The ‘Local Turn’

The intervention of international actors in transitional and peacebuilding processes has significantly evolved since the end of the Cold War, from efforts primarily concerned with peacekeeping and ceasefire observations, to the more ambitious, complex, and highly involved task of (re)build- ing states (Wielders 2008: 135). In what has been termed the ‘liberal peace project,’ peacebuilding has been increasingly conceptualised as a top-down process, with the restoration of security and peace linked to state-building and governance, and technocratic tasks that focus narrowly on democratisation, economic reform, human rights and the rule of law, and development programming (Brown et al. 2010; Mac Ginty 2010: 352; Richmond 2010: 23). External actors typically play key roles, thus the liberal peace project relies on:

[N]ot just militaries, but an international civil service at large engaged variously in the building of institutions from schools to departments of justice, and reinforced by armies of ‘trainers’ who in turn engage the local population in such pedagogical exercises as gender awareness, human rights training, budgetary probity and so on. (Jabri 2010: 41-42)

While liberal peace projects, such as the Regional Assistance Mission in Solomon Islands (RAMSI), dominate policy circles and are widely praised, their top-down, state and market-centric focus attracts much critique, for example, for ‘being dominated by an elite international professional and donor network rather than locally rooted movements’ (Gready and Robins 2014: 342). Largely subsumed by ‘the liberal peacebuilding apparatus’, transitional justice is subject to similar critiques, such as that it may be ‘externally imposed and inappropriate for the political and legal cultures in which they are set up’ (Sriram 2007: 579 & 586).

In response, those critical of the liberal peace approach and its institutional, state-centric, and top-down nature of intervention point to the peacebuilding potential in recognising local, indigenous, and grassroots dynamics and practices for conflict management and peacebuilding, in what has been termed ‘the local turn’ (Bleiker and Brigg 2011; Boege 2007; Boege et al. 2008; Brown et al. 2010; Mac Ginty 2003, 2008; Mac Ginty and Richmond 2013; Gready and Robins 2014; Richmond 2011; Wallis 2012).4 Across the peacebuilding and transitional justice literature, the importance of working with local communities and cultures and recognising local capacities for peace is repeatedly reiterated: ‘Both transitional justice and peacebuilding become transformative when they emphasise the principles of local participation and empowerment’ (Lambourne 2009: 35; see also Brigg 2010; Lederach 1997; Rogers and Ramsbotham 1999; Shaw and Waldorf 2010). While necessarily varied according to each local context, advocates of what is variously termed ‘liberal-local’, ‘hybrid’, and ‘indigenous’ peace practices highlight common traits deemed to be beneficial for peacebuilding processes. These include the participation of local leaders with moral authority, greater transparency due to their public nature, greater localisation as they physically occur within affected communities, participatory and locally relevant techniques such as storytelling, reliance on local resources, and emphasis on relationships rather than definitive agreements or outcomes (Mac Ginty 2010: 349-350).

The call for greater localisation of peace processes and hybridity as an alternative to liberal peace frameworks also attract legitimate critique. Drawing on conflicts in Africa, Ware argues:

[T]he search for effective and enduring hybridity is doomed to failure both because it romanticises a past which never really existed and because, where a form of hybridity is temporarily achieved, it contains the seeds of its own destruction; and this, since it largely excludes the needs and views of three- quarters of the population, that is women and young men. Hybridity all too often means government by the grandfathers. (2014: 18)

Advocates of ‘local’ approaches to peace, state-building, and transitional justice acknowledge the limitations and challenges involved, cautioning against cultural relativism or reifying the ‘local’ as a homogenous category in dichotomy with the ‘external’, ‘liberal’, or ‘Western’ (Wallis 2012: 631). Furthermore, references to ‘customary ways’ should not be interpreted as necessarily historical practices, nor should ‘custom’ be viewed as static, ‘but remarkably dynamic and adaptable’ (Brown et al. 2010: 102; Vella 2014a: 5). Rather than denoting solely historically traditional practices, Mac Ginty proposes that at a minimum, the term ‘indigenous’ can refer to approaches ‘that are locally inspired rather than the increasingly standardised approaches to peacemaking and peacebuilding that are used by international organisations and INGOs in post-civil war environments’ (2010: 349). Finally, caution is made against romanticising local or indigenous peacebuilding practices, as they can ‘be a site of competing victims’ claims, discriminatory practices (e.g., against women) and low capacity’ (Gready and Robins 2014: 349).

