Leadership at the grassroots level represents the masses, those ordinary citizens who form the base of a society. In settings of protracted and violent conflict, life at this level is largely characterized by a survival mentality.[1] People struggle daily to find adequate food, water, shelter, and safety.

Grassroots leaders include people involved in local communities, members of indigenous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) carrying out local relief projects, health officials, and refugee camp leaders.[2] These leaders understand the fear and suffering experienced by the people, but also have extensive knowledge of local politics, and know the local leaders of government and their adversaries.

In many cases, what goes on at the local level is simply a microcosm of the larger conflict. Lines of identity often cut through local communities, splitting them into hostile groups.[3] The population typically experiences the violence and trauma associated with war with great immediacy, and must live in close proximity and interdependency with those they regard as enemies.[4] While leaders at the higher levels are typically removed from these tensions, grassroots leaders witness the deep-rooted hatred every day.

Approaches to Peacebuilding

Grassroots leaders face different challenges from those confronted by elite and middle range leaders. In part, this is because there are many people at the grassroots level. Leaders working at the local level may find it relatively easy to establish points of contact with the masses, but developing a comprehensive program that effectively reaches the general population is far more difficult. In addition, many people at this level are engaged in a daily struggle to meet their basic human needs, and may view conflict-resolution efforts as an "unaffordable luxury."

Nevertheless, important peacebuilding strategies can be employed at the grassroots level. The bottom-up approach to peace features several approaches targeted to the general population. In fact, many transitions toward peace are driven largely by pressure for change coming from the grassroots level.[6] One example is the case of Somalia in the 1990s:

  • The Somali approach began with local peace conferences, which brought together elders of various sub-clans in an effort to move toward peace agreements. The meetings typically involved the creation of a forum of elders, and lengthy oral deliberations.
  • These conferences not only dealt with immediate issues, but also helped local leaders to take responsibility for inter-clan fighting and identified the rightful representatives of the clans' concerns.[7]
  • Once an initial agreement was reached, the same process was repeated at a higher level with a broader set of clans.
In Somalia, this approach was necessary because the formal political infrastructure of the country had collapsed.[8] Relying instead on clan and sub-clan structures and mechanisms to deal with conflict helped Somalia to establish a framework for peace.

Promoting peacebuilding at the grassroots level might also be advanced through programmatic peace efforts. These efforts might be launched either before or after formal peace structures have been implemented.[9] In Mozambique, for example, the Christian Council of Mozambique (CCM) initiated a program that brought church representatives from all of the provinces together for a national seminar.[10] These representatives were then assigned the task of implementing local seminars, which discussed topics such as religious perspectives on war and peace, family involvement in conflict resolution, land reform, public health, human rights, and the impact of war on children. Seminars typically involved 30 to 50 participants, included pastors and lay people, and lasted for two weeks. Several of the seminars were held in refugee camps, and over the course of 16 months, more than 700 people participated.[11]

Conflict-resolution approaches can also be integrated into broader community and public-health programs for dealing with postwar trauma. Integration might include training in dealing with community conflict and violence, and workshops aimed at reducing prejudice. In many cases, such workshops are conducted as part of a country's health-delivery system, and draw on resource teams made up of conflict-resolution trainers, public-health officials, and psychiatrists.

These approaches enable grassroots leaders to work at the community or village level on issues of peace and conflict resolution. Programs often work through existing networks, such as churches or health associations, and attempt to deal with the trauma brought about by war. This is not a matter of political accommodation among elites, but rather a matter of repairing the interdependent relationships in the daily lives of ordinary people. Action taken at the grassroots level is crucial to reducing a conflict's destructiveness.

Michelle Maiese is a graduate student of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is a part of the research staff at the Conflict Research Consortium. Michelle Maiese is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.