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Fragmented and interconnected Conflicts

October 9, 2016

1.    Intro

From time to time in the past year, I’ve been asked to give an overview of conflict and peace trends as part of a regular UK government course. The title of the session is Global Conflict Trends and Challenges: it’s intended as a broad, impressionistic view, with a focus on what the UK – especially the government – can do. After delivering this talk from simple notes all year, I’ve written them up here. It starts with a simple overview of high level trends, followed by an attempt to define a rough typology of ongoing conflicts. This in turn is followed by a broad description of some of the drivers of conflict and violence relevant to the present day and coming years, then finally I ask: what can the UK do? Nothing I say below is based on a specific review of academic papers: it has simply emerged from ongoing, casual analysis and scanning of literature and media, and discussions with colleagues and friends.

2.     Conflict and Peace trends

Briefly and broadly, I note six main trends.

  • Stephen Pinker’s insight that human society taken as a whole, has become considerably more and more peaceful over the past few centuries, as measured by the incidence of war-related and other forms of violence including rape and domestic violence. Pinker – whose analysis is controversial, but is based on a wide review of data – ascribes this to five main factors, which I summarised in a blog post in 2012: the Enlightenment, improved governance, the feminisation of some societies, an increase in empathy, and the cooperation inherent in commerce. His main point is that despite terrible episodes of bloodletting, things have been steadily improving over the long-term.
  • Increasing international stability brought about first by the post-Second World War settlement, and – after a spate of post-colonial wars following the end of various Western European empires in the 1960-70s, and again after the collapse of the Soviet empire in the 1990s – a significant reduction in wars, from about 50 in 1990, to only about 30 in 2010. This improvement represents among other factors, the growing commitment to and success of peacebuilding and peacebuilding efforts by the international community. Recent progress towards peace deals in Philippines, Colombia and Myanmar are examples from the present day.
  • But this trend has now seemingly reversed, and there are some 40 wars being waged today; including the horrendous violence in Yemen and Syria which is – rightly – forever in the news. Of course counting the number of wars is an imperfect measure, since Syria and (say) Burundi may both count as one, whereas the complexity, scale and depth of their conflicts differs enormously. Some 57 million people are thought to be displaced globally, terrorism and its impact is on the rise, the number of battle deaths has increased fivefold since 2008, and the Global Peace Index (GPI) has shown a decline in peace since 2008. (Though it is important to note that the 2016 GPI shows an increase in peacefulness if the data from the Middle East and North Africa region are removed).
  • Wars and conflicts have continued, in a trend which has prevailed since the Second World War, to be increasingly internal in nature – notwithstanding the relevance of external factors to most internal conflicts, the frequent involvement of outside powers, and the tendency of internal wars to affect or spill over into neighbouring countries.
  • Nevertheless there is a visible resurgence of conflict between the major powers: between the Russia and the USA and its allies; and perhaps also between the USA and China.
  • There is a growing recognition and understanding of ‘positive peace’, and how to build it. Positive peace is the idea that simply stopping the fighting (negative peace) is not enough. Half of all peace agreements are said to break down within five years, usually because the underlying issues remain unresolved (as in Liberia in the 1990s), or because resolving them created or exposed new tensions and conflicts (South Sudan). In the end, all peace agreements should be seen as ceasefires merely, which need to be managed and adapted with continuous care, until critical tensions are resolved or at least manageable. Positive peace is when people and societies – at whatever level, from the household to global relations – have the combination of culture, systems and capacity to anticipate and manage conflicts non-violently. We have seen an increasing international commitment to peacebuilding – the nurturing and sustenance of positive peace – and knowledge about how to go about it, e.g. in NGOs like International Alert; the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (IDPS) and the G7+; the acceptance of the ‘New Deal’ at the High Level Forum for Aid Effectiveness at Busan; the adoption of peace and security in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); the integration of conflict-sensitive humanitarianism at the World Humanitarian Summit and in recent IDPS statements; and UN Security Council Resolution 2282 mandating step change improvements in UN peacebuilding intent and capacity; the establishment of a department for Fragility, Conflict, Violence and Forced Displacement in the World Bank; a fourfold increase in lending by the International Finance Corporation to projects in fragile and conflict-affected contexts; the adoption of conflict-sensitive approaches by extractive companies, the Global Compact, and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights Initiative; the integration of conflict-sensitive climate adaptation into policy by G7 member countries and elsewhere, and the increasing recognition of the human security dimension of climate change; and an increased understanding among donors and international bodies that state building encompasses building relationships among citizens and between citizens and the state, not just building the capacity of state institutions. Phew!

capture-positive-peace-boxSo, broadly, looking back over the past few decades, there is much to be happy about, but also evidence that violent conflicts are on the rise again, and terrible, prolonged human suffering wherever that is happening.

