The process of post-conflict reconstruction has drawn notably increasing attention from peace scholars and practitioners in the recent years. This may be due to the evidence that out of 103 countries that experienced some form of civil war between 1945 and 2009, only 44 avoided a subsequent return to war. This means that most current conflicts are a continuation of previous conflicts, which prompts the question, how can we make the last war the final one? Lisa Bagliane, in an analysis of six books on post-conflict state building, summarized the process of post-conflict reconstruction into two schools of thoughts: “Traditionalism” and “Reconciliationism”[1]

Bagliane described Traditionalism as an approach that focuses on state-capacity, hence, Traditionalists believe that the path to sustainable peace is through well-designed state structures, which have the power to act on the territory, and can assure fairness. She described Reconciliationism as an approach that focuses on truth-seeking, apology, forgiveness, and national redefinition.[2] Although both schools of thoughts tend to agree that building an effective state should be the top priority of a society emerging from conflict, they disagree on several important points namely: the centrality of institutional reform, the significance of reconciliation, and the definitions of peace, justice, and security.[3] Whereas Traditionalists insist that a war-torn country needs to build state capacity and transform its institutions first before focusing on other things, Reconciliationsts believe a war-torn should take deliberate efforts to address the horrific past in order to achieve “normalcy”. This essay argues that to be successful, the two schools must proceed simultaneously and must adopt the bottom-up approach as a feasible strategy for transforming a post-conflict society.

I begin with a description of the top priorities for transforming a society that has been devastated by violent conflict, discuss challenges involved in these priorities and then explain how bottom-up approach addresses these challenges. Drawing from Peter Wallensteen,[4] David Cortright,[5] and Lisa Baglione,[6] I identify state capacity, institutional quality and reconciliation as priorities for transforming a post-conflict society.

State capacity refers to the ability of a government to administer its territory effectively and to provide for its citizenry. High capacity states are able to provide public goods such as: security, health care, and social and physical infrastructure that promote human development.[7]  States emerging from a war will probably have a low capacity, hence their ability to provide for their citizens is limited. This might lead to low development levels or recurrence of a war. State capacity has three interrelated dimensions, namely: security capacity, social capacity and institutional quality.[8]

Security capacity is the ability of a state to secure its territory. Inability to protect territory may lead to an insurgency.[9] For instance, Iraq could not act on its territory after the withdrawal of U.S. military and this led to the Islamic State of Iraq and Al asham (ISIS) controlling large swaths of territory in Iraq. Security capacity is more effective when it is extended across the state to include rural or local areas. The recent terror attack at Garissa University in Kenya, may have been prevented or mitigated had the government stationed security forces in this region but due to continued government marginalization of the communities in north-east Kenya, a lot of social amenities are lacking.[10] The main challenge for post-conflict governments is the temptation to increase military spending and the use of military for selfish political ends. Reconciliationists argue that states should consider solving underlying grievances that caused the war in the first place, and then thereafter build a strong military. Failure to address grievances drives affected communities toward armed rebellion. It is therefore, obvious that security reforms alone are insufficient in building sustainable peace. Thus, the need for social capacity.

Cortright defines social capacity as the ability of a state to provide public goods and services. States that provide their citizenry with access to education and healthcare reduces the risk of civil war.[11] The main challenge is whether a government is capable of providing these goods and services equitably. Unless a state has strong institutions, the process of providing public goods and services will be mired by corruption, tribalism, and nepotism. Thus, institutional reform is a key element in achieving social capacity.

Institutional quality guards a state against corruption, and promotes the rule of law.[12] Fair, transparent, accountable, and inclusive institutions play a critical role in supporting peace.[13]  A state should build institutions that can win the support of the people. When people feel betrayed by their own institutions, they result to violence as the means to addressing grievances. For instance, a commission of inquiry on the post-election violence in Kenya found out that people did not trust the electoral commission, the police, and the judiciary.[14] This explains why the opposition took to streets to contest an election, instead of going to the courts of law.

The major challenge for transforming institutions in a country emerging from war is the tendency to centralize institutions.[15] Instead of a country building a national police, it should consider whether a local police, at the grassroots can do the job better. Why build hospitals in cities when patients are in rural areas? An approach that advocates for reconstruction from the grassroots to the national levels, would be more beneficial to citizens.

