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Local ownership and un peacebuilding: discourse versus operationalization.

The UN asserts that local ownership boosts the legitimacy and sustainability of peacebuilding by preserving the principles of self-determination and nonimposition in an activity that can contravene them. At the same time, it also perceives local ownership to imperil the achievement of its operational goals, thus bringing its normative and operational obligations into conflict. This article evaluates the UN's discourse and operationalization of local ownership, showing that despite the UN's invocation of ownership discourse, it operationalizes ownership in restrictive ways that are intended to protect the achievement of operational goals but that consequently limit self-determination and increase imposition. Moreover, because of contradictions in the UN's practices of ownership, it also undercuts its ability to realize the very operational goals that it is trying to protect. Keywords: UN peacebuilding, local ownership, discourse vs. practice.


Since the beginning of the century, the United Nations has displayed a near orthodox commitment to local ownership in its peace operations in postconflict states. Local ownership is believed to render peacebuilding more legitimate and sustainable by protecting self-determination and minimizing the degree of external imposition on the host country, and most UN guidelines, best practices, and lessons learned documents assert a causal relationship between local ownership and enhanced legitimacy and sustainability. (1) The purported benefits of local ownership appear to be commonsensical: if international actors build peace on behalf of local actors, then it will be externally imposed and therefore perceived as illegitimate and it will not be based on local capacities and therefore likely to fail once the UN departs.

Despite the anticipated benefits of local ownership, however, the UN also perceives the excessive devolution of agency to local actors as endangering the achievement of two key operational goals--the liberalization of the postconflict state and the delivery of demonstrable outputs in the short term. (2) This concern derives from the perception that local actors in war-tom countries have weak capacities and that they may be illiberal, divisive, and focused on sectarian gain rather than the common good. Accordingly, the UN constrains local ownership in practice in order to protect the achievement of these objectives, thus making the operationalization of local ownership diverge significantly from the discourse of it. Importantly, this limited form of ownership on the ground decreases the degree of self-determination of the host country and deepens the degree of external imposition, thus diminishing or even eliminating the benefits of legitimacy and sustainability that local ownership is thought to bring.

The clash between the principles of self-determination and nonimposition and the UN's peacebuilding objectives reveals a broader contradiction facing the UN--specifically, situations where the UN's operational and normative duties conflict. (3) Because they entail intervention, interference, and the violation of self-determination, peace operations after civil wars may inherently contradict some of the most fundamental principles of the international system, principles that the UN upholds and promotes and that are enshrined in its Charter. (4) At the same time, the UN is mandated to act in situations that are deemed threats to international peace and security, actions that at times involve the deployment of a peacekeeping operation. In peacebuilding then, the UN is, in a way, obliged to choose between remaining compliant with its principles and satisfying its operational duties. However, local ownership is thought to enable the UN to overcome this difficulty by allowing it to continue to act according to its principles while also allowing it to undertake effective interventions.

In this article, I explore local ownership in UN peacebuilding, first by examining the discourse of local ownership and demonstrating how local ownership is strongly associated with self-determination and nonimposition, compliance with which is a key normative imperative for the UN. Second, I examine the UN's operationalization of local ownership, showing how the UN restricts the scope for local ownership in practice in order to achieve its operational goals, in turn suggesting that the UN may be prioritizing operational objectives above normative ones. However, by undertaking local ownership in a restrictive way, the UN further constrains self-determination and thus any benefits in terms of legitimacy and sustainability associated with it. Moreover, ironically, because of contradictions within its operationalization of local ownership, the UN actually weakens its ability to achieve the very operational goals it appears to be prioritizing. (5)

Taken together, these findings suggest that local ownership enables the UN to only paper over the tension between its normative and operational objectives in peacebuilding. Local ownership in peacebuilding may thus be able to reconcile the clash between intervention and self-determination in theory, but it does not enable the UN to eliminate this underlying tension, casting doubt on its utility and relevance to peacebuilding.

The Discourse of Local Ownership: Intervention, Imposition, and Self-determination

The discourse of local ownership advocates the involvement of a wide range of local actors in the UN's activities in order to ensure the legitimacy and sustainability of the peacebuilding process. The logic behind this thinking is based on a belief that processes of peacebuilding cannot be externally imposed and must be homegrown to be successful. This conviction is widely held within the UN and the peacebuilding communities as well as among policymakers and scholars. (6) Indeed, while many practitioners and scholars find UN peacekeeping to be an effective means for securing peace, nearly all concede that externally imposed solutions have limited legitimacy and effectiveness in postconflict situations. (7) This normative unease with externally imposed initiatives derives in large part from the fact that they are considered to violate the principle of self-determination. (8) As mentioned above, the UN has long been a proponent of self-determination, which is included as a key principle in its Charter, and the General Assembly has stressed that the right to self-determination holds even where political, social, or economic systems are marked by "inadequacy." (9)

However, self-determination is complicated by peacebuilding after civil war because the UN is there precisely to address political, social, and economic systems considered inadequate due to their inability to manage societal conflicts nonviolently. In so doing, the UN becomes deeply involved in many internal political processes that would not normally be open to external intervention and that contribute to the country's degree of self-determination. As a result, in peace operations, the UN is compelled to violate its own principles. As Matthew Saul points out, the principle of self-determination "is contravened by the practice of post-conflict reconstruction that is dependent on international actors." (10) In addition, this violation of self-determination is something that host countries often find particularly offensive and unacceptable, resulting in resistance and resentment and damaging local perceptions of the UN's legitimacy.