3.    A typology of violent conflicts?

In looking at some of the extant violent conflicts, I have developed a very simple typology. Not surprisingly, many conflicts fit into more than one, and often several categories – which is perhaps a reflection of the inherent complexity of most conflicts, especially those which become violent because they have not been managed, resolved or contained.

But before getting into the typology, it’s worth a reminder that conflict is a normal feature of society. Once two or more people get together, they are bound to encounter situations in which their perceptions and preferences differ, and larger groups and societies will inevitably have even greater and more complex differences to resolve. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine societies making development progress without conflicts over which directions to take, over who should reap the benefits of change, and over who will lose out or risk losing out. (It is, after all, the task of politics to chart a way forwards for society in the face of multiple competing ideologies and ideas.) At a fundamental level conflicts are thus necessary if we are to make progress in human flourishing. It is when they become violent, are left unmanaged, or are resolved unfairly, that problems arise. And so my typology is not so much a typology of conflicts, but of violent conflicts:

  1. Conflicts waged by international extremist movements. This concerns extremist Sunni Islamist movements fighting a complex war against unfavourable regimes mainly in the Middle East and their supporters in the West, using old fashioned political-theology as a propaganda tool which has often become the tail wagging the dog. This largely asymmetric warfare links up diverse groups of alienated Sunni Muslims across the world in loose and evolving franchise models led in different contexts by conflict entrepreneurs. Linking local grievances to a global movement allows successful local acts of violence missions to have a wide geographic impact, while the movement remains resilient to local defeats.
  1. Geopolitical conflicts of major regional or global significance. These are the high level conflicts which persist for decades, the resolution of which requires either a massive and costly victory by one side or, usually a mixture of containment and proxy wars. The Cold War is over now, but the conflicts between Russia and NATO members, between China and various other Pacific nations and powers, conflicts over Iran’s and Israel’s roles in the Middle East, and historically over oil, and between India and Pakistan, all fall into this category.
  1. Intercommunal violence between neighbours identified by religion and ethnicity. This is a feature of many countries and regions, especially where governance is poor (since a primary task of governance is to create a supra-identity which encompasses different ethnic or religious identities, for example between groups in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Nepal, Northern Ireland and the Central African Republic.
  1. Classic stand-offs over territory. These are the international – often long-frozen but unresolved – conflicts such as between North and South Korea, Pakistan and India over Kashmir, Israel and the Palestinians, and Georgians and Abkhazians (and Russia) over Abkhazia, and between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Ngorny-Karabakh. Inevitably such long-term unresolved conflicts play into regional and global dynamics, and in some cases can take on a talismanic importance far from their physical locale – as in the way Israel plays into geopolitics and American politics.
  1. Long-running sub-national conflicts. These aren’t always in the news internationally (or even nationally), but plenty large number of sub-national conflicts around the world persist unresolved: for example Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, Southern Thailand, Northern Ireland, the Basque region of Spain, Mindanao and Communist guerrilla movements in the Philippines, a slew of small scale, mainly communist armed rebellions across a large swathe of eastern and north-eastern India, and ethnically defined armed groups in parts of Sudan, Myanmar and Mali.
  1. Chronic conflicts of state formation. This is a controversial category, as it has been argued that conflicts of state formation can only be accurately described as such by historians, after the state has been formed; and that state formation is a never-ending process. Nevertheless, a significant number of national conflicts are very much between groups with different perspectives on the nature of the state, of the relationship between the state and the people, and over who has the right to control access to state power. The long-running chronic conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Central African Republic, Mali, Chad, South Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan and several parts of the ex-Soviet Union – and more recently in Libya, Syria and Iraq – all fit this category, which is particularly relevant to countries which have emerged from colonial status or a long period of home grown repression.
  1. Countries apparently emerging from conflict. I noted earlier that peace agreements are notoriously susceptible to breakdown. The recent resurgence of violence in Mozambique and Burundi are just two recent examples. Civil wars, sub-national conflicts and geopolitical conflicts are notoriously persistent. But wars can and do end, or be brought to an end. Currently or in recent years a number of places are emerging from years of conflict and war, usually through a peace deal but sometimes through victory and defeat: such as Colombia, Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, the Basque region and Uganda.
  1. Other social or societal conflicts. Finally, a catch-all category of violent conflicts which affect significant numbers of people in society, but are not always seen as “armed conflict”. This occurs in countries or parts of countries (often urban areas) typically affected by inadequate and/or structurally unfair governance arrangements and state capacity, the presence of organised crime conducted by armed gangs, and a lack of alternative economic activity. The resulting violence tends to affect young people in particular – as perpetrators and victims. When the World Bank said in 2011 that 1.5 billion people lived in contexts affected by armed violence, their figure included places in this category, and they were thinking of places like Jamaica, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil and Honduras.

