A Deep-Dive into OEF's Theory of Peace

OEF theory of Peace monument
The Commemorative Monument of Peace and Unity in Davao City, Philippines.

Peacebuilding organizations like OEF face a surprising problem: deciding what we mean by peace. While almost everybody has an intuitive idea of what peace means, the reality is that nailing down a concrete definition becomes slippery fairly quickly. Peace researchers and organizations like the UN have spent a significant amount of time debating how exactly to understand peace, because doing so is a necessary step in coming up with a strategic plan about how to support peace. Some of the ideas that these discussions have generated include the famous distinction used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  between a “negative peace” characterized by an absence of direct violence and a “positive peace” characterized by social systems that support human flourishing in all areas, and the UN’s development of “human security” as a way of thinking about all the issues that lead to deaths beyond just military violence.

A Working Definition of “Peace”

This isn’t just a philosophical discussion. In order to do our work, OEF and other peacebuilding organizations would benefit from a clear working definition of what we mean by peace. OEF’s answer to that is that we exist to prevent large-scale organized political violence, and we define our goal as the elimination of war and armed violence as well as the prevention of its recurrence. In the technical language of peace theory, OEF is oriented towards a “negative peace,” because we define our goal as the absence of violence rather than the presence of larger social systems. That’s in itself a big enough goal for one organization (and while admittedly ambitious, it’s a perfectly plausible one). So in developing our theories of impact and articulating how we do our work, we start with that as our end goal: the elimination of war and large-scale organized political violence.

Positive vs Negative Peace 

Stating our goal in this way makes OEF a little unusual in the peacebuilding field. The arguments behind the idea of positive peace are very strong, and the peacebuilding field as a whole has largely accepted the positive peace framing as our overall collective goal. After all, direct violence is only one of the ways that harm is inflicted internationally.  

Historically, famine and disease have killed many more people during war and rebellions than direct combat itself. However, a key part of OEF’s thinking about impact is that we must define our goals narrowly in order to be able to solve them. A positive peace framing, while valid, is so expansive that it opens the door to defining our work as addressing almost every social problem everywhere. We needed a way to draw a circle around our work and define what is in the mission and what isn’t, and so we have centered our work on a negative peace definition.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t consider the arguments made for the broader definitions of peace. The problem with a too-simplistic negative peace approach is that the research on war is clear: war is always multi-causal. While the dynamics of intra-state violence, inter-state war, and internationalized conflicts are different there are underlying patterns which repeat. In particular, violence is risky and dangerous and, more often than not, in times where people are able to choose peace, they do indeed choose it. While wars can be caused by issues or failures in many different areas, peace is always the result of multiple pressures working together to reduce people’s willingness to fight and promote their faith in other ways of resolving disputes or achieving political goals. At the sub-state level, these include effective economic development, good governance (including legitimate, inclusive, and accountable systems), and good social service delivery. 


OEF Theory of Peace Mandala diagram how decide peace or violence

At the inter-state level, democratic and accountable governments, trade, and engagement in international institutions all support peace, and for the increasingly visible cases of internationalized conflict there are correspondingly hybrid dynamics of sub-state conflicts and international engagement. What this means is that even taking a negative peace definition, OEF and organizations like us who want to follow an evidence-based approach to peacebuilding must think about more than just stopping violence. Instead, peace requires effective delivery of economic development, good governance, state capacity for effective work, inclusive service provision, legitimate security services, and international engagement. This sounds like a positive peace approach, but the key difference is that we don’t see the absence of these issues as necessarily violence by our definition… Instead, we see the absence of these elements as dangerous indicators that violence is possible.

Addressing Peace Through Governance & Development

Achieving this is a tall order. But it’s what peace requires and increasingly organizations are acknowledging this: the US’s new “Global Fragility Act” is directly an attempt by the US government to grapple with this reality, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals explicitly link issues of peace to issues of good governance and development. So OEF’s approach to peacebuilding starts with the recognition that achieving the negative peace we’re looking for means working to set up systems that work across issues of development, state capacity, and good governance to ensure sustainable systems for peace. 

Our programs are designed both to address specific identifiable issues that are contributing to conflict in a society and also to help position OEF to catalyze and support the larger networks of organizations working together across all of these different issues to deliver peace in the places where we work. In the future in PeaceWire we’ll dig a little deeper into how OEF sees the different drivers of conflict are in the different cases of violence within and between countries and internationalized violence, and what this suggests for how we approach questions of coordination.

  • Stable Seas program is leaving One Earth Future

    Setting Sail: OEF’s Stable Seas Program Reaches New Milestone

    After three years of programmatic incubation, OEF’s Stable Seas program has reached a new milestone. Because of the team’s success demonstrating how accessible information on the relationships between maritime security and on-shore violence can shape the preparedness of government leaders, on May 1st the program’s work is being taken on by a new independent entity being formed by a consortium of partners anchored by the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime. Read More
  • Open Nuclear Network - Engagement Network Members

    ONN Announces Engagement Network Members

    Open Nuclear Network (ONN) is excited to introduce the members of its Engagement Network (EN) to a broader audience. During the past year, ONN has worked to establish close working relationships with esteemed former senior officials and experts from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, all committed to working together with ONN on the focused mission of nuclear risk reduction on the Korean Peninsula and in the broader Northeast Asia region. Read More
  • women's history month March women peacebuilders perspectives

    Perspectives on Peace | Celebrating Women’s History Month

    It is well documented, today, that women’s empowerment and gender equality are critical to achieving peace and stability around the world. The full and meaningful leadership, empowerment, and protection of women is essential to resolving deadly conflict and building stable, prosperous, and just post-conflict societies. We celebrate and support women and their male allies around the world who are working together to make that a reality. Happy Women’s History Month! Read More
  • Somali investments European Union

    Shuraako partners with the EU to boost the Somali private sector through access to finance

    On February 2, 2021, the European Union launched 3 new projects in support of Somalia’s private sector. One of the projects will contribute 5.5M€ to the Nordic Horn of Africa Opportunities Fund (the ‘Nordic Fund’) which is an impact fund targeting Somali small and medium sized enterprises. This brings the total funds that Shuraako manages (under the Nordic Fund) to $24 million. Read More
  • black peacebuilders influential

    Recognizing a Few Influential Peacebuilders this Black History Month

    In our mission to create an Earth beyond war and establish sustainable peace, we’re taking a moment to acknowledge a few of the many influential and empowering peacebuilders of the black community who have left an everlasting impact on the path towards a peaceful humanity.  Read More
  • ONN Engagement Network Retreat

    Fostering Inclusive Dialogue Around Nuclear De-escalation

    On January 26, OEF’s Open Nuclear Network program held its inaugural annual Engagement Network (EN) retreat, featuring a keynote address by Lukas Mandl, an Austrian member of the European Parliament and Chair of the EU Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the Korean Peninsula. Read More