In this article, “Relationality, and Pragmatism in Peacebuilding: Reflections on Somaliland”, Louise Wiuff Moe investigates the potential for combining a focus on relationships with a pragmatist emphasis on the ‘everyday’ as a way of breaking away from debates about liberal universalism versus local socio-cultural pluralism which dominate the current critique of liberal peacebuilding.

Through an analysis of differing approaches to peace and justice in Somaliland, Moe illustrates the significance of everyday processes and relationships and the limitations of interventions that focus solely on hierarchical systems and frameworks.

By Louise Wiuff Moe

‘Relational sensibility’, as described by Morgan Brigg in the lead piece, provides an alternative angle to prevailing critiques of liberal peace governance. The account of ‘relational sensibility’ also reveals points of – and possibilities for – connection and exchange between peace analysis and other streams of thought, theory, and practice (global governance, social sciences, the humanities, ethnomethodology, etc.).

In this piece, I am interested in how a focus on relationships and relationality (i.e. one aspect of the ‘relational sensibility’ discourse), combined with a pragmatist focus on everyday context, may help to think about international engagement beyond the problematic of ‘liberal thought vs. local practice/custom’. First, I briefly reflect on the conceptual aspects of this proposition, then I elaborate and illustrate these thoughts through a case study of peace and justice initiatives in Somaliland.


From abstract frameworks to everyday practice – conceptual reflections

Most current critical peace studies draw on conceptual frameworks that work on a post-colonial logic aiming to show ‘how ‘centers’ grudgingly remain the centers (that is, the West) but also to de-center – to expose or celebrate the narratives and stories elsewhere, the non-Western accounts of history’ (Hawittmeyer 2012). This maintains a focus on the meeting between the hegemonic liberal peace strategy and the localized everyday reality.

The ‘relational sensibility’ outlook instead seems to suggest that the centers have already been moved, for better or worse: local practices, capacities, and norms have become key targets for peace interventions. Consequently, interventions now often operate through complex and hybrid micro-engagement rather than only through top-down, macro-strategy. ‘Relational sensibility’ is, then, presented as a ‘shift to the local’ in intervention approaches and is associated with increased sensitivity to local dynamics and agency or, on the flipside, with new ways of governmentalizing hybridity, or, apparently, both.

As such, the notion of ‘relational sensibility’ sounds somewhat whimsical. Yet it may in fact hold possibilities for practical anchoring. In particular, the foregrounding of relationships and relationality in how we think about peacebuilding could be combined with a pragmatist focus on addressing concrete context (Chandler, forthcoming). This may assist in moving beyond the abstract problematic of ‘liberal thought vs. local custom/culture’ that shape current debates on liberal peace and its limits.

Overarching, strategic liberal peace frameworks, based on Universalist notions of the individual/the self and the state, are criticized for being unsuited to local, pluralistic realities. These critiques are commonly made on the basis of cultural difference – i.e. cultural difference, and the failure of liberal frameworks to mediate cultural difference, is seen as a central obstacle to peace. Yet, while universalism is critiqued, the focus of this critique tends to remain on the meeting between different ‘communities’ and ‘cultures’ (state/custom, liberal/local etc.) that are ultimately treated as relatively discreet, co-existing or interacting communities and institutions.[1]

Consequently, the framings of socio-cultural pluralism risk simply transposing the problem of the ‘separative self’ (and entity-thinking more generally) to a different level and, moreover, risk reproducing ‘dead end’ policy approaches that seek to adapt ‘the local’ to liberal frameworks, or ineffectively bending liberal frameworks in order to adapt them to the local. Liberal peace and its critiques, in brief, appear to remain stuck on the problem of the apparent gap between Universalist liberal frameworks and the ‘local everyday’ (Chandler, forthcoming; see also Cowan et al. 2001).

The anti-foundationalist approaches of pragmatism and relationality, in contrast, do not engage the problem of liberal universalism versus local socio-cultural pluralism. Instead, these approaches posit a reality in which there are no ‘tightly bounded subjects and objects, and therefore no gap to be bridged, but which yet does not fall into undifferentiated wholeness’ (Nelson 2001: 145). Rather, ‘separation and connection’ are in dynamic ‘co-creation and … tension with each other’ (Ibid: 143). Through this lens, the everyday is understood as made up by contestations, cooperation and experiences through which people and institutions are constitutively linked in complex ways (Brigg 2008; Englund 2004; Albrecht & Moe, forthcoming).

