Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers patrol the violence-torn slum of Bel Air in Port-au Prince, Haiti (AP Photo/Kent Gilbert).
Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers patrol the violence-torn slum of Bel Air in Port-au Prince, Haiti (AP Photo/Kent Gilbert).

Contemporary peacebuilding is, if not in crisis, at least at a crossroads. Over the past decade, the dominant liberal peacebuilding model – premised on the promotion of human rights, democracy, free markets and the rule of law in war-torn environments – has come under increasing challenge as being ineffective, inappropriate, or downright imperialist. On purely empirical grounds, the failure of the liberal peacebuilding toolkit to decisively shift societies as diverse as Afghanistan, Bosnia, or Haiti from violence to sustainable peace, raises profound questions about the means through which contemporary peacebuilding is pursued. In short, the liberal peacebuilding model has been exposed as being overly-optimistic, even naïve, about the transformative impacts of introducing liberal, democratic institutions into complex, damaged and deeply-divided societies. At the same time, however, while the critique of the so-called "liberal peace" has revealed much that is wrong with the contemporary practice of peacebuilding, it has yet to offer a coherent, compelling alternative.

This blog – and the broader research project from which it emerges – represents CIGI’s contribution to helping think through some of the practical implications of moving beyond the simplistic assumptions of the liberal peacebuilding model and towards a more constructive form of engagement with societies struggling to find a sustainable path to peace. While this is a vast research agenda, we are particularly interested in exploring the practical possibilities for a form of "vertically-integrated" peacebuilding, one in which top-down, internationally-driven (and financed) peacebuilding efforts are more closely aligned not only with host-government priorities but also with bottom-up peacebuilding efforts taking place at the community level.

While the language of horizontal integration – particular among the range of United Nations bodies involved in peacebuilding activities – has become fashionable in recent years (especially with the establishment of the UN Peacebuilding Commission), in our view, vertical integration represents a challenge of equal urgency, not least because one of the key shortcomings of liberal peacebuilding lies in its persistent inability to penetrate beyond the level of state institutions or elite-level actors. In this sense, bridging the gap between the top-down and the bottom-up represents, for us, one of the key challenges facing contemporary peacebuilding.

In the coming weeks and months, our blog posts will explore the macro-level policy dilemmas facing UN agencies and other multilateral peacebuilders as they struggle to engage with not only states, but also societies, emerging from violent conflict. Our posts will also offer bottom-up perspectives – based on ongoing fieldwork in both Haiti and Sierra Leone – on the challenge of bridging the gap between top-down and bottom-up perspectives, projects and priorities. On Haiti, Geoff Burt will reflect on his work exploring the troubled interface between an ongoing UN-led police reform effort and the myriad local-level programs and projects carried out in the name of community violence reduction, all in the context of rising levels of insecurity. On Sierra Leone, Mike Lawrence will similarly reflect on the dynamics of youth integration – one of the centerpieces of Sierra Leone’s integrated peacebuilding strategy – and on the various roles played in this area by international actors, the government of Sierra Leone and local civil society.

Our overall objective is to add policy substance to the emerging debate on improvements, or alternatives, to the existing liberal peacebuilding paradigm.  While the discourse around peacebuilding has evolved – concepts such as hybridity and local ownership are now accepted as part of the contemporary commonsense of peacebuilding – it remains far from clear how the changing language of peacebuilding will be, or should be, translated into actual practice. By exploring the interplay among the local, the national, and the international in contemporary peacebuilding contexts, we hope to begin to make sense of some of these trends and, ideally, point to some constructive ways forward.  We welcome your feedback… 


It remains far from clear how the changing language of peacebuilding will be, or should be, translated into actual practice.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • Timothy Donais is an associate professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Wilfrid Laurier University's Department of Global Studies. An international security expert, he is currently leading a collaborative research project on vertical integration and the United Nations peacebuilding architecture.