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date: 23 February 2024

Ethics of Peacebuildingfree

Ethics of Peacebuildingfree

  • Reina C. NeufeldtReina C. NeufeldtPeace and Conflict Studies, University of Waterloo


The proliferation of international peacebuilding practice in the 2000s was accompanied by a series of questions that has produced a significant body of writing about peacebuilding ethics within International Relations. This growing body of literature has produced questions, debates and theoretical positions. As explored below, a limited set of meta-ethics considerations provide the foundation for normative theorizing, particularly the moral objectivist commitment to positive peace. The majority of theorizing is situated among normative ethics debates. These works respond to the questions: Who has agency or who ought to have agency in peacebuilding? What ends should peacebuilding pursue? And, what means will ensure that peacebuilding is done right? The related literature focuses on a broad range of conditions, from individuals working for nongovernmental organizations to state- and United Nations–sponsored interventions. It includes authors who write from cosmopolitan, consequentialist, postcolonial, virtue, critical, feminist, and Foucaultian perspectives, among others. Finally, there is nascent work in descriptive and applied ethics.

Peacebuilding efforts to rebuild relationships and structures during and after conflict, violence and war present a series of ethical questions and challenges for international and national actors. Should the international community engage in peacebuilding? To what extent? Who ought to be involved? What constitutes good ends for peacebuilding? How can peacebuilding be done right? These questions identify the ways in which peacebuilding has been morally interrogated since its rise in prominence as a form of international intervention in the 1990s. The history of peacebuilding and peacebuilding meta-ethics must be considered with a view toward current normative ethics debates involving agency as well as the ends and means in peacebuilding.


  • Ethics

Peacebuilding: A Brief Introduction

The term peacebuilding initially appeared vis-à-vis conflict intervention in the 1970s when Johan Galtung (1976) used it alongside peacemaking and peacekeeping to refer to the building-up of structures and systems to sustain peace. Efforts to support structures and systems for peace, however, predated Galtung’s deployment of the term and included efforts that ranged from nonviolent social change to postwar state recovery and rebuilding (like that which occurred in Europe following World War II). Peacebuilding became a focus for international relations in the 1990s when the term was used by then-United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in a report titled “An Agenda for Peace.” Here, it was notably defined as postconflict “action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict” (1992, p. 6). This definition has proved to have staying power in international discourse.

Nevertheless, numerous definitions of peacebuilding have been proposed since the 1990s (Barnett et al., 2007). In international relations scholarship, it tends to be defined as involving action before, during and after violent conflict, to address root causes of conflict that include transforming relationships and structures (e.g., Lederach & Appleby, 2010; Ramsbotham et al., 2011; Mac Ginty, 2013). However, some literature focuses specifically on postconflict or postaccord peacebuilding (e.g., Call & Wyeth, 2008; Chetail, 2009). Another notable distinction is the differentiation between levels of social and political change efforts. John Paul Lederach (1997) identified three basic levels of leadership in peacebuilding initiatives: grass roots, middle-level, and top-level leadership. This distinction remains part of the ethical debates in the literature regarding who ought to lead peacebuilding initiatives and serve as the primary agents of change. The terminology, however, has shifted slightly to add the terms local and/or indigenous peacebuilding at the grass-roots level, and the term liberal peacebuilding is used to refer to state-led or international organization-led initiatives occurring at the top of the leadership triangle.

International peacebuilding efforts proliferated in the 2000s and became increasingly coordinated with the formation of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission in 2005. The increased investment in peacebuilding has been accompanied by critical analysis and calls for accountability (e.g., Paris, 2002, 2004; Richmond, 2005; MacGinty, 2011), which have fed into a rich and growing literature on peacebuilding ethics.

Theorizing Ethics: Meta-Ethics, Normative Ethics, and Descriptive Ethics

Ethics involves systematic investigation into the nature of ethical or moral principles and values (Hutchings, 2010). People engage in ethical deliberation to answer questions regarding the basis for judgements about what is good and bad, right and wrong. They ask questions like these: For what purpose? To what end? Whom should act, and for what reasons? Or, how should a moral value or ethical principles be operationalized?