Not surprisingly, there is significant discomfort with this violation of self-determination within the UN, and ensuring that processes are locally owned is thought to minimize its effects by "ensuring] a meaningful connection between the reconstruction process and the will of the people." (11) Accordingly, the discourse of local ownership advocates the direct involvement of local actors in all areas of peacebuilding, from design to implementation to monitoring. It also emphasizes the inclusion of as broad a range of local actors as possible in order to allow marginalized or vulnerable groups to give input into peacebuilding and political development and to strengthen representativity. (12)

Not only does the discourse of local ownership suggest that ensuring the breadth and scope of local participation in peacebuilding will contribute to legitimacy and sustainability but also, because of its association with the principles of self-determination and nonimposition, it is portrayed as something that is right, appropriate, and morally correct. For example, in a 2011 meeting of the Security Council, local ownership was recognized "not only as a moral imperative but also as a pragmatic necessity for legitimacy and sustainability." (13) The 2009 UN Report of the Secretary-General on Peacebuilding in the Immediate Aftermath of Conflict also puts ownership at its heart, calling it an "imperative" in peacebuilding. (14) The 2011 UN report Civilian Capacity in the Aftermath of Conflict similarly makes national ownership the first of its four operational recommendations, noting that international interventions should nurture existing national capacities and support national institutions "from within." (15)

The Operationalization of Local Ownership: Perceived Risks and Restrictive Approaches

While UN discourse implies that local ownership is the sine qua non for legitimate peacebuilding and emphasizes its normative correctness, UN staff also frequently confess that they perceive local ownership to obstruct the achievement of the UN's operational objectives in peacebuilding. These include, most importantly, the establishment of liberal democratic political systems and the delivery of demonstrable results in the short term such as the disarmament and demobilization of combatants, the holding of elections, the establishment of institutions, and the reconstruction of key infrastructure. (16) This hesitancy with regard to local ownership in practice is based on two assumptions on the part of UN staff: first, that local actors have weak capacities; and, second, that they are illiberal.

First, there is a strong perception among UN staff that local actors lack the skills and knowledge to take on the complex processes of postconflict reconstruction and peacebuilding, which may require extensive technical knowledge relating to political processes, institutional function, and the structuring, equipping, and management of armed forces. (17) Accordingly, ownership of peacebuilding cannot be fully "turned over" to local actors because they will be unable to manage the processes adequately and their inclusion may hinder the UN's ability to efficiently deliver results. (18)

Second, many UN staff share a conviction that local actors will not act according to the broadly liberal principles of the UN, including democracy, free-market economic policies, and human rights, which are perceived to be the surest form of protection against conflict recidivism. (19) Moreover, there is a widespread belief within the UN that the lack of liberal political and social systems, corruption and economic inequality, and a lack of human rights protections are partly or even primarily to blame for conflict in the first place, and many UN staff believe that local actors will, if left to their own devices, revert to undemocratic, sectarian, and inhumane practices. This belief in local illiberalism means that UN staff are reluctant to devolve decisionmaking power to local actors, as doing so may undercut the UN's ability to realize its goal of liberalizing the host country in order to establish security and build peace. (20) As a result of these perceived risks to the achievement of its operational goals, the UN implicitly proscribes local ownership on the ground. There are two components to operationalization: practices--the specific actions that the UN takes to build and maintain local ownership--and actors--who local owners are. I examine each of these in turn.


As mentioned, many UN documents and reports advocate local ownership on the basis of its ability to enhance legitimacy and sustainability, but they remain silent on how to build ownership in practice. Most efforts tend to be unplanned and incoherent, and most UN staff members, while asserting their commitment to local ownership, remain vague about how they translate that commitment into practice, usually emphasizing that national actors are somehow involved. As a result, different staff engage in different practices at different times, with activities ranging from meetings with local actors to public information campaigns and trainings. However, these actions are rarely targeted exclusively or explicitly at creating local ownership, and UN staff fail to specify how they coordinate these efforts with one another. (21) Moreover, UN staff make few, if any, attempts to monitor whether these practices actually create ownership from the perspective of local actors.

