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A ‘Force for Peace’? UK peacebuilding and peacemaking and FCACs

Article by Dr Alexander Ramsbotham and Dr Teresa Dumasy

December 6, 2021

A ‘Force for Peace’? UK peacebuilding and peacemaking and FCACs

UK involvement in peacebuilding and peacemaking has taken steps forwards and backwards over the last ten years. We have a better understanding of conflict, its drivers and relationship to inclusive and sustainable development. We have more tools to understand how conflict is changing and for effective peacebuilding and peacemaking responses.


However, the strategic promise in successive UK government policy documents to prevent conflict and build peace has failed to translate consistently into operational practice and impact. And there are still major gaps in our knowledge and political commitment to peacebuilding, as developments in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen tragically attest. The UK needs to acknowledge our own shortcomings and build on our strengths in order to move forward.


What have we got right and what have we got wrong, and what lessons can we draw to help the UK be a ‘force for peace’ in the coming decade? As we explain detail below, UK foreign policy needs to make three key changes in order to achieve a ‘pivot to peace’:


  1. Centre peace: peacebuilding and peacemaking should not be in competition with other UK policy priorities for fragile and conflict affected countries, but at the heart of them: addressing violent conflict is a precondition for advancing sustainable stability, not an inevitable product of other policy interventions.
  2. Boost ‘bottom-up’: local peacemaking and peacebuilding deliver – they are not luxuries or add-ons, but key components of an effective peace strategy. Local peacebuilding is severely under-resourced, however, even in comparison with more established forms of peace mediation that are already struggling for recognition and support. Resourcing it properly is the next step.
  3. Prioritise partnership: partnership is key to effective peacemaking and peacebuilding – conflict is too complex and systemic for any one country or institution to tackle single-handedly. Working authentically in local partnership is the hardest, but most important challenge for UK Government and civil society alike to achieve our peace ambitions.


Detangling the jargon: who is building and making what?

To start with, in a field rife with jargon, we need to be clear what we’re talking about. Peacemaking is about resolving violent conflict – peacebuilding about transforming its root causes and drivers. Both can help prevent conflict and are essential for peace.[1] But they are often conflated and confused with other conflict responses, such as peacekeeping, stabilisation and security – activities designed to ‘manage’ or ‘contain’ conflict.


These are all important parts of the conflict response spectrum, but lack of clarity of what approach is being used where, when, how and why is a problem. It can quickly dilute and undermine a long-term focus on tackling drivers of conflict, and on building legitimate institutions and relationships that can sustain peace. Initiatives to manage, contain, resolve and transform violent conflict can easily work against each other unless carefully strategised, managed and coordinated.


We also need to be clear who we are talking about when we refer to the ‘UK’. The 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy commits to ‘harnessing the full range of government capabilities’ to work on conflict and instability, ‘placing greater emphasis on addressing the drivers of conflict’.[2] UK Government leadership and action on peacebuilding is vital. But UK capabilities for peacebuilding reach way beyond Government, to civil society and NGOs, the private sector, academia and Parliament.


The complexity of conflicts requires imagination in terms of who can best help to resolve what across the range of UK knowledge and capabilities. But even more fundamentally, it is the people living in the midst of conflicts who are best placed to understand and transform them. They hold a wealth of (often untapped) peacebuilding knowledge and agency. Our job as the ‘UK’ is to listen and to support them. The concept of working ‘in partnership’ needs a refresh.


The UK as a force for peace – forward steps

UK policy frameworks have made important progress over the last ten years in recognising the importance of conflict prevention and resolution to sustainable development, and of inclusive dialogue and negotiation to achieve this. UK-based civil society has often worked closely with Government on the development of thinking on effective conflict response.


In 2011 the UK Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) asserted that tackling conflict and building stability is in the UK’s moral and national interest. It emphasised prevention, using evidence of what works, legitimate institutions and inclusive politics, and the need for dialogue to prevent and manage conflict.[3] BSOS gave way to the (then) Department for International Development’s 2016 Building Stability Framework, which stressed that tackling conflict ‘underpins the fight against global poverty’. It identified five ‘pillars’ of sustainable stability: fair power structures; inclusive economic development; conflict resolution mechanisms, both formal and informal; effective and legitimate institutions, both state and non-state; and a supportive regional environment.[4]