Ethical theorizing typically occurs at one of three levels of abstraction: meta-ethics, normative ethics, and descriptive or applied ethics. In meta-ethics, authors explore questions around the nature and status of normative claims (Shafer-Landau, 2015, p. G4–5). Within normative ethics, deliberations center on considering what constitutes right action(s), the plausibility of moral rules, or character virtues and contributions to collective flourishing (i.e., eudemonia). In descriptive ethics, authors deliberate upon what occurred and what decisions were undertaken in an applied setting. For this overview, applied ethics is clustered with descriptive ethics because it focuses on moral choices in applied settings. The two together therefore focus on ethics in situ—examining the situated or everyday choices that are made. Literature on the ethics of peacebuilding contributes at each of these levels of abstraction, although the greatest amount of theorizing occurs within normative ethics as authors debate how to consider right actions and ends.

Meta-Ethics Considerations

A few works deliberate upon how moral values, truth, and moral agency are understood in peacebuilding literature. These considerations, however, tend to be limited in scope, and their primary aim is to provide the foundation for subsequent normative theorizing. Tim Murithi (2009) makes a case for generating moral knowledge, surveys foundationalism, antifoundationalism, structuralism, feminist ethics, and ethical egoism, as well as the influence of positivism, Burtonian normativity, and critical theory in shaping the marginalization and then re-emergence of ethical considerations in peace research. Murithi concludes by arguing that positive peace is the foundational value assumption for peacebuilding, even if people approach peacebuilding from different moral theoretical positions. Louis Kriesberg (2013) similarly agrees that interventions require shared normative standards, and he suggests that one part of this can be a human needs approach. Other texts tend to agree that positive peace is a foundational principle for normative theorizing and then engage in broad normative analysis related to considerations of peace and war. Authors writing in this area include Ian Atack (2005), Nigel Dower (2009), and John Lango (2014), who have all contributed volumes on the topic and work explicitly from a cosmopolitan perspective, which foregrounds the additional moral principle of valuing every person equally as a member of a universal moral community.

Another set of authors argue for accepting a religious or transcendental foundation for moral values that simultaneously aligns with secular ethics. For example, Daniel Philpott (2012) explores three religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) to identify areas of overlapping consensus (drawing on John Rawls’s approach) for an ethic of political reconciliation. Philpott argues that these points of overlapping consensus also overlap with human rights and the secular values that underlie core commitments in liberal peace. Michael Barnett speculates on the source of aid workers “belief in the possibility of moral progress” (2010, p. 207). Drawing on John Dewey and Charles Taylor, he suggests that the origin of ethics—as well as individuals’ commitments to continue to work in humanitarianism—lies in a need to lift our spirits and be directed toward something beyond ourselves in the “imaginative totality” of the universe (2010, p. 208). Barnett suggests that this impulse can be understood in either religious or secular terms and involves metaphysical or supernatural dimensions. Human rights, he notes, can serve as the secular transcendent. John Paul Lederach (2005) also argues for the idea of a moral imagination that can be accessed by peacebuilders, which transcends the present violence to transform conflict. Here too, the transcendental is suggested to underpin the moral imagination that is necessary for good (i.e., transformative) peacebuilding, but it is also understood to be understandable or translatable into secular values.

International relations and global ethics scholarship around humanitarian intervention has generated additional and more substantive meta-ethics works that ponder whether (and how) morality applies to states as agents operating in international affairs, or to individuals within states operating on behalf of the state. They also explore the origins of moral values and the emergence and promulgation of norms and normativity globally (or the development of a global society). This work informs peacebuilding ethics to some degree and offers a more developed body of literature. For example, Mervyn Frost’s constitutive ethics argument focuses on explicating the ways in which actors are constituted and subject to ethical conditionalities in the international system—where ethical actors operate within ethical structures of their own making (2009, p. 27). His work has informed a constructivist take on normative considerations in peacebuilding. Cornelia Navari’s (2013) argument for moral values, which draws on Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism and applies this to “middle ground ethics,” includes deliberations about international interventions and peacebuilding-related initiatives. The articulation of value pluralism Navari offers is helpful to understand the peacebuilding literature, which takes a pluralist perspective but is not as clearly theorized in terms of its meta-ethics commitments. Also notable are Terry Nardin’s (2002, 2003; Nardin & Williams 2006) works, including his argument for the existence of common morality, which rests upon Kant’s humanity imperative or the principle of respect for all persons. Nardin further roots his perspective in natural law and argues for humanitarian intervention based on a duty for beneficence. His arguments are frequently drawn upon by peacebuilding authors writing from a cosmopolitan perspective.