In sum, pragmatism directs attention to the everyday practices, strategies and institutions as the basis for addressing concrete problems at hand. Relationality provides clues about the dynamism and processes of the everyday. Through this lens, then, problems and solutions are ‘no longer debated in the formal framings of the export of liberal institutions, laws, and rights’; instead approaches and engagement are based on ‘how practices work in a particular context’ (Chandler, forthcoming: 2).

The following section grounds the discussion in a case study of an international NGO working with local approaches to enhancing security, peace, and justice in Somaliland. The case study illustrates both the practical possibilities of working with everyday practices and relationships and the futility of seeking to impact practice through revising legal frameworks.

A case study of a peace and justice initiative[2]

During the early 2000s, following an escalation of conflicts and revenge killings in the region of Togdheer in Somaliland[3],  a small group of traditional authorities from the region got together to discuss the issue. They reached the conclusion that strengthening the cooperation among the different security providers (in particular traditional leaders and state providers) was necessary to deal with this increasing insecurity. They approached an international NGO (INGO), working with local security and protection, and requested support for convening dialogues among leading clan elders from the different clans and sub-clans of the region, and between the elders and other security actors (state providers and also religious leaders).

At the time the INGO was in the process of developing an approach to enhancing local security and access to justice and was looking for local partners. An agreement was reached that the traditional leaders would get support for the peace-building dialogues, and in addition to peace/security, they would address the issue of access to justice – especially for people holding weaker positions within the linage system (women, IDPs and minority clan members).

As the partnership got up and running, the first dialogue in the Togdheer region brought together over 100 traditional authorities from five clans in the region, as well as religious leaders and state security providers. This generated wider interest and the initiative spontaneously spread: the Togdheer dialogue was followed by regional dialogue meetings in Sahel, Awdal, Maroodi Jeex, Sool and Sanag Regions. In some districts in the Sool and Sanag regions peace committees consisting of Aquils[4] representing the clans and sub-clans inhabiting the districts were later established to provide more permanent forums for interaction and experience-sharing among Aquils from different sub-clans, and between them and the district authorities.

Following the dialogues, a number of longstanding regional conflicts (in particular conflicts over water, grazing, and land) were addressed through mediation efforts led by traditional authorities and supported by religious leaders and local state officials. There was, moreover, a decrease in revenge killings and a corresponding increase in the number of murder cases being handed over to, and processed by the courts. Both traditional authorities and authorities from the judiciary confirmed that the practice of shielding the perpetrators of murder from the courts had been considerably reduced.

The traditional authorities – for the sake of the common interest in security – had reached greater consensus (across districts/regions) to disapprove of this practice and had managed to mobilize their constituency more effectively in putting concerted pressure on conflicting parties to refrain from hiding perpetrators of revenge killing from the courts. The police would, in turn, occasionally assist in enabling Xeer[5] negotiations by arresting suspects for the duration of the negotiation process – to in this way avoid disruptions and revenge killings during the process.[6]

In the Somaliland context, the basic security architecture has from the outset been multi-layered, with state, traditional and Islamic providers being mutually dependent in co-enacting basic public order. The multi-layered or hybrid arrangements have been known to provide impressive levels of order but are typically locally confined in the way they operate. The challenge in addressing the issue of revenge killings was approached as a challenge of expanding upon and strengthening existing practices and relationships by aiding providers to meet across localities and districts. In this context, the role and approach of the INGO in the dialogue processes and the subsequent activities was to facilitate and provide support and funding for the logistics, such as transportation, food, and planning.[7]

Although local security and peacebuilding was strengthened, the second aim of enhancing justice (for women, IDPs, and minority groups) was not met. On this matter, the approach worked on a legalist logic of ‘changing law systems’: the focus was to revise/reformulate aspects of customary law to make it more in line with international human rights standards, and agreements were made between the traditional courts and the state courts specifying that the former committed to transferring cases of rape and gender-based violence to the latter (as state law is perceived as better suited than Xeer for providing justice for the individual).

These revisions and agreements had been written down in declarations – called ‘the Elders Declarations[8] – and this had been followed up with human rights training and dissemination of the declarations.

This did not, however, have much effect in terms of changing the practice of how cases of rape, violence, or marginalization were dealt with. Even when the traditional authorities, in principle, were prepared to refer cases to the state court, community members and relatives would assert social pressure to reach settlement through the Xeer. This preference is not surprising given the longstanding role of Xeer as the primary functional source of security and social regulation, particularly in a context where many years of civil war have left the state judiciary severely underdeveloped and unfit for addressing many contemporary crimes, conflicts, and interests.

