Reforming the UN Peacebuilding Architecture:
A Perspective from the Field

Reforming the
UN Peacebuilding Architecture:
A Perspective from
the Field

by Katharina R. Vogeli
(based on presentation at Geneva Peace Week 2019)


Reforming the UN Peacebuilding Architecture:
A Perspective from the Field

by Katharina R. Vogeli (based on a presentation at Geneva Peace Week 2019)

When the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture (UN PBA) was established fifteen years ago, it had two priorities: the need to tackle the root causes of conflict, and the need to build national capacity for long-lasting peace and development.

There was a large consensus that it was necessary to go beyond peacekeeping, that peacebuilding strategies and mandates needed to include the analysis from local actors, and that there needed to be coordination and collaboration between the different UN Agencies and Departments.

So what went wrong? Why have these efforts not seen more success?

The 2020 United Nations peacebuilding review takes stock of the progress made over these first 15 years of the UN PBA. During a panel discussion on the review during the 2019 Geneva Peace Week, I was asked to contribute to the discussion a perspective from the field. The following text is based on my remarks at the GPW 2019. It draws on some of the lessons I learnt during almost six years spent in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), designing a peacebuilding program on behalf of Switzerland, working with actors from all levels and segments of society in the capital, the provinces and the field, and coordinating donors of the UN’s Stabilization (i.e. peacebuilding) strategy.

With an academic background focusing mostly on a structural approach to conflict resolution, my six years in the Congo were in many ways a reality check for me. The reality presented itself often differently, or at least in a much more nuanced, complex way from what I had learnt at university.

Two issues seem to be particularly important:

  1. The confusion about root causes of conflict, and
  2. Building national capacity

Finally, it should be interesting to

  1. Learn lessons from impactful actors on the ground.

1. Confusion about root causes of conflict:

Since the creation of the UN’s Peacebuilding Architecture, the focus on root causes has gained such importance that it tends to crowd out all other issues.

However, it is important to distinguish between root causes of conflict, drivers of conflict, and conflict dynamics. The existing confusion between the meaning of these terms may well be one of the reasons for the few promising results of peacebuilding efforts.

What is often referred to as root causes are in fact local expressions of structural violence. To take the example of the DRC, neither natural resources nor ethnic tensions are root causes of conflict, even though they are often declared as such.

To take a closer look at ethnic or – to use a more encompassing term – identity conflicts: They happen when ethnopolitical entrepreneurs use their influence to convince their people that poverty, a lack of economic perspectives, the lack of health care or education, are a result of their neighbor’s privileges, rather than of poor governance. Their desperate situation is, however, a result of structural violence (based on abuse of power, corruption, lack of, or poor governance). This is the root cause of direct conflict, and not the other way around.

Johan Galtung had already talked about this in the 1960s: his central tenet was that violence exists for structural reasons; actors merely carry out that violence.

Therefore: We need to look at the structural causes of conflict and focus on ways to address them. Once we understand structural violence, we are in a better position to assist local actors in finding ways to address drivers of direct conflict.

2. Building national capacity for long-lasting peace and development:

This is not something I observed during my years in the DRC: to the contrary.

The Ten-Year Review of the PBA stated that “the role civil society can play in the decision-making processes of this structure – as the conveyers of up-to-date, context-specific and grounded analysis– is a vital one”. This is not enough.

National actors’ agency must be respected. They need to be equal partners in the analysis, design and implementation of these initiatives.

Citizens with excellent education and experience, citizens with integrity and reputation could contribute decisively to the design and implementation of policies and programs with lasting impact. A promising peacebuilding strategy needs to start with those who have a sophisticated understanding of the culture and structure of the state and society in question.

This would be neither UN officials nor academics: It should be the leaders from the concerned political class, from government at the central, provincial and local levels, it should include traditional leaders, leaders from civil society both secular and faith based.

With national leaders as equal participants, and prioritizing ownership by those who are concerned (instead of well-meaning foreigners), the planning process might take a little more time, and it might be more complex, but the right questions are more likely to be asked, correct answers found and the probability of success would be considerably higher.

3. Who are the impactful national actors, most likely to have a lasting impact?

Every country in conflict has its own heroes. There are many, at all levels of society, who make great sacrifices to contribute to peace in their own communities, in their own country:


Local peace champions

To use just one example: a Congolese NGO [1] has been promoting an effective peacebuilding methodology called “Tujenge Amani!” [2].

All segments of the community are involved in this program, and vertical connections – up to the provincial, even the national level – are considered as key. Everyone is involved, traditional and religious leaders, representatives of government, youth, women … The members of the different communities where Tujenge Amani! was introduced were from the start put before the challenge that they themselves needed to become actors, indeed champions, of their own peace. Through patient mentoring, through dialogue, and training, they recognized over time the important role each actor plays in a functioning community, and they have learnt to be resilient against manipulation.