Overall, peacebuilding normative theorizing tends to deploy a moral objectivist stance (also referred to as a moral realist position). A moral objectivist takes the position “that there are objective standards of truth and morality, independent of what we may wish or think, and from which rules of conduct may be derived, or to which individual’s actions should conform. An objective morality stands above the transitory unsettled surface of everyday politics and acts as a guide, and standard of moral appraisal” (Boucher, 2011, p. 1). The legitimacy of claims does not rest on our particular support, which would suggest a culturally relativist or ethically subjectivist argument, and there are understood to be legitimate moral claims (in contrast to the nihilist argument that would suggest there are no moral standards) (Shafer-Landau, 2015, pp. 291–294). For much of the peacebuilding literature, the foundation of the moral objectivist position is understood to be positive peace, often twinned with a commitment to treating all people equally. There are, however, constructivist (e.g., Frost) and moral pluralist (e.g., Navari) versions, in which constructed social facts serve as objects that enable us to go beyond personal preferences and thus act as standards for moral appraisal (drawing on Navari, 2013, p. 4). These social facts or objective truths can be accessed through reason (e.g., Murithi, Atack, and Dower), or rest upon theological foundations (e.g., Philpott and Lederach) and applied to decision making.

Normative Ethics Debates

Most theorizing about ethics in peacebuilding is situated at the level of normative ethics and focuses on considerations of agency (who has agency?), the ends pursued (what constitutes good ends?) or the means used (what are the right means?). These areas of analysis have generated considerable debate, often framed in other terms such as the contestation between problem-solving versus critical approaches to peacebuilding. These considerations are interrelated; however, for the purpose of analytical clarity, these topics are best approached separately, starting with the ways in which agency has been assessed normatively, followed by an overview of the debates around what types of ends are pursued, and finally considerations of what constitute right means.

Agency: Who Has It? Who Should Have It?

Normative considerations of agency occupy a central location within peacebuilding literature. These include questions such as who has agency in peacebuilding interventions, and who ought to have agency? Who gets to decide what, and for whom? Agency is a multilayered concept, and the discussions involve normative theorizing about the nature of the base moral unit (e.g., a person or persons, community or communities) as well as power and the relative possession of agency vis-à-vis decision making at different levels of intervention, from the local to the international level that affect the base moral unit.

Moral judgements in peacebuilding are typically based upon assessing the effects of peacebuilding on individuals who live in conflict-affected areas. A central question authors ask is whether the lives of those who live in areas in which peacebuilding occurs are better or worse off because of the intervention (e.g., Tadjbakhsh, 2010). This includes authors such as Roland Paris arguing from a consequentialist perspective that failing in peacebuilding “. . . would be tantamount to abandoning tens of millions of people to lawlessness, predation, disease and fear” (2011, p. 32) as well as those who argue from a duty-based cosmopolitan, or thinly cosmopolitan, perspective such as that of Mac Ginty and Richmond, who—drawing on David Held—look “. . . to evaluate processes and outcomes according to a thinly cosmopolitan and thickly contextual and progressive framework of ever-reducing inequality in material and rights terms” (2015, p. 4). Whether focused on peacebuilding’s effects or the quality of involvement, it is the individual who lives in the conflict zone (or former conflict zone) who is at the heart of moral analysis.

