Originally Published July, 2003; Current Implications section added by Heidi Burgess in April 2017.
Not surprisingly, people often disagree about the most effective approach to building peace within a population. Should peace be built from the top down, or from the bottom up? What roles should the different actors play? John Paul Lederach has answered this question with a diagram...a "peacebuilding pyramid." In order to determine which is the appropriate approach to building peace, one must understand who acts on each level, and what actions are best taken at each level. The levels are: 1) the top elite, 2) the middle-range, and 3) the grassroots. Thinking of peacebuilding in terms of a pyramid provides a simple way to describe the numbers of people involved at each level. The top-level elite leadership represents the fewest people, in some cases a handful of key actors. The grassroots level, on the other hand, involves the largest number of people, who best represent the population at large.
Characterizing the Three Levels
Each of the three levels can be characterized in terms of certain common features. The top-level elite leadership comprises the key political, military, and religious leaders in the conflict. They are the primary representatives of their constituencies and are therefore highly visible. By virtue of this high profile, they are often locked into positions regarding the conflict's substantive issues. They must maintain an image of strength, which makes it difficult for them to accept anything less than their publicly stated goals. In many cases, they find it difficult to maneuver.
The middle-range leadership, including leaders of mid-level NGOs (non-government organizations) and GOs (government organizations), comprises those who function in leadership positions but are not necessarily connected with formal government or major opposition movements. These middle-range actors are far more numerous than top-level leaders, and their status and influence derive from their relationships with others. Leaders in sectors such as education, business, agriculture, and health are likely to know and be known by top-level leadership, and yet have significant connections to the constituency that the top leaders claim to represent. They serve as an important connection between the top and grassroots levels. In addition, because these middle-range leaders have lower visibility, they tend to have more freedom to maneuver than do top-level leaders.
Finally, the leadership at the grassroots level includes those involved in local communities, members of indigenous NGOs carrying out relief projects, health officials, and refugee camp leaders. These grassroots leaders represent the masses, those who often experience a day-to-day struggle to find food, water, shelter, and safety in violence-torn areas. Because local communities are often split into hostile groups, grassroots leaders witness firsthand the deep-rooted hatred and animosity associated with conflict.
Indeed, many of the conditions that generate conflict, such as social and economic insecurity, political discrimination, and human rights violations are experienced primarily at the grassroots level. However, the lines of group-identity conflict are more often drawn vertically rather than horizontally. Group divisions usually cut down through the pyramid rather than pitting one level against another. This is because contemporary conflicts typically arise around issues of ethnicity, religion, and regional geography, rather than class. As a result, leaders at each level usually have connections to their "own people" at other levels of the hierarchy. They may also have connections with people at their own level "on the other side," unless relations have been severed completely.
It is also important to note the inverse relationships in the conflict setting. While a higher position in the pyramid means greater access to information and more decision-making capacity, it also means that the individual is less affected by the day-to-day consequences of those decisions. Conversely, a lower position increases the degree to which individuals directly experience the consequences of decision-making, but limits access to decision-making power. These inverse relationships pose difficulties for the design and implementation of peace processes.
Approaches at the Various Levels
Since each of the three levels plays a unique role in peacebuilding, different conflict-handling processes must be adopted at each level of the hierarchy. These various activities must be integrated into a comprehensive peacebuilding framework.
Top-level approaches to peace building aim to achieve a negotiated settlement between the principal high-level leaders of the parties involved in conflict. In these high-level negotiations, elite leaders are brought to a bargaining table and attempt to work toward new solutions. The first goal of these negotiations is typically a cease-fire or cessation of hostilities. This is typically followed by efforts to initiate a national transition, which involve the political leadership in implementing a framework that can allow for democratic elections. Peacebuilding at this level often involves a step-by-step, issue-oriented, and short-term achievement process. Because the negotiation process is usually conducted in the public limelight, top-level leaders face the difficult challenge of maintaining publicly articulated goals while at the same time moving toward compromise.
However, reaching an accord is hardly sufficient to build peace. Any meaningful peace process will have to move beyond top-level negotiations, and involve a much more comprehensive framework. It will have to rely on multiple tiers of leadership and participation within the affected population. In other words, peace-building efforts among the elite must be accompanied by efforts of mid-level and grassroots leaders.
Indeed, many believe that middle-range leaders are the key to creating an infrastructure for achieving and sustaining peace. Because these leaders have low visibility and are often connected to extensive networks that cut across the lines of conflict, they can play a crucial role in establishing productive relationships and working through conflict. Three important mid-level approaches to building peace are problem-solving workshops, conflict-resolution training, and the development of peace commissions.
Problem-solving workshops feature informal meetings designed to broaden participation and deepen parties' understanding of their shared problems. They also provide a forum for effective interaction as well as a politically safe space to test new ideas. Conflict-resolution training aims to raise parties' awareness about how conflict operates, and to impart skills for dealing with conflict. Middle-range leaders are often brought together in training sessions to share their perceptions of the conflict, analyze their own roles in it, and develop approaches that will promote reconciliation. Finally, these leaders often participate in peace commissions that allow for increased communication at the national, regional, and local levels. These commissions bring together prominent individuals from each side of the conflict and work towards reconciliation.
However, these middle-range efforts are all the more effective in light of peacebuilding efforts undertaken at the grassroots level. Leaders at this level can be involved in local peace conferences, peace programs, and local seminars. They might also form part of broader community and public-health programs for dealing with postwar trauma, or participate in workshops that aim to reduce prejudice and enhance community decision-making. These grassroots-level programs are crucial in helping people deal with the violence associated with war and repairing damaged relationships.
The approaches at all three levels serve an important function. Advancing political negotiations among elites, and implementing accords, no doubt plays an integral role in the transition to peace. Likewise, the problem-solving workshops and peace commissions formed by mid-level leaders play a central role in establishing a relationship- and skill-based infrastructure necessary to sustain the peace building process. Finally, grassroots approaches bring together former enemies at the village level, and are a crucial part of moving toward reconciliation. Together, the three levels and their associated approaches form a comprehensive framework for building peace.
This diagram below and the theory behind it comes from John Paul Lederach's book Building Peace, first published in 1997--a full 20 years ago today. While many of the examples in that book are now outdated, the basic theory is as strong and important as ever.
This diagram, in paricular, is one that is widely taught and applied in conflict resolution and peacebuilding circles today, as its implications are profound and still very much true.
Although much hope is placed on top-level leadership to bring about peace, the strength of the grassroots to influence the top (currently referred to as "populism") is particularly evident in many countries right now. What is less evident than it needs to be is the "middle-range leadership" that Lederach says is particularly effective at bringing people together.
In the United States the top-level leaders are doing their best to exacerbate conflict. The same appeared to be true in much of Europe, although that tendency seems to be waning. But both the US and Europe would do well to cultivate, empower, and listen to their "middle range leaders," particularly when they act as "cross-boundary leaders" as discussed in the Leaders and Leadership article.
Heidi Burgess, May 3, 2017.
 John Paul Lederach, a leading peacebuilder and peace scholar, explains this pyramid at length in his book, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997.) This essay, and the three associated essays on the different levels are all summaries of this work.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 40.
 Ibid., 41.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 44.
 Ibid., 45.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 47.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 51.
Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese summarizing John Paul Lederach, Michelle. "Levels of Action." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/hierarchical-intervention-levels>.