Putting Local Peacebuilders First

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Bridget Moix serves on the board of Peace Direct USA and is a research fellow at George Mason's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR).

Floribert Kazingufu founded the Chirezi Foundation to "build peace and change lives " in South Kivu.

Think global, act local is a bumper sticker the peacebuilding field would do well to take to heart. By supporting locally-led approaches to peacebuilding in specific conflict situations and as an overarching goal globally, we can create more effective and sustainable processes for positive change while ensuring our field remains true to its core principles.

Since 1998, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been caught up in a cycle of conflict that has enriched armed militias and impacted neighboring countries. In the process, DRC communities have suffered a range of abuses and found themselves with largely ineffective local justice mechanisms. In the South Kivu province, however, some communities are taking a different approach to addressing the difficult issues of accountability, justice, and peacemaking. Since 2010, a local Congolese organization, Fondation Chirezi (FOCHI), has taken an innovative approach to help fill this void.

FOCHI’s primary focus is to ensure swift, accessible, and free justice to rural village populations. Staff and volunteers work with local communities and within traditional structures to establish community peace courts called barazas. Baraza is a Swahili word meaning gathering and suggests an open approach based on restorative rather than punitive processes of justice and truth-seeking. Barazas are created in rural villages with little access to other justice mechanisms and provide a space for resolving conflicts through dialogue, mediation, and reconcili­ation. A FOCHI innovation, they integrate traditional processes and local knowledge into their approach.

The use of peace courts in peacebuilding is not a recent innovation, but FOCHI has developed a unique process for integrating women into the justice process. First establishing a mixed-gender peace court supported by male community leaders, FOCHI then created an all-female peace court to encourage women to come forward with cases of sexual and domestic violence. Cases are brought to the court and resolved by the baraza leaders, and the special women’s courts provide confidential services for crimes such as marital rape. In these cases, women often prefer non-traditional forms of justice: rather than send her husband to jail, leaving her defenseless and without income, a woman may opt for him to live with a neighbor, returning daily for housework and childcare.

The community also organizes reconciliation ceremonies to eliminate lingering roots of hatred, achieving resolution communally. As the barazas are increasingly integrated within South Kivu communities, they have become a focus for livelihood development, including microfinance, as well.

In reducing violence and increasing collaboration, trust and empowerment within communities and also between villagers — ex-rebel fighters, local leaders, and authorities — becomes paramount, and the barazas have had a positive impact where many other donor-driven projects have failed. Those involved with the program cited access to justice and empowerment of women as the most significant changes. To date, 90 percent of the 1,500 cases brought to the barazas have been resolved, a number that holds up admirably against the results of formal justice systems often favored by donor funds (see the program evaluation here).

Recent research and policy discussions in the United States and at the United Nations are raising attention to the problems created by externally-driven peacebuilding efforts that lack adequate local knowledge, undermine or drain local leadership, and fail to advance sustainable change beyond immediate crises. The development field has become so dependent on external funding and donor-driven approaches that even the best intentioned efforts to support locally-led approaches are caught in a system already designed to operate from the outside, in.

As the baraza courts in South Kivu demonstrate, however, when local peacebuilders are empowered to lead in designing and implementing programs, they reduce violence and advance positive change in powerful and lasting ways. And these results are achieved at very little cost: for example, $27 to resolve a case through the baraza initiative versus around $1,000 in the courts.

Locally-led peacebuilding is not simple. The challenges of scaling up community-level efforts are significant, and we are only beginning to find ways to support and evaluate such impacts. Reshaping relationships between international actors and local peace­builders will also require careful listening and new modes of cooperation, committed time, and dedicated resources. But it is possible. Our partnership between the Chirezi Foundation and Peace Direct USA is one example.

Our shared vision of a more peaceful and just world demands we ensure that local peace­builders are at the center rather than the margins of designing and creating positive futures for their communities. This will require determined effort, concrete policies, and practical solutions from our field and it may also require a fundamental flip in the direction the peacebuilding world is now headed.

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