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What people say about peace

September 20, 2018

Two studies on peacebuilding were launched on the same day this week. ECDPM’s Supporting Peacebuilding in Times of Change, and the joint British Council / International Alert report of their Peace Perceptions Poll.

Support for peacebuilding
ECDPM’s in-depth, empirical research examined institutional support for international peacebuilding in the UK, Sweden, German and the EU institutions, and how this has evolved. This finds that there is an increased understanding of the need for peacebuilding approaches, and – to a degree – of those approaches themselves. It also demonstrates that the need for peacebuilding is far from diminishing. Budgetary support has grown considerably, but despite this, and a great deal of good policy rhetoric in support of peacebuilding, the levels of practical support are lagging way behind the need and opportunities. It explores the complex, mainly political and geopolitical reasons for this. And among other recommendations, it suggests peacebuilding organisations need to up their game in demonstrating the need and utility of such support.

Perceptions of peace
Which leads us nicely to the second report, on the Peace Perceptions Poll, conducted by polling firm riwi, on behalf of Alert and the British Council. This is intended not only to help shape Alert’s and the British Council’s own peacebuilding programmes, but also, in line with ECDPM’s suggestion, as a tool to widen understanding and support for peacebuilding, to which it makes an important contribution, elucidating ‘normal’ people’s views on peace and how to build it.

The research surveyed perceptions of peace in Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Hungary, India, Lebanon, Myanmar, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine, the UK and USA – a wide range of contexts with different levels of peace, and different types of conflict. The report is concise, and well worth reading, and you can even try out a small part of the survey for yourself.

Peace was most commonly described by the respondents as when people:
• experience less violence
• can resolve disputes without violence
• have the opportunity to earn a living to support their family
• experience less crime
• can vote in elections and can participate in local decision making
• can go to school.

Similarly, when asked why people fight, respondents said it was when (in order of diminishing importance) people:
• lack the means to provide for their families
• are treated unjustly
• want to improve their social status
• are driven by religious or political ideology
• lack a voice in political decisions
• are reacting to state actions, or those of armed groups.

When asked what would be most effective in creating peace, they suggested it was important to:
• Deal with the reason why people fight in the first place (29%)
• Support societies and communities to resolve conflicts peacefully (22%)
• Democratic elections (17%)
• Negotiate peace agreements (13%)
• Use the military to address violence (11%)
• International security forces (9%)

And finally, when asked to suggest what their governments should prioritise in budgets, to support peace, their responses were broadly in line with the answers to the previous question, with over half saying either ‘deal with the reason why people fight in the first place’ or ‘teach peace, tolerance and conflict resolution in schools’.

All this adds up to a definition of peace and peacebuilding pretty close to what experts would say. Or, to put it another way: what the experts say seems to reflect what people across society think about peace. Whether you consult the international Peacebuilding and State building Goals, International Alert’s own peacebuilding framework, or the UN’s recent work on Sustaining Peace, they all say that peace is about more than simply bringing the latest manifestations of armed violence to a close: we must go further by promoting positive peace, through greater fairness, improved governance, wider economic participation and a greater sense of well-being and status for people from across society – just as the peace perception poll respondents also said.


Covering so many different contexts as the research does, one has to be careful to generalise too much from its results. However, there are some broad lessons we can draw from the poll. Attending the launch of the Peace Perceptions Poll in London last night, three implications in particular came to mind.

The first was that the poll data reinforce the idea that peacebuilding is of necessity a long-term endeavour. All of the reasons given in the poll for why people fight are structural in nature – i.e. in Christopher Clapham’s very practical definition of “structural”, they are “very hard to change”. And all the solutions to conflict suggested by respondents are political in nature. But the very fact that armed violence is happening means politics have failed. Indeed, politics in any context generally emerges from and thus sustains the status quo. Thus we have a conundrum: if politics supports the status quo, and the status quo has led to violence, how do we break the cycle so that a peaceful politics emerges?

Peacebuilding does have good answers to this question, and many of these were reflected in respondents’ views. Ultimately, if politics is “civil war by other means”, as David Armitage suggested in his recent book about civil war, then politics must change, for peace to be sustained. This kind of transformation can be supported by outsiders but it certainly can’t be imposed, and must be driven by local people and circumstances. It is clear that this kind of change will take a long time if it succeeds at all – and will be subject to setbacks. And, as the ECDPM report demonstrates, political institutions in donor countries have a limited appetite for long term initiatives, especially those with uncertain outcomes…

Secondly however, peace is built not just by self-described ‘peacebuilders’, but by many others too; and peace can be built not just by ‘peacebuilding’ seen as a separate discipline, but by many other means. Judging from what poll respondents suggested, it can be built by community members and leaders, by politicians and diplomats, by teachers and writers, by bankers and business people, and many others. This means multiple efforts can be undertaken simultaneously, something International Alert argued last year has been critical to successful peacebuilding processes.

And this brings me to my third implication: that the institutions in the EU and elsewhere which ECDPM say should provide more support for peacebuilding, have many opportunities through which to do so. They can integrate peacebuilding goals into their participation in setting multilateral regulations and norms; into the development and humanitarian projects they fund; and into the way their companies do business abroad. And they can tailor domestic policies ands legislation with peace outcomes in mind.

All they need do, is ensure they articulate outcomes and goals in terms of one or more of: helping people resolve disputes without violence, increasing people’s opportunity to earn a living to support their family, reducing crime, promoting elections and greater participation in local decision making, and increasing access to a decent education which encourages critical thinking and mutual respect. It is hard to see how anyone could fail find a way to contribute to at least one of these outcomes in conflict-affected places at home or abroad, through their domestic or international initiatives.

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