Despite the common elements identified in the previous section, there are ongoing debates among practitioners and analysts as to the meaning and the scope of peacebuilding, and the most effective ways to implement it. As a result, while embracing the idea of peacebuilding, they also tend to operate under considerably different interpretations of what it means. As underlined by some analysts, "the willingness of so many diverse constituencies with divergent and sometimes conflicting interests to rally around peacebuilding also suggests that one of the concept's talents is to camouflage divisions over how to handle the post conflict challenge. In this respect, it functions much like a favored political symbol"24 - an ambiguous concept that brings together disparate and often divergent actors.

This diversity of views can be summarized around a certain number of key issues that are largely interrelated in the debates:

These debates manifest in each sectoral intervention. In fact, many discussions do not cross those sectoral and disciplinary boundaries and remain in relatively close circles. This disconnect between fields of expertise partly explains why we still know so little about how and why peacebuilding works - or not. This has been reinforced by a persistent deficit in empirical and micro-level analyses, which thus explains why most discussions on peacebuilding are general and speculative, generating confusion about strategy. The Utstein study evaluated 366 peacebuilding projects financed by the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands and concluded that "... more than 55 percent of the projects do not show any link to a broader strategy for the country in which they are implemented. Some projects are not linked to a broader strategy because there is no strategy for them to be linked to. In other cases, the broader strategy exists but projects show no connection to it... There is no known way of reliably assessing the impact of peacebuilding projects."25 This aligns with findings established by leading practitioners that multiple peace initiatives do not simply "add up" to peace "writ large."26 It can be concluded that much still needs to be done to understand the multiple connections and disconnections between micro- and macro-dimensions of peacebuilding, and between local and external efforts.27

"Negative" or "positive" peace

A central debate in peacebuilding has to do with the desired outcome of the enterprise. Many have framed the goal of peacebuilding in terms of "negative peace" (absence of armed conflict) or "positive peace" (a structural transformation towards a socio-political and economic system capable of fostering justice and ensuring a self-sustained peace). Some have suggested that "if there is a trade-off between these goals, the immediate absence of conflict [...] should take priority over participatory politics if peacebuilding is the frame of reference."28 An alternative view is that negative peace is required before positive peace can materialize.

In the wake of the new generation of peace operations in the early 90s, the UN has emphasized that peacebuilding is more than the elimination of armed conflict. It involves addressing the root causes of conflict so that actors no longer have motive to use violence to settle their differences. In this sense, peacebuilding "entails building the political conditions for a sustainable, democratic peace, generally in countries long divided by social strife, rather than keeping or enforcing peace between hostile states or armed parties. [...] At root, full-scale peace-building efforts are nothing short of attempts at nation building; they seek to remake a state's political institutions, security forces, and economic arrangements."29

Charles T. Call and Elizabeth M. Cousens identify three approaches to peacebuilding:

  • Maximalist: Addressing Root Causes of Conflict;
  • Minimalist: No Renewed Armed Conflict;
  • Middle Ground: No Renewed Armed Conflict plus Decent Governance.

The debate between the "minimalist" and "maximalist" approaches is closely related to the perennial debate in conflict resolution between "conflict managers" and "conflict transformers." The former believe that the most realistic approach to conflict is to end armed violence, produce a political settlement, and create minimal conditions of security and political order. Conflict transformers, on the other hand, argue that a relapse into conflict is more likely if the root/structural causes that brought about the conflict in the first place are not addressed. In this view, interventions that seek to address only the symptoms of the violence are not sufficient to produce lasting peace.

These considerations have very concrete operational implications in terms of the extent of the reforms to engage, the duration of the programs to support them and the criteria which will serve to monitor their implementation.