Most importantly, the activities undertaken by UN staff are mostly communicative or symbolic in nature, with little real agency attached to them. For example, in describing the need to involve local actors in planning and evaluation activities, few UN staff allowed for a leadership role for local actors, citing their weak capacities and perceived undemocratic or partisan tendencies. Similarly, UN staff usually cautioned against enabling local actors to participate in decisionmaking, instead emphasizing the need to bring local actors on board with what the UN had already decided on. In Sudan, for example, a postconflict needs assessment, known as the Joint Assessment Mission (JAM), was conducted in 2004-2005 to determine priorities for reconstruction with national counterparts. However, UN staff admitted that the assessment was in many ways joint only in name, and that instead the process often ended up being an attempt to secure national buyin for priorities the UN had already decided on. (22) Similarly, in East Timor, while the postindependence constitution was ostensibly drafted by a Constituent Assembly in 2001-2002, it was heavily influenced by the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) and it allowed for little popular input, letting only a small political elite participate directly. (23) Finally, activities like information campaigns tend to be unidirectional, one-off events, with the UN disseminating information to local actors but little opportunity for the latter to respond. (24) In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example. Radio Okapi, the radio station of the UN's Mission de l'Organisation des Nations Unies en Congo (MONUC), visited a university in Kinshasa in February 2011. This was, however, the first time in the nine years since Radio Okapi was founded that such a visit had taken place, and little debate was allowed to take place between UN staff and students and faculty of the university. (25)

These ad hoc, uncoordinated, and symbolic activities imply a heavily restricted version of local ownership in practice as compared with discourse, a contradiction that UN staff acknowledge. One staff member explains that the UN aims for "national ownership at the strategic level, but at the operation[al] and funding level, [it] must be more cautious because the government doesn't have the capacity or neutrality to [undertake implementation]." (26) Another declares, "We have ownership in mind, but we just do things for [local actors] sometimes because there is a pressure to deliver." (27) UN military officials express similar views, with one stating that, "if you give national actors ownership of security, you are delaying and complicating the achievement of your objectives in the security realm," and that in contrast to ownership "in theory," "in the field, ownership is not always relevant or useful." (28)

However, these haphazard and often insubstantial practices of local ownership necessarily limit self-determination and, in turn, legitimacy and sustainability. If local actors are unable to give input into the design and planning of peacebuilding activities, then local actors will have only what one might call token ownership, and peacebuilding will largely consist of the realization of an externally determined plan. In addition, because the UN often executes tasks itself in the interests of delivering results more quickly, local actors are unable to gain the capacity, where it is lacking, to formulate their own priorities for peacebuilding and to manage and implement technical reconstruction tasks. This restrictive approach to local ownership thus undercuts the legitimacy and the longer-term sustainability of peacebuilding by deepening the UN's level of intrusion into and imposition onto the postconflict country and decreasing the latter's degree of selfdetermination, suggesting that the fulfillment of normative obligations may be taking a backseat to the achievement of operational goals for the UN.


Similarly to practices, the inclusion of a broad array of local owners emphasized in the UN's discourse is heavily restricted in practice, where the organization exhibits a high degree of selectivity. This selectivity derives from the same two convictions on the part of the UN described above that local ownership may impede the delivery of outputs and jeopardize the UN's liberal peacebuilding objectives. The UN uses two different criteria in selecting local owners in response to these perceived risks: values and capacity. These, in turn, give rise to two different approaches to ownership, which I call liberal ownership and elite ownership. While these represent different approaches to local owners, they are similar in that they are both selective rather than inclusive, in contrast to the discourse of ownership.

In liberal ownership, the UN selects local actors with whom to work based on their values--specifically, the degree to which they support the liberal principles encompassed by the UN's approach to peacebuilding such as democracy, the rule of law, a respect for human rights, and free-market capitalism. This emphasis on the liberal "credentials" of local actors comes in an attempt to ensure that the UN remains able to achieve its goal of liberalizing the postconflict state and avoid the perceived dangers of conflict recidivism associated with including illiberal local actors in peacebuilding. Accordingly, liberal ownership welcomes the inclusion of actors from throughout society, regardless of their technical capacities, as long as they remain aligned with the UN's normative priorities.

In particular, the UN advocates the involvement of state actors at the subnational provincial, municipal, and village level and nonstate actors including civil society groups and underrepresented or marginalized groups, while avoiding as much as possible anyone associated with violence, corruption, or human rights abuses. (29) The former are valued because they are perceived, first, as more representative of the population at large; and, second and more importantly, as more democratic and equitable than political elites who may have partisan agendas. In practice, this implies that the UN may actually distance itself from government, the political elite, and major powerholders, as the latter are most likely to have initiated, ordered, or condoned violence, war crimes, and human rights violations. (30) The Report of the Secretary-General on Peacebuilding in the Immediate Aftermath of Conflict notes that, while the state is important, the government may be a transitional body that has been appointed rather than elected, and as such "may not be fully representative or recognized by the population," adding that it may also have been involved in human rights abuses or atrocities. (31)

Because of its emphasis on seeking local owners from throughout society, liberal ownership appears at first glance to comply with the broad and inclusive ownership described in UN discourse. However, liberal ownership excludes actors who do not espouse the liberal values that the UN is trying to promote for fear that their inclusion will imperil the establishment of liberal state, economic, and societal structures in the host country. Liberal ownership is thus actually quite selective, as it only considers those who share its particular normative perspective.

