Sara Hellmüller: Bridging the Gap – Examining Local Dimensions of International Peacebuilding in the DR Congo

PhD-project, University of Basel

The PhD dissertation treats the significance, the implications and the potential of what is called the ‘local dimension’ in international peacebuilding programs. It is structured around three propositions derived from theory, namely
(1) that the sustainability of peace largely depends upon the way in which local actors and institutions are brought into peacebuilding initiatives,
(2) that understanding the interactions between local and international actors as well as promoting a well designed and structured relationship between them increases the effectiveness of peacebuilding programs,
(3) that a proper understanding of the different symbolic and cultural perspectives of peacebuilding actors facilitates the coordination of efforts to effectively build peace. The propositions are being worked through by seeking to answer the following research question: How do local, national and international approaches to peacebuilding interact with each other in a post-conflict context?


Because of the absence of a clear theoretical framework to answer the research question, the nature of the dissertation is hypothesis-generating based on case study methodology. Thus, a chosen case will provide insights that can be generalized to a larger population of cases.
This population is delineated through three scope conditions:
(1) the study applies to African countries (spatial),
(2) which are in a peacebuilding process (temporal) and
(3) in which the conflict took an ethnic dimension on the local level (substantive).
The case selection is thematic, in that the research focuses on reconciliation programs as one specific aspect of peacebuilding; and spatial through the choice of the eastern District of Ituri in DR Congo as case study site. The latter represents an interesting case due to the special attention paid to the area by international actors as well as the variety of local initiatives on the ground and the seeming lack of cooperation between the two sets of actors.

Data Collection

The study has started with a mapping of local, national, and international reconciliation programs present in the DR Congo through desk research, a review of existing documentations and a short field visit weeks). Then, empirical data on the different programs as well as on their interaction with other initiatives was collected during an extended field visit (3 months) through focus group discussions, participant observation, in-depth interviews as well as consultation of local media and mission reports.
This inquiry seeks to assess the propositions outlined above:
(1) how the programs promote local ownership;
(2) how the different actors cooperate with each other, what their comparative advantages are and how this cooperation is influenced by power asymmetries inherent in their relationships; and
(3) how culture shapes the perspectives of the different actors on peace and conflict and therefore their priority setting.
Lastly, through interviews with beneficiaries of the selected programs, it will be analyzed how the diverse programm resonate within local communities and how they have influenced relationships between antagonistic groups.


The dissertation wishes to contribute to scientific debates on successes and failures of peacebuilding approaches, including criticism of the dominant approach of liberal peace and the suggestion of alternatives. Practically, the findings of the study will provide guidelines for practitioners on how to become aware of approach and integrate different local perspectives. The research will offer insights of such local perspectives and clarification of underlying normative assumptions of peacebuilding actors.