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We need more clarity about the ‘peace’ that peacebuilding aims to build.

January 14, 2023

The UN and other parts of the international aid system are re-emphasising their important peacebuilding role. This matters, as peacebuilding is needed more than ever, and it can’t be left to specialist peacebuilders alone. But the process risks being stymied by a lack of clarity about what ‘peace’ looks like in practice, and therefore how to get there. In this article I propose a simple, generic and adaptable solution.

An increased emphasis on peacebuilding

There has been a welcome resurgence of emphasis in the peacebuilding mission of the United Nations and its Member States and Organisations, over recent years. This commitment has been reflected in UN and Member State policies such as Sustaining Peace and Pathways for Peace, which define an overarching commitment to building peace in line with SDG16, and more broadly across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are supported by specific policies such as UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2250 on Youth Peace and Security (YPS), the longstanding Women Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, and by individual Member State commitments.

Many technical UN organisations have formally adopted peacebuilding within or alongside their core strategies. Donor agencies increasingly require programmes to be designed with an awareness of conflict dynamics, and contribute to peace (i.e. be ‘conflict sensitive’). The International Financial Institutions have also adopted policies for conflict-affected settings, such as the Fragility, Conflict and Violence Strategy of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund’s Strategy for Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries. The aid community has committed to implementing the Humanitarian, Development and Peace Nexus (HDPN), designed to minimise silos and help programmes succeed in fluid and evolving situations.

All this matters, because the number and intensity of conflicts across the world has been on the rise for some time; because geopolitics has become less stable on a macro scale; because far too many people carry grievances about being unfairly excluded from the benefits of development; and because of the security implications of environmental degradation, among other stresses. It also matters because sustainable peace needs all hands to the pump, rather than being left only to peace specialists, who are too few in number and are under-resourced. Hence it’s important that UN and other agencies contribute significantly to building peace.


It is early days yet, and perhaps too early to expect to see significant evidence of the impact of these changes, whether locally, nationally or regionally. Nevertheless, concerns have been raised within the peacebuilding community about whether this widespread adoption of the language of peacebuilding is leading to a genuine change in the way these organisations do business. Some commentators have suggested that, beneath the new rhetorical dressing, most organisations are in fact continuing with business as usual. In other words, adopting the uniform of peacebuilding, but not its practice. This is partly about the need to provide more funds and in new ways. It is also about the difficulty of converting agencies which have evolved to perform specific tasks, to adapt their technical and cultural approaches so as to embrace peacebuilding. This will only happen if the challenges to change are addressed in terms of individual motivation, knowledge and skills, new organisational strategies, effective leadership, and a more conducive organisational and sectoral environment.

Progress can of course be tested by looking at what activities are being carried out, and whether or not they differ substantially from what the agencies were doing before. Because the adoption of peacebuilding clearly requires a visible and substantive change in the way they work. This is because peacebuilding actions are designed to achieve recognisably different ends than ‘development’ or ‘humanitarian’ actions. For example, a developmental education project might focus on improving sustained education outcomes for girls; a humanitarian education project might focus on providing continuity of education services to internally displaced children; whereas a peacebuilding approach to education would be designed specifically to address either the identified causes of conflict, and/or to contribute to an agreed understanding of how peace might be sustained. Obviously it would be designed specifically for the context. But to take an example, one might expect to see an education programme in a conflict-affected context designed to increase education attendance and outcomes among marginalised communities, where their marginalisation has been identified as one of the causes of conflict. And it might also emphasise the involvement of parents and other community members in school management, as a way to improve their sense of empowerment and ownership, since these qualities are often seen as critical to sustaining peace.

Peace: a broad church, yes, but is it too vague?

One of the curious features of the adoption of peacebuilding among UN and other institutions is that they all-too-frequently fail to declare adequately what they mean by ‘peace’. In a context where many staff and other stakeholders of these organisations may be unclear what they are newly being asked to do, this can be a problem. It means they don’t have a clear understanding of what’s required of them, and in the absence of such, many will be tempted to carry on with what they do know and understand: in other words, business as usual. At a very practical level, this lack of clarity also creates a problem for accountability and monitoring and evaluation (M&E): if we haven’t agreed on what we are aiming for, how can we be held to account for making progress towards it?