With elite ownership, local owners are chosen based on their capacity to contribute to the efficient delivery of concrete outputs rather than their normative orientation. As such, elite ownership focuses on high-level state political, economic, and military elites who may have greater levels of technical capacities than minority, marginalized, or nonstate groups. There are two reasons for this. First, many UN officials argue that such elites are the main national actors who will continue the peacebuilding process following the UN's departure and, thus, they are indispensable to sustainability. It therefore is their capacity that must be reinforced, rather than that of the subnational actors or underrepresented groups emphasized in liberal ownership. Indeed, though it recognizes that the postconflict governments may lack legitimacy, the Secretary-General's Report on Peacebuilding in the Immediate Aftermath of Conflict also urges that capacity building "be targeted particularly at strengthening national leadership." (32)

Second, many UN staff note that the existing capacity of elites for governance and peacebuilding is usually greater than that of other actors. Elite actors are thought to be better able to contribute to the realization of concrete outputs such as combatant disarmament, the passing of legislation, and the establishment of institutions. Indeed, state officials and other elites in the postconflict period were often elites and powerholders in the preconflict and conflict periods, and as such may have experience with political institutions, elections, legislative processes, and military command in ways that subnational, civil society, or newly emerged political and military leaders do not. Even where these skills are not used in particularly democratic or transparent ways, they provide a basis on which the UN can build and one that the UN can use to speed the achievement of its objectives in the near term. In the DRC, for example, military actors from the prewar period in particular were valued by the mission due to the training and experience they had, despite the fact that they also had been participants in and supporters of repressive and autocratic regimes. (33) In East Timor, similarly, almost the entirety of the government in the postindependence period was comprised not of newcomers to the political scene, but of political and military elites from the resistance movement who had been in exile or in prison during the Indonesian occupation, such as Mari Alkatiri who served as prime minister from 2002-2006, Jose Ramos-Horta who was president from 2007-2012, and Xanana Gusmao who was president from 2002-2007 and prime minister from 2007 to present.

Elite ownership thus uses a specific criterion--technical capacity--for selecting local owners with whom to work. By focusing ownership on the existing political and military establishment, the UN is putting the emphasis squarely on the delivery of concrete outputs rather than its broader liberal project. While this contradicts the liberal ownership approach, it is similar to the latter in that it is also highly selective, just with a different criterion for selection.

Importantly, because liberal and elite ownership are both selective and exclude at least some local actors from peacebuilding, they undercut the purported benefits of local ownership--legitimacy and sustainability-- because they infringe on self-determination and exacerbate the degree to which the UN imposes its preferences on the host state. Not only are fewer local actors involved in determining the political future of their country but, by retaining the power to select which local actors may own peacebuilding, the UN reveals an aversion to surrendering control of peacebuilding, thus necessarily restricting self-determination and heightening external imposition. This again demonstrates not only that the UN appears to prioritize its operational objectives above its normative obligations, but also that the reality of local ownership does not match the rhetoric of it.

Notably, these two approaches to ownership also tend to contradict one another, with liberal ownership including a much larger group of local actors but granting them mere token ownership, and elite ownership including a much more exclusive group of local actors but granting them more substantive ownership of peacebuilding. However, as with practices of local ownership, where different UN staff engage in different activities simultaneously, so do different UN staff adopt these two approaches to local owners simultaneously. Senior mission staff and staff based in the capital city of a host country tend to interact more with local elites while more junior staff and those based in field locations tend to focus to a greater degree on civil society, marginalized groups, and lower-level government authorities. While this division of labor is partly by design and mission staff may be aware of who their colleagues interact with, they rarely align their actions with regard to local ownership specifically. This simultaneous yet divergent and uncoordinated approach to local owners adopted by UN missions thus suggests that local ownership is often applied in an uneven and contradictory way that distorts the relationship between the UN and all local actors, a problem to which I turn in the next section.

Operational Versus Normative Legitimacy and the "Failure" of Local Ownership

While the discourse of local ownership may imply that legitimacy for the UN derives primarily from compliance with principles, as I have shown, the restrictive approach to local ownership in practice suggests that the UN may be prioritizing the achievement of operational goals above normative ones. Indeed, the UN also derives legitimacy from effectiveness--that is, from the achievement of stated operational objectives. (34) As Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore note, many believe that "organizations should be judged by what they accomplish, and if they do not deliver what they promise then their lack of effectiveness injures their legitimacy." (35) On peace operations specifically, James Gow and Christopher Dandeker as well as Michael Mersiades argue that that performance is one of the most crucial factors affecting the legitimacy of peacekeeping. (36) Accordingly, though it may adversely affect the UN's achievement of its normative goals, the UN's limited version of local ownership may help to generate legitimacy based on effectiveness.