The few cases that did reach the state courts were, moreover, in most instances sent back to the traditional system – in particular, because evidentiary requirements make the prosecution of such cases in the state courts extremely difficult (due to the low capacity of the police to collect evidence). While state courts often return cases to the customary system, the courts, in turn, often register and ratify the rulings made through the Xeer. Justice processes operate, in brief, as ‘conglomerations of different legal orders’ (Chopra & Isser 2011: 34) rather than closed and distinct ‘state’ and ‘customary’ law systems.

Against this backdrop, it became apparent that a revision of law, and the ‘goodwill’ of the traditional authorities involved, did not produce a corresponding change in practice. It also did not address socio-political structural issues to improve conditions for individuals and groups who are marginalized within multiple co-constitutive systems.

When I visited in 2011 some new developments were underway. The security and conflict resolution work had been broadened to include not only established security providers (state and traditional) but also ordinary people/community members. There were indications that these engagements – somewhat circuitously – had had an impact on issues of justice. Engagement with community members below the level of established authorities (state, customary, religious) included providing assistance to facilitate existing women’s groups getting together and strengthening wider women’s networks for peace/conflict resolution.

Customarily, and in everyday life, Somali women play important roles in conflict resolution – for example as actors who can bridge across clan divides (given their affiliation to both their own clan and their husband’s clan), and as mediators in micro-scale conflicts and disputes. The support to women’s groups assisted in further mobilizing and organizing existing capacities, for example through arranging meeting rooms for the women, helping to organize women’s dialogues, and bringing together and coordinating the different groups. ‘Women’s Peace Platforms’ were developed in a few communities, and came to function as established bodies to be called upon to mediate, for example, in neighborhood conflicts or family fights.

The process of connecting different actors working for peace and security was extended to community policing activities. Community policing committees had been established in several locations. These committees were run by a mix of community members (men as well as women) and traditional authorities. Smaller cases were often brought to the committees rather than directly to the police.

Hence, the committees functioned as mediating institutions between the police and local people. This enabled members of the community policing committees to put pressure on both the traditional authorities and the police to be accountable and to push them to comply with agreed-upon principles of justice, while at the same time helping to strengthen the linkages between the different security providers and enhancing their effectiveness.

These activities were complemented by conflict management ‘trainings’, bringing a mix of actors together (including women, youth, elders, local state officials) to discuss existing sources of conflict and capacities for conflict management in the community.

Interviewees indicated that beyond the intended ‘learning outcomes’, a key function of these ‘trainings’ – as well as of the Women’s Peace Platforms and community policing committees – was that different members of the communities got a chance to access the multi-layered justice and security architecture, and become part of the processes of negotiation that shape and reshape this architecture.

At times they became directly involved – through ‘bridging forums’– in finding resolution to disputes or instances of crime within the communities, and in defining how the cases should be interpreted, judged and solved. This entailed contestations of the established security and justice providers (elders and local state officials) – yet remained within a broader shared objective of mobilizing the community as a whole to organize and strengthen its capacities for peaceful solutions to conflicts across all levels (family/neighborhood, intra-community and inter-community/clan).

In these processes the Elders’ Declarations in some instances came to serve as ‘tools for contestation’ – i.e. they were used as reference points for challenging discriminatory practices. They thus acquired a more contingent and interactional – yet no less significant – role than is commonly assumed to be the function and status of ‘articles of law’ in the legalist tradition. The Somaliland women’s umbrella organization NAGAAD moreover used the Elders’ Declarations as the reference point for promoting the passing of new laws on women’s and minority rights within the formal legal system.

Concluding reflections

The significance of everyday practices and relationships stands out in the case study. Relationships (spanning different local actors and institutions) were central: to the effects and limits of the initiative; to how solutions were found to a local security problem (revenge killings); to how processes of justice played out; and, in extension, to the limitations of a legalist approach.

As for the latter, it turned out that the approach of focusing on ‘reforming systems’ did not lead to change in justice practices. This justice approach did intend to adapt to ‘local conditions’ by engaging not just with state institutions/actors, but also with traditional authorities and Xeer. Yet the key aim was to put ‘acceptable laws’ in place locally.

The underlying assumptions at work were: that law regulates practice; that providing a better understanding of international human rights norms can address problems associated with ‘local norms’/ customary law; that state law and customary law are relatively discrete systems (separate and distinct from each other – operationally as well as normatively – and working above society); and that state law is better able to protect individual human rights.

