Shifting power dynamics, localization, and decolonization: Implications for community-based peacebuilding

By Charles Kwuelum (Doctoral Candidate, the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia)

The success–or failure–of peace and development approaches hinge on power dynamics in our relationships with each other. The range of actors and entities critical to the success of peacebuilding and “conflict analysis and resolution” efforts are widely diverse, often including opposing groups. Within that array, peacebuilders must imagine, co-create, manage and adapt power dynamics for productive collaboration. This article explores emerging peacebuilding ideas and tools linked to localization and decolonization…advances in the field reflective of our rapidly changing world.

Key to collaboration are high-functioning partnerships: without these efforts to nurture peace and justice are hobbled.  The value of these partnerships is determined by the quality of the relationships within, which in turn are driven by power dynamics, for better or worse. These dynamics play out inevitably– intentionally or unintentionally–among actors including scholars, policymakers, practitioners and most notably, donors. Also, international and local NGO relationships are historically complex and multi-layered. Local/national (internal) and international (external) dynamics are exacerbated by policies, economics and other aspects of context. Inevitably, the shadows of the legacy of Colonialism are still embedded in the structures and systems where we work. In the field of international development, many of us seek to transform these harmful structures, systems, and dynamics into a new era. 

Today, many conversations among active stakeholders in the peacebuilding field from both the Global South (minority) and Global North (majority) are highlighting tough but bold approaches to de-complexifying and de-colonizing peacebuilding as a field. This even includes reconceptualizing knowledge processes as systemic and holistic rather knowledge as weaponized by colonialism in order to monopolize, dominate, and exclude. We begin by acknowledging that power dynamics are an inescapable and existential reality. To shift power, transform perspectives and mindsets, these conversations must be constructive and transparent.

Localism and Peacebuilding: How do they relate?

In a nutshell, the emergence of Localism as a concept and school of peacebuilding affirms the constant and active interaction between three elements of peacebuilding: actors, processes, and phenomena. Localism is a form of conscientization. Scholarship portrays Localism in what I refer to as a philosophy, principle (which is ‘emergent’), and as a practice (which is ‘divergent’). This emerging form of scholarship is part of a movement, which arouses a consciousness of community-led or -owned peacebuilding. Localization becomes a framework and process for engagement of actors in unique contexts and cultures. Through Localization, actors can embody ownership of peacebuilding and development processes and practices, thereby leading to unique innovations toward transforming conflicts and their dynamics, especially power. 

However, the concept of Localism or Localization evokes a conceptual thematic and etymological challenge, which tends to create a barrier or degradation or categorization on the status of those actors as “Local”. The Latin word locus refers to a place, spot or location or locality. The international actors who are domiciled in their location of origin/citizenship can be said to be “local” to their context; yet never in international development, where they play the role of experts who need to be brought in to guide the “locals.” The peacebuilding field needs to rethink and reframe around the concept of  “context” which tends to overfocus on “local” phenomena, places, and human operating agents.

Unpacking Localization of Peacebuilding.

The trend of Localization unveils an opportunity for peacebuilding and development actors to leverage it to listen to each other and constructively explore grounds of understanding the dynamics of their interactions. One key is creating the space for “Listening with intention to courageously learn and change.”  Also key is working to transform the root causes and addressing the effects of the relationships. It is an indispensable fact that there are strengths, weaknesses, and barriers to effective locally-led peacebuilding. 

Ideally, It can break chains of dependency.  Looking at the relationships from a point of the sustainability of the effort or action, there is a chain of dependency. For peace to be sustainable, the level of local ownership of peacebuilding action or efforts should be high. The lower the level of ownership, the less the effort is sustainable. However, most current relationships are still built on dependency in terms of expertise, resources, technical advice, vision, etc. So, the chain of dependency is not broken yet. 