However, a closer analysis of local ownership in practice suggests that the way the UN restricts local ownership may actually inhibit the achievement of both of these objectives. Specifically, the combination of liberal and elite ownership, which respectively grants local actors token ownership or a more substantial role in the activities of the UN, leaves the UN caught between actors with little capacity and influence and those with capacity but illiberal agendas. In practice, because these two approaches are undertaken simultaneously by the UN, this is likely to overemphasize and underemphasize the relative power of various actors and distort the relationship between the UN and all local actors, both elites and nonelites. Ultimately, though the UN restricts local ownership in practice precisely to promote the achievement of its operational goals, doing so may actually have the opposite effect. Importantly, this effect is exacerbated by the UN's discursive insistence on local ownership, which enables local actors to use the UN's own discourse where it restricts their participation in peacebuilding. Below, I examine how the UN's limited operationalization of ownership affects its goals of delivering concrete outputs and, in turn, of liberalizing the postconflict state.

First, because local ownership as broadly conceived in its liberal version entails interacting and working with actors that often have weak capacities, have little political influence, and may be located in remote areas, the UN must sacrifice the quick achievement of outputs due to time-consuming processes of identifying liberal actors, assessing their capabilities, and building their capacities. In the DRC, for example, MONUC staff attempted to create a forum for civil society organizations in Kinshasa around the posttransition elections in 2006. However, the process proved to be a laborious attempt to build the capacity of and resolve differences between these groups, rather than an efficient bringing together of organizations that could lobby the government, represent public interests, and influence policy. (37)

However, though elite ownership is believed to hasten the delivery of outputs, it can actually jeopardize this goal by turning over leverage to local elites, a result of the greater agency that it grants these actors and, ironically, its discursive emphasis on local ownership. First, by operationalizing ownership in a way that prioritizes elites, the UN gives agency to actors that it has specifically selected, making it difficult for the UN to subsequently deny it to them. Second, because the discourse of ownership asserts that peacebuilding must be based on local needs and wishes, the UN's emphasis on ownership enables the latter to dictate the areas in which they want the UN's assistance and those in which they do not by invoking that same discourse. In this way, the UN enables local elites to set the terms for UN activities and to exclude the UN from involvement in particular sectors or issues. (38) For example, again in the DRC, security sector reform (SSR) was deemed a mission priority, but attempts to create meaningful reforms were repeatedly obstructed by the government, with one staff member calling all UN proposals to reinvigorate the process "total non-starters" with the government. (39) Some admitted that the government's ability to block SSR programs was partly due to the fact that the UN had repeatedly insisted that it be a nationally led process, thus leaving the UN unable to push back when national actors proved unwilling to move forward.

Similarly, though liberal ownership represents an attempt by the UN to adapt ownership operationally in order to achieve its objective of liberalizing the postconflict state, it also often fails to contribute to this goal because, on the one hand, it is implemented in a weak way with local actors being included in an ad hoc and sporadic manner and, on the other, it selects actors with little political influence. First, because liberal ownership is often undertaken in a superficial manner with little tracking of whether its actions actually create ownership, it usually grants local actors only cosmetic ownership where they are unable to substantively influence the process of peacebuilding. Indeed, with liberal ownership local actors are selected largely because they are not expected to disagree with the UN's liberal goals and objectives. Liberal ownership is thus a highly passive form of ownership, in which local actors simply rubberstamp the UN's activities but do not influence their design or participate in their implementation, thus weakening the durability of any liberalization that occurs. In Afghanistan, for example, the UN, together with the United States, pressed for the adoption of gender quotas in government. As a result, the new Afghan constitution, promulgated in 2004, established a 25 percent quota for women in the lower house of parliament and a 17 percent quota in the Senate. Many Afghans, including women themselves, were hesitant about these quotas but, as relatively weak political actors, they were unable to sway external actors. (40)

Second and more importantly, because the actors selected in liberal ownership often have low levels of technical capacity and played minimal roles in the peacemaking and immediate postconflict phases, they have little influence in major power politics. Accordingly, their support for liberal forms of governance usually will not translate into the construction of liberal institutions or the passing of legislation that institutionalizes capitalist economic practices and human rights.

If liberal ownership appears unable to effect genuine and lasting democratic reforms because of the weakness of local actors and superficial quality of local ownership, elite ownership suffers from the opposite problem. While the elites selected by the UN as local owners may have greater influence and be granted more substantial ownership, they often do not have liberal political beliefs, and the consequent elite ownership results in loss of UN leverage over local elites.

Moreover, as mentioned above, because elite ownership concentrates ownership among elites, it can reinforce existing power structures, which may be unequal or repressive. Powerful actors will likely have interests in maintaining imbalanced and illiberal political orders that enable them to monopolize resources and benefits. Accordingly, reinforcing their position by giving them the greatest access to the peacebuilding and political development processes of the country may entail the preservation of undemocratic systems and skewed power relations between strong and weak actors, and thus also inhibit the liberalization of the state.