I hope these are useful categories, but I know they are also poor, not least because so many conflicts fit into several of them. Where, for example, would one place Syria today? Certainly in the Islamic extremism, state formation, geopolitics and communal boxes; and perhaps also by the stand-off over territory (because of the link to Israel / Palestine) and sub-national conflicts… But a crisp, overlap-free typology is almost certainly impossible now (if it ever was), because we are in an age of so-called fragmented conflicts, described by the Advisory Group of Experts report in 2015 as ‘more complex, increasingly fragmented and intractable’.

4.    Drivers

The nexus between demographic, economic and environmental stresses

Conflicts are most often caused by stresses operating in and on societies, and violence happens when the capacity to absorb those stresses and manage the resulting conflicts – i.e. the degree of resilience – is inadequate or overwhelmed. The kinds of conflicts I have described above are all, in one way or another, conflicts over access to power. But what are the underlying drivers? In developing its current multi-year strategy, International Alert recently identified a complex of factors which seem to be sustaining, and possibly increasing the incidence, of violent conflict. These make up a dynamic combination of economic, environmental and demographic pressures putting societies under stresses which they lack the resilience to address and absorb.

Demographic pressures vary from place to place, but there are several relevant ways in which they create stress. First, the youth bulge affecting poor and many middle income countries, where young people make up the lion’s share of the population and seek an outlet for their energy and ambitions but become frustrated and create instability when these ambitions can’t be met. This phenomenon has helped persuade an admittedly small number of young men in parts of the Islamic world to gravitate towards ISIS, which offers them a chance to make a difference – to have a sense of political agency which seems to be denied them at home. It’s also one of the factors behind the Arab Spring – which was heralded by the self-immolation of a frustrated young Tunisian named Mohamed Bouazizi. Young people today can watch CNN and Al Jazeera and see the kinds of lives others are living, to which they also aspire but cannot attain, so their frustration is redoubled.

Second, in rich countries, people are living longer and having fewer children, so the shape of society is becoming top-heavy and thus unstable. There are too few young people, so the economy requires high levels of immigration to maintain its balance and momentum. This too often creates resentment and instability as immigrant and indigenous populations jostle against one another – a situation all-too-easily manipulated by demagogues and conflict entrepreneurs.

Third, is the basic link between demographics to resources. Population growth is outstripping the resources available for economic growth and decent living in too many places: insufficient land and other resources mean too many people in fragile countries have insufficient incomes; and the enabling development infrastructure is missing. Inequality persists – and seems to be growing – within and between societies. Again, this leads to frustration and grievances. The economy of many developing and fragile countries is still very much based on (often fragile) natural resources, so growing populations put more pressure on these, which in turn undermines economic development and can erode people’s assets and incomes, in a vicious spiral which is further exacerbated when climate change undermines farming and living systems – adding yet more stress.

