The gates to the UN Joint Regional Field Office in Bo, Sierra Leone (Michael Lawrence).
The gates to the UN Joint Regional Field Office in Bo, Sierra Leone (Michael Lawrence).

As Tim Donais explains in his introductory post, this blog focuses largely on vertical integration as an important facet of international peacebuilding at a time of change and uncertainty in the endeavor. The concept also represents the key subject of inquiry for this project’s research trips to Haiti and Sierra Leone where we examine the interaction of peacebuilding actors at multiple levels – international, national, and local. The vertical integration concept, however, remains novel, and it is therefore important to clarify its definition, and the ways in which it can be operationalized in our research.

This project (and the concept) responds to three key principles that have emerged from the debate on the strengths and weaknesses of liberal peacebuilding. First, while international actors most often engage national-level elites, there is growing recognition that local ownership must also encompass local-level elites, non-state actors, and communities (Scheye, 2009: 37). True local ownership does not involve local assent to international programming but rather international support to locally initiated projects (Nathan, 2007: 8). Second, while peacebuilding often focuses on improving the capacity of central institutions of state (Call and Wyeth, 2008), the OECD-DAC advocates a focus on state-society relations as “the heart of statebuilding” (OECD-DAC, 2011: 11).

Finally, peacebuilding must come to terms with hybridity. Roger MacGinty (2010) argues that the outcomes of international peace operations are inevitably a mixture of external designs and indigenous forces, while Oliver Richmond (2009) argues that international peacebuilders must reach out to the local and the everyday — even when it belies liberal peace orthodoxy — in order to better manage this hybridity. Formal institutions that do not accommodate on-the-ground power structures are bound to have limited effect (Kurz, 2010). Based on these three key principles, the broad research question of this project is: how can UN peace missions engage with society, rather than just state institutions and national elites, in order to produce better peacebuilding outcomes?

The vertical integration concept offers a useful tool with which to explore this question and these three principles. Whereas horizontal integration refers to the coordination of efforts by the multiple agencies of the United Nations and its development partners,[1] vertical integration refers to the coordination and coherence of peacebuilding efforts by actors operating at different scales — international, national, and local. The concept looks beyond the more conventional relationship of international actors to the host state to also examine how international actors relate to the peacebuilding efforts of the host society. With this in mind, I propose that the concept of vertical integration can be operationalized in three different ways. The first focuses on the coordination of efforts at different scales; the second focuses on the coherence of these activities; and the third considers two divergent approaches to "peacebuilding."

Coherence and the substance of peacebuilding: This operationalization assesses the degree of consistency or variation in different actors’ understanding of what peacebuilding is in a given context. Across different scales of actors, it compares and contrasts understandings of the causes of violence, the strategy appropriate to redress them, and theories of social and political change. This operationalization also examines, as a form of power, the ability to impose a particular understanding of the problem and solution on actors with divergent viewpoints. Are bottom-up efforts pressured to significantly change their preferred understanding and strategy to gain top-down recognition and funding? Additionally, do top-down actors consult and accommodate the conflict analysis and strategic planning of bottom-up actors? Within this operationalization, an assessment of vertical integration is largely a form of discursive analysis examining similarities, divergences and power relations within the definition of problems and solutions.

Coordination and the procedures of peacebuilding activity: In a particular area of peacebuilding (reconciliation or security sector reform, for example), this operationalization looks for mechanisms and procedures that link the efforts of different peacebuilding actors during several phases of the project: initiation and objective setting; project design; project implementation and management; project monitoring and strategic adjustment; and project evaluation. This operationalization looks at how roles are assigned to various actors, identifies institutionalized flows of information and resources between actors, and seeks to locate key decision-making centres and sites of learning within these relationships. Within this operationalization, an assessment of vertical integration resembles an organizational map charting the flows of ideas, information and resources between actors at different scales. It considers who is included and who is excluded from "integrated" projects, and what roles various actors play.

Institutions and relationships: A third approach to vertical integration considers how peacebuilding initiatives balance measures targeting interpersonal relationships with those seeking to change broader social structures and institutions. Grassroots peacebuilding efforts, drawing on the conflict transformation literature, often focus on building dialogue and changing relationships between individuals and groups involved (or potentially involved) in the conflict, but often fails to scale up these efforts to change the structural causes of conflict at the level of the political system or the economy. Top-down peacebuilding measures generally target the institutions associated with these structural causes, but are often limited in their ability to reach into society and improve people’s daily lives. In this sense, vertical integration looks for a coordinated and coherent "division of labor" between bottom-up peacebuilding efforts targeting interpersonal relationships and top-down peacebuilding efforts at structural transformation via institutions.

These three operationalizations should enable the vertical integration concept to shed light on several broad and important questions about contemporary peace operations:

  • Do better peace outcomes arise from integrated efforts or an eclectic diversity of approaches? While vertical integration may be normatively appealing, this question must be approached empirically. Vertical integration may or may not be an effective or necessary characteristic of successful efforts in a given area of peacebuilding, and it may be more appropriate to some activities rather than others.
  • How does the interaction (or its absence) of bottom-up and top-down peacebuilding efforts generate hybrid outcomes that mix liberal orthodoxy with indigenous norms and institutions?
  • Can international peace operations effectively move beyond national-level engagement to productively engage host societies?


[1] The United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL), as “the first fully integrated mission led by the Department of Political Affairs,” offers a pioneering example of horizontal integration in UN peacebuilding. In Sierra Leone, “the United Nations system… has developed a new approach to peacebuilding, with a fully integrated peacebuilding strategy, the United Nations Joint Vision,” which incorporates 17 UN agencies as well as the World Bank and the African Development Bank. In its programming, the UN has “also attained a high degree of operational integration, through the establishment of common facilities and services such as joint regional field offices, a multi-donor trust fund, a joint strategic planning unit, a medical clinic, security services and a vehicle repair shop” (UNSG, 2009: 8).  

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