In this way, while the UN engages in restrictive and selective practices of local ownership in order to mitigate the perceived risks of ownership to its two main operational goals--the delivery of outputs and the overall liberalization of the postconflict state--exactly that limited operationalization, whether its liberal or elite permutations, together with its discursive emphasis on local ownership, actually inhibits the realization of those goals. This, in turn, reduces the UN's ability to generate legitimacy from the achievement of stated objectives.

At the same time, as discussed above, because the restrictive practices of the UN undercut self-determination and increase imposition on the host country, the UN also fails to generate legitimacy through compliance with stated norms and principles. More broadly, because its rhetoric and its actions diverge, the UN inhibits the achievement of both its normative and its operational objectives and, thus, its ability to generate either normative or operational legitimacy. This suggests, in turn, that the contradictions in peacebuilding between normative and operational imperatives faced by the UN cannot be overcome or eliminated through local ownership. The UN's discursive commitment to local ownership thus appears to be based on assumptions and aspirations rather than on empirical evidence and merits reconsideration, taking into account the inherent contradictions and contestedness of peacebuilding.


The discourse of local ownership has become ubiquitous in policy and academic circles alike. It is touted for its alleged ability to render peacebuilding more legitimate and more sustainable by helping to preserve the selfdetermination of the host country and minimize the degree of external imposition, which constitute key normative imperatives for the UN. Yet in practice, the UN is loath to give up ownership of peacebuilding out of a perception that the devolution of responsibility for peacebuilding to local actors will prevent both the realization of demonstrable results in the short term and the overall liberalization of the postconflict state, two elements that constitute the key operational objectives of the UN's peacebuilding efforts. This perceived risk is based on a belief on the part of many UN staff that local actors in war-torn states suffer from a lack of capacity to take on the complex tasks of peacebuilding and that they will behave in illiberal ways that prioritize particularistic interests and gains and will lead to the (re)establishment of repressive and autocratic political, economic, and social systems. In short, local ownership, however logical it may appear in theory, is perceived to imperil the fulfillment of the mandate of a UN peacebuilding mission.

Accordingly, what is seen in practice is a version of ownership that is constrained and limited to fit with the UN's operational goals and priorities, a version that thus differs substantially from the discourse of local ownership. Specifically, the UN operationalizes local ownership in a way that both restricts the amount of agency of local actors and limits the set of local actors enabled to own peacebuilding. While the UN does this in various ways--either granting token ownership to liberal actors or granting more substantive ownership to often illiberal elites--both represent limited versions of ownership that conflict with the broad and inclusive discourse of local ownership. These restrictive practices, in turn, cast doubt on the purported palliative effects of local ownership on the contradictions between international peacebuilding and self-determination because they actually limit the degree of self-determination of local actors and exacerbate the degree of UN imposition on the host country.

These inconsistencies within and between the discourse and practices of local ownership thus refocus the question of who owns peacebuilding. Because the UN is reluctant to cede much more than discursive ownership to local actors, it appears that peacebuilding belongs first and foremost to the UN. Even where ownership is granted to local actors, it is granted to a select few who are handpicked by the UN, again leaving control over peacebuilding with the UN and suggesting that it is an exclusive and privileged phenomenon. Even where elite ownership enables particular local actors to take up more substantive agency and resist the UN, ownership usually becomes a source of operational difficulty and contention, rather than a means toward partnership and greater legitimacy and sustainability in peacebuilding.

More broadly, the question of ownership reveals how peacebuilding forces the UN to choose between two sets of objectives--normative ones and operational ones. As described above, peacebuilding entails a deep intrusion into the domestic affairs of a state and thus implies that the UN must violate its own principles of self-determination and nonimposition. Yet at the same time, without such deep intrusion, the UN may be unable to contribute concretely to conflict transformation and peacebuilding in the host country. While the UN's behavior suggests that it is prioritizing the attainment of operational objectives over normative ones, its discursive insistence on local ownership suggests that remaining compliant with nor mative principles--or at least appearing to--is also important. As Michael Lipson notes, the UN is both an operational actor in peacekeeping and a political actor judged for its compliance with international norms, and thus "it is subject to evaluation according to technical criteria of operational effectiveness as well as institutional criteria of legitimacy." (41)

However, as I have argued in this article, local ownership cannot eliminate the clash between the UN's operational and normative imperatives. Instead, this contradiction must be taken into account in the design and planning of UN peace operations, and the understanding of how local ownership affects those operations must be adjusted. Ultimately, the UN faces a choice: it may opt to prioritize its normative objectives by embracing the version of local ownership present in discourse, which emphasizes broad and substantive inclusion, but then must accept that outputs and liberalization may come about slowly. Alternately, it may opt to prioritize its operational objectives, but then must accept the normative consequences of excluding weaker liberal actors and avoid rhetoric that raises expectations of inclusion and participation among local actors. Only if it makes such a choice may the UN close the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of local ownership in peacebuilding.