People whose livelihoods thus become unviable are obliged to move: to other agricultural land on which others may have a prior claim, leading to new conflicts; to the rich world where they are often unwelcome, creating new conflicts there; or to growing and poorly governed informal settlements on the edge of cities, which become fertile grounds for violent crime and other sources of instability. Urbanisation is potentially good for peace, as cities create the possibility of faster and more widely shared economic growth, the development of a growing middle class with a stake in stability, an erosion of ethnic divisions, increasingly dynamic civil society, and improved governance and relations between citizens and the state. Mahmood Mamdani has written about how urbanisation in Africa can create ‘citizens’ out of ‘subjects’. But during rapid urbanisation, the state’s writ is often replaced by that of non-state governance bodies – such as the gangs in the informal settlements of Nairobi – in an environment of deep poverty, human insecurity and violence.

Identity, organised crime and technology

Additional factors which exacerbate the negative dimension of this nexus between demographic, resources and economic dynamics still further include international organised crime, questions of identity, and technology.

Organised criminals love nothing more than a fragile country with a hollow state, as this allows them to set up networks with virtual impunity using corruption, patronage and violence. In the process they further hollow out the state and make the context yet more fragile.

Non-national forms of identity become important in fragile contexts. Religious and ethnic networks provide the economic and social resilience, and often physical security, when the state cannot. This too often leads to – or exacerbates – enmity between identity groups; and this is all-too-easily manipulated by conflict entrepreneurs leading to violence, and often chronic violence. The breakdown of peace in South Sudan is just one example of tis among many.

Technologies can have a major impact on conflict and peace. Connections and communication is critical for peace, and technology can enable these. And there are numerous other ways that technology can enhance the five peace factors noted above: improving accountability and political voice, enhancing economic opportunity, access to justice and security, and improving people’s living conditions. But technological leaps can also be risky for peace: notably by enhancing communication and propaganda between conflict entrepreneurs and their followers, and enabling acts of violence to be planned and executed across a wide area – as when ISIS operatives carry out attacks in western Europe under orders from the Middle East.capture-dynamics

The risks which change – including development progress – brings

All these and other stresses are operating in and on societies at a time of great change: not just demographic change but also political change. And this is one of the reasons to be concerned about the shape of the conflict and violence trends in the coming years. Many of the institutions which help anticipate and manage change in many societies – those which mediate the horizontal and vertical relationships, and governance mechanisms and norms – are in flux. Relations between men and women, and between the generations, are changing, often becoming more equal and freer; many political systems are becoming less repressive and more democratic, at least on the surface; and international relationships are being recast, as the post-Second War settlement becomes less and less fit for the purpose of managing the stresses and conflicts of the 21st Century. Ironically, many of these changes are positive, at least as seen from a liberal, western perspective and in the long-term. But such changes will take a long time to bed in – and some may never – so in the meantime, many institutions have a reduced capacity to deal with stress and conflict, at just the moment when they need to do so. Result: a risk of increased local, national, regional and international stability and thus of violence. One example of this is the concept of “anocracy” – when governance is neither autotratic nor fully democratic, but somewhere in between. Anocracies are at greater risk of political violence – they are less resilient – than either autocracies or democracies.

5.     What can the UK do?


The kinds of issues and phenomena described superficially above are complex, often structural in nature, and hard to shift. Negative trends are difficult to deflect. Not the least, this is because some factors are, on the face of it, potentially positive in the longer term, even if they contribute to difficulties today and tomorrow: a shift towards gender equality or more participatory governance, for example. Most conflict and peace issues fall into the category of “wicked problems”: these (unlike so called “tame” problems) are complex, contradictory, dynamic, hard to describe and define comprehensively or completely, and impossible to “solve”.  Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. This applies to virtually all conflicts and conflict issues. Syria is simply the most obvious example of this phenomenon, which is also consistent with the trend for ‘interconnected, increasingly fragmented conflicts’ noted by the UN Advisory Group of Experts, and mentioned earlier.