Those responsible for the implementation of the program, have always been respected local leaders. Today, the population is confident in the knowledge that the peace in their midst is largely in their hands. This sense of agency has restored their dignity. They no longer primarily identify as victims, but as actors of their own peace.

We, the international community, would do well to support local peace champions in their work and not stand in their way.



Security Council Resolution 2250 calls for “the nurturing of young people’s skills in leadership, mediation, negotiation, conflict resolution, communication, life skills and positive social norms.”

All over Africa, young citizens’ movements have sprung up. Young people, mostly intellectuals, have recognized the importance of positive peace as a precondition for a brighter future for their generation. They call for politicians’ accountability; for the provision of basic services such as education, health, infrastructure; they call out the corruption of those in power.

Outspoken young activists have made it much more uncomfortable for the corrupt elites to continue to act with impunity.

Citizens’ movements have forced change in numerous countries throughout Africa, often at great personal cost.

We – the international community, the UN – would do well to include the youth as full partners in all peacebuilding endeavors. We should invest in those who, through their courage and integrity, show promise for the future of their countries.



In 2020 Security Council Resolution 1325 is twenty years old: And yet, women are still rarely fully integrated in peacebuilding strategies.

True Heroes Films [3] in 2019 produced a documentary on the role of Congolese women in the Inter-Congolese Dialog in Sun City in 2002/2003. As the numerous interviews demonstrated, the women, despite their decisive role in the peace talks, they have since been marginalized, by their own political class as well as by the international community.

In 2017, a promising initiative by the African Union, the African Women’s Leaders Network, was launched and numerous national chapters across the continent have been established since. The dynamic and impact of this movement show the need to give women of all generations the space to actively contribute to politics, to peace and security initiatives.

We – the international community, the UN – would do well to ensure that women are full partners in all efforts to restore peace and security.


Religious leaders:

Examples from the DRC, from Central Africa, South Sudan and many other countries demonstrate that while the political class has lost the trust of the population, religious leaders’ moral authority has increased.

The Catholic Bishops in the DRC; Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders, jointly, in the Central African Republic; the South Sudanese Council of Churches, all have been instrumental in not only avoiding bloodshed in the short term. Their courageous stance vis-à-vis politicians and armed groups have served as examples to the population that it is possible to remain united, even in the face of political manipulation.

On 1 November 2019, the Interfaith Platform Dignity and Peace – Great Lakes (PDIP-GL) [4] was launched on the shores of Lake Geneva, with the top Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leadership from seven countries in the Great Lakes region. Their primary objective is joint action and solidarity for the prevention of conflict.

The international community would do well to work in partnership with these religious leaders who are listened to by their faithful.

Five key lessons from the field:

  1. Foster – and use – national capacity to build lasting peace. Peace cannot be built from the outside, and it is more than the mere absence of violence. Those concerned are the only ones able to build durable peace.
  2. Distinguish between drivers of conflict and root causes of conflict – recognize the structural violence that makes direct violence possible and address it at its source.
  3. Focus on vertical connections; and connect structural approaches with trust-building measures – they are all necessary, at all levels of society.
  4. Respect the people who are concerned: respect their agency, respect their dignity, respect their initiative
  5. Work with, and support, initiatives by young people, by women, by faith leaders, by local peace champions.

It is commendable that the United Nations critically reviewed their peacebuilding experiences over the past fifteen years. Unfortunately, as the African Regional Consultation on the review “Sustaining Peace in Africa: Local Capacities for Peace” [5] concluded,

“Inputs received for the African Consultation show that despite policy commitments to local ownership and investments in local and national capacities for peace, the funding, coordination, planning, and the state-centric decision making structures still favour UN agencies, international Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), and national authorities. Local peacebuilders are not sufficiently involved in the identification of needs, the framing of the issues or the design of the programmes and results frameworks.” [6]

While regional consultations such as the one organized on Africa included the voices of a large number of stake holders, the review itself focused mostly on the UN and its agencies, international NGOs and governmental actors. As long as no real partnership between the UN and representatives of the concerned societies is established (not only their governments), based on mutual respect and trust, the UN PBA is likely to continue wondering about its lack of a lasting impact.

[1] Action pour la Paix et la Concorde APC, Bukavu, South Kivu (DRC)

[2] “Let’s build peace!”

[3] Financed by the Government of Switzerland

[4] An initiative by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the DRC, CENCO, financed by the Government of Switzerland and implemented by CatImpact

[5] Organized by ACCORD which consulted a number of stakeholders in Africa on their experiences to date with the PBA between March and May 2020, culminating in a virtual webinar consultation that took place on 10 June 2020,in partnership with the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) and the African Union (AU) Commission.

[6] It is worth consulting the report on this consultation:
UN PBA African Regional Consultation

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