Explore More »

Peace from the Bottom Up: Strategies and Challenges of Local Ownership in Dialogue-Based Peacebuilding Initiatives

Lauren Reese wrote “Peace from the Bottom Up: Strategies and Challenges of Local Ownership in Dialogue-Based Peacebuilding Initiatives” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. The research essay was first published in Shifting Paradigms (Humanity in Action Press 2016). The complete book is available for purchase on Amazon.


As a student of peace studies and advocate for social justice and diversity, I have always valued dialogue as a tool for social change. I have facilitated and participated in dialogues that helped unpack individual biases and deconstruct structural inequalities with the aim of positively transforming the structures around us. In addition to cultivating a critical lens for power dynamics and identity politics in society, I have learned to turn this lens on myself and appreciate how my privileges, perspectives, and identities impact the work that I do. As I pursue a career in international affairs, I have occasionally wondered if there is a place for my social justice values in the field of realist power politics, laissez-faire economics, and national security. However, the field of international conflict transformation and peacebuilding offers opportunities to apply a critical lens to power dynamics and the role of identity in the resolution of violent conflict.

A growing trend in peacebuilding is an appreciation for how power asymmetry and inequality between international actors and in-country civil society organizations impact the conflict transformation process. This recognition in the field has contributed to the development of strategies by international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to promote local ownership of peacebuilding initiatives. In my quest to identify approaches to integrate social justice ethos into the practice of international affairs, I interviewed dialogue and peacebuilding practitioners from four international conflict management organizations on best practices to encourage local ownership and challenge the power asymmetries inherent in foreign interventions. This article draws on those interviews to highlight innovative approaches and common challenges to dialogue-based peacebuilding initiatives in Myanmar, Burundi, Nepal, and Somalia.

Similar to the international development field, “local ownership” has emerged as a common priority for international peacebuilding programs. As Hannah Reich writes in an article for a German conflict management organization, the Berghof Foundation, local ownership priorities suggest a “reorientation of approach that more highly values the need for home-grown solutions to conflict problems and for partnerships to be locally driven.” (1) In addition to increasing the effectiveness and sustainability of conflict transformation efforts, the prioritization of bottom-up strategies for peacebuilding seeks to challenge the top-down paradigm of international interventions by third-party actors. This paradigm is marred by asymmetrical power relations between Western, international NGOs with donor funding and local actors who lack resources, but hold a wealth of community knowledge that is valued by third-party interveners.

Swisspeace, Interpeace, the Berlin Center for Integrative Mediation (CSSP), and the Berghof Foundation are examples of international conflict management organizations that prioritize local ownership in their programming and employ various strategies to design and implement dialogue-based peacebuilding initiatives through thoughtfully planned partnerships with civil society organizations.

Local Ownership Strategies: Best Practices and Challenges

Prior to their engagement in Myanmar, swisspeace, “a practice-orientated peace research institute” based in Bern, Switzerland, assessed the sociopolitical dynamics in-country to inform their approach to support local dialogue-based peacebuilding initiatives. (2) Swisspeace characterizes the current situation in Myanmar society as a nexus of three parallel transitions, “a transition from a military to a civilian government, from armed conflict with ethnic groups toward peace, and a transition from a closed to an open economy,” further compounded by a resurgence of intercommunal violence. (3)

Since the establishment of the elected government of President Thein Sein in 2011, this period of transition has attracted a range of international organizations and donors “particularly prone to producing quick fixes, unsustainable projects, and…ad hoc solutions and activities,” in the scramble to engage in the economic and democratic opening of Myanmar society. (4) An interviewee from swisspeace explained that, for this reason, the organization was reticent to be just another international organization engaged in Myanmar. Instead, they intentionally pursued devising a strategy for better engagement with local communities that would not repeat the mistakes of other peacebuilding organizations in Myanmar or other post-conflict environments. (5)

In an attempt to avoid the design of an unsustainable international intervention in an oversaturated environment, swisspeace piloted the “light footprint approach” in Myanmar. Instead of establishing a program office or official project, swisspeace sent their experts to a partner organization to support peacebuilding initiatives developed based on local priorities. (6) The team members of swisspeace provided consultative services to the local organization, the Nyein Foundation, for its existing community dialogue initiatives. These initiatives aimed at “[supporting an] ongoing peace process by creating and expanding civil society-led dialogue space.” (7) This light footprint strategy was developed to ensure “local ownership….[and to make] sure that initiatives of civil society are not marginalized by larger, more expensive interventions for local actors.” (8) An interviewee from swisspeace explained that this approach, of not replacing, but strengthening local capacity, privileged the organization in terms of engendering trust and, thus, providing it with greater access within the community. (9)