The UK has also been active in global policy. In 2015 the UK Government and civil society championed the inclusion of peace into the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – in particular Goal 16 to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies, as well as the integration of conflict and gender across the framework. The UK has played a leading role in highlighting the link between gender and conflict, and in championing the global Women, Peace and Security agenda, through four successive UK National Action Plans in 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018. These have included commitments to support women mediators, as well as to increase women’s meaningful participation in decision-making in conflict prevention and peacebuilding.[5]


UK conflict policy and guidance has sought to be more responsive to analysis and evidence of how change really happens. In 2018, the UK Stabilisation Unit – established in 2007 as a ‘centre of expertise on conflict, stabilisation, security and justice’ in the UK Government – presented policy guidance on Elite Bargains and Political Deals, which advanced UK Government thinking about how to support peace processes and political transitions in fragile and conflict affected states, based on an extensive evidence base of case studies. It emphasised the need to align peace deals with the underlying distribution of power and resources, how external support can help make deals ‘stick’, and the importance – and challenges – of including ‘elites and their constituencies’.[6]


Integrated and joint capabilities have been a growing feature of the UK Government approach – from the Conflict Prevention Pool, to the Conflict Stability and Security Fund, cross-government geographic units, and the Joint Assessment of Conflict and Stability (JACS) tool for conflict analysis. Gender has been increasingly integrated into analysis and programming. In 2020 a Mediation and Reconciliation Hub was established in the Stabilisation Unit to enhance the UK Government’s competence and contribution to peacemaking and peacebuilding. And the 2021 Integrated Review commits to a more strategic and integrated approach to tackling political and social drivers of conflict, continuing support to global efforts and developing diplomacy and tools such as mediation.


UK as a force for peace – backward steps

Alongside these advances, the last ten years have also seen negative developments, regression and inconsistency in both policy and practice. These range from cuts to aid budgets that facilitate peacebuilding, lopsided strategies and capacities, compressed timeframes and overly securitised responses to conflict, despite the call for an urgent focus on inclusive approaches to conflict prevention by the UN and World Bank in 2018.[7]


Commitments on paper to peacebuilding and peacemaking have not been sufficiently nor appropriately resourced in practice. This is not just a problem for the UK. Globally, peace is chronically under-resourced, even within wider shortfalls in development funding and capacity.[8] It is hard to get support for building peace capacity given the timeframe for making and building peace is years and decades, rather than months. The results of peace efforts are also notoriously difficult (but not impossible) to measure – and to claim credit for. Most recently, in 2021 the Government reduced the budget for the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) by £492 million, of which at least £348.9 million was Official Development Assistance (ODA).[9] And in 2020 the Government decided to reduce ODA from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income – shortly after announcing an increase in defence spending of over £16 billion.


There are policy tensions between UK aspirations for national security and peace. As others have noted, these are evident in UK defence and security investments in the capabilities of state partners, despite the fact that their repressive behaviour can put civilians at greater risk (think Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and that state-based violence is the cause of the majority of conflict deaths.[10] UK counter-terrorism laws and sanctions can also clash with peacebuilding and conflict resolution objectives, for example when the listing of armed groups as ‘terrorists’ constrains third party contacts to explore scope for reducing violence and for finding political solutions to conflict.[11] In this and other areas, the peacebuilding and conflict prevention intent in UK policy and legislation is ambiguous or lacking, making it difficult for peace objectives to win through other policy trade-offs. The risk, and often reality, is that UK security interventions can at times undermine rather than strengthen the potential impact of peacemaking and peacebuilding, and at worst exacerbate conflict.


In addition, the more recent acknowledgement in government strategies of exclusion as a driver of conflict – and of inclusion as a driver of peace – is not reflected in the attention to and resourcing of peacemaking and peacebuilding capacity at multiple levels of society. Many people maintain an old-fashioned view of peacemaking as an external mediator brokering formal talks between governments and rebels. Political attention and resources tend to focus on this. But conflicts are evolving all the time, bringing an increasing range of challenges, such as the proliferation of armed groups, cross-border conflicts, gender-based violence, misinformation, and localised conflicts. Peacemaking capacity too is changing fast: diverse women and youth are active in mediation, including at local levels; and we are seeing increasing prevalence of private diplomacy and digital mediation. This less conventional, but essential range of peacebuilding capacity gets comparatively less attention and support.


UK as a force for peace: a forward jump?

How could the UK, drawing on all its capabilities for peace, be a force for good on peacebuilding and peacemaking in the coming decade and beyond? We have identified three priorities for the UK to better realise its peace ambitions.


Centre peace: Peacebuilding and peacemaking should not be in competition with other UK policy priorities for fragile and conflict affected countries (FCACs), but at the heart of them: we need peacebuilding and peacemaking capacity in order to face existing and new challenges to UK and global security, including to mitigate conflicts exacerbated by climate change, to negotiate the power shifts required to prevent climate catastrophe and to face the social, economic and political consequences of COVID-19. Violent conflict is a key driver of fragility and a major impediment to development. Addressing violent conflict is a sine qua non for advancing sustainable stability in FCACs.


Evidence shows we currently know more about ending war – stabilising a conflict situation – than building peace.[12] But work that addresses deeper drivers of violence, such as supporting the meaningful participation of habitually excluded groups, like young people or women, has also been shown to be make peace processes effective and sustainable.[13] Peacemaking and peacebuilding can contribute to lasting stability that works for everyone.


Our own society here in the UK is fractured and conflicted. We are only just coming to terms with the legacy of our colonial past. Peacebuilders and peacemakers can help negotiate the open societies and civic space required for the ‘just, peaceful and inclusive society’ foreseen in Goal 16 of the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development. The fact that conflict challenges exist does not mean peacemaking and peacebuilding have failed, it means we need them more.


Boost bottom-up: Peacebuilding is critically under-funded compared with other foreign policy instruments – despite it being inexpensive relative to military responses, or the long-term economic impact of conflict. The quality of funding and support matters as much as quantity. Peacebuilding and peacemaking takes time and people, to build trust, and to change attitudes, behaviours and structures that perpetuate violent conflict. Local peacemaking and peacebuilding are particularly under-resourced, despite growing recognition of their importance. As the UN has acknowledged, ‘mediation has to move beyond political and military elites and more effectively include efforts at the local level to help build peace from the ground up’.[14]


Local peacebuilding delivers. It is not a luxury or an add-on. In northeast Nigeria for example, where the Boko Haram insurgency and Islamic State in West Africa continue to wreak havoc on communities, local peacebuilders are facilitating reintegration back into communities of disaffected fighters and others associated with armed groups.[15] Local peacebuilding is also providing avenues for excluded groups to actively engage, such as young people who are often seen primarily as part of the ‘conflict problem’. Conciliation Resources has been supporting Youth Peace Platforms in northeast Nigeria, which have been working with the most vulnerable and excluded, providing space for young men and women to talk, listen and learn new skills for employment and for resolving local conflicts.[16]


UK policy and practical support needs to pivot to people and organisations working at local levels. High-level agreements between elites that do not have broad buy-in are much less likely to last. In Central African Republic (CAR), numerous efforts to negotiate peace at the national level have broken down. The most recent peace accord signed by government and leaders of 14 armed groups in February 2019 seemed to be making headway, but like so many of its predecessors, soon gave way to growing instability. Conflict in CAR is complex and protracted, and finding effective solutions is hard. But peace strategies have too often ignored local drivers of violence and capacities for peace. The logic for ‘boosting bottom-up peace’ is clear. Resourcing it properly is the next step.


Prioritise partnership: Partnership is key to effective peacemaking and peacebuilding. Conflict is too complex and systemic for any one country or institution to tackle single-handedly. But while many people espouse partnership, it is very hard to achieve in practice. Even like-minded international peace NGOs struggle to work together towards shared goals, while maintaining each other’s unique approaches, histories and networks.[17]


But the paramount and perhaps toughest challenge for the UK Government and civil society is to work authentically in local partnership. This requires us all to embrace a very different way of thinking and working, which complements and supports local peace constituencies, nurtures long-term relationships, steps up engagement with diverse women and youth networks, and enables ‘context-sensitivity’ and adaptation. In practice, meaningful local partnership means reducing ‘projectisation’ of peace efforts, finding ways to take calculated risks, and having difficult conversations with people actively involved in violence. Local partnership requires us to ‘decolonise’ our relationships and a root and branch transformation of power – from strategy and programme design, to who is in the room, who is listened to and who gets the funding, and to helping to protect civic space and human rights. Local partnership is hard. But without it we are stuck in self-sustaining cycles of superficial change.


Conclusion: is the UK ready to ‘pivot to peace’?

Is the UK ready for such a ‘pivot to peace’? Our research in 2017 suggested that we may be more ready than many people think, and that there is broad public support for peacebuilding if you get the communications right. National surveys of public attitudes towards peacebuilding and dialogue with armed groups to further peace processes show a striking level of public support in the UK as well as in other countries.[18] This suggests that the Government can be more confident in redirecting resources to peacebuilding, including potentially for more controversial activities such as talking to armed groups, and in communicating that to the public.[19]


Pivoting to peace is not about pretending that we have all of the answers. TV and radio news, and social media are full of real time footage of active conflicts that we are struggling to tackle. But we are learning all the time about how to make and build peace – through political settlements, community security, mediation and dialogue, conflict analysis, and managing natural resources, to name but a few approaches. For the UK to take a jump forward as a ‘force for peace’, we need to take some radical decisions about how and how much we are prepared to invest in it. The interests and capabilities of people affected by conflict and working for peace must lie at the heart of all of our policies and practice.


Dr Teresa Dumasy is Director of the Research, Advisory and Policy Department at Conciliation Resources ( Teresa joined the organisation in 2010. As Director of Research, Advisory and Policy she is a member of the executive management team and oversees Conciliation Resources work on research, gender, policy and monitoring, evaluation and learning and EU facing work. Teresa also plays a coordinating role for NGOs on counter-terrorism laws and sanctions and their impact on humanitarian and peacebuilding work. Prior to joining Conciliation Resources Teresa worked for the UK Government in FCO and DFID. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Conflict Analysis and Research Centre at the University of Kent.


Dr Alexander (Zand) Ramsbotham is Director of Research and Innovation at Conciliation Resources. Zand joined Conciliation Resources in 2009 as Head of Accord and now leads the organisation’s research, learning and innovation agenda. Prior to joining Conciliation Resources, he was research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, and has worked as specialist adviser to the House of Lords European Union Select Committee in its inquiry into the EU Strategy for Africa, and as head of the Peace and Security Programme at the United Nations Association-UK. He has also been an associate fellow in the International Security Programme at Chatham House.


Image by Rich Taylor/DFID under (CC).


[1] Peacebuilding involves understanding and addressing the underlying drivers of conflict, not its symptoms; it involves everyone from communities to governments; and it is a long-term process of rebuilding relationships, changing attitudes and establishing fairer institutions.

[2] HM Government, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, March 2021,

[3] DFID, FCO and Ministry of Defence, Building Stability Overseas Strategy, 2011,

[4] Marcus Lenzen, Building Stability Framework, Department for International Development, 2016,

[5] FCO, DFID, FCDO, Ministry of Defence and Stabilisation Unit, UK national action plan on women, peace and security 2018 to 2022,, January 2018,

[6] Stabilisation Unit, Supporting Elite Bargains to Reduce Violent Conflict,, 2018,

[7] World Bank Group, Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict, 2018, 

[8] Pauline Veron and Aandrew Sheriff, International funding for peacebuilding: Will COVID-19 change or reinforce existing trends?, ECPDM Discussion paper No. 280, September 2020,

[9] Lewis Brooks and Abigail Watson, The UK Integrated Review: the gap between the Review and reality on conflict prevention, Saferworld, March 2021,

[10] Ibid.; Lewis Brooks, Playing with Matches? UK security assistance and its conflict risks, Saferworld, October 2021,

[11] See for example, Conciliation Resources, Proscribing Peace, the impact of terrorist listing on peacebuilding organisations, January 2016,

[12] Christine Bell, Navigating inclusion in peace settlements, British Academy, June 2017,

[13] World Bank Group, Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict, 2018, 

[14] United Nations, UN Support to Local Mediation: Challenges and Opportunities, Mediation Support Unit, Policy & Mediation Division, November 2020,

[15] Conciliation Resources, Smart peace: peacebuilding through learning, 2021,

[16] Conciliation Resources, Creating safe spaces for youth to build peace, August 2018,

[17] Conciliation Resources, Smart peace: peacebuilding through learning, 2021,

[18] Conciliation Resources, Public support for peacebuilding, September 2017,; Conciliation Resources, Public attitudes in Japan towards peacebuilding and dialogue with armed groups, October 2020,

[19] Conciliation Resources, Public support for peacebuilding, September 2017,

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