Peacebuilding as "stabilization" or "transformation"

Another key area of debate concerns the conceptualization of post-conflict interventions in terms of "stabilization" or "transformation." In particular after 9/11, a large portion of both analyses and policies have focused on the importance of "stability," an imposed one if needed and generally argue strongly in favor of a highly interventionist approach.30 The paradox is that these proponents generally favor "consolidating" the status quo or merely redistributing cards rather than encouraging major changes, which may align the interests of international actors with those of certain local elites. This is also true of the general policies of conflict management, including peacekeeping and peace maintenance. They mainly attempted to prevent recurrence of conflict by injecting an international presence to act as a third party buffer between adversaries. While not allowing escalation, this approach does not necessarily build peace and favors the status quo.31

Others think of peacebuilding in terms of change. Yet peacebuilders have so far paid insufficient attention to the theories of change underlying their initiatives. A theory of change deals with such questions as: What are the sources of the problem? What needs to change? How can change be brought about? How does a particular initiative contribute to the desired change? Given the growing realization that unexamined assumptions about conflict and change may lead to peacebuilding initiatives that are inconsistent with the realities of a particular context, the topic of "underlying theories of change" has received greater attention in recent years.32 Such questioning may sound relatively new to many peacebuilders and even more policy makers, yet it is crucial. It also obliges to revise a certain number of unverified or over-generalized assumptions on the basis of which peacebuilding policies and practices often tend to operate. For example, the idea that war destroys most, if not all, of the social and political fabric of a society leads post-conflict settings to be seen or treated as political and social vacuums to be filled. Yet war transforms (physically, institutionally, politically, economically and symbolically) even more than it destroys. This observation has three important consequences for peacebuilding strategy:33

  • First, the postwar situation is by no means a tabula rasa where societies can be radically remade.
  • Second, the frequent claim that there is a need to tackle the "root causes" of conflict may run the risk of having interventions misdirected to addressing past problems rather than those that shape the immediate post-conflict condition. There is a strong belief in the peacebuilding community and at the UN in particular that the same instruments that are used to help build peace after war also can be used to help societies avoid war in the first place; and vice versa.
  • Third, violent conflict tends to radically transform the very foundations of the society. War itself may change the perception of violence, in particular what is perceived as legitimate uses of violence. It may also transform the belief systems, the relationships, and the structures governing a society.

As a consequence, "successfully ending the divisions that lead to war, healing the social wounds created by war, and creating a society where the differences among social groups are resolved through compromise rather than violent conflict requires that conflict resolution and consensus building shape all interactions among citizens and between citizens and the state."34

For policy makers and practitioners, this clearly entails, first, a conscious choice for a stabilizing or transformative approach. Different national and international actors are likely to make a different choice and therefore partially counteract each other's actions. Nevertheless, greater awareness of one's own underlying theories of change can help to better articulate the objectives and methodology of any action. Second, particularly in the transformative approach, a better diagnosis of the postwar situation and understanding of the society capacities and resources to rebuild are key pre-requisites for any intervention.

Peacebuilding as a broad or targeted agenda

Another key debate involves how broadly or narrowly peacebuilding activities should be defined. Critics have taken issue with the prevailing idea that almost any activity undertaken in a post-conflict setting can be labeled "peacebuilding."

"Because there are multiple contributing causes of conflict, almost any international assistance effort that addresses any perceived or real grievance can arguably be called 'peacebuilding.' Moreover, anyone invited to imagine the causes of violent conflict might generate a rather expansive laundry list of issues to be addressed in the post conflict period, including income distribution, land reform, democracy and the rule of law, human security, corruption, gender equality, refugee reintegration, economic development, ethnonational divisions, environmental degradation, transitional justice, and on and on. There are at least two good reasons for such a fertile imagination. One, there is no master variable for explaining either the outbreak of violence or the construction of a positive peace but a fairly large number of possible factors merely groupings of factors across categories such as greed and grievance, and catalytic events. Variables that might be relatively harmless in some contexts can be a potent cocktail in others. Conversely, we have relatively little knowledge regarding what causes peace or what the paths to peace are. Although democratic states that have reasonably high per capita incomes are at a reduced risk of conflict, being democratic and rich is no guarantor of a positive peace, and illiberal and poor countries, at times, also have had their share of success."35 This explains that "traditional peacekeeping operations were already extending their mandates through the addition of a wide range of activities that fall under the banner of peacebuilding, including the monitoring and organization of elections and the reform, or even the creation, of governmental institutions."36 Indeed, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has housed an increasing number of civilian "peacebuilding"" capacities within its missions for several years. "Second, organizations are likely to claim that their core competencies and mandates are critical to peacebuilding. They might be right. They also might be opportunistic. After all, if peacebuilding is big business, then there are good bureaucratic reasons for claiming that they are an invaluable partner."37 Inside the UN system itself, a growing number of agencies and programs have claimed to participate in peacebuilding efforts.

