Value-based peacebuilding

Value-based peacebuilding

So far we have considered the importance of developing a good community-informed understanding of the conflict at the outset, and from that generating a strategic approach to building peace. A third pillar for our work is the values upon which this is all based.


Values are important to reflect upon in violent contexts for a number of reasons: because the conflict itself may in part reflect different values of opposing parties; because peacebuilders are better equipped if they have some self-awareness about their own values, those of their group, and of others; and because the choices made by peacebuilders can have profound impacts, to name but a few. Unless we understand the value-base of our work, we cannot be properly prepared for peacebuilding challenges that are likely to arise. 


This is best illustrated with a simple example. If a small group of peacebuilders is going to a critical meeting with some rebels in a forested area, how should they respond to offers of accompaniment by the police, who they trust but will likely be armed? A straightforward choice might be to decline accompaniment based on non-violent principles. But what if one member of the group is particularly vulnerable to risk, and wishes for police protection? Or if the group is told that the meeting may not proceed without such accompaniment? What if the police escort the group despite it declining their protection? And what should they do if the local and outsider members of the group answer these questions differently? Prior discussion of the shared values of the group can help peacebuilders react quickly and with greater clarity when these tricky issues are raised.


Acting from your personal values

Peacebuilders are often people who have come to the fore because they hold strong values, and act out of those values in their work or community. The link to a strong value base is often an asset and foundation for work in this field. But it can also raise challenges.


For example: Some contexts enable us to break with the social norm, strive for something we believe in, and do something that is more closely aligned with our values than with those of the people around us. Perhaps encouraged by people whom we trust and respect, strengthened by religious conviction, or inspired by the example of others, we can make a stronger stand for an ideal despite societal disapproval or the opposition of those around us.


At other times such a principled position might be particularly difficult, perhaps leading to unwanted consequences to ourselves or our families. Sometimes the results of our actions, for ourselves or others, may be serious enough for us to re-evaluate our approach. There is a place for such balancing considerations, weighing opportunities to further principled action with the possible negative consequences. Principled people can find compromise difficult.


Personal flexibility and adaptability is central to peacebuilding work.  Without sufficient openness to values different to our own, and the ability to work constructively with people with whom we strongly disagree, there can be little chance for us to forge strong peacemaking alliances. It will be even harder for us to help others, who may have suffered terrible loss, to tolerate or reconcile with their enemies.


Acting out of shared values

As has been implied, peacebuilders do not all share the same values. Our values may be rooted in divergent religious beliefs, secular liberal tradition, or other social and cultural norms. For this reason, one’s personal values will probably not be identical to those of a peacebuilding group.  


Despite this, common commitments can emerge from different belief systems. Religious beliefs that uphold compassionate action may sit easily alongside secular commitment to principles of equality or social justice. Commitments to non-violence or mutual respect arise from many diverse traditions.


The Active Learning Network ALNAP for example proposes a list of values for peacebuilding that includes integrity, honesty, respect, social justice, non-violence, and accountability. Any peacebuilding group could come up with a list for itself, and a simple brainstorming and synthesising of emerging ideas can articulate these. An exercise like this can produce some basis for action, and be used to enable principled consideration of future issues.


Overcoming profound differences of belief within a group, and collaborating powerfully despite them, is often fundamental to successful peacebuilding. A first step is often finding sufficient common ground upon which to base collaborative action for peace, and understanding that one’s own values are not identical to those of the group. For collaborative action to gain wide acceptance, people and groups with diverse and divergent values must be engaged and enabled or inspired to work together. Commitment to one’s own values, and the wisdom to apply them flexibly enough, are important peacebuilding qualities.



Encountering conflicting or imposed values

Unfortunately this description of relatively easy accommodation to shared value norms is simplistic. Profound values-based differences can emerge between (or indeed within) principled individuals, and the application of strongly held values can have unintended consequences:


➤ Advocates for equality and an equal voice for all may find themselves at odds with respected elders, whose power is threatened by the impulse towards democracy. Their commitment may become further complicated in a violent context, for example if elders are a calming influence upon a minority of youth, keen to use violence to assert their rights or beliefs.


➤ Advocates for women’s rights may strengthen a community’s understanding of women’s oppressions and the abuse of power by men. Acting out of their values, peacebuilders may enable women to challenge the violence they experience. Yet subsequently if support is withdrawn those brave women who have spoken out may be left exposed and vulnerable to reprisals, and principled action may not have served its goals.


➤ The facilitator of a group may encounter amongst one or more participants a strong sense of the need for retribution against an individual, group or section of society. This desire for vengeance may be rooted in a rightful sense of injustice. Retribution if enacted might have local or widespread impacts, and reduce or increase the dynamics of violence. In such a circumstance competing principles based on our values must be traded against one another - respect for people’s experience of the past can come at the cost of communities creating a path out of violence for the future; and ensuring communities choose their own path can mean that cherished external priorities will be set aside.


These scenarios are hypothetical, but they are based on real situations, and they indicate the need to move beyond blind principle when dealing with value-based judgements. Our own values often conflict with one another, and we must not be surprised if we encounter these challenges in peacebuilding.


Resolving conflicting value-based situations

Often we must resolve conflicting imperatives in real time, whether in a workshop situation, amongst peacebuilders, or in dealing with conflict parties. There is no formula for such calculations, but some pointers can be suggested:


➤ Agreed ground rules within which you operate may bring clarity. However, rigid and unwavering adherence to principle in complex conflict situations is unlikely to lead easily to their resolution.


➤ Those who will live with the consequences of a decision should generally be those making it.


➤ Those making a decision should be informed by a strong understanding of and reflection upon their values and their context (including through wide consultation), so that they may judge likely consequences.


➤ Good decisions are not made in the gut. They are rooted in compassion and informed by intellect.


We can conclude that while our actions must be strongly informed by our values, values alone  will not tell us what to do. Only with an equal understanding of context can we consider the likely consequences of our actions. If we are making decisions to assist communities affected by extreme violence, likely consequences must be to the fore in our thinking.



These short notes on values have raised the question of who is making peacebuilding decisions. The answer of course is those who have the power to do so, and ‘power’ is the topic of the next blog in our series.


Post by Bryn Higgs from The Peacebuilding Practitioner.