of academic-practitioners in the field of mediation and conflict resolution. At this stage, the idea of bringing the local in was framed by the understanding that empowering local actors was a fundamental thing to make peace work. The local turn was thus framed by the concern of empowering local actors to directly take part of the peacebuilding process and work towards reconciliation, as discussed in the work of John Paul Lederach (1997; see also Ramsbotham et al., 2005). Also, there was an emphasis in spaces of collaboration between international and local actors. In this regard, much of the literature had very concrete propositions about how to improve peacebuilding practices.

The more recent ‘local turn’ came in a very different context, and represented a critical response to the development of the UN peace operations, in particular the rising of statebuilding and the discourse around failed/fragile states (Paffenholz, 2015). To a large extent, these new approaches stem from post-colonial perspectives, having particular influence from the Foucauldian approach to power and the discussion on everyday resistance from James Scott. Thus, differently from the early 1990s, the emphasis here is not on reconciliation, but on the many manifestation of local resistance against Western dominant models that frame peacebuilding and statebuilding (ibid.; Mac Ginty & Richmond, 2013; Richmond, 2014). The ‘local’ is thus defined in opposition to the international and the ‘local turn’ represents the contestation of the idea of universality embedded in the liberal peace paradigm. Carrying an emancipatory appeal, this local turn rejects the problem-solving characteristic of more institutional approaches to peacebuilding (Mac Ginty & Richmond, 2013).

A key concept in the recent debate has been the idea of ‘hybrid peace’, which describes the outcome of peacebuilding as a result of the tension between the liberal order that is imposed by international actors and the different expressions of local resistance to it. From this perspective, the end result of peacebuilding is not a liberal peace, but a ‘distorted’ outcome resulting from this interaction (Boege et al., 2009; Mac Ginty, 2010).

In this context, the everyday and ‘local-local’ dynamics are extremely relevant. Moving away from traditional approaches to IR, here the micro level — the village, small associations, religious groups, artists and so many other actors that were previously invisible in conventional analyses — is a place where many forms of agency take place. Local actors are thus active and powerful in their own way and co-define the outcome of peacebuilding.

The debate on hybridity has paved the way for important contributions in the analysis of peacebuilding, in particular the realm of the power dynamics surrounding peacebuilding processes (Richmond, 2011 and 2014; Mac Ginty & Richmond, 2013), as well as issues of legitimacy related to international interventions (ibid.; Roberts, 2011). Moreover, the ‘local turn’ has also affected the domain of the international discourse and policy practice, where the concern with local ownership has become central and, increasingly, aid is directed to civil society organisations (Donais, 2012; Lee & Özerdem, 2015; Paffenholz, 2015).

While this debate has evolved significantly in a short period of time and contributed to the expansion in the understanding of peacebuilding activities and its pitfalls, there are still several issues that need refinement, if not even deep questioning in this literature.

First, the current debate on the ‘local’ is fundamentally based on a problematic separation between external and internal actors in the context of peacebuilding, which minimises the differentiation that exists within the local domain. Conversely, in depth analyses of local heterogeneity, local subjectivities and local power dynamics and how they relate to peacebuilding are rarely discussed, even though it may be argued that they are equally important for peace sustainability. Interestingly, recent empirical literature on local ownership has actually pointed to the difference between groups of local actors and how different their interests and inputs for peacebuilding may be (see Thiessen, 2015 discussing Afghanistan and Nilsson, 2015, the case of Nicaragua). In my own research, I have addressed this issue in the context of local governance in Mozambique, emphasising how specific dynamics of local power may be far from emancipatory and not necessarily related to international dynamics (Maschietto, 2015).

This is linked to a second issue, which is a tendency to romanticise the local domain. It is true that some authors warn caution against this tendency (Richmond, 2011; Mac Ginty & Richmond, 2013). Moreover, the differentiation between positive and negative forms of hybrid peace provides more flexibility in the analysis of peacebuilding outcomes that help us not fall into this trap. Nevertheless, because the usual starting point of the analysis is the ‘imposition of the liberal peace’, and the local is portrayed as having an emancipatory potential, ultimately it is more rare to find critical analysis of the ‘local’. According to Paffenholz (2015), what is taking place is actually a romanticisation of the concept of ‘hybridity’ rather than the local, precisely because ‘most studies overwhelmingly see hybrid peace governance as a valid alternative to the failed top-down liberal peace’. This is related to another question, which is whether the ‘local’ is necessarily progressive or whether it can be in fact internally contested and maybe as oppressive as the international attempts to impose specific models of governance (Hughes et al., 2015).