One major consequence of this has been the expectation that peacebuilding would solve all societal ills and create a perfect peace. Critics argue that setting such impossibly high expectations is only bound to discredit the entire enterprise. Indeed, it is a frequent argument used - often improperly - to explain local disillusionment with international efforts at building peace. Peacebuilders need to manage expectations they create; this is even more important for outsiders who need to treat their interlocutors seriously and be more transparent about what their plans are and what people can reasonably expect from their action.38

Another development in the debate has been the growing concern among Member States from the Global South that many development issues are being reframed under a security agenda, which has changed the nature of programs, diverted important financial commitments from traditional development and also moved away from the primary arena where these governments have more voice. This view is regularly echoed by NGOs concerned about the increasing use of development budgets for security programs.

Different reasons therefore underlie the general movement toward putting some limits on the concept of peacebuilding. "A line needs to be drawn between peacebuilding and maximizing various levels of social, economic and political development possible in a given society. Otherwise, if the term peacebuilding becomes a synonym of all the positive things we would want to include in development in order to reduce any and all of a society's ills, it becomes useless for guiding knowledge gathering and practical purposes."39 Many have recommended to better prioritize and sequence peacebuilding interventions, some going so far as advocating a "security first" approach. At the UN, a more complex understanding of peacebuilding is evidenced by the adoption by the Secretary-General's Policy Committee, on 22 May 2007, of a conceptual basis for peacebuilding for the UN system. "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." Specific emphasis is given to prioritizing and sequencing a "relatively narrow set of activities." Yet, establishing such a hierarchy of goals and activities requires an overall political strategy, which does not always exist.40 In some views, this may mean making difficult but necessary choices. Certain ills and sufferings may be unaddressed because they are not perceived as imminent threats to peace. The "conflict transformer" perspective requires adding a different lens. Decisions must be made about which problems need to be solved first, along with an examination of the society's current capacities to deal with challenges in a nonviolent manner. This examination enables us to define priorities for supporting capacity development and would also require identifying key actors of change.

Phases and benchmarking: when to begin and when to end?

Another issue underlying this debate is the duration and appropriate form of engagement among various actors, inside and outside the UN, the definition of the leadership and the phasing out or gradual transition between different types of intervention. The way these questions are answered has generally more to do with political and institutional struggles than with a careful monitoring of the local situation or a comparative analysis of the specific capacities of each actor.

Questions of when peacebuilding should start must also be countered with when peacebuilding should end - that is, when can a peacebuilding effort be perceived as finished, and ultimately, to have succeeded in meeting its objectives? Linked to this is the achievement of particular benchmarks, with associated timeframes, proper sequencing and pace. There is little agreement among experts on what actually constitutes an effective transition to sustainable peace. Building upon the three approaches to peacebuilding typology as minimalist (negative peace), maximalist (positive peace) or somewhere in between, assessing progress in peacebuilding is strongly associated with the overall objectives. Minimalist interpretations tend to inform macro, quantitative studies such as SIPRI's "Patterns of Major Armed Conflict." Micro level, small case studies more commonly attempt to measure aspects more associated with maximalist conceptions. The wide range of peace and conflict impact assessment (PCIA) methodologies that has emerged from peacebuilding practitioner work over the last decade has elaborated extensive criteria from which more maximalist approaches have been undertaken, including by some multilateral agencies. More recently, efforts have been made to better monitor peacebuilding efforts and design proper indicators, including at the UN.

