Swati Lakshmi Batchu
Student, third year,
Jindal School of International Affairs
O.P. Jindal Global University
Haryana – India.
E-mail ID: 18jsia-swati.lb@jgu.edu.in

Source: Wikimedia

Benjamin Valentino perhaps puts it most succinctly that since the bloody wars of the 20th century no sane person can deny “the veracity of the roman proverb “man is a wolf to man” (Valentino, 2014). Although the world today sees fewer wars than it has ever seen before, the wars are painfully intractable. Therefore, United Nations Peacekeeping tries to address the age-old issue of war in a climate posing new and complicated challenges. In such a setting the UN is often criticized for being slow to change. This article seeks to explore the criticism through two key concepts, that is, the “Local Turn” in peacebuilding and the phenomenon of “Bunkerization”. The concept of “Local Turn” demands greater ownership of peace efforts and peacebuilding by locals. This in turn requires that peacekeepers are intimately familiar with the people and places they are helping. Bunkerization can provide an obstacle to encouraging this.

“Bunkerization” entails the fortification of UN compounds through increase in the building’s defensive capabilities, installing fencing, crash barriers, contracting external security agencies, etc. Such fortifications are often made in reaction to growing danger in many mission locations as a bid to protect peacekeepers. However, critique of the practice has highlighted that it can aid in creating a physical and psychological barrier between locals and the UN. One such effect of Bunkerization has been a decline in peacekeeping economies which is an indicator of one-on-one interaction between peacekeepers and the local populace. Therefore, this article will use the phenomenon of peacekeeping economies to illustrate one of the ways in which local voices can be injected into peacekeeping operations, in-turn bolstering the UN goal to encourage local efforts.

United Nations and Local Level Peacebuilding

Once a force that served limited functions, today UN Peacekeepers carry out extensive mandates in increasingly complex and dangerous environments. Over the years a few key principles, namely consent, impartiality, and non-use of force, have cemented themselves as the pillars of modern peacekeeping (UNDPO, n.d.). On the one hand, these pillars have undoubtedly lent credibility and strength to missions, yet on the other, they have also highlighted key issues within UN peacekeeping. Consent has always been a sticky issue. The UN website states that weak central command, weak control systems and discord among major parties can make for weak consent, that can jeopardize the UN’s work at the local level (UNDPO, n.d.). This can make for weak consent for UN measures. Thus, weak consent for interventions, as was witnessed in the Ivory Coast, can prove to be detrimental to the effectiveness of a peacekeeping mission (Sebastian & Gorur, 2018).

This is only one manifestation of the tension, local-level peacebuilding can often find itself in. The UN infrastructure puts immense value in finding solutions at the nation-state level and for good reasons. Yet, peace cannot be achieved if, as the UNDP report states, the focus remains on “imposing solutions” from the top-down and not on the “creation of opportunities” from the bottom-up (Odendaal, 2010). Thus, the ‘local-turn’ argument for greater local “ownership” and development of local “capacity” comes to the forefront. As Lederach states, the “greatest resource for sustaining peace in the long term is always rooted in the local people and their culture” (Lederach, 1997). Inorder to facilitate this the UN needs to incorporate local perspectives into its mandate. For example, Leonardson points out that conflict mitigation and peacebuilding efforts will fail as long as institutions are dominated by societal elites and everyday voices are ignored in favor of “official” narratives (Leonardsson & Rudd, 2015). While the UN does considerable work with local communities, as discussed below, bunkerization can provide an obstacle to this.

Bunkerization and Local Turn – Can developing Peacekeeping Economies be A Solution?

While the UN has traditionally relied on the apparent universality of its key pillars to gain legitimacy, non-state groups, may sometimes perceive [UN] agendas as biased or politically motivated (Duffield, 2012). As a result, the UN can no longer rely on its reputation and universal values alone to ensure secure access to conflict ridden areas. With the levels of violence and the ensuing danger escalating, this has particularly been an issue. Thus, the UN has rightly felt the need to protect its peacekeepers and experts, through highly fortified bases. However, bunkerization also creates a clearer separation between the safe spaces inside UN compounds and the perilous outside, giving rise to concerns that peacekeepers may lose touch of reality. UN training manuals for field officers warn against checking areas around the office and a residential area on foot or going to local vendors for food (Duffield, 2012). This could discourage peacekeepers from engaging with locals outside of tasks required for their work when such opportunities can be helpful in creating a sense of familiarity between peacekeepers and the locals, and present local perspectives on the relative impact of peacekeeping on themselves and their communities.