Who ought to have agency, and the degree of agency parties have in peacebuilding, are often contested and involve a distinction between local actors and international actors. There appears to be widespread agreement that there ought to be local agency in peacebuilding, although it varies in degrees and justification. Some authors argue for local agency based upon narrowly construed consequentialist ends—to ensure that internationally led peacebuilding is deemed legitimate or is effective. More frequent, however, are arguments that local agency is important for emancipatory and social justice ends; this is framed both as a consequentialist argument of achieving flourishing and social justice as well as a duty-based argument that it is simply the right, principled thing to do (e.g., Schaefer, 2010). The extensive discussion around hybridity and local peacebuilding centers on the argument that agency is critical if peacebuilding is to be transformative (for overviews see Peterson, 2012; Hughes et al., 2015). Further, as a number of authors point out, the local is not a simple and unified whole that is good in and of itself, but rather presents an array of actors with mixed and contested motivations, aspirations, and modes of engagement, which in themselves represent varying values and value claims (e.g., Paffenholz, 2011). Involving locals and ensuring there is local agency is therefore seen in general as the right thing to do in peacebuilding, although how to do it and whether it is itself a good end are contested.

International actors are also theorized to have agency, although whether this is good or bad is disputed. The term “international” here is used imprecisely to refer to international organizations, state actors, and nongovernmental organizations that are clustered together. Paris (2002, 2011) prominently argues that there is an ethical responsibility for states to act as agents and to support good peacebuilding based on consequentialist reasoning. Others, such as Vivienne Jabri (2010), are strongly critical of any possible good coming about from international agency because of the concern that it is the liberal cosmopolitan who has agency to act for and upon those in need. Or, as Bruno Charbonneau (2014) modifies, the spatial and temporal international relations assumptions of contemporary international peacebuilding hinders the conditions of possibility; instead of transformation, new organizing logics of peacebuilding are provided for old military intervention capabilities. For yet another set of authors, the potential for a new way forward in conflict settings resides at the intersection of the international and the local, and both international and local actors exhibit agency in complex ways (e.g., see Schaefer, 2010; Tom, 2013; Thiessen, 2014).

Related to international agency are a series of subquestions that query when and under what conditions it may be right for international actors to intervene in another state for the purposes of peacebuilding. Is there a sufficient global community to share and apply norms that involve intervention within states (Price, 2008; Frost, 2009)? What, if any, ethical obligations may be required of independent, sovereign states to other states or to human populations (Chatterjee, 2004; Gheciu & Welsh, 2009; Pogge, 2008; Singer, 2009)? Some subquestions are connected to larger debates in international relations literature around humanitarian intervention, too. Is the “responsibility to protect” human security a greater good that justifies intervention within another sovereign state (Barnett, 1997, 2010; Holzgrefe & Keohane, 2003; Lang, 2003; Meggle, 2004; Lu, 2006; Newman, 2009)? And is humanitarian intervention distinct from other types of interventions, such as peacebuilding, within other states (Rieff, 2003; Barnett & Snyder, 2008)? The range of subquestions here suggests a well-tended area of literature on ethics in international relations. Questions about what is right in peacebuilding within this strand of thinking, relate to whether we should enter into states and are often better understood as part of cosmopolitan and communitarian debates within international relations ethics because humanitarian interventions precede and frequently include a transition to “postconflict” peacebuilding.

A few works focus more narrowly on peacebuilding intervenors as peacebuilding agents, such as the initial work by Larissa Fast et al. (2002) and more detailed explorations by Murithi (2009), Séverine Autesserre (2014), and Reina Neufeldt (2014, 2016). These works engage in questions regarding the ways in which peacebuilders identify and pursue good ends and determine right actions in their everyday practices and argue for self-reflexive intervenors. Autesserre’s (2014) analysis importantly demonstrates the problems that arise when intervenor discourse and behavior suggest that intervenors inhabit moral high ground, which then contributes to solidifying barriers between intervenors and host populations and undermines good peacebuilding. Together, this cluster of intervenor-focused works highlights the ways in which decision making and engagement processes and character are part of ethical peacebuilding, and this consideration is important for multiple levels or agents of change.

Peacebuilding to What End?