This illustrates how approaches of working at the ‘grassroots’ level, as advocated in the ’relational sensibility’ approach, can be apparently pluralist and contextually accommodated, and yet replicate logics of ‘justice in the abstract’.

Resonating with findings from studies elsewhere, the above case study illustrates that rather than operating as closed and distinct ‘state’ and ‘customary’ law systems, ‘both systems are just players in the much larger theatre of social and political processes and power dynamics’ (Chopra & Isser 2011: 33). Issues of social power and socio-political inequality that shape access to justice were not, therefore, changeable by merely revising the law or motivating the traditional authorities involved.

The initial approach to justice was based on the (INGO’s) assumptions that local cultural norms and practice were the obstacle, and a revision of legal frameworks and systems was the solution. The approach to peacebuilding and security, in turn, operated on a different logic. Instead of focusing on predefined frameworks, local practice and relationality were engaged as the key resources for addressing local security concerns related to revenge killing.

This part of the initiative focused on facilitating existing everyday practices and strategies to solve a concrete problem and led to an expansion of cooperation across state and customary arrangements and actors. This indicates a process of ’coordination-by-doing’ in which solutions and organization occur ‘in relationships rather than through the actions of a superordinate and overarching coordinating entity’ (Brigg 2008: 8).

More widely, such trajectories of emergence and relationality, underpinned by local institutions and socio-political norms of negotiation and compromise, have been central in the ongoing processes of reconstruction and order-making in Somaliland. The prevailing popular narrative on Somaliland is that this process succeeded because of the lack of external engagement.

Yet other accounts point out that ‘Somaliland has in fact long been the recipient of growing levels of aid’ … and ‘despite mythologies to the contrary, continues to rely on external inputs’ (Walls & Elmi 2011: 72).[9] Walls and Elmi (2011: 73) review a number of key cases of both negative and positive roles played by various external actors, and conclude that Somaliland provides examples of how ‘the pragmatism of customary norms’ can permit and define a space for external actors to engage constructively.

One example of particular relevance here is the low-key facilitative and logistical roles played by a number of external actors (including foreign governments, NGOs, embassies, UNDP) assisting the five-month-long negotiations at the 1993 national clan-conference in Borama (known as the conference which lay the foundations for Somaliland’s political and institutional reconstruction).

Similar to the roles played by external actors in the dialogues discussed in the case study above, the external support during the Borama conference included facilitation, organizational support, transport (including air transport), and small funds for conference preparation (Bradbury 2008; Elmi & Walls 2011).

The common features of the ‘successful cases’ discussed by Walls and Elmi (2011: 83) are that ‘external funding did not disproportionally dominate’, that ‘outsiders did not establish frameworks and deadlines beyond the immediate release of funds’, and that the form of engagement was ‘smaller in scale and [built] actively on local initiatives’.

Resonating with the peace dialogues discussed in the case study, this indicates the possibility of ‘relational sensibility’ operating along the lines of pragmatic concern for working with and addressing context – where context is understood as ‘processes of practical relations and outcomes’ (Chandler, forthcoming: 16).

Similarly, with regards to justice processes, it became apparent that when the approach shifted from a legalist logic of ‘putting acceptable laws in place’ to a focus on facilitating and strengthening greater involvement and participation of ordinary community members in justice and security arrangements – and on enhancing their existing institutions, roles and capacities – this contributed to increasing local connections (below the level of ‘established’ security/justice providers).

This increased connectivity, in turn, assisted in widening the space for processes of contestation over how justice is provided and, practically, how and by whom cases are interpreted and judged in specific local contexts. It was, in other words, at the level of ‘human resources’ (Chopra & Isser 2011) and relationships – rather than on the level of systems and frameworks of law – that contestation and gradual change started to take place. This is not to pitch ‘practices’ against ‘institutions’, but, conversely, to stress their interaction.

Moreover, in this context, the complexity and inter-linkages of multiple legal orders turned out to not simply be a drawback; developments and changes within one legal order could be used to push for advancing rights within another legal order (see also Chopra & Isser 2011). This illustrates how ‘relationality is a dynamic tension … a dialectic’, and, further, it presents a reality where subjects and institutions are both ‘distinct and exist in intimate relation and co-creation with their social [and political] worlds’ (Nelson 2001: 142).

In sum, focusing on relationships reveals power struggles and constellations forming and reforming in and across local, state, and international spheres. Relational complexes also indicate collaboration, interdependence, and attempts to address everyday challenges and to contest established power structures.