Peacebuilding and its pre-conditions

Such an assessment also has to do with the discussion of the pre-conditions of peacebuilding.

Some focus on the permissive internal conditions necessary for peacebuilding and are skeptical about the feasibility of an enterprise defined as transforming post-conflict societies by addressing the foundations of violent conflict. This argument may be summarized as "peace builders should not be sent where there is no peace to build."41

For others, success would first and foremost depend on the political will and financial support of the international community. This is the view of the RAND study by Dobbins, which concludes that "among controllable factors, the most important determinant [of nation-building success] is the level of effort - measured in time, manpower, and money."42 The report also notes that "what distinguishes German, Japan, Bosnia, and Kosovo on the one hand, from Somalia, Haiti, and Afghanistan on the other, are not their levels of economic development, Western culture, or national homogeneity. Rather, what distinguishes these two groups is the level of effort the international community has put into their democratic transformations."43

The answer probably needs to be found in between these two visions. In fact, more still needs to be understood in terms of how local and international interests and efforts interact in favor - or not - of a specific peacebuilding process. Both national and international actors pursue objectives that may not be entirely compatible, both have expectations regarding the peacebuilding process in general and specific programs in particular, both have capacity and knowledge constraints, in particular in terms of absorptive capacity. All these factors need to be better assessed at the beginning of an intervention and subsequently monitored to maximize the outcome of the interaction for all.

Peacebuilding as liberal peace and its critics

Another central topic in the debate is the normative basis of the currently prevailing conception of peacebuilding - that is, peacebuilding as political liberalization (democracy-building) and economic liberalization (market economies). The current international approach to peacebuilding is deeply embedded in a particular Western liberal paradigm of how the political and socio-economic world should operate. This particular normative framework, however, is often couched in terms of seemingly evident universal values. In attempts at socio-political engineering, Western actors have actually sought to recreate their political and economic systems in post-conflict societies. In the field of peacebuilding there is a widely shared, though rarely articulated, assumption that peace would resemble the "liberal peace" - what Oliver Richmond has called the "peacebuilding consensus."44 Whether this pursuit of "liberal peace" in fact contributes to real peace in post-conflict societies is a central and contentious topic in the field today. An increasing number of scholars have argued that the "liberal peace" project may actually undermine the consolidation of peace in post-conflict societies.45 Critical perspectives are particularly evident within Africa, Asia, and Latin America.46 Some of these criticisms have been validated by empirical studies that show how concepts such as "peace" and "rule of law" are far from being self-evident and universal, but are products of particular historical developments and expressions of particular worldviews and social relations.

All of this has multiple practical consequences when designing or implementing a specific program. On security, politics, justice or economy alike, the "liberal peace" model is increasingly challenged and the debates among scholars and practitioners show that ideological choices translate in very concrete decisions about the models of governance, the objectives assigned to specific projects, the nature of the actions, the beneficiaries or the methods of intervention. This is true for every single component of peacebuilding programs.