A third issue relates to the emphasis on aspects of resistance instead of cooperation that exist between international and local actors. This is particularly important if we consider the role of formal civil society organisations in peacebuilding scenarios. In fact, this is one of the areas in which the first and second ‘local turns’ differ significantly. In the first phase, there was precisely an emphasis on domains of collaboration, with the aim of help empowering local actors. In the recent debate, such attempts are often depicted as different manifestations of Western power/influence over local actors. Whether power issues between donors and local actors should not be minimised, it seems to me that more emphasis should be placed in the literature on areas of cooperation, as, as much as practices of resistance, empirical examples of positive partnerships also exist.

Fourth, and surprisingly, the local turn has not given much space yet to the issue of citizenship and the relation between state and society. I say ‘surprisingly’ because the local turn came precisely as a critique to statebuilding practices and their ‘top-down’ dynamics. In this regard, it seems crucial to reconsider citizenship and empowerment in the context of the redesign of the state that is coming out of years of protracted violent conflict (Borges & Maschietto, 2014).

Finally, and related to all the above, even though the ‘local turn’ aims to put the ‘local’ at the front stage, the starting point of this debate is the Western concept of liberal peace. That is, instead of starting the analysis from the local standpoint, local patterns of resistance are considered only in their relationship with the liberal peace. Methodologically this brings the question whether local dimensions of peace that are not directly aligned or opposed to the liberal peace will ever come to the fore in the analysis.

In sum, there is no doubt that the local turn has contributed to a fundamental expansion of the analysis of peacebuilding. But so much ahead for us researchers…



Boege, V.; Brown, A.; Clements, K.; Nolan, A. (2009) On hybrid political orders and emerging states: what is failing — States in the global South or research politics in the West? Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation, Berghof Research Center.

Borges, M.; Maschietto, R. H. (2014) Cidadania e empoderamento local em contextos de construção da paz, Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, N. 105, 65-84, ISSN 0254-1106.

Donais, Timothy (2012), Peacebuilding and Local Ownership. Post-Conflict Consensus-Building. Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding. London: Routledge.

Hughes, C.; Öjendal, J.; Schierenbeck, I. (2015) The struggle versus the song – the local turn in peacebuilding: an introduction, Third World Quarterly, 36:5, 817-824, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2015.1029907

Lederach, John Paul (1997). Building peace. Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Lee, S. Y.; Özerdem, A. (eds.) (2015) Local Ownership in International Peacebuilding. Key Theoretical and Practical Issues, Series: Studies in Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding, London and New York: Routledge.

Mac Ginty, R.; Richmond, O. P. (2013) The Local Turn in Peace Building: a Critical Agenda for Peace, Third World Quarterly, 34 (5), 763-783.

Maschietto, Roberta H. (2015). The Contradictions of Empowerment Promotion through Social Engineering. Mozambique’s Peace and the ‘7 Million’ Initiative. Doctoral Dissertation in Peace Studies, University of Bradford.

Nilsson, Manuela (2015) Peacebuilding and local ownership: who owned the reconciliation process in post-conflict Nicaragua? In: Lee, S. Y.; Özerdem, A. (eds.) Local Ownership in International Peacebuilding. Key Theoretical and Practical Issues, Series: Studies in Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding, London and New York: Routledge.

Paffenholz, Thania (2015) Unpacking the local turn in peacebuilding: a critical assessment towards an agenda for future research, Third World Quarterly, 36:5, 857-874, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2015.1029908

Ramsbotham, O.; Woodhouse, T. and Miall, H. (2005) Contemporary Conflict Resolution. 2nd edn. Cambridge, Malde: Polity.

Richmond, O. P. (2011). A Post-Liberal Peace. London, New York: Routledge.

Richmond, O. P. (2012) Beyond Local Ownership in the Architecture of International Peacebuilding, Ethnopolitics, 11 (4), 354-375.

Richmond, O. P. (2014) Failed Statebuilding. Intervention, the State, and the Dynamics of Peace Formation, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

Roberts, David (2011) Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, Liberal Irrelevance and the Locus of Legitimacy, International Peacekeeping, 18(4), 410-42.

Thiessen, Chuck (2015) The dilemmas of local ownership of upper-level and grassroots peace processes in Afghanistan. In: Lee, S. Y.; Özerdem, A. (eds.) Local Ownership in International Peacebuilding. Key Theoretical and Practical Issues, Series: Studies in Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding, London and New York: Routledge.


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