The literature says of wicked problems that they should be treated with humility. Rather than try to “fix things”, we should build a thorough and ongoing analysis, imbued with the knowledge that we cannot fully describe and understand them well enough to find comprehensive solutions. We need to use multi-stakeholder processes to capture as many perspectives as possible in defining the problems and ways to address them. Wicked problems lend themselves to a political approach, rather than problem solving approach. This means developing a vision of “better”, and principles for action, and then adopting an incremental approach – seizing opportunities as they occur, and monitoring and adapting approaches continuously. Above all, it is important not to try to problematize or projectise the big picture. Unfortunately, this kind of approach goes against the grain for journalists and politicians, whose cate rules require them to simplify and offer ‘solutions’. It’s thus really important for others – such as civil servants and civil society, to keep the more complex picture in view.

Getting the language right

Language matters, as it contributes to how issues are framed, and thus conditions responses. Just as treating a wicked problem as a tame one leads to misdiagnosis and the wrong prescription, so mis-labelling also matters. Some of the language used to label conflicts and associated dynamics falls into this trap. Getting one’s metaphors right matters. The “frozen conflicts” of the South Caucasus are far from frozen – as recent events in Ngorny-Karabakh showed. The violence may be on hold, but conflicts remain alive. We are fond of describing the UK’s role abroad in terms of “building” – for example state building, building institutions, and building resilience. Yet states, institutions and resilience surely emerge from circumstances – and often slowly – rather than being constructed (“built”), which implies a blueprint – and often one drawn by external hands. Another favourite phrase du jour is political settlement, which many external actors are keen to see as they believe it a necessary component of stability in fragile contexts. They are probably right, but their keenness to see it does not mean it is there: in the debacle following the fall of Ghaddafi’s regime in Libya, the UK and other internationals were all too happy to spot what looked like a political settlement between factions, on which to rebuild the state. How wrong it turns out they were. And finally, countering violent extremism is another problematic coinage, because “countering” assumes a simple cause-and-effect which is unhelpful in dealing with a wicked problem, and violent extremism is but one phenomenal aspect of a wicked problem touching on livelihoods, alienation, local and national governance, gender and inter-generational relations and identity, to name but a few. It’s probably most accurate to think of social “goods” such as peacefulness, representative governance, citizenship, and states which are both effective and fair, as emerging or evolving. If they are evolving, can we apply a Darwinian approach and attempt to reinforce the incentives and signals which guide that evolution…


The UK will continue to find it difficult to balance its need for stability with the need for progressive change. Change is disruptive in the short-term, even when it may eventually lead to long term peace – you need to break eggs to make an omelette, as they say – and so it often seems sensible to favour the status quo, even when it is inequitable and harms people. Nowhere is it easier to see this challenge than in the Middle East. For historical and realpolitik reasons connected to the Cold War, colonial and post-colonial relations, trade, Israel, and the interests of its allies, the UK’s relationship with the countries of the Middle East has been defined for years by the need for stability, rather than progress for the people of the region. This led it actively to support very unsavoury regimes – such as Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia –  and also by indirect means to prop up unsavoury regimes of its non-allies in the region – in Syria, for example. Somehow or other, the UK must start to reset these relationships. President Al Sisi may provide stability in Egypt today, and maintain Egypt’s peace with Israel, but as long as regimes like his (just as President Mubarrak’s before him) continue undermine the five peace factors, they are doing Egyptians and others in the region no favours in the long term. Resetting these relationships will be hard, especially given the UK’s foreign policy dependence on Washington. But it must be done, and must be started now, if the UK is ever to be able to achieve a morally defensible approach to the region.

This also means finding a balance between short term national security needs, and long term peacebuilding. This is difficult for a democracy, as the media and public will be quick to round on any government approach seen as failing to protect the “our security”. So it will always make apparent political sense to take a national security approach to issues like violent extremism – ‘taking the fight’ to violent extremists, supporting governments who use repressive approaches to deal with extremists and potential extremists within their borders, and so on – than to address the complex – “wicked” – sets of issues which lead some people to take up violence as an approach to politics. But if the wicked problems are not addressed as such, and short term security actions lead to a reaction against “the west” and its clients, the problem is not addressed but made worse, progress towards more peaceful lives remains out of reach for too many people in fragile countries and the national security threat remains.