Another strategy that international peacebuilding organizations employ to engage with communities and support local ownership is to partner with local universities. A swisspeace interviewee explained how the oversaturation of international actors also creates competition for partnerships with local organizations. (10) Community organizations that have the most resources, staff with relevant language skills, and monitoring and evaluation capacities that meet the specifications of international donors are in high demand from international organizations. This limits the number of “viable” partner organizations from the international organization’s perspective, but also often overwhelms the members of community organizations with the tasks determined by their international partners. Such expectations can detract from the work of local partner organizations and potentially compromise their legitimacy within their communities. While partnerships with universities do not rectify this problematic dynamic between international and local actors, it presents an alternative model to community engagement that is utilized by international peacebuilding organizations.

For example, in partnership with local universities, the international conflict management organization Interpeace engages Burundian university students in dialogue about ethnic divisions that have persisted in their society since Burundi’s Civil War and contributed to political violence, particularly around 2010. (11) As an Interpeace employee explained, this initiative seeks to transform the narratives in post-conflict Burundi, which fuel continued interpersonal and communal violence. (12) While the local university partnerships may offer programmatic capacity for Interpeace and offer a strategy for increased local ownership, the dialogue initiative’s transformative impact is limited to a particular stratum of society by engaging only university students. Those who have the privilege of attending or working at a university in a transitional society are often members of the elite. Therefore, the strategy of university partnerships could further marginalize voices from the peacebuilding process.

In addition to local partnership, international conflict management organizations encourage local ownership of peacebuilding processes by employing dialogue-based approaches that are locally relevant, culturally salient, and involve the appropriate actors to address key drivers of conflict. A common strategy to design such dialogue-based peacebuilding programs is to employ a consultative model with community members that is inclusive and participatory. For example, the Interpeace initiatives in Burundi were developed following a series of “focus groups [and] interviews…in order to understand what ordinary people believe is needed to create long-term peace.” (13) Approximately 2,700 Burundians from various strata of society were consulted in this process. The consultation revealed that transitional justice, poverty, attitudes during elections, and unemployment were among the core concerns for Burundians. (14) A Burundi team member from Interpeace explained that this consultative approach ensures that peace is owned and that solutions arise from the community itself. (15) Further, through consultations, international peacebuilding organizations can identify local leaders within a community to help identify which parties should be involved in dialogue-based conflict transformation processes.

Community consultations further enhanced the trust between community members when filming was employed. In the development of their program in Somalia, team members from the Berghof Foundation filmed focus groups in which a diverse group of community members dialogued about their hopes and concerns for the community and country under the new federalist system. Following over two decades of competing governance systems and violent conflict, the new Somali federal government of 2012 announced a strategy of federalism to unify the country under one governance structure. (16) However, this decentralized federal system of governance lacked legitimacy at the local level, because it was developed by the federal government “without any consultation of existing communal administrations.” (17) An analysis by the Berghof Foundation details, “any models of how to share responsibility and power [in Somalia] must take into account…the existence and role of clans, tribes, religious stakeholders, charismatic leaders, (former) rebels and the diaspora.” (18) The pre-program consultations by the Berghof Foundation served to highlight the community dynamics, grievances, and priorities necessary to the design and implementation of a locally relevant, dialogue-based peacebuilding initiative. Further, as a Somalia team member explained, these filmed pre-program discussions were shared with similar focus groups in other villages to encourage open dialogue and to demonstrate commonalities and shared values between communities, which also contributed to the expansion of the program. (19)

In addition to pre-program consultations, incorporating popular cultural practices into the design of conflict transformation initiatives has been a valuable approach taken by the CSSP, an organization that focuses on multi-track, dialogue-based approaches to peacebuilding. The CSSP has employed this approach in Nepal since 2012, however, the initial programs were developed to strengthen the Local Peace Committees (LPC) in 2006 after Nepal’s decades-long civil war. (20) Initially, CSSP program evaluations indicated that the LPC-focused programs were not effective in transforming conflict dynamics at the community level. Therefore, the CSSP team developed a theater-facilitated dialogue initiative to expand peacebuilding beyond the politicized LPCs and to address a specific challenge related to post-conflict transition in Nepal at the community level: the reintegration of ex-combatants and the need for community reconciliation with them.