Peacebuilding is repeatedly judged to be good or bad in the literature based upon ends. This assessment includes the vision for the ends (e.g., stability, order, type of governance or economic models envisioned), as well as whether peacebuilding in implementation achieved its defined ends. The two versions of ends involve the minimal aims of halting the recurrence of violent conflict (negative peace) and the maximal aims that involve elements of social, political, and economic justice (positive peace). Internal debates have ensued over which of these outcomes is achievable and therefore which will produce the greatest good for the most people if pursued—a consequentialist assessment. There are also debates over the nature and quality of the ends themselves, more frequently involving a duty-based assessment of what ought to be present.

A small set of works formally argue for minimal ends, such as stability, a stoppage of violence, or order. Barnett et al. provide one such argument, suggesting that a compromised and illiberal peace is a preferred normative outcome to other worse outcomes in an unstable setting (Barnett & Zürcher, 2009; Barnett et al., 2014). Barnett (2012) has further argued that the carefully circumscribed care and control that are offered by paternalism produces a good end as well. More generally, however, authors writing about ethics tend to affirm that negative peace (the cessation of violence) is important but not as the final end or aim of peacebuilding. They argue for positive goods as part of the ends pursued phrased in terms of peace with justice, just peace, or positive peace (as identified in the section on meta-ethics).

The language used to frame what constitutes positive peace or just peace varies across authors, which speak to values that are prioritized as defining the ends. For example, Atack (2005, pp. 143–144) identifies normative concerns in peacebuilding as including a commitment to human rights, economic and social development, and processes of democratization. This articulation reflects values that are identified as being central to liberal internationalism. Murithi argues in a somewhat similar vein that peacebuilding needs to work toward a vision of positive peace, “which means a peace that promotes coexistence on the basis of human rights and social, economic and political justice” (2009, pp. 4–5). Authors routinely draw on Johan Galtung’s (1969) definition of positive peace and the importance of halting systemic violence in achieving justice. Providing further analysis on the concept of justice, Karin Aggestam and Annika Byörkdahl suggest that the word “just” evaluates the “ethical quality and durability of peace as well as the realization of justice demands” and may involve four quite divergent outcomes based on different views of justice: order, retribution, restoration, distribution (2013, p. 2). In a relationally and process-focused framework, Lederach argues for “just peace” defined as “an orientation toward conflict transformation characterized by approaches that reduce violence and destructive cycles of social interaction and at the same time increase justice in any human relationship” (2005, p. 182). In a related vein, Mac Ginty and Richmond (2015) have recently struggled to avoid articulating an end beyond “emancipatory” to try to be consistent in their effort to focus attention on the process of peacebuilding.

Many of the critiques aimed at the “liberal peace” highlight the problematic pursuit of unjust ends through peacebuilding. Many have warned that international efforts in peacebuilding and state building were not only ineffective but were potentially doing further harm by imposing state and market models that were premature, did not fit, and perhaps even undermined the generation of locally rooted peace initiatives in conflict-affected areas (e.g., Paris, 2004, 2009; Call & Wyeth, 2008; Murithi, 2009; Richmond, 2010). Ulrich Schneckener notes that the three main lines of normative criticism of peacebuilding converge and judge it problematic and wrong when used as a means to producing a Western-dominated end of international order based upon “universal European” ideas that are tied to “the liberal peace” or for the security of Western nation-states (2016, p. 5; see also Chandler, 2011). The three lines of normative criticism include Foucaultian and neo-Marxist arguments of peacebuilding as reflecting unjust asymmetric power (e.g., Duffield, 2007; Jabri, 2010; Turner & Kühn, 2016); postcolonial critiques of the Western norms being universalized in liberal peace (e.g., Chandler, 2011; Sabaratnam, 2013); and critical studies arguments that peacebuilding functions as the soft face of security and control (e.g., Tschirgi, 2013). As Jackie Smith and Ernesto Verdeja argue, “although global norms such as human rights and disarmament can legitimize challengers and provide opportunities for movements to mobilize transnationally, they can be a double-edged sword, for they can lead movements to engage with institutional processes that replicate power asymmetries and ultimately reinforce the interests of dominant powers. . .” (2013, pp. 4–5). For many concerned with peacebuilding being misused as a means to a problematic end of inequality, the analysis necessarily turns to dissecting means, and whether there are means to ensure that peacebuilding as a process can be done in good ways or the right way.