Often the UK can do little alone. In a speech to NGOs recently, DFID Minister of State Rory Stewart reminded them of Kant’s stricture that “ought implies can” – that a moral obligation (or political desire) is valid only when one has the means to be effective. So sometimes, doing nothing is the right response. But there is plenty the UK can do – through its development and diplomatic arms, including through the capacity of its civil society, to build the five peace factors in conflict-prone places. But in these domains, and especially when it comes to stopping or preventing actual violence, it is unlikely to ever be effective acting alone. So multi-lateral approaches must remain the order of the day.

It can continue to help set the tone for new liberal order, characterised by free trade, human rights, and a presumption that collaboration between states and among nations and people is the default setting for a more peaceful world. This is as much about the tone and culture of international affairs, as about specific instruments or actions. ‘Liberalism’ has taken a knock over past years, not least because it is associated with a globalisation which seems to ignore some people’s needs, and the military interventions wrongly carried out in its name. At its heart, liberalism is founded on a belief in progress which is beneficial to people across society; the need for governmental and other institutions to manage the conflicts and differences which inevitably occur within and between societies, non-violently and fairly; the need to prevent governments becoming overweening or repressive; and respect for the freedom of individuals, associations and communities. All this is highly supportive of peace. But liberalism obstructs certain interests, thus is constantly under threat nationally and internationally, so it needs to be nurtured and sustained. These tenets are embedded in British society and institutions. Britain thus has an important role to play in defending and promoting them wherever they are weak or under threat – in international systems and relations, as within individual polities. This means using its influence in specific countries through bilateral diplomacy, aid and trade, and through the work of British NGOs. It also means supporting international institutions especially the UN.

Last year’s Advisory Group of Experts’ report on the UN’s role in peacebuilding, the Challenge of Sustaining Peace, claimed the UN had lost its way, and led to Security Council Resolution 2282 which mandates the UN to rediscover its role in sustaining peace. This will not be easy, but the UK as a P5 member, a major financial contributor to the UN, an active proponent of Sustainability Goal 16 on Peace and the R2P, and whose own 2015 Aid Strategy counts building peace among its top priorities, is well placed to promote this policy in the UN system.

I mentioned earlier than the risk of instability is greatest when institutions are in flux. The international governance architecture is in flux, as power dynamics have changed considerably since it was set up in 1945. It is evolving. The UK can contribute to ensuring that this evolution is effective, and happens at the right speed – not being held back by those unwilling to accept change, nor being hurried by those who are anxious for change but fail to see the rocks ahead. As a waning but still influential power, the UK can help broaden international participation in international governance – reflected in the growing importance of the G20, for example. It can also strengthen its own political relationships with the second wave of ‘emerging economies’ – middle income countries mainly in Asia and Latin America in particular – which will be influential in determining the future of a liberal order, and which can counterbalance China and Russia.

Meanwhile the refugee flows of recent years tell us that we now live in an era where borders simply don’t mean what they once did: all borders are porous, and international communications and travel are increasingly easy. During the next few years the UN will need to revisit international conventions about what constitutes a refugee, and about how the global community combines its resources as a responsible duty bearer to those in need of support. The UK ought to have a strong voice in this debate, standing up for the rights of the disempowered by enshrining their rights in new conventions setting out how they must be fulfilled in a new era.

Britain helped craft the five Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs), which are a simple way to consider what progress can look like in fragile or conflict-affected countries: more legitimate and effective politics which take account of people’s needs across society, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, safety for all, fair access to justice, and the provision of fair and decent services. It also lobbied hard for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which include peace, justice and good governance. Both of these frameworks – the SDGs and the PSGs – will inevitably be ignored by those leaders whose people would benefit the most if they were observed. As a major donor and P5 member, the UK has an important role to play in sustaining and financing progress towards the SDGs and the PSGs. And as a major trading nation too, it can help promote the kind of fair, participatory economic growth combined with good governance which is needed to overcome the twin forces of greed and grievance which so often undermine peace. It is critical the UK continues its efforts to implement peacebuilding programmes as a priority in fragile and conflict-affected countries. In addition, as a major shareholder of the World Bank and funder of so many other international development banks and multilaterals, the UK should continue promote their adoption of the kinds of development programming and lending which are most likely to contribute towards the PSGs in fragile contexts.