Despite the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the signing of the 2006 peace accords, community-level healing in Nepal has not been effectively addressed by the new peace institutions, such as the LPCs, explained the CSSP interviewee. (21) A new CSSP initiative trains local community leaders and theater actors in “Playback Theater,” a dialogue and psychodrama technique for healing through storytelling. After training, ex-combatants and conflict victims from the district are brought together to discuss their lived experiences during and post-conflict with the help of a trained dialogue facilitator from the community. Local theater actors in attendance then use these stories from the dialogue to develop short plays. While “Playback Theater” is an unfamiliar concept in Nepal, a CSSP interviewee, who has substantial experience living and working with communities in Nepal, explained that theater and performance play a significant role in Nepalese culture and, therefore, was selected as relevant dialogue-based peacebuilding strategy. (22)

Another strategy in the design of locally and culturally relevant dialogue programs is to incorporate existing local dialogue structures into the international intervention. This was the approach the Berghof Foundation Somalia team used to develop its federalism program. In this program, trained local university students guide shirs, a traditional Somali clan congress for dispute resolution, as a forum to discuss the federalism model of governance within communities. During the years of government collapse in Somalia, shirs were increasingly used to solve community issues in the absence of state governance. (23) Therefore, any present peacebuilding initiative in Somalia, explained an interviewee from the Berghof Foundation, must integrate the traditional community conflict resolution structures and processes. Further, the use of shirs reinforces local ownership of the dialogue process, despite its support by an international actor.

Through local partnerships and community-informed dialogue design, international conflict management organizations aim to engender local ownership of peacebuilding processes and prioritize bottom-up solutions to conflict transformation. However, in the attempt to deconstruct the top-down paradigm of international peacebuilding, these approaches present other challenges that can jeopardize the objective of local ownership or the dialogue-based initiative as a whole. For example, in parallel with the project in Somalia, the Berghof Foundation is conducting research on the efficacy of traditional conflict transformation processes for peacebuilding, given the “renaissance of interest in indigenous, customary and traditional approaches to dispute resolution and reconciliation,” particularly in post-conflict societies. (24)

The preliminary findings of this research warn that emerging literature on local or traditional approaches to peacebuiding can “romanticize” these strategies as being more authentic or effective, while overlooking their potential limitations, such as reinforcing hierarchical or patriarchal systems of authority. (25) Further challenges arise when international peacebuilders “usurp” traditional conflict resolution tools and alter the inherent character of these processes by compelling local actors to incorporate “the language of peacebuilding as defined by powerful donors.” (26)

In addition, international peacebuilders that implement community-based dialogue programs must adapt to the priorities of their donors and associated funding structures. While this is a reality of the field, interviews with peacebuilding professionals highlighted the challenges in implementation caused by donor relationships, especially for local ownership. For example, a swisspeace interviewee explained how donors’ increased emphasis on monitoring and evaluation (M&E), impact assessments, and quantifiable results from funded programs presents unique challenges for conflict transformation programs, particularly dialogue-based initiatives. (27) The impact of such programs is more difficult to measure than economic development initiatives, for example, because the causal relationship between a dialogue program and changing cultural perceptions, decreased violence or institutional change is more difficult to determine. Further, to meet their donors’ standards, international peacebuilding organizations devote time and resources to capacity-building with their community partners and implementers in M&E skills, financial accounting, or report drafting. Such capacity-building often detracts from the substantive work and community engagement of local partners, explained a swisspeace employee, and can potentially jeopardize a local organization’s perceived legitimacy within its community. (28)

Even when programs explicitly prioritize local ownership, the strategy and financial support for community-based peacebuilding programs is subject to shifting trends among donors. For example, the growth of rhetoric around “combating violent extremism” (CVE) in the international conflict mitigation and foreign affairs community is changing the type of programs prioritized by funders. (29) While this focus has served to highlight the work of some conflict management organizations, an Interpeace team member explained that the CVE trend has required other peacebuilding organizations to incorporate more “securitized” language or approaches into their programming, potentially obscuring local priorities and alienating some community organizations. (30)

The challenges to local ownership identified by practitioners I interviewed echo those Reich presents in her article on local ownership in conflict transformation projects. She suggests local ownership is “not a practical objective within international funding and working structures which set the conditions that determine whether local ownership is attainable or not.” (31) While she questions the ability of the local ownership rhetoric to truly deconstruct the power dynamics within the conflict transformation field, Reich concedes that the discourse on bottom-up solutions to conflict serves an “important discursive function, highlighting the necessity for change in present structures and patterns of international cooperation.” (32) From a personal perspective, the strategies explained by the representatives from the Berghof Foundation, Interpeace, the CSSP, and swisspeace demonstrate the possibility of operationalizing the cognizance that power dynamics and inequalities can impede well-intentioned international engagement. As I continue in the field of international affairs, I hope to also devise strategies in my work that address and dismantle the power dynamics I represent, while also seeking opportunities to critique and transform the structures in which these asymmetries operate. 