I will now talk about reconciliation as a top priority in transforming a society that has been devastated by conflict. Violence especially when it takes the form of civil war, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and state oppression etc., makes institutional reforms nearly impossible as people and communities do not trust each other enough to create a well-functioning state in which enemies share power. That is why Reconciliationsts argue that state capacity and institutional change cannot take priority over reconciliation “it will follow after everyone has the right to be accorded human dignity and treated fairly…society and individuals must be healed through a process that exposes truths about the past and encourages people to come to terms with their own victimization and brutality and with the ways in which society systematically privileged some and harmed others. Unless history is confronted, its wounds will fester and contaminate post-accord politics.”[16] Reconciliation, therefore, seeks a post-conflict society that defends human dignity and ensures security and justice for all. Only when progress is made in this that true state-building can begin.[17]

The major challenge with reconciliation is its institutionalization. Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) have become ‘normalized’ and are often an important component of post-conflict reconstruction.[18] By 2006, there had been 41 TJR commissions, most of them receiving endorsements from the UN, International NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.[19] There is no harm in receiving endorsements, but when organizations begin to write “tool-kits” for TJRCs as UNHCR did in 2003,[20] then the process becomes problematic. These commissions have become standardized, thus incapable of addressing local grievances. True reconciliation should start at the grassroots level, designed and implemented by local leaders in communities, churches, and associations etc.


This paper has described the top priorities in transforming a society emerging from a conflict, namely state capacity, institutional quality and reconciliation. As noted, there are challenges associated with these priorities, the major one being the order of implementation. Every school of thought argues that theirs is more important, hence should take precedence. As I have indicated these priorities should take place concurrently. But post-conflict states lack the capacity to implement these priorities simultaneously. I have argued that capacity may not be a challenge if post-conflict states focus on reconstruction from the grassroots. There is so much resources at the local level that states have not tapped into.

Afghanistan, Somali, Iraq, Nigeria, Cambodia, and Philippines (only Mindanao) are a few examples of countries where the top- down approach failed to achieve its objectives. The structure of these countries favor a reconstruction from the grassroots level, and then the national level. Often, peacebuilders fail to notice that individuals or communities do not experience war the same way and that their realities in the midst of war and after war is different. It is therefore, absurd for peacebuilders or scholars to imagine that a uniform approach, tailored for a whole country, can have an impact at the grassroots.  People come in social packages and are greatly influenced by the communities of which they are members and their natural leaders. These communities have significant influence on what seem like individual choices, from participating in elections to food eaten and type of shelter.[21] Peacebuilders should therefore realize that the top-down (from the national government to grassroots) approach is unworkable, and that we need to build from bottom-up.

[1] Lisa  Baglione (2008) Peacebuilding: A Time to Listen to Learn from reconciliation, Palgrave Macmillan Journals, pp. 120-135

[2] Ibid 124

[3] Ibid 132

[4] Peter Wallensteen (2015) Quality Peace, London, OUP

[5] David Cortright (2013) Governance, Democracy and peace:  How State Capacity and regime Type Influence the Prospects for War and Peace, One Earth Foundation

[6] Lisa  Baglione (2008) Peacebuilding: A Time to Listen to Learn from reconciliation, Palgrave Macmillan Journals, pp. 120-135


[7] Besley, T and Persson, T (2008) State Capacity and Development, London: Economic Organization and Public Policy program.

[8] David Cortright (2013) Governance, Democracy and peace:  How State Capacity and regime Type Influence the Prospects for War and Peace, One Earth Foundation

[9] Ibid 10

[10] Jan Van den Broeck (2009) Conflict Motives in Kenya’s North Rift Region,  IPIS

[11] David Cortright (2013) Governance, Democracy and peace:  How State Capacity and regime Type Influence the Prospects for War and Peace, One Earth Foundation


[12] Ibid 12

[13]Bid 12

[14] Kriegler and Philip Waki (2009)  The Independent review Committee

[15] Amitai Etzioni (2010) Bottom- Up Nation Building, Policy Review, No. 158

[16] Lisa  Baglione (2008) Peacebuilding: A Time to Listen to Learn from reconciliation, Palgrave Macmillan Journals, pp. 120-135

[17] Ibid 131

[18] Hirsch, M, Mackenzie, M and Sesay, M (2012) Measuring the impacts of truth and reconciliation commissions: placing the global ‘success’ of TJRCs in local perspective.

[19] Ben-Josef Hirsch (2007) Agents of truth and justice: Truth commissions and transitional justice epistemic community in Heins V and Chandler D (Eds) Rethinking Ethical Foreign Policy: Pitfalls, Possibilities and Paradoxes. London: Routledge, pp. 184-205

[20] Ibid 187

[21] Amitai Etzioni (2010) Bottom- Up Nation Building, Policy Review, No. 158


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