Other arguments assess the degree to which peacebuilding is able to achieve its articulated ends and the problematic consequences of failed peacebuilding. The emphasis on peacebuilding evaluation makes manifest the pressure to demonstrate and achieve positive impact (e.g., see OECD, 2012; Neufeldt, 2014, pp. 429–431). Other peacebuilding scholars focus on analyzing the intended and unintended outcomes in specific contexts for more scholarly purposes. For example, Marie-Joëlle Zahar (2009) draws attention to the illiberal outcomes of international peacebuilding efforts in Lebanon. Paris (2011) argues that peacebuilding critics oversimplify moral complexity when they fail to fully consider alternative consequences. He uses Mark Duffield and William Bains as examples of authors who offer sharp insights but omit from their assessment both the positive effects of peacebuilding interventions as well as the full negative effects of not intervening. Paris argues that when authors fail to consider all the harms and benefits, the analysis is faulty. His point highlights one of the ways in which moral theory perspectives affect the ways in which authors argue about ends in peacebuilding literature. Consequentialist reasoning, with its single-value focus on ends, requires more than simple statements about the vision of the good that is pursued. Yet not everyone who writes of ends is consequentialist in their thinking, which creates a point of tension in the literature as authors in each line of moral theorizing argue that the moral theory perspective they draw upon is right.

Questions of Means: Peacebuilding Done Right?

How can actors engage in peacebuilding in good ways? Are there certain obligations that peacebuilders must follow? Are peacebuilders doing the right things? These questions capture means-related concerns that are explored to varying degrees in the normative ethics literature on peacebuilding. There is unease with the quality of relationships and relationality between intervenors and those who live in a conflict context, concerns regarding the degree to which peacebuilding initiatives are responsive and accountable to local populations or to international norms (e.g., human rights, gender equity), there are also questions of the legitimacy of external actors, and the ways in which power affects the process of change or agents of change.

The degree to which international efforts are accountable to those who live in the local context—whether to the official government, to local elites, or to the wider population—appears as a central moral concern in peacebuilding literature. Accountability is often identified as a moral principle that is used to judge peacebuilding engagement. Drawing on early conflict resolution ethics deliberations regarding intervention (e.g., Kelman & Warwick, 1978; Laue & Cormick, 1978), Fast et al. argued that conflict interveners have accountability to “sending” and “receiving” communities, and that “An intervention process that (1) respects the worth and dignity of all involved, (2) incorporates participatory decision-making to achieve a community-defined common good, and (3) is marked by authentic relationships necessarily requires accountability among all involved” (Fast et al., 2002, p. 190). This approach to accountability foregrounded a relational ethic based on care ethics. More recently, Fiona Robinson has suggested that care ethics holds promise for helping peacebuilding to be more ethical if it is read critically through a lens of postcolonialism, “in order to avoid the dangers of ‘colonial care’ . . .” (2011, p. 115). In an effort to improve theorizing around the concept of international responsibility, Gëzim Visoka and John Doyle (2014) disagregate three aspects of responsibility: attributability, answerability, and accountability. Attributability focuses on moral responsibility for consequences; answerability focuses on agent obligation to clarify and justify his or her conduct to a social or political authority; and accountability (political and legal) involves measures to reward or sanction someone for his or her wrongdoings based on whether or not designated tasks were fulfilled and legal. Visoka and Doyle argue for greater attention to all three, drawing on the case of peacebuilding intervention in Kosovo.

Other authors who critique peacebuilding on moral grounds utilize gender and critical international political economy theory to recognize the various problematic ways in which power moves and manifests in the process of peacebuilding. Here, an overriding central critique posits that the peacebuilding literature has been insufficiently concerned with the transformation of power relations and global inequities (e.g., Jabri, 2007, 2010). As Valentine Moghadam argues, “Peacebuilding efforts that ignore issues of social and gender inequality can only reproduce the hierarchies and structural violence of the world-system that are at the root of civil and international conflicts” (2013, pp. 106–107). In a related line of reasoning, the authors assess the ways in which peacebuilding processes reinforce hierarchies, such as “big men” and patronage politics, as well as global inequalities through capitalism (e.g., Cooper, 2010; Smith, 2010; Bolten, 2013; Lynch, 2013; Woodward, 2013). While this critique is related to ends, it emphasizes the ways in which peacebuilding occurs in the field that reinforce rather than question power hierarchies.