•     •     • 


The author and editor thank Henry Alt-Haaker for his dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.

About the Author 

Lauren Reese recently completed her Master's Candidate at the American University School of International Service, where she focused on conflict management, peacebuilding, and migration. She previously worked with the US Department of State Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, evaluated security sector reform dialogue initiatives in West Africa, and designed and facilitated intergroup dialogue programs for diversity education. Reese is also a 2011 Boren Scholarship recipient for study, research, and language training in India. She is currently supporting a civil society strengthening and multi-stakeholder advocacy project with USAID in Liberia.


Reese, Lauren. “Peace from the Bottom Up: Strategies and Challenges of Local Ownership in Dialogue-Based Peacebuilding Initiatives" In Shifting Paradigms, edited by Johannes Lukas Gartner, 23-31. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2016.


1. Hannah Reich, “’Local Ownership’ in Conflict Transformation Projects: Partnership, Participation or Patronage?” Berghof Occasional Paper, no. 27 (Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, Sept. 2006), 3, accessed Jan. 31, 2016, http://www.berghof-foundation.org/fileadmin/ redaktion/Publications/Papers/Occasional_Papers/boc27e.pdf.

2. “About Us,” swisspeace, accessed Jan. 31, 2016, http://www.swisspeace.ch/aboutus.html.

3. Stefan Bächtold, Rachel Gasse, Julia Palmiano, Rina M. Alluri, and Sabina Stein, “Working in and on Myanmar: Reflections on a ‘Light Footprint’ Approach,” Working Paper Series (Bern, Switzerland: swisspeace, 2014), 5.

4. Ibid, 8.

5. Swisspeace Staff Member, Personal Interview on July 15, 2015.

6. Bächtold, “Working in and on Myanmar,” 1.

7. “Peace Process Support Program,” Nyein (Shalom) Foundation, accessed Jan. 31, 2016, http://nyeinfoundationmyanmar.org/content/peace-process-support-program.

8. Bächtold, “Working in and on Myanmar,” 11.

9. Swisspeace Staff Member, Personal Interview on July 15, 2015.

10. Ibid.

11. “Burundi: University Students Discuss Ways to Overcome Ethnic Divisions,” Interpeace, Nov. 2012, accessed Jan. 31, 2016, http://www.interpeace.org/2012/11/burundi-university-students-discuss-ways-to-overcome-ethnic-divisions/ 

12. Interpeace Program Officer, Personal Interview on July 13, 2015.

13. “Conflict Alert and Prevention Centre (CENAP),” Insight on Conflict, accessed Jan. 31, 2016, http://www.insightonconflict.org/conflicts/burundi/peacebuilding-organisations/cenap/.

14. Ibid.

15. Interpeace Staff Member, Personal Interview on July 13, 2015.

16. Building Federalism through Local Government Dialogue,” Berghof Foundation, accessed Jan. 31, 2016, http://www.berghof-foundation.org/programmes/middle-east-north-africa/somalia/.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Berghof Foundation Staff Member, Personal Interview on July 10, 2015.

20. “Nepal,” CSSP Berlin Center for Integrative Mediation, accessed Jan. 31, 2016, http://www.csspmediation.org/projects/nepal/.

21. CSSP Staff Member, Personal Interview on July 9, 2015.

22. Ibid.

23. Center for Research and Dialogue Somalia, “Traditional Governance in Somalia: South Central Somalia,” The World Bank, 2005.

24. Janel B. Galvanek and Katrin Planta, “Peaceful Coexistence? – ‘Traditional’ and ‘Non-Traditional’ Conflict Resolution Mechanisms” (Berlin: Berghof Foundation, Apr. 2015), 3.

25. Ibid. 

26. Ibid.

27. Swisspeace Staff Member, Personal Interview on July 15, 2015.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Reich, “’Local Ownership’,” 3.

31. Ibid, 7.

32. Ibid.

Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article


Washington, D.C.


Browse all content