Adaptive Peacebuilding, a Fresh Approach to Sustain Peace: A Discussion Held at the Annual Meeting of the Academic Council on the United Nations System in Washington DC


Emerging changes in geopolitical power balances, pandemics, climate change, and the misuse of digital technology have brought further complexity into armed conflicts. Such global trends have prompted scholars and practitioners to rethink the top–down, linear, and determined-designed interventions that have dominated the domains of peace and conflict resolution over the last three decades. The United Nations proposed the Sustaining Peace Agenda in 2016 to respond to developments intersecting peace and security issues. Focally, this agenda facilitates local ownership to address the root causes of conflicts. The emergent methodology of adaptive peacebuilding complements this UN agenda by using iterative, participatory, and inductive approaches that empower local agencies to influence self-sustainable peace processes. The adaptive peacebuilding approach also emphasizes the importance of strengthening social institutions and networks of societies to help them develop the resilience, adaptive capacities, and social cohesion to keep and sustain peace.

A roundtable discussion was conducted in Washington D.C. during the 36th Annual Meeting of the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS). This forum deliberated on a recently published open-access book, Adaptive Peacebuilding: A New Approach to Sustaining Peace in the 21st Century (2023), which highlights context-specific, locally driven, and adaptive approaches adopted to manage and resolve conflicts. Cedric de Coning, a research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Rui Saraiva, a lecturer at Miyazaki International University, and Muto Ako, a specially appointed research fellow at the JICA Ogata Research Institute for Peace and Development co-edited the book under discussion. The editors introduced the book, which examines whether extant peacebuilding and conflict resolution interventions are informed by determined design or adaptive approaches.

Conceptually, adaptive peacebuilding contends that the agency of the people affected by the conflict must be maximized to achieve sustainable peace processes. The chapters of the book examine the roles discharged by varied parties involved in conflicts in Colombia, Mozambique, Palestine, Syria, and Timor–Leste and are based on layers of empirical evidence about participatory, adaptive, and context-specific approaches. The book also scrutinizes the evolving peacebuilding policies and practices of two non-Western powers, China in South Sudan and Japan in Mindanao, the Philippines.

Saraiva’s presentation illuminated that interventions conducted in Mozambique, Colombia, and Timor–Leste encompassed participatory dimensions of adaptive peacebuilding. He argued that the involvement of multiple actors, specifically individuals affected by the conflicts, enabled the internal elicitation of local ownership and peace in these communities. For instance, the Aga Khan Development Network facilitated the creation of Village Development Organizations (VDOs) in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. The VDOs helped residents self-organize, encouraged resilience and reconciliation, evaluated their projects, and garnered local feedback using a “map of dreams.” Saraiva added that the Development Programs with Territorial Focus implemented in 170 poverty and violence-stricken municipalities in Colombia similarly drove community-centric and locally-led peacebuilding efforts assisted by international cooperation agencies like JICA and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency. Saraiva further stated that the participatory nature of the suco (villages) in Timor–Leste constructed a space in which traditional leaders, veterans, women, youth, and police officers could mitigate local tensions by incorporating traditional conflict resolution practices.

Muto Ako, a specially appointed research fellow at the JICA Ogata Research Institute (right)

Next, Muto revealed her research findings, disclosing another dimension of adaptive peacebuilding in the context-specific approaches observed in Syria and Palestine. According to Muto, Syrian society was beset by regional fragmentation, divided international support, and prolonged conflict but the Civil Society Support Room and the National Agenda for the Future of Syria were established based on local needs and functioned as platforms for Syrians. Muto also mentioned that the Temporary International Presence in Hebron represented a unique international peacekeeping function in Palestine that successfully deterred violence against Palestinian residents and promoted “a feeling of security” among them.

Muto further noted that geopolitical shifts occurred after the Cold War era. Consequently, two non-Western actors, China and Japan, began shaping the peacebuilding architecture by adapting to changing global contexts. China’s intervention in South Sudan exhibited adaptive approaches by leveraging bureaucratic complexity and shifting practices. The top–down adaptive peacebuilding approach allowed dialogues to occur between the parties to the conflict. However, China’s predetermined approach to humanitarian assistance has limited its reach. Japan adopted adaptive strategies in supporting the Mindanao Peace Process in the Philippines. Muto concluded that based on the human security principles which form the cornerstone of Japan’s Official Development Assistance, Japan contributed to monitoring the ceasefire situation as a member of the International Monitoring Team, promoted comprehensive capacity development projects, and facilitated negotiations between the parties to this conflict.

Lead editor de Coning summarized the deliberations, stating that the case studies demonstrated that adaptive peacebuilding approaches were most effective when they relied on the active engagement and participation of the affected communities. Conflict-affected people tend to feel responsible for the perpetuation of the requisite peace-maintaining institutions and processes when they believe that they are involved in shaping the obtained peace.

According to de Coning, peace is a process and not an end goal realized through political agreements. The everyday experiences of people, their languages, and their notions of peace and conflict drive the actualization of accords. The international community must understand that local agencies and institutions are pivotal to lasting peace. In conclusion, de Coning asserted that international actors must ask how they can support local institutions and help them achieve their vision of self-sustainable peace rather than asking what solutions they can generate.

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