Sarah B. K. von Billerbeck is lecturer in international relations in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, where she works on postconflict peacebuilding, UN peacekeeping, institutional self-legitimation, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She previously worked for the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

(1.) See UN, United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines (hereafter Capstone Doctrine) (New York: UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Department of Field Support, 2008); UN, Report of the Secretary-General on Peacebuilding in the Immediate Aftermath of Conflict, UN Doc. A/63/881-S/2009/304 (2009); UN, Civilian Capacity in the Aftermath of Conflict: Independent Report of the Senior Advisory Group, UN Doc. A/65/747-S/2011/85 (2011); and UN, Handbook on United Nations Multidimensional Peacekeeping Operations (New York: UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Best Practices Unit, 2003).

(2.) Nina Wilen, "Capacity-building or Capacity-taking? Legitimizing Concepts in Peace and Development Operations," International Peacekeeping 16, no. 3 (June 2009): 342.

(3.) See Stephen D. Krasner, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

(4.) UN, Charter of the United Nations, Chap. I, Arts. 1(2) and 2(7). On the contradictions between the practice of peacekeeping and international norms, see Michael Lipson, "Peacekeeping: Organized Hypocrisy," European Journal of International Relations 13, no. 1 (March 2007): 12.

(5.) This research was undertaken through sixty-two interviews with UN staff members and the staff of Permanent Missions to the UN between November 2009 and January 2012.

(6.) See Thomas Friedman, "It Has to Start with Them," New York Times, 26 June 2011, p. SR5; Oghogho Edomwonyi, "Rwanda: The Importance of Local Ownership of the Post-conflict Reconstruction Process," Conflict Trends 4 (2003): 43; Timothy Donais, "Empowerment or Imposition?" Peace and Change 34, no. 1 (January 2009): 10-11.

(7.) On the effectiveness of peacekeeping, see Virginia Page Fortna, Does Peacekeeping Work? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 16-17; Michael W. Doyle and Nicholas Sambanis, Making War, Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 4-5. On the ineffectiveness of international intervention, see Edward N. Luttwak, "Give War a Chance," Foreign Affairs 78, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 36-44; Jeremy M. Weinstein, "Autonomous Recovery and International Intervention in Comparative Perspective," Working Paper No. 57 (Washington, DC: Center for Global Development, 2005); Jeffrey Herbst, "Let Them Fail: State Failure in Theory and Practice: Implications for Policy," in Robert I. Rotberg, ed., When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 302.

(8.) Note that I am using a political definition of self-determination--that is, a principle or norm that repudiates foreign administration of and excessive external influence in sovereign states--rather than a legal one, which refers to the rights and status of minority groups within states. On the history of self-determination in the UN, including with regard to peace operations, and its legal and political definitions, see Neta C. Crawford, Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 291-342; Kamal S. Shehadi, "Ethnic Self-determination and the Break-up of States: The Power of Ethnic Separatism and International Responses to Creating New States, Redrawing International Borders and Salvaging Failed States," Adelphi Paper No. 283 (London: Brassey's for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1993), pp. 17-21; James Mayall, "Non-intervention, Self-determination and the 'New World Order,'" International Affairs 67, no. 3 (July 1991): 421-429; Michael Freeman, "The Right to Self-determination in International Politics: Six Theories in Search of a Policy," Review of International Studies 25 (1999): 355-370; Ralph Wilde, International Territorial Administration: How Trusteeship and the Civilizing Mission Never Went Away (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Karl Doehring, "Self-determination," in Bruno Simma, ed.. The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1995): 56-72; Antonio Cassese, Self-determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Hurst Hannum, Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Self-determination: The Accommodation of Conflicting Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990); Matthew Saul, "Local Ownership of Post-conflict Reconstruction in International Law: The Initiation of International Involvement," Journal of Conflict and Security Law 16, no. 1 (2011): 165-206.

(9.) UN General Assembly, Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, Res. A/RES/1514 (XV) (14 December 1960). See also UN General Assembly, Programme of Action for the Full Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, Res. A/RES/2621 (XXV) (12 October 1970).

(10.) Saul, "Local Ownership," p. 166. Writing of international transitional administration, Dominik Zaum echoes this point noting that, in establishing such administrations, "the international community compromises one of the fundamental aspects of sovereignty, the norm of self-determination." Dominik Zaum, The Sovereignty Paradox: The Norms and Politics of International Statebuilding (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 27.

(11.) Saul, "Local Ownership," p. 167.

(12.) UN, Capstone Doctrine, p. 39.

(13.) UN, "Proces-Verbaux of 6630th Meeting [provisional]: Maintenance of International Peace and Security," UN Doc. S/PV.6630 (2011), p. 2.

(14.) UN, UN Doc. A/63/881 -S/2009/304, p. 1.

(15.) UN, UN Doc. A/65/747-S/2011/85, p. 10.

(16.) The results-based budget (RBB) exercises that UN peace operations undertake provide a good overview of the types of demonstrable outputs that missions seek to deliver. These tend to be measured quantitatively; for example, the number of patrols undertaken, the number of meetings held with various national and international interlocutors, the number of weapons collected, and the number of police trained.