This is doubly problematic because ‘peace’ is a fairly vague concept for many; and where they do apply a more specific definition, it can be incomplete, or even in some cases downright unhelpful. Often, peace is seen simply as equating to bringing violence to an end and restoring stability. But this misses the important element of ‘positive peace’—i.e. the sustained presence of factors, behaviours and institutions within and between societies that prevent further outbreaks of violence and enable effective co-existence. After all, half of all armed conflicts between 1989 and 2018 recurred, and one in five recurred three or more times. Mere stability—important though it is—often masks the persistence of grievances and other problems that risk creating further conflicts in the future. For the UN and other major multilaterals meanwhile, peace is often written about in terms of ‘conflict prevention’ or ‘post-conflict recovery’, and this terminology can also draw attention away from the need to promote positive and sustainable peace. Worse, for all too many actors, ‘peace’ is defined in terms of their own victory over others, or of maintaining a status quo from which they and their constituents benefit disproportionately, at the expense of others.

Towards an agreed definition of Peace

Of course, peace is not just a technical issue. On the contrary, it is highly political and therefore highly contextual. This can make it hard to strive for definitions that combine integrity and clarity, because some people or groups may have good reason to shy away from an objective and accurate narrative, especially if it threatens their interests as they perceive them. This is why peace making and peacebuilding are so often approached through a lens of ‘strategic ambiguity’. It is true that this approach can create the kind of ‘big tent’ that peacebuilding so often requires, bringing together different interest groups under a single banner, and seeking the kinds of compromises needed to avoid violence or bring it to a close. But this can be confusing for those not closely involved at the political level. For the staff of organisations tasked with making a contribution to peace in their programmes, it can make it hard to see clearly what is needed. This means it is all the more essential for organisations to own a simple and clear understanding—internally at least—of what kinds of things they should aim to support when they say they are building peace. With this in mind, I propose a broad, generic definition. This draws on manifold sources but has its roots in the concepts of peacebuilding we developed more than a decade ago when I worked for International Alert:

Peace is when societies are anticipating, managing or resolving conflicts non-violently, while continuing to meet peoples’ basic needs and make development progress. In practical terms, their capacity to do so can be seen as the product of three broad, interlinked and overlapping factors: the three core dimensions of peace, if you will. These reflect both the impact of peace on people and their communities/societies, but also their own active engagement in sustaining peace (which is essential, for peace requires constant nourishment from within):

NB: ‘vertical and horizontal relationships’ refer to two-way interactions and relationships between people and those in authority, and between and among people and peoples.

This concept has several advantages.

  • It is simple: easy to understand.
  • It incorporates fairness: something people tend to understand far more readily than technical concepts such as ‘inclusion’, ‘marginalisation’ or ‘equity’. (And fairness is a more realistic and achievable criterion than ‘equality’.) Sustainable peace requires that safety, stability and access to opportunity are all fairly available, and the institutions that govern and enable social cohesion should also promote fairness.
  • The concept encapsulates not just negative peace (i.e. reduced violence) but also positive peace (the construction and strengthening of habits that allow for non-violent problem resolution, and the institutions that support these.)
  • It can be applied at any scale, from village or suburb to regional or even global geopolitics.
  • It acknowledges the interaction between its three elements. Improved safety and stability create an environment conducive to improving access to opportunity and to the development of mechanisms that enhance social cohesion. Enhanced opportunities enable people to take part in these social cohesion mechanisms, and they reduce the grievances that might otherwise threaten stability and security. And social cohesion breeds trust and allows for mechanisms that improve security and provide fairer access to opportunities. A virtuous circle.

Measuring progress towards peace

This simple concept of peace can also be integrated readily with humanitarian or developmental activities, so it’s helpful in promoting the HDP Nexus, and allows agencies historically focused on humanitarian or development to adopt practical peacebuilding measures. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) can easily build social cohesion and fair access goals into its work on land management, in places where access to and use of land are sources of conflict (as is so often the case). Or the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) might help young people steer away from violently criminal or extremist pathways, alongside its existing work on young people’s sexual health. One reason this concept of peace readily enables this kind of integration is because, while its goals are reasonably clear, it is resolutely non-prescriptive regarding strategy, i.e. how to reach those goals. Thus it allows plenty of room for creative programming, linked to any number of technical development or humanitarian priorities.