Contributing to peace through other means

Finally, the UK can contribute to peace by what one might call “building peace through other means”, to help reduce and manage the kinds of stresses likely to increase conflict and violence. The UK can do more to define its international posture and outreach in terms of strengthening the “peace factors”. This means for example using aid, trade, diplomacy and domestic policies with an impact abroad, to strengthen fair access in fragile contexts to livelihoods, justice, security and decent living conditions, and help build functional intra- and inter-community and citizen-state relationships. All these objectives, if done based on an understanding of political, societal and conflict dynamics per context, can be important incremental steps in addressing “wicked problems” and on the road towards more peaceful lives for people living in fragile contexts. Given the central importance of functional relationships within and between communities, and between citizens and the state, it’s important that all such initiatives integrate approaches which increase participation in decision making. And give the importance of fairness, they should all aim to ensure wide participation in the benefits they produce.

Not all the UK’s contributions to peace and stability have to take place abroad. As a financial centre it is well placed to contribute to reducing organised crime, corruption and money laundering, for example through increase transparency of financial assets managed in the UK, and by promoting international tax reforms which would help increase the tax take in poor and fragile countries. And as a wealthy and long-term carbon emitter, and a member of the UN – it has an important responsibility and role to play both in adopting and promoting carbon neutral technologies for energy generation, and in assisting affected communities to adapt in ways which minimise conflicts. This means maintaining an externally facing stance and recognising its membership of the global community trying to deal with climate change, not remaining focused only on its links to Europe.

The list could go on but the key is to remember that the right question should always be: what can we do to strengthen positive peace?

How Economic Growth can contribute to Peace in Uganda

August 24, 2016

Much remains to be done to invest in peace and prosperity in Uganda. Provided the will is there, plenty can be done to build stability and peace, as an integral part of building economic growth. The need for new oil infrastructure is one opportunity to do so.

(A version of this article also appears on International Alert’s website. )

Conflict is born of unresolved differences, and violent conflict is when these get out of hand. This happens when the mechanisms for managing and resolving differences and conflicts are overwhelmed. Ugandans experienced this almost continuously from Independence in 1962, until 2006 when the Lord’s Resistance Army left Uganda to inflict its mayhem, pain and sorrow elsewhere in central Africa.

Since then the government, NGOs, religious and cultural leaders, international agencies and others have implemented many peace and reconciliation programmes, especially focused on northern Uganda, the last part of the country to be pacified. These have included reintegration projects for ex-rebels and their ex-captives, amnesties, inter- and intra-community dialogues and ceremonies, trauma healing, post-conflict investment in human capital and infrastructure development, local government capacity-building, and helping thousands of war-displaced people return home. Nevertheless, there is still a great deal of peacebuilding to do.

But ten years on, people have had enough of peacebuilding. Civil war has not returned. Neither the government nor its international partners are keen to keep harping back to the difficult past. Reminding people of the violence and unrest Ugandans have lived through does little to inspire confidence in potential investors, and the focus is now much more on ‘development’ than on post-conflict reconciliation and recovery. Dealing with the past requires examining the underlying causes of conflict, and because Uganda’s wars were strongly linked to communal disagreements and mistrust, which have not necessarily been resolved or overcome, many feel that now is not the time to bring these formally to the surface, for fear they create new tensions which are so powerful they may overwhelm the capacity to address them. Fair enough, perhaps. Anything for a quiet life.

Underlying conflicts persist

And yet, many conflicts persist, even if they are not expressed through widespread violence. Land is scarce in many parts, especially the south-west, and land-poor families have been migrating to other parts of Uganda for years. And yet land is hardly less scarce in many of the districts in which they have settled, and their arrival has often upset delicately balanced land-use and local political systems, such as for the co-management by farmers and pastoralists. Result: mistrust and local conflicts, sometimes violent – local stresses are overwhelming the capacity to manage them.

Meanwhile the famous north-south division persists as a political and conflict trope, as it has for decades, alongside other identity-based tensions. Result: an uneasy coexistence. This is not at present overcoming Uganda’s conflict management systems and mechanisms as it has so often in the past. But these underlying tensions are not being addressed, and could become inflamed again in the right circumstances, for example if exacerbated by problems over access to land or other resources.

