John Paul Lederach's Peacebuilding Pyramid

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

October, 2016

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This video describes leading peacebuilder John Paul Lederach's theory about the three levels of peacebuilding actors.  First published in 1997 in his seminl book Building Peace, this "pyramid" or "triangle," as it is called is referred to and used by many peacebuilding scholars and practitioners.  It also is one of the early examples of looking at peacebuilders as being parts of a complex system. 

Discussion Questions: 

(1) What other ideas from John Paul Lederach have you found to be particularly useful in your work?  Put another way, what are his core ideas that have influenced the way you work or think about conflict problems?

(2) What other people should we include in this "literature review" of the "founders" of the complexity-oriented approach to peacebuilding?  What key ideas of theirs have you found particularly useful or influential?  Can you give us citations to sources that talk about ideas?

Discuss both these questions in D12.

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Full Transcript

Hi. This is Heidi Burgess, and I'd like to talk briefly about John Paul Lederach and one of his key ideas which I tend to refer to as his peacebuilding triangle or peacebuilding pyramid. This is a set of ideas that appears in this diagram from page 39 of his seminal book entitled Building Peace which was published in 1997 by the US Institute of Peace Press.

This diagram shows Lederach's key idea that there are three different levels of leadership involved at any conflict, and different approaches to building peace that are appropriate to use at each level. Most attention usually goes to top level leadership, the military, political, and religious leaders that have high visibility. These are the people that we think of as leaders when you say, for instance, ”who is the leader of the Syrian government,” or “who's the leader of the opposition?”

But there's lots of other leaders lower down that actually have key roles to play. At the grassroots, there's local leaders of local communities, there's leaders of indigenous NGOs, there's people working as community developers, local health officials, local education officials, refugee camp leaders. People who represent more than just themselves, but don't really have ties to higher levels of organization or action.

And then there's what Lederach calls the middle-range leadership. And these are leaders of respected sectors such as ethnic or religious leaders, academic or intellectual leaders, humanitarian leaders of major NGOs. These are people who have ties to the top. They can get in touch with and talk to people who are at the top level. But they also have connections at the bottom level, so that they're much more grounded. They are aware of the concerns of the people on the ground, the concerns of local citizens, much more so than the top level leadership generally is.

If you're working with the top level leadership, the focus is generally on high-level negotiations, working on cease fires, and ultimate peace agreements. They're usually led by highly visible people, often just single mediators who are trying to work out a be-all and end-all agreement. Very often this doesn't work with the kinds of conflicts that we're looking at as highly intractable.

Again, skipping to the bottom you have people who work with local citizens on the ground to deal with the day-to-day manifestations of the conflict. There will be local peace commissions, they'll be grassroots conflict resolution trainers, they'll be trainers on prejudice reduction, psychosocial work, helping people overcome trauma. These are things that are of concern to people who have been victimized and engaged in conflict at the very bottom levels.

And then again, you have things that you do at the mid-range. One thing that's frequently done with mid-range leaders is what's called problem-solving workshops or interactive problem solving. This is when you get mid-level people from both sides of a conflict to sit down and examine the human needs that each side of the conflict has, and try to figure out a way that those human needs can be met by both sides simultaneously.

And this often leads to creative solutions that aren't so visible if you just look at the negotiations going on at the high level.  These discussions are more grounded in the needs that you see at the bottom level, and often create interesting opportunities for breakthroughs that you couldn't get at either of those other two levels. The mid-level leadership also can be involved in training and conflict resolution and peace commissions, but generally at a higher level than at the grassroots level.

And there can be what John Paul Lederach calls insider partials. These are insiders who are involved in the conflict who are still able to work across the conflict lines to try to bring opposing people together. This is a lot like Bill Ury's notion of third side roles, which I'll be talking about in another video.

So the most interesting thing about this diagram is that you've got the three levels of a conflict-affected population that have few at the top, many at the bottom, and different ways of addressing each of those levels. And the thing that John Paul points out that isn't totally obvious from this diagram is that often working at that mid-range level is the most effective. Because they see things that can't be seen at either of the other two levels.

They can work between the top and the bottom and across the middle horizontally. So they have more connections to more people and more ability to come up with creative ideas than most of the other people. This is a concept that many others have built on, and you'll see that in some of the lectures that I'm going to give after this, and it's just one of the key ideas that has made the peacebuilding field what it is today.

For more information about this idea, you can see John Paul's book Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies or you can look at a summary of it that appears on Beyond Intractability written by a graduate student of ours number of years ago, Michelle Maiese, that's called "Levels of Action." 

Referenced Resources

John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Socieites.  US Institute of Peace Press. 1997. See also a summary of the book writing by Tanya Glaser on Beyond Intractability:

Michelle Maise, "Levels of Action," in Beyond Intractability.

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