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Placing people at the center of UN peace operations

Can a paradigm shift to people-centred peace operations become the principle, theory of change and practice that enables peace operations to overcome their state-centric and elite-interest credibility gap? A shift to people-centred peace operations implies moving away from a narrow focus on state-building, institutional capacity and the extension of state-authority. It implies complementing efforts to strengthen the state with initiatives that engage people, communities and societies and that support them in their ownership of sustaining peace. The theory of change is that investing in social capital, social cohesion and resilient local and national social institutions will help local communities and the society strengthen their own capacities and networks to prevent conflict and sustain peace.

To inform and reenergize the policy debates on people-centered peace operations, the Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network, the research unit at Folke Bernadotte Academy, UN Academic Impact and the International Studies Association organized a facilitated brainstorming dialogue at the UN Headquarters on 4 February 2020.1 The aim of this blog is to share a few ideas that emerged from the dialogue.

The need for more people-centered peace operations has been a key recommendation of several reviews, including most recently the Together First Stepping stones for a better future report that we contributed too via the Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON). It is also one of the central findings of the research literature over the last two decades, namely that many peace interventions have been ineffective because they have been too state-centric, top-down and template driven. They failed to sufficiently take local context and local agency into account, and they did not cede enough space for local ownership and self-organization to emerge.

These conclusions were also echoed in the findings of the studies undertaken by the EPON network. The studies found that the focus of the missions looked at to date is on supporting the host nation and state institutions, and these peace operations are not doing enough to assess their impact on the societies they are meant to protect and serve.

A state/non-state binary stabilization doctrine that primarily focusses on the extension of state authority is counterproductive because the more successfully these operations stabilize, the less incentive ruling elites have for seeking a political settlement. Stabilization theory pre-supposes a legitimate state faced with an illegitimate insurgency. What if, however, a state is captured by one set of elites and those excluded have genuine grievances related to marginalization and exclusion from the political process and economic participation? Balancing the focus of peace operations more evenly between the state and the people will strengthen effectiveness and help these missions to avoid becoming victims of elite-capture.

Conflict erodes trust between the state and the people. Peace operations need to help to restore social cohesion, and by extension, resilient state-society relations. The ultimate aim of any peace process should be to help foster dispute settlement capacities rooted in societies. Making peace operations more people-centered does not need new mandates or policies, nor does it necessarily need to have financial implications. Mostly it needs a shift in mindset and leadership, accompanied by guidance and implementation plans that can help operations become more adaptive and participatory.

A people-centered approach means placing people at the center of what peace operations do. It means that the effectiveness of the operation is assessed on the impact it is having on the everyday lives of the people it is meant to protect and support. It means establishing close relationships with local and national actors and to improve efforts aimed at including women, youth, and marginalized groups. It means enabling and supporting national and local ownership. It means valorizing the impact of innovative measures by field-level staff towards community-oriented confidence-building, inter-communal dialogue, and protection of civilians. It also means situating the work of the mission in the historical and contemporary political and social context, through meaningfully engaging with local and national counterparts in a variety of inclusive and consultative forums, and involving them in analysis, assessments, evaluations and other mission processes.

The idea of a shift towards people-centered peace operations already holds broad political support. The Secretary-General’s Action 4 Peacekeeping Agenda, the 2015 report from the High-Level Independent Panel of Peace Operations, the 2016 Security Council and General Assembly ‘sustaining peace’ resolutions and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and especially SDG16+, have all made ‘people’ their primary focus. Unfortunately, to date, translating this political commitment into action has been slow. We end with a few recommendations aimed at making the people-centered concept more practically attainable.

  1. Anchor the focus on people at the highest levels and make sure that people-centered principles and practices are reflected in mandates and are integrated into the work of the SRSG, the force, the police, Political Affairs and other sections. Working with the people should not be reduced to communication (Public Information) or community relations (Civil Affairs).
  2. Proactively involve local actors in the work of peace operations by meaningfully engaging representatives of the society and local communities in conflict analysis, planning and assessment processes. This could be done by establishing national and local advisory groups of leading citizens from a variety of fields that provide input to and feedback on assessments, analysis, planning, implementation, programming and evaluations.
  3. Involve community and civil society representatives in the Comprehensive Performance Assessment System (CPAS) and other mission performance assessment processes. Missions can also commission independent institutions, such as local universities, to use focus groups, surveys and other methods to provide inputs on key issues and generate feedback on mission performance.
  4. Involve host states in making peace operations more people-centered. It should not be the people or the state but both. The principle and related practices should be part of the dialogue between the UN and host countries and should be reflected in MOUs, joint framework agreements and compacts between the host country and the UN.

A shorter version of this blog was published in the Global Observatory on 29 May 2020.


  1. The authors wish to thank all of the participants for sharing their wealth of expertise. We also wish to thank Adam Day (UNU) who moderated the event, Charles D. Hunt (UNU & RMIT) for contributing as a panelist, and Teresa Whitfield (DPPA) and David Haeri (DPO) for opening remarks.
Blog by

Cedric de Coning & Linnéa Gelot

Cedric de Coning is a senior research fellow with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), senior advisor for ACCORD, and the coordinator of the Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON). He tweets at @CedricdeConing.

Linnea Gelot is a senior researcher at the Folke Bernadotte Academy. She tweets at @LGelot.