Peacekeeping economies can be one way to fill the gap in one-on-one interactions that bunkerization can create. A peacekeeping economy includes everyday transactions and economic activities, that would not have occurred without the presence of a large number of international peacekeepers (Jennings and Bøås 2015). These activities include, but are not limited to, local restaurants, bars, house help, security guards or jobs in any industry that cater to the peacekeepers. One way to gauge how much peacekeepers interact with local markets, including peacekeeping economies, would be to look at how their Mission Subsistence Allowances (MSA) are utilized. A report on the economic impact of peacekeeping shows that much of an individual’s MSA was spent on housing rent and the second biggest spending category is on recreational activities and food. Here, the report identifies valid issues with the possibilities of overreliance on UN arranged commissary stores (also known as PX Stores) over local stores for daily needs (Carnahan et.all., 2006). Over the extended period of a mission due to the familiar range of product available, peacekeepers can become reliant on commissary stores to the detriment of local providers (Carnahan et. all., 2006). 

South Sudan provides an example of how deeply bunkerization can affect interactions between the UN Mission and the locals. The UN compounds in South Sudan are often located outside town centers and thus peacekeepers rely almost exclusively on the base’s facilities and resources (Rolandsen, 2015). Even when resources are low, peacekeepers prefer going without them, until the next resupply, without reaching out to the local markets. As a result, local markets rarely stock-up on products catering to the needs of international peacekeeping members who consequently have fewer reasons to go to local centers for their needs (Rolandsen, 2015). South Sudan is an extreme case among peacekeeping missions but considering that ever more missions are increasingly bunkerizing, this story might replicate to the detriment of the locals in other nations. As Severine Autessere observes, strong boundaries created because of this and other factors result in “the intervener’s lack of local embeddedness and dearth of local knowledge” (Jennings & Bøås, 2015). This in turn limits the scope and effectiveness of locally driven solutions a mission may come up with. In contrast, a strong peacekeeping economy may help bridge this gap by facilitating space for greater interaction.

Bunkerization and its effects are painfully clear in many of the Peacekeeping African Missions. The absence of peacekeeping economies in countries like South Sudan, exemplified above is one such case. Peacekeeping is a complex task and peacekeepers face increasingly complex environments, yet the importance of remaining connected to the host population in a multifaceted fashion is relevant. As the nature of conflict evolves, the calls for an alternate to the liberal peacebuilding model get louder, and the UN must find effective ways to address these shifts. For example, local turn frequently calls on greater localization and local voice in peacebuilding and peacekeeping. While the UN has taken cognizance of this in its more recent missions, it hasn’t significantly steered away from the current (old) liberal peacebuilding model. Considering western institutions continue to be the dominant providers of peacekeeping and peacebuilding services. Perhaps a more realistic approach would be to actively involve locals into international efforts. Developing a vibrant and meaningful peacekeeping economy, can prove to be beneficial to UN peacekeepers and the local population alike.    


Carnahan, M., Durch, W. J., & Gilmore, S. (2006). Economic impact of peacekeeping. United Nations, Peacekeeping Best Practices Unit.

Duffield, M. (2012). Risk management and the bunkering of the aid industry. Development Dialogue, 58, 21-36.

Jennings, K. M., & Bøås, M. (2015). Transactions and interactions: Everyday life in the peacekeeping economy. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 9(3), 281-295.

Lederach, J. P. (1997). Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. Washington, DC: USIP.

Odendaal, A. (2010). An Architecture for Building Peace At The Local Level: A Comparative Study Of Local Peace Committees. United Nations Development Program, Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery. United Nations. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/land-natural-resources-conflict/pdfs/UNDP_Local%20Peace%20Committees_2011.pdf

Rolandsen, Ø. H. (2015). Small and far between: peacekeeping economies in South Sudan. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 9(3), 353-371.

Sebastián, S., & Gorur, A. (2018). UN Peacekeeping and Host-State Consent: How Missions Navigate Relationships with Governments (Washington, DC: Stimson Center).

United Nations Department of Peace Operations. Principles of Peacekeeping. Retrieved from https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/principles-of-peacekeeping

Valentino, B. A. (2014). Why we kill: The political science of political violence against civilians. Annual Review of Political Science, 17, 89-103.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.

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