Transitional justice scholars similarly emphasise the need to localise mechanisms to better adapt to or resonate with the communities in which they are being implemented (Gready and Robins 2014) and call for empirical research evaluating context-specific successes, limitations, and impacts to better inform future policy decisions (Baxter 2009; Shaw and Waldorf 2010). While there is no binding global standard or international law governing the implementation of truth commissions (Millar 2011: 179), earlier commissions have served as templates for later iterations and truth commissions increasingly share common characteristics (Millar 2011: 180). This has resulted in a set of globalised norms in their implementation and a risk of over-standardisation in their establishment (ICTJ 2014). Faced with a lack of comprehensive comparative studies and datasets, Hayner suggests:

For better or worse, our assessments of the impact of truth commissions will have to continue to include qualitative, case-specific comparisons in order to fully understand the dynamics, the possibilities, and the limitations of these often contentious bodies. (2011: 26)

As international interventions in the form of ‘peacebuilding’ or ‘transitional justice’ escalate and diversify, so too do the methods of research and evaluation considering their impact. Critical scholars warn that evaluations of peacebuilding interventions are often based on measures irrelevant to the local context and can be unequivocally accepting of the underlying conceptions of project funders, planners, and administrators (Millar 2014: 15). Millar (2014) emphasises that an understanding of the local context is necessary to evaluate the effects of peacebuilding interventions and proposes an ethnographic approach that considers local perceptions and experiences of conflict, justice, security, development, empowerment, dignity, opportunity, and peace itself. This, he argues, must be the starting point for any further theory or international action: ‘Ethnographic evaluation is therefore key not only to understanding what has been done, but to considering what to do in the future’ (Millar 2014: 16).

In a similar vein, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects employed ‘listening’ as a research method for their study of international assistance efforts (CDA 2010: 1). The authors explain the value of listening for understanding local perspectives of aid and development, contending foreign workers in peacebuilding ‘can learn a great deal by listening to the experiences, analyses and suggestions of local people as they reflect on the immediate effects and long-term impacts of such international efforts’ (CDA 2010: 1). The researchers found people across diverse locations explained that no-one had asked for their opinion on aid like this before, or that this was the first time that representatives of international NGOs had talked to them like this: ‘People are happy that someone wants to listen to them and they willingly share their experiences, appreciation, and suggestions of how agencies and their could improve the effectiveness of their efforts’ (CDA 2010: 2).

Considering that ethnography ‘is hardly a novel practice’, Milne questions why it has been largely unrecognised in peace and conflict studies (2010: 76). Richmond (2010: 14) similarly notes that broader approaches to peacebuilding, including research methods such as ethnography, ‘tend to be relatively marginalised in a discipline and policy domain dominated by mainstream realist, liberal, and neoliberal theories’. Milne attributes the discord to the Tensions between ethnography and peacebuilding, pointing out that ‘even a casual glance reveals that the “theoretical leanings” of ethnography and the “methodological predispositions” of conventional conflict theory are pulling in opposite directions’ (Milne 2010: 76). Specifically, the in-depth and ‘atomistic’ nature of ethnographic research makes it difficult to generalise and employ in peacebuilding policy discourses, which rely on general knowledge and ‘best practice’ (Milne 2010: 77).

Yet peace practice and transitional justice efforts globally are marked by disconnections between international norms or ‘best practice’ ideals and local priorities and realities. And, as already noted, scholars and practitioners regularly argue that more in-depth and localised understandings are needed. Empirical and ethnographic approaches to peacebuilding evaluations eschew the reliance of liberal peace projects on standardised theories and purported ‘best practice’: ‘by offering insight into the “local”, ethnography can support attempts at rediscovering the “original” ambitions of peacebuilding, conceived as a bottom-up, emancipatory and empowering process’ (Milne 2010: 90). As Milne (2010: 83) warns, however, for such critiques to be utilised in peacebuilding discourse, they must be acknowledged by policymakers and practitioners—an endeavour made difficult by ‘the unwavering righteousness regarding certain cornerstones of peacebuilding, such as human rights and democracy, whose presumed timeless universality is seen as justifying the problematic practice of top-down enforcement’. The tensions and friction resulting from the effort to adhere to a human rights discourse and global expectations of gender sensitivity in the Solomon Islands TRC will be illustrated further below.

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