As illustrated by the case study ‘subjects are situated in their particular political and economic positions and are engaged in attempts to overcome and cope with those positions through relations with others [emphasis added]’ (Englund 2004: 14) Drawing more attention to relationships and relationality (or ‘relational sensibility´), then, provides one avenue for shifting focus from the abstract and ideational problematic of liberal thought vs. local custom, or formal vs. informal, to instead reach out into the everyday, and pragmatically support local practices in addressing context-specific challenges.

(c) 2013, In: Global Dialogues. 2, p. 44-54 10 p.

Louise Wiuff MoeAbout the author

Louise Wiuff Moe is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland, Australia, and a visiting researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies. Louise holds a Master‘s degree in International Studies from the University of Stellenbosch and the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo.

Louise’s research interests include state formation processes in conflict and post-conflict settings; representations of means and ends in peace-building interventions; interfaces between local and international/liberal approaches to peace and political order; customary authority in Somalia and in sub-Sahara Africa in general.


[1] This tendency is apparent, for example, in the hybridity discourse— one of the current key streams of critiques of top-down liberal peace—when hybrid orders are represented as socio-political formations ‘where formal and informal elements co-exist’ (Kraushaar and Lambach 2009: 1), or, in the post-colonial sense, when the conceptual and analytical focus remains on the two defined subjects of the external/colonial power and the local/colonized subject (Peterson 2012).

[2] The case study draws substantially on the article ‘Custom, contestation and co-operation: peace and justice promotion in Somaliland’. Moe, L. & M. Vargas 2013, in Conflict, Security & Development 13 (4): 393-416. The article provides information regarding the field data and interviews substantiating the analysis of the case.

[3] Revenge killings typically happen when a clan or sub-clan, involved in a conflict, is unable or unwilling to pay compensation as required by the Xeer, and the aggrieved clan responds by killing the perpetrator or other members of his clan. This may set off spirals of revenge killings, which can be infinite. Revenge killings often escalate as a result of the clan hiding the perpetrator/accused clan member, and refusing to hand him over to the courts (state or customary).

[4] The Aquil institution is a hybrid rather than a purely traditional institution, through which the British exercised indirect rule. In contemporary Somaliland the Aquils are the category of traditional authorities who are most actively and directly involved (as mediators, peacemakers and judges).

[5] Somali customary law.

[6] No claim is made here that the dialogues, or the INGO support, was the only factor in initiating these changes. As noted, this reflection piece builds on qualitative data and field observations as the basis for discussing the ways in which INGO support interacted with local dynamics of ordering in the realms of peace, security and justice.

[7] Lack of resources for hosting peace meetings (including food, accommodation and transport) tends to be a key barrier to convening local peace meetings. Support for logistics can therefore provide a basic yet significant form of assistance. However, direct payment—including the infamous ‘per diems’—is often disruptive and can create incentives to let meetings drag on.

[8] Notwithstanding this name, the transforming of oral commitments to written agreements resonates primarily with a rational-legal notion of commitment/agreement linked with legality and contractual obligation, whereas Xeer historically resides in oral forms.

[9] Contrasting Somaliland’s ‘success’ and South Somalia’s ‘failure’ has become the favorite case for generalized arguments against aid, recently including in particular in the media (Daily Mail, the Economist, the Guardian).


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Chandler, David (forthcoming). ‘Resilience and the “Everyday”: Beyond the Paradox of “Liberal Peace”’, Review of International Studies.

Chopra, Tanja, and Isser, Deborah (2011). ‘Women’s Access to Justice, Legal Pluralism and Fragile States’, in Albrecht, Peter et al. (eds.), Perspectives on Involving Non-State and Customary Actors in Justice and Security Reform, International Development Law Organization (IDLO) and the Danish Institute of International Studies (DIIS), Rome, 23–39.

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Hawittmeyer (2012). Post-colonialism: the West, the Rest, and the move to de-center, Personal Blog,, accessed September 2013.

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Peterson, Jenny (2012). ‘A Conceptual Unpacking of Hybridity: Accounting for Notions of Power, Politics and Progress in Analyses of Aid-Driven Interfaces’, Journal of Peacebuilding & Development 7 (2): 9–22.

Walls, Michaelk, and Elmi, Hodan (2011). ‘Indigenous Forms and External Interventions in a Somali Context’, Reflections and Lessons of Somaliland’s Two Decades of Sustained Peace, Statebuilding and Democratization: Somaliland Development Series No.2 Hargeisa: SORADI and HBF Publishers, 70–87.

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