Uganda’s population is overwhelmingly young – 78% under the age of 30 – with a high rate of unemployment. Young people are increasingly dissatisfied with their lot and what they see as poor prospects for their future, and many don’t feel their issues are being heard, much less addressed, by the government; yet despite voting for opposition candidates in increasing numbers, are frustrated by the lack of change. Nor are the traditional mechanisms for mediating between the interests and needs of young and old working as they used to, to maintain order and stability in many communities. Result: increasing levels of frustration, tension and unrest in cities, often attracting violent – seemingly disproportionate – responses from the security forces which merely serve to increase the tension.

President Museveni’s Movement Party has remained in office continuously since it won power in 1986 following a civil war, and appears to be using increasingly aggressive tactics and the resources of the state to retain control, undermining people’s faith in democracy in a country which has never yet seen a change in national leadership through elections, and therefore where it is easy for people to believe power is being consolidated beyond their ability to have any influence by democratic means. Result: increasing alienation from and dissatisfaction with Ugandan democracy as a method of having one’s voice heard, and thus the risk some people may seek other approaches to do so.

Meanwhile, unhealed trauma from the years of war in Uganda continue to undermine too many individuals’, families’ and communities’ attempts to make progress in their lives. Result: dysfunctional relationships, a sense of lingering grievance, and a mistrust of the status quo.

Peacebuilding remains a priority

These are just some of the conflicts and stresses present in Uganda, and likely to persist, potentially contributing to instability. And further stresses will surely be added in coming years. The long process of developing Uganda’s oil resources appears to be getting closer to the production phase. A refinery is to be built in Hoima, along with an international airport close by, a huge network of roads and other ancillary infrastructure, and a pipeline to the Indian Ocean through Tanzania. The process has been slow enough so far, but it’s common to hear in Kampala’s bars that the president is determined that the oil will start to flow as soon as possible during his current term (due to end in 2021).  Once oil does flow – and further deposits are expected to found as exploration continues – vast new wealth will enter the economy – no-one knows for sure how much, but some are saying that oil revenues will boost annual GDP growth rates to 10% within a few years, and could propel Uganda to Middle Income status by 2040. The economy is therefore heading for disruptive change – in a context where corruption is widely accepted to be rife at every level, with bribes, kick-backs and other acts of fraud from the petty to the grand scale. So, Ugandans will experience massive change and disruption – putting yet more stress on inadequate governance systems –  even as some of the changes many Ugandans wish and expect to see are not happening. Tensions could spill out of control.

And in the meantime, both the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Allied Democratic Forces – two rebel groups with their roots and origins in Uganda – remain active in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) respectively, with no apparent plan to bring either rebellion to a peaceful end. This reflects that conflicts in the region are often uncontained by porous national borders: Uganda is affected by conflict and instability in DRC and South Sudan and the consequent proliferation of light weapons (a recent report  claims Uganda has over 400,000 unregistered guns).

So those people and institutions for whom the era of peacebuilding is now over should perhaps think again. The alarming return to armed violence in Mozambique in recent years – after the peace process was widely considered to have been successful – is one among many reminders of the need to take nothing for granted. But there is no reason why violent conflict should be allowed to return in Uganda, provided Ugandans and their international partners continue to invest in increasing resilience to the kinds of stresses which can engender violence.

This means it’s important to make sure that public and political discourse explicitly recognises the need to invest in peacebuilding – so mistrust and dissatisfaction are not pushed into darker recesses where they can fester. More public discussion and debate – locally and nationally – about how to achieve the vision of a stable, peaceful and prosperous Uganda benefiting all, would therefore be welcome.

Building peace by other means

Nevertheless, I recognise that many prefer to focus on prosperity – and fortunately, they too can make a difference for peace. As International Alert pointed out in the report Peace through Prosperity last year, there are many ways to do so, provided business and other economic initiatives factor peace and stability objectives into their plans, alongside economic goals. The oil sector provides many opportunities for this. As Alert argued in the seminal report about oil in Uganda in 2009, it is critical the oil sector is developed as transparently as possible, under excellent political leadership, and that the opportunities which oil provides to manage and resolve Uganda’s various existