The Imperative of Community-Level Peacebuilding
By Colin Churchill
March 15, 2019

In conflict spaces around the world, from Colombia to Pakistan, peacebuilding programs aim to “strengthen national, community, and individual capacities to address conflict constructively.” Across all three layers of peacebuilding – national, community and individual – there is an apparent emphasis on the top and bottom layers.

At the national level, many people focus on broad, sweeping programs such as constitution writing, truth and reconciliation commissions, and security sector reform which have the appearance of being the most influential because they are the largest and most visible programs. Similarly, at the individual level, a great deal of emphasis is put on healing the trauma of conflict and repairing relations between members of opposing factions without regard for larger dynamics. The middle, community level of peacebuilding bridges the divide between the national and individual levels. This level is marked by building resilience to renewed violence by working through community issues and constructing and repairing connections between members of a community as a whole by working to include bystanders and beneficiaries. The community level can be understood as a range of activities spanning from the restructuring of a neighborhood police station that was the source of abuse during the conflict to providing a forum for members of a divided city to address their grievances and foster dialogue with their neighbors. Community level peacebuilding is an essential part of a comprehensive peacebuilding strategy aimed at constructing resilience to future violence.

Community-level peacebuilding fulfills several imperative functions. Located in the space between national and individual peacebuilding, it bridges divides between identity groups that interact on a frequent basis and moves these groups from open hostility towards one another to finding ways to work towards common goals without needless antagonization. It provides connections and a forum for people to express grievances and be actively heard by the source of the grievance. Community-level peacebuilding also endows actors, who have legitimacy in their communities, with the skills necessary to successfully mediate or arbitrate conflict.

The community level incorporates elements of both individual healing processes and national state building, thereby bridging the gap between them to address a layer of society that is under-served. For example, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC), a feature of many national peacebuilding strategies implemented in post-conflict states, attempt to reconcile perpetrators with victims by allowing both of them to give testimony about abuses committed during the conflict. They generally focus on abuses committed across the entire country or a particular region and feature testimony solely about a single city, town, village, or neighborhood for the gravest events. TRC’s allow affected groups to identify with common experiences of human rights violations that happen across a country during conflict and allow for reconciliation in a general sense between victims and perpetrators who live far away from one another. However, TRC’s do not generally provide for reconciliation between victims and perpetrators, bystanders, and beneficiaries of an area where these groups of people regularly interact. Community-level peacebuilding offers a space for individual testimony for the purpose of truth and reconciliation, but implemented on a local level. There are a number of community-specific issues outside the scope of a national TRC. For example, communities often struggle with the fact that their neighbors, while not being involved in violence and discrimination against them, knew it was happening and did nothing to defend them from it. This is a community-specific issue that is usually not addressed by a national TRC focused on documenting abuses. A community-level program similar to the a TRC would allow this breach of trust and source of anger and frustration to be aired in a constructive manner. This is only one issue among many where this type of program would address deficiencies in a national-level TRC.

On the level of individual peacebuilding, a common effort is to bring individuals from groups on opposite sides of a conflict together for a face-to-face dialogue and to share their grievances. This has been done most prominently in Israel and Palestine, where civil society organizations (CSOs) have brought together Israeli settlers with Palestinian villagers. These efforts are important, but they lack the scale of community-level peacebuilding. There is little guarantee that the effects of these programs spread beyond the people involved. A community-level version of this program might be a training-of-trainers program (ToT), where a CSO would bring together community leaders from across a post-conflict state for conflict resolution trainings and provide subsequent support for the implementation of follow-on-trainings and projects with local communities.

Peacebuilding at all levels is vital for the stability and well-being of a nation recovering from conflict. Without all three, the odds of resurging violence dramatically increase. The community level must be given the same attention and recognition as the national and individual. Peacebuilders need to think critically about ways to localize nation-wide processes and ways to scale-up individual efforts. The community level provides an invaluable contribution to the peacebuilding field. Working across these different levels will provide the most resilient conflict intervention and the greatest probability that renewed violence will not break out.

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