(17.) UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UNDPKO) officials, senior peacekeeping analysts, and staff of Permanent Mission to the United Nations, interviewed by the author, New York, November 2009 and December 2010.

(18.) Simon Chesterman, "Ownership in Theory and in Practice: Transfer of Authority in UN Statebuilding Operations," Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 1, no. 1 (March 2007): 3-26; Annika S. Hansen, "Local Ownership in Peace Operations," in Timothy Donais, ed., Local Ownership and Security Sector Reform (Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2008), pp. 39-58.

(19.) This view is based on democratic peace theory and its domestic variant, liberal peacebuilding. See, for example, Daniel Philpott, "Introduction: Searching for Strategy in an Age of Peacebuilding," in Daniel Philpott and Gerard F. Powers, eds., Strategies of Peace: Transforming Conflict in a Violent World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 3-18; Roland Paris, At War's End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Freeman, "The Right to Self-determination," p. 358; Oliver P. Richmond, "UN Peace Operations and the Dilemmas of the Peacebuilding Consensus," International Peacekeeping 11, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 83-101; UN, "An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peace-keeping," UN Doc. A/47/277-S/24111 (1992); Boutros Boutros-Ghali, An Agenda for Democratization (New York: UN Department of Public Information, 1996); UN, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (New York: UN, 2004); UN, "Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations" (Brahimi Report) UN Doc. A/55/305-S/2000/809 (2000); UN, "In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All," UN Doc. A/59/2005 (2005).

(20.) Alex Martin and Peter Wilson, "Security Sector Evolution: Which Locals? Ownership of What?" in Timothy Donais, ed., Local Ownership and Security Sector Reform (Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2008), p. 84.

(21.) Senior UNDPKO, Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), and UN agency officials, interviewed by the author, New York, November 2009.

(22.) UNDPKO official, interviewed by the author, New York, 16 November 2009.

(23.) UNDPKO official, interviewed by the author. New York, 17 November 2009.

(24.) Senior UN and UNDPKO officials and staff of Permanent Mission to UN, interviewed by the author, New York, November 2009 and December 2010, and Geneva, May 2011.

(25.) Congolese academic, interviewed by the author, Kinshasa, 9 March 2011.

(26.) UNDPKO official, interviewed by the author, New York, 6 December 2010.

(27.) Senior UNDPKO official, interviewed by the author, Kinshasa, 8 March 2011.

(28.) Senior UN military official, interviewed by the author, New York, 7 December 2010.

(29.) Senior UNDPKO, UN, and UN agency officials and staff of Permanent Mission to UN, interviewed by the author, New York, November 2009 and December 2010, and Kinshasa, February-March 2011.

(30.) William Reno, "Bottom-up Statebuilding?" in Charles Call with Vanessa Wyeth, eds., Building States to Build Peace (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2008), p. 155.

(31.) UN, UN Doc. A/63/88 l-S/2009/304, par. 11.

(32.) Ibid., par. 19.

(33.) Senior MONUC/MONUSCO official, interviewed by the author, Kinshasa, 8 March 2011.

(34.) This is often referred to as output or substantive legitimacy. Mark C. Suchman calls it "consequential legitimacy." Mark C. Suchman, "Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches," Academy of Management Review 20, no. 3 (1995): 580. See also Fritz Wilhelm Scharpf, Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Ian Clark, Legitimacy in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 18-19.

(35.) Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore, Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), p. 168. See also Suchman, "Managing Legitimacy," p. 580.

(36.) James Gow and Christopher Dandeker, "Peace-support Operations: The Problem of Legitimation," The World Today 51, nos. 8-9 (August-September 1995): 173; James Gow and Christopher Dandeker, "The Future of Peace Support Operations: Strategic Peacekeeping and Success," Armed Forces and Society 23, no. 3 (Spring 1997): 339; Michael Mersiades, "Peacekeeping and Legitimacy: Lessons from Cambodia and Somalia," International Peacekeeping 12, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 208.

(37.) This resulted in the signing of an act of engagement by civil society actors in December 2006 at a workshop organized by the UN in Kinshasa. UNDPKO official, interviewed by the author, New York, 1 December 2010.

(38.) Roger Mac Ginty, International Peacebuilding and Local Resistance: Hybrid Forms of Peace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 84.

(39.) Senior UNDPKO, MONUC/MONUSCO, and UN officials, interviewed by the author, New York, November 2009 and December 2010, Kinshasa, February and March 2011, and Geneva, May 2011.

(40.) Mona Lena Krook, "Reforming Representation: The Diffusion of Candidate Gender Quotas Worldwide," Gender and Politics 2, no. 3 (2006): 303-327.

(41.) Lipson, "Peacekeeping," p. 13.
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Author:von Billerbeck, Sarah B.K.
Publication:Global Governance
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Date:Apr 1, 2015
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