A holistic and open assessment of NGO relationships indicates that they vary in relation to context, actors, and culture. When oppressive mechanisms or issues play out in unhealthy relationships between powerful international non-governmental organizations and less powerful local civil society organizations, the dignity of actors as human agents is harmed. 

The Localism Toolbox: A mix of classics, and new tools as well.

The adaptation and application of Conflict Sensitivity and Do No Harm principles in peacebuilding, development and humanitarian field is a testament of a common goal: a just and inclusive peace and well-being. When some peacebuilding principles are neglected, innovative and holistic peacebuilding is impaired. Emancipatory Elicitive Peacebuilding incorporates conventional and unconventional approaches, and addresses root causes of conflicts holistically. It focuses on meeting the needs, positions and interests of various actors which are often limited by closed and restrictive relationships amongst conflict analysis and peacebuilding actors in the field. This peacebuilding paradigm affirms ownership of the process by communities directly impacted in the conflict and violence. Also, it articulates responsibility and accountability by and for all actors. We must pay attention to our relationships as reflective actors in the field.

How else do we work to transform existing power holding and its harmful effects? I proffer in my research The Restorative Collaboratory Paradigm/Principle which is a holistic analysis of an organization’s policies, practices and approaches in engaging with conflict-affected contexts.This enables a redefinition of organizational operating principles, and a periodic racial audit and cultural competency & humility training and evaluation for NGO professionals. This principle emphasizes the importance of collective leadership, referring to those patterns of interactions that enable collaboration among actors, contexts, and cultures in the system. Inevitably, it fosters aliveness, transformation, wholeness, new future possibilities, and new knowledge toward sustainability ( 

The Restorative Collaboratory Principle, therefore, incorporates intangible values and characteristics of Ubuntu and Restorative Justice to dignify context, culture, and actors. Also, it signifies a “shift” in thinking (Kwuelum, 2023, manuscript). Decolonizing organizational structures and redistribution of power among personnel are pertinent, and it reflects “walking the talk” and epistemic humility toward the unique roles of local content, knowledge, and approaches, which are oftentimes considered unscientific, unconventional, and unstructured. 

Also, we must imperatively work to decolonize partnerships, which remains an integral aspect of shifting global-local power dynamics to better reflect and acknowledge the essential capacities and knowledge of local actors. For a partnership to be truly decolonial, or equitable, both Global North and Global South actors must meaningfully engage with issues including risk sharing, power imbalances, quality funding, systemic racism, among others. It enables trust-building and authentic equitable participation and ownership of peace and development processes. Redistributing, recognizing, and representing power (Fraser, 2009) remains indispensable, while working to enhance the essential elements of human dignity (Hicks, 2011). Focusing on mutuality of actors in the peacebuilding and development field enables these elements to reflect as characteristics in their relationships. Specific elements include acceptance, recognition, acknowledgement, inclusion, safety, fairness, independence, understanding, benefit of the doubt, and accountability.

In Sum

It may seem inherently obvious that successful and sustainable peacebuilding must include co-creation and fostering ownership by the parties involved. Yet, history is full of failed top-down, outside-imposed peacebuilding efforts. Today’s emergent popularity of Localization and Decolonization represent opportunities to refocus on peacebuilding as a community-led effort, and to leverage today’s discourse to co-create and test new ways to enable that.  


Anderson, M. B. (1999). Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace -Or War. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

Fraser, N. (2009). Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalized World. Columbia University Press.

Hicks, D. (2011). Dignity. Yale University Press.

Kwuelum, C. (2023). The Importance of localization/community-based and owned peacebuilding efforts in northern Nigeria. Doctoral dissertation proposal, Carter School/George Mason University.

Featured Photo: MCLD-Uganda, 2023

About The Author

Charles Kwuelum is an experienced organizational development consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the non-profit organization management industry. Charles is skilled in international relations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), organizational development, policy research, and public speaking. He is a strong legislative and international development advocacy professional with a Master of Arts (M.A.) focused in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution (International Development & Peacebuilding) from Eastern Mennonite University.