This means that M&E can focus on a few core, consistent top level indicators, while developing context- and programme-specific indicators at output and even outcome level. For example, one might envisage goal indicators along the lines suggested in the table below.

This M&E model uses a combination of objectively verifiable indicators (levels of violence, levels of participation, and so on); surveys of people’s perceptions – since perceptions are so vital to stability and fairness – and thus grievances; and what we might call ‘narrative indicators’, e.g. reports of violence averted, or conflict issues resolved.

It’s also worth noting that the indicators proposed here are designed to be scalable, i.e. they can be adapted and measured locally, nationally or even internationally.

In the following table, each of the three core components of peace are considered separately. In practice, as noted above, there is considerable overlap and interaction between them, which can be taken into account in devising theories of change and M&E elements in actual peacebuilding contexts.


These ideas are intentionally simple. They have their limits. But at least they are clear. As such they, or something similar, could be used as the basis for developing a clear definition of peace, so that agencies adopting peacebuilding can explain both internally and externally what this means. This would give their staff a solid basis on which to develop creative programming approaches, to measure progress, and to be held accountable by others.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2023 6:01 pm

    Phil, good, thoughtful, post. I am grappling with definitions of peace right now for an impact project and it is no easy question. This absolutely helps us move the ball forward, definitionally. I’ll be linking it!

    We identified how/why measurement of peace is so complex in this recent piece, you might find useful:

    Have you looked at the principles work that Interpeace is putting together?

    What are your thoughts?

    I note also, that your dimensions are similar to the finance for peace initiative, though your dimensions 2 and 3 would be part of their dimension 2 (support to social peace) while they have support to political peace as a third dimension, which does beg the question of where big P peacebuilding (political peace) rests in your framework? I don’t have a bias one way or another, but I suspect people will ask.

    Still I find the Interpeace principles quite diffuse and too high level for practice. Particularly at the level of impact I’m working on. As I continue to refine ideas of how we measure peace impact, I am often confronted by the agenda-setting problem – whose peace? how sustainable is it?

    I think we have a ways to go toward measurement of peace – I am beginning to think that the metrics are unique for peacebuilding relative to humanitarian and development outcomes. More powerful metrics will work if we can ask the question of who is impacted by the peace and if verification is somehow a social process. Lives lost is an important metric, but for a sustainable (positive) peace I think we need metrics that tell us who owns the peace and is investing in it – much trickier specification.

  2. February 1, 2023 7:17 pm

    Thanks Gary, will take a look at your piece. On your question about where ‘Big P’ fits in, I feel it can be applied within my framework – or something like it. Because the framework is intentionally pitched at the level of ‘increased peace’, any action can be measured in terms of whether it has, or intends to have, an impact on the three dimensions. This includes (if you want) actions taken to make a family more peaceful, all the way up to the highest level, including political and even geopolitical. Political peace will only be sustained if there’s greater safety and stability, fairer access to opportunities etc., and improved vertical and horizontal relations, and the institutions which mediate them. Of course, political agreements include a lot of other outcomes too – which may well militate against some of these – but that doesn’t change the overall direction of travel which is needed.

    Too often, I think, the starting point for measuring progress towards peace is the actions or strategy being followed, with the main questions being ‘did it produce a result?’ But the advantage of an approach that defines peace in this way is that it allows all kinds of strategic and tactical approaches – provided they can be shown to be likely to make a contribution towards safety, stability, fair access and social cohesion as defined.

    To be honest, I don’t really know if my model is right – I am sure it can be improved hugely. I completely agree with your last point about ownership and agency. What’s key for me is: a) plant a flag that clearly says this is what we mean by ‘better’; and b) consider all strategies and approaches according to whether they are likely to move us towards the flag; and then c) measure/assess progress and adapt. Yes, all that should be done in a way that’s inclusive – and follows the Peacebuilding Principles. (The Principles for Peace are pretty good. But they are the answer to a slightly different question than mine, I think).

    Peace is a political project, and for me, politics is at its best when it’s based on a vision, rather than on ‘problem solving’. International aid and peacebuilding is far too focused on the algorithmic “frame the problem-find the solution-execute the solution-then ask has it been solved?”… Rather than ‘which direction are we headed and how might we get there?’ Easier to blog about than do, of course.

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