The impact of violent conflicts on any country and its society is inevitably destructive and devastating. The effects on the state and civilians can be multifaceted from tangible injuries, killing, and damage to intangible pervasive fears and psychological traumas. Sadly, more than 1.4 billion people, including half of the world’s extremely poor people, are bound to live in fragile and conflict-affected settings with more than 65 million being forcibly displaced. These dynamics are only set to grow and are expected to cross the line of 82% growth by the end of 2030 unless the world takes appropriate measures to prevent it.
Reconciling conflicts and achieving sustainable peace have been the subjects of focus throughout the recent decade, with a number of development agencies and countries investing in them. Sustainable peace is a concept endorsed by the UN general assembly that stresses the importance of having a long-term, comprehensive vision in all responses to violent conflicts to end vicious cycles of lapse and relapse. Historical evidence and experience suggest that communities remain relatively resilient in conflict settings, providing coping mechanisms for insecurity and fragility. Thus, growing attention is being paid to the adoption of community-based approaches while dealing with conflicts.
What is a community-based approach to peacebuilding?
The community-based approach seeks to empower local community groups and institutions by expanding their direct controls over investment decisions, project planning, monitoring, and evaluation. The key to the approach is inclusive participation that creates a sense of community ownership and lays the ground for the sustainability of development interventions.
A community-based approach is a constructive tool that complements the weaknesses of public institutions, strengthens local governance, and reconnects the state with its citizens. The community-based approach facilitates the accumulation of social capital in divided societies and fosters a safe space for interaction between different groups. It can be applied in various contexts and circumstances from conflict prevention to peacekeeping and reconciliation.
Key Challenges with Community-based Approach
A community-based approach does not always result in conflict resolution or mitigation
Although the community-based approach has a great potential to contribute to sustainable peacebuilding, in practice it usually seeks to transform the relationships, facilitates collaboration between different actors, and links to broader peace strategies. Inclusive processes can promote community solidarity and the creation of social capital. However, since the dominant groups often feel threatened by a participatory approach that challenges traditional decision-making structure, they shall be resistant to changes and broader reforms in order to preserve the authority. Therefore, the community-based approach has the potential to either diffuse or exacerbate the existing conflicts.
A community-based approach does not necessarily mean greater inclusion or participation
Frequently, the community-based approach simply mirrors pre-existing social and cultural patterns resulting in further marginalization of e.g., women, poor, and other socially excluded groups as they refrain or are restricted from participation in forums. In such cases, traditionally dominant groups manage to even enhance their influence and power resulting in greater gap and inequitable societies.
A community-based approach may give rise to the risk of power concentration in the hands of the elite
Elites might be able to exercise greater control over community groups and manipulate the structure for their own benefit or political purposes. In this case, transparency can get compromised and result in power abuse from dominant groups.
Inclusive Peace Talks – The Case of Columbia
Despite being one of the more stable democracies in Latin America, Columbia has suffered protracted armed conflict. The country demonstrates the highest inequality rates in the region after Honduras with gross historical injustices and impunity. Columbia is navigating a sea of paradoxes with a blossoming culture of peace despite deep-rooted beliefs and attitudes that foster violence.
The peace agreement between the Government of Columbia and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Columbia (FARC) was reached in 2016, becoming the first peace pact to put an end to the armed conflict since the Nepalese Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006. It became a sign of hope and humanity and made the world believe in the power of dialogue and peace negotiations.
Innovations around Participation and Social Inclusion in Peace Talks
The peace processes in Columbia have been thought of as the acts of strengthening democracy where negotiations were directed towards transforming the power dynamics of the country. During 4 years of Negotiations, the Government and the FARC were able to design an agreement that responded to the claims of each party. Throughout the peace talks, Columbia developed remarkable mechanisms for participation and social inclusion. The negotiations involved all the affected groups from private and security sectors and consultants to victims to peace talks, women, and LGBTI organizations as well as ethnic minorities.
The Government and the FARC set up a number of new bodies and designated institutional mechanisms to foster public participation, identify the needs of the societies, and draft related development plans.
What could go wrong when everything goes right?
Although the peace agreement was a huge step forward for the stability of the country, Columbian society inside was left divided and polarized full of mistrust, skepticism, and opposition. In 2016, the government encountered an unexpected setback when the peace agreement got narrowly rejected in a plebiscite. Although at that time it was almost impossible to believe that anyone would campaign a ‘NO’ vote, many did. In fact, the peace supporters polled 60’000 votes less than the opposition.
As paradoxical as it sounds, the agreement that was designed with the best of intentions turned out to be a mere reflection of citizens’ fears. Those, who were directly affected by conflicts voted in favor of the pact yet others went against it. Regardless of the innovations in public participation, the society remained unconvinced. It’s worth noting that the UK Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as a president played their role in exacerbating social division.
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