24Barnett, et al., "Peacebuilding: What Is in a Name?," 44.
25Dan Smith, Towards a Strategic Framework for Peacebuilding: Getting Their Act Together: Overview of the Joint Utstein Study of Peacebuilding, (Commissioned by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRIO-International Peace Research Institute, 2004), 10-11.
26Mary B. Anderson and Lara Olson, Confronting War: Critical Lessons for Peace Practitioner, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Collaborative for Development Action, 2003), 89.
27Beatrice Pouligny, Simon Chesterman and Albrecht Schnabel, eds. After Mass Crime: Rebuilding States and Communities (Tokyo/New York/Paris: United Nations University Press, 2007), 15; see also: Beatrice Pouligny, Peace Operations Seen from Below: UN Missions and Local People (London: Hurst / Bloomfield (CT): Kumarian Press, 2006).
28Call and Cousens, "Ending Wars and Building Peace," 2.
29Eva Bertram, "Reinventing Governments: The Promise and Perils of United Nations Peace Building," The Journal of Conflict Resolution 39, no. 3 (September 1995): 388-9.
30John Covey, Michael J. Dziedzic, and Leonard R. Hawley, eds., introduction to The Quest for Viable Peace: International Intervention and Strategies for Conflict Transformation (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2005).
31Toshiya Hoshino, "The Peacekeeping Equation: Human Security and Peacebuilding," Gaiko Forum (Winter 2007): 24.
32OECD DAC/CDA, Encouraging Effective Evaluation of Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Activities: Towards DAC Guidance (2007), 49-50; Alex Austin, Martina Fischer and Oliver Wils, eds., Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment: Critical Views on Theory and Practice (Berghof Center for Constructive Conflict Management Dialogue Series, 2003); Christopher R. Mitchell, Conflict, Social Change, and Conflict Resolution: An Enquiry (Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, November 2005).
33Pouligny, et al., After Mass Crime: Rebuilding States and Communities, 1-16, 273-4.
34Nicole Ball, "The Challenge of Rebuilding War-Torn Societies," in Turbulent Peace: The Challenge of Managing International Conflict, ed. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2005), 619.
35Barnett, et al., "Peacebuilding: What Is in a Name?," 44-45.
36Carolyn McAskie (Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support), "The International Peacebuilding Challenge: Can New Players and New Approaches Bring New Results?" (Lloyd Shaw Lecture on Public Affairs, Dalhousie University, Canada, November 2, 2007).
37Barnett, et al., "Peacebuilding: What Is in a Name?," 44-45.
38Pouligny, Peace Operations Seen from Below: UN Missions and Local People, op.cit.
39Lund, "What Kind of Peace is Being Built? Assessing the Record of Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, Charting Future Directions," 27-28.
40Tschirgi, "Post-Conflict Peacebuilding Revisited: Achievements, Limitations, and Challenges," 9; Covey et al., eds., The Quest for Viable Peace: International Intervention and Strategies for Conflict Transformation, introduction.
41Bertram, "Reinventing Governments: The Promise and Perils of United Nations Peace Building," 415.
42James Dobbins, et al., America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2003), 165.
43Ibid., 161.
44Oliver P. Richmond, "The Globalization of Responses to Conflict and the Peacebuilding Consensus," Cooperation and Conflict 39, no. 2 (2004): 129-150.
45See, for example, Roland Paris, At War's End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Michael Barnett, "Building a Republic Peace: Stabilizing States after War," International Security 30, no. 4 (Spring 2006): 87-112; Michael Pugh, "The Political Economy of Peacebuilding: A Critical Theory Perspective," International Journal of Peace Studies 10, no. 2 (Autumn/Winter 2005): 23-42; Chandra Lekha Sriram, "Justice as Peace? Liberal Peacebuilding and Strategies of Transitional Justice," Global Society 21, issue 4 (October 2007): 579-591.
46See, in particular, Alejandro Bendana, "From Peace-Building to State-Building: One Step Forward and Two Backwards?" Centro de Estudios Internacionales, Managua, Nicaragua (Presentation "Nation-Building, State-Building and International Intervention: Between 'Liberation' and Symptom Relief," CERI, Paris, October 15, 2004); Sabine Kurtenbach, "Why Is Liberal Peace-building So Difficult? Some Lessons from Central America," GIGA Research Unit: Institute of Latin American Studies, no. 59, (September 2007); Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake, "The International Post/Conflict Industry: Myths, Market Imperfections and the Need for a New Reconstruction Paradigm," International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka,; Murithi, Tim, "African Approaches to Building Peace and Social Solidarity," African Journal on Conflict Resolution 6, no. 2 (2006): 9-34.

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