The provision of effective local governance in violent settings is a major accomplishment and requires a wide range of skills. In Syria, grassroots administration has managed to survive and provide a range of local services and functions in the midst of intense civil war. But local governance skills are not necessarily relevant for peace. The case study of Rio de Janeiro in this section shows that local militias know perfectly well how to work politically in their environment: by monopolising external relations and protecting communities from state violence, they have bolstered their own power and their control over residents of the favelas.
The capacity to govern locally does not necessarily translate into the right knowledge, skill sets and mandate to engage in peace processes at regional or national level. And there are also challenges of opportunity. The Syria case study describes how local coordination committees have struggled to gain access to national peace talks, despite their convincing claims to significant representation within Syria – not least in comparison to diaspora bodies like the Syrian National Coalition, which is now officially recognised by some governments as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.
The gap between the capacity to govern locally and represent nationally is a challenge for many traditional authorities who can find themselves out of their depth. Putting unprepared local authorities in national peace talks can not only lead to failure, but can erode their legitimacy back home. Discerning when local governance authorities do and do not possess the capacity to play a constructive role in wider peace processes is thus critical if the “do no harm” principle is to be respected.
Four factors matter most in local capacity. The first is knowledge of the political and conflict issues at play in wider peace talks. Local authorities must not only understand what their constituents want out of a peace process, but must be able to master the many complexities of national-level politics. Peace processes often focus on matters such as provisional constitutions involving issues ranging from systems of electoral representation to executive-legislative relations, and to citizenship and land laws. Few local authorities have adequate knowledge of these kinds of national political issues, and are usually not in a position to learn quickly enough to play a constructive role.
They may also not have competence or fluency in the language employed in peace talks, and so cannot appreciate the nuances and implications of word choices in peace accords. All this can result in peace processes being dominated by a small number of seasoned political figures and the marginalisation of local representatives. On this score, the most promising local authority representation is by hybrid groups including both traditional leadership and professionals or former civil servants who understand the political implications of different options raised in peace processes. If allowed to work in teams like this, local authorities can overcome knowledge deficits in peace processes.
A second, related factor involves skill sets. Local political leaders may find themselves in talks with powerful militia figures, national-level politicians and senior international diplomats, and may be addressing conflict issues that overwhelm the tools they use to manage conflict locally. An elder may not find that skills in the use of customary law to manage land disputes or murders locally prepare them for ethnic cleansing or war atrocities.
But local authorities also have much to offer national-level peacebuilding. Legitimate local administration represents what good governance looks like, and sets a high bar for aspiring national elites. Their experience and skills in building and maintaining community cooperation on functional issues of order and basic services locally are invaluable. Their “performance legitimacy” is a critical reminder to national elites to deliver a peace dividend to citizens – not just in the abstract but also in specific places and on specific issues.
Third, local leaders need a mandate from their constituents to represent them. Local support for maintaining law and order may or may not translate into a mandate to represent the community at the national level. This is especially challenging when a local administration reflects a governance accord between two or more communities. In national peace processes, having a seat at the table can become critically important to ethnic or communal groups, so that a leader they support for local administration can be unacceptable as a national representative. Mediators need to be confident that local government leaders have the backing of their people to take on a new task in the wider peace process.
Finally, local governance leaders need to be able to implement the broad terms of peace accords to which they are a party. Local governance arrangements in some violent conflict settings derive much of their legitimacy from consensus-based, consultative and inclusive decision-making processes that give all local groups a sense that they are stakeholders in local governance. These “powers of persuasion” are tested when leaders sign accords that require local compromises. Legitimate local authorities do not need to rely on force.
Underlying these four factors is the fact that local governance authorities are often able to manage local spoilers and militia leaders – in part because comparatively little is at stake (in strategic terms, at least) in remote towns or villages. But once local leaders assume a role in regional or national peace processes, the strategic stakes are raised and competition over the right to represent becomes much fiercer. This is even likely if local leaders support peace processes that threaten the interests of powerful armed groups. Peacebuilding is high risk, and local governance arrangements can be vulnerable to reprisals by militia groups, unscrupulous political elites and others with the capacity to undermine local government, sow local divisions, offer bribes, or coerce local leaders. Local governance systems that lack the resilience to withstand these external pressures may not be viable participants in peace processes.