It is also argued that peacebuilding processes themselves should open critical space to generate a new shared normative base that informs the understanding of ends and is part of a process of social emancipation (e.g., Lidén, 2009; Richmond, 2011; Smith et al., 2013). Here peacebuilding is conceptualized as a process that involves reinvigorating norms or transforming norms as part of social and political engagement in conflict transformation, and is assessed positively—as Hal Saunders (1999) argues for in A Public Peace Processes (see also Bohman, 2013). This approach exhibits elements of Jürgen Habermas’ (1987) discourse ethics, which seeks to arrive at just and ethical norms or values through unforced, truth-seeking dialogue among equals (for an international relations adaptation, see Shapcott, 2002). Drawing on an ethics-of-care perspective, some argue specifically that the new norms that are generated need to involve reconciliation for long-term transformation (e.g., Murithi, 2009; Robinson, 2011; Llewellyn, 2012). There are, however, corresponding critiques of the ways in which norm construction occur in settings where parties are unequal, which can produce problematic and contradictory effects or effect no norm change at all (e.g., Richmond, 2005; Tadjbakhsh, 2009; Bolten, 2013; Tom, 2013).

Finally, there is an assessment of interveners as moral (or immoral) agents during the process of peacebuilding. While elements of this line of thinking are captured in the discussion of accountability (above), it also includes content regarding state or intervener obligations that emphasize deontological thinking. For example, Gheciu and Welsh (2009) argue that ethical imperatives are mobilized by states to engage in and support “postconflict” reconstruction; these include appeals to the special responsibilities of states, the importance of projecting democracy as a cosmopolitan value, distinctive duties of certain types of states, as well as the imperative to restore self-determination in another state. Another dimension of this line of thinking relates to standards of behavior that organizations argue interveners are obliged to uphold, such as the Code of Conduct for Blue Helmets (United Nations, 1998) or International Alert’s Code of Conduct for Conflict Transformation Work (1998).

In sum, the works that focus their normative analysis on the means of peacebuilding engage in questioning the ways in which peacebuilders operate, the ways in which norms and values interact and affect the ends in the process of peacebuilding, the problem of using people as a means to an externally defined end, imperatives to engage responsibly and with accountability in local contexts, as well as question the ways in which power intersects with ends and agency.

Moral Choices In Situ: Descriptive and Applied Ethics

A final and growing area of literature explores ethics from a field-based vantage point. Here, the decisions that peacebuilders make are either analyzed after the fact (descriptive ethics) or peacebuilding practitioners are provided with suggested reasoning for how to make ethical decisions in conflict contexts (applied ethics). The most detailed descriptive ethics work to date is Autesserre’s (2014) work that describes and analyzes peacebuilder behavior through detailed and careful description. She identifies problematic norms that are evidenced in the social habits and every day engagements in peacebuilding practice, which affect the viability of peacebuilding. Autesserre argues that these everyday practices include ineffective, inefficient, and even counterproductive modes of engagement. Her work reinforces some of the findings of the multiagency collaborative findings in the Reflecting on Peace Practice Project and the Local Capacities for Peace Project in terms highlighting the need to be attentive to implicit ethical messages and a call for peacebuilders and aid workers to be more responsive to communities in the process of peacebuilding or other types of humanitarian and development assistance (see Anderson, 1999, 2002; Anderson & Olson, 2003). Some additional publications briefly describe the ways in which moral value training are part of peacebuilding projects, such as sports-for-peace programs, which have limited theorizing (e.g., Rookwood & Wassong, 2010) but nevertheless suggest that there is some attention to character virtues in some types of peacebuilding interventions, particularly those directed at youth.

Applied ethics works feature applications of a variety of moral theories, including virtue ethics, care ethics, Ubuntu ethics as well as deontological and consequentialist ethics. Todd Whitmore (2010) applies modern virtue ethics, and the virtue of solidarity, in a self-reflexive examination of peacebuilding engagement in northern Uganda. Murithi (2006, 2009) has explored the ways in which Ubuntu ethics can be applied in conflict resolution and peacebuilding contexts. Hugo Slim (2001) provides an exploration of how organizations confronting moral dilemmas may respond. Cynthia Cohen (2001) has produced a workbook for peacebuilders to engage with questions of integrity, and expanded on the ethics of listening. Wallace Warfield (2002) has provided a compact cyclical model for conflict resolution practitioners to engage in ethical deliberation. Neufeldt (2016) has also recently expanded the practical material available to help field practitioners develop skills in open and careful thinking with respect to moral values and moral value tensions as individuals and organizations. Overall, the descriptive and applied ethics literature provides nascent insight into the choices and constraints operating in field-based peacebuilding.

Future Directions in Research, Theory, and Methodology

Each of the areas noted above is emergent and suggests directions for future research and expansion. Considerations of meta-ethics, while less likely to be at the forefront of literature, could be further developed in terms of understanding moral agency, normative foundations, and their relevance to peacebuilding. The exploration of ethics in situ would also benefit from further descriptive and applied work, which is beginning to happen and may be tied to further ethnographic and localized peacebuilding research as it expands.

Several veins of normative ethics research are also being developed further. Peacebuilding that is aligned with state building in the international system has garnered considerable moral critique. Based on consequentialist arguments, it has been suggested that peacebuilding that is aligned with state building may end if the positive effects do not outweigh the negative effects or costs associated with peacebuilding. This claim is met by counter-arguments that the failure to reach overly ambitious ends still produces good ends—better than otherwise (e.g., see Paul Jackson and Anna Jarstad’s comments in an e-Seminar titled “Is Peacebuilding Dying?” 2015). A growing area of literature seeks to assess the various impacts of peacebuilding, from local to national and from personal to structural. This literature continues to grow and will contribute to this debate, even if it is not framed in moral terms—it will nevertheless weigh consequences and proffer assessments of what constitutes good outcomes. Further assessment that is explicitly weighing the moral dimensions of the assessment are also needed, and will necessarily engage with injunctions of duty and responsibility as well as considerations of care and justice.

Appraisals of the means by which peacebuilding is done also continue to expand. Additional theorizing of peacebuilding ethics at the intersection of the international and the local is needed. The issues of agency, power, and the relationship between means and ends are complex and are only beginning to be explored in the ethics of peacebuilding literature. Again, the hybrid turn, local peacebuilding as well as increasing attention to ethnographic research methods, may help address this gap. Further attention is needed to assess international methods and the role of international actors vis-à-vis peacebuilding within specific locales.

Links to Digital Materials

  • African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). A South Africa-based civil society organization that focuses on policy engagement, research, and training to prevent and transform conflict in Africa. Website also hosts the academic journal African Journal on Conflict Resolution.
  • Alliance for Peacebuilding. A U.S.-based network of more than 100 organizations as well as professional members that facilitates collaboration amongst organizations and to amplify organizational strengths.
  • Asia Peacebuilding Initiatives. An information website project hosted by the Osaka School of International Public Policy (OSIPP) with support from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Provides analysis and commentary on peacebuilding and conflict in Asia, focusing particularly on Myanmar, Mindanao (Southern Philippines) and Southern Thailand.
  • Berghof Foundation. An independent non-governmental organization that supports learning and capacity-building in conflict transformation. Website includes resources on a variety of topics related to peacebuilding.
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  • United Nations Peacebuilding Commission. Provides information on the United Nations Peacebuilding commitments and links to additional resources on peacebuilding, including documentation, the Peacebuilding Fund and the Peacebuilding Support Office.
  • United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Global Peacebuilding Center. Provides a variety of resources for educators and students on what peacebuilding involves, including a section on peacebuilding experiences.


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