Peacebuilding in Burundi: how peace transitions can work

International Alert supports a series of small post-conflict initiatives in Burundi. And some of the values that motivate these are also dear to the liberal hearts of the international community.

Oliver Richmond, in his article 'Liberal peace transitions' on openDemocracy, argues that the grand liberal peacebuilding project has failed. Societies and states subjected to peacebuilding and statebuilding by the international community on a large scale – Afghanistan and Iraq spring to mind – have not been transformed, and the expected benefits have not trickled down to their people. He is right to claim that such interventions fly in the face of the lessons of history. They ignore local context and the fact that no successful precedent exists to support the hypothesis that military intervention combined with liberal economics and political institutions will work the transformation desired by the west.

But Richmond also identifies a kind of hybrid space, created by the “friction” between local dynamics and international intervention, in which creative approaches to peacebuilding may work. This chimes with the experience of International Alert (Alert), a London-based peacebuilding NGO, and I’d like to provide an example from Alert’s work in Burundi over the past 14 years, in exploration of his thesis.

When Alert was first invited to Burundi in 1995, the country had experienced another round of massacres and assassinations; tens of thousands were displaced; and there was a great deal of chaos. The country appeared riven by factions, suspicion and hatred, and to lack the trust and institutions needed to take small steps towards peace. The international community facilitated a peace deal between the elites. The accompanying package – which continues to this day – has included programmes which Richmond would likely see as typical of the international post-conflict response: peacekeeping, democratisation, economic liberalisation, demobilisation and security sector reform, etc.

But into the space created by the international peacebuilding process, Alert and others have been able to do a great deal. Working very closely with Burundians, we have implemented a number of projects which, taken together, have helped Burundians to envision and begin to put into practice a more peaceful future.

Building trust was essential, and so we identified a number of influential Burundians – army officers, judges, politicians, intellectuals – from opposing groups. We found ways to bring them together physically so that, little by little, communication could be improved between people with influence over the official negotiations, and whose engagement would be critical in building or rebuilding the institutions of co-existence in Burundian society. We began by taking them on tours to South Africa and Northern Ireland, providing them with a shared learning experience in a non-threatening environment; and then when they were ready, facilitated dialogue among them on specific topics of importance and contention. This process lasted several years – almost a decade – and created extra space within which peace might be built. Sometimes just a little space is what makes the difference.

Meanwhile some of our collaborators were telling us that the new Burundi would need to be more inclusive not only of all ethnic groups, but also of both men and women. Women had in the past had little voice, and their potential contribution to peacebuilding had been limited. So working initially with a small core group of women who we trained in peacebuilding techniques, we helped establish a cadre of emboldened and qualified women in different parts of the country who could participate in the resolution of local disputes as well as contribute to local and national political debate. This informal network has now grown into a formal nationwide collective known as Dushirehamwe, numbering several thousand women who implement a wide variety of initiatives ranging from voter education, the resolution of local land disputes triggered by the return of long-term refugees, and monitoring the UN peacebuilding strategy in Burundi.

As the official peace talks began to bear fruit, one of our local collaborators was determined to make sure Burundians were aware of and able to judge the worth of what was being discussed and decided on their behalf. With Alert’s help – financial help, advice, friendship and solidarity – he established a think-tank known as l’Observatoire d’Action Gouvernemantale (OAG) [in French] which has pioneered transparency in a political context better known for being opaque. OAG provides data and analysis – in published reports, but more importantly on the popular radio stations – to help Burundians know what their government is and isn’t doing for them; and thus perhaps, in the terms of the “liberal transition”, to become citizens rather than subjects. Recently the founder of l’Observatoire has moved on to a new project, in which he plans to use opinion polling – previously unknown in Burundi – as a tool to increase political awareness and overcome what he sees as the political passivity of many Burundians.

Coffee is Burundi’s most valuable export by volume, and the international programme for the country included a plan to liberalise the coffee sector. This had previously been dominated by the state and managed largely for the benefit of those running the state; so coffee had been very much a part of Burundi’s “conflict economy”. Reforming the sector would therefore be an important step towards peace. But reform risked provoking a backlash from ‘spoilers’ who feared they would lose out; or simply being used to provide rents for new elites. It was critical that those involved in reforming the coffee sector should do so with a thorough understanding of the risks. Alert researched this issue, and along with local partners we helped show the government and its sponsor the World Bank how to factor these risks into their plans. While by no means perfect, their plans have been developed and put into practice with a care and attention which would probably not otherwise have been the case, and with a view to broadening and deepening the participation in and ownership of not only the reform process, but also the value chain within the coffee sector.

And finally one last example, which I heard about from one of our collaborators during a recent visit to Bujumbura. Concerned with increasing corruption in Burundi, as the post-conflict economy begins to take off, and with the long-term impact of corruption on the prospects for sustainable peace, his organisation CIVIC is organising clubs scolaires in several hundred schools throughout the country. Through after school activities he aims to help revive and inculcate the positive Burundian values which he believes will underpin a sense of active citizenship in tomorrow’s leaders.

Of course Alert is not the only organisation finding creative ways to build peace. Other international organisations are active in Burundi, taking advantage of that hybrid space which Richmond identifies, and providing accompaniment, funding, analysis, solidarity, methods and ideas in support of Burundian leaders – women and men – working for peace. What sets these initiatives apart from the grand and sometimes doomed plans of the international community is that the changes they set out to achieve tend to be incremental in nature and scope; and they are led by Burundians rather than outsiders. And yet although they are primarily home-grown, they do encapsulate many of the values which the promoters of Richmond’s grand liberal transitions espouse.

Looking at the examples given in this article, we can identify many of projects so dear to the liberal hearts of the internation community: a voice for women, accountability and transparency, participation, fighting corruption, voter and civic education, and economic reform. But the difference is that they came about through a quiet partnership between a relatively small foreign NGO and local actors, sharing a vision and – critically – some of the values which are crucial to sustainable peace. In other words, many of the values at the heart of the liberal project are already present in conflict-affected societies and do not need to be imported, but rather identified and nurtured. So even if big “liberal peace transitions” fail to live up to their unrealistic expectations, we should continue to promote and support the often smaller initiatives which can thrive in post-conflict environments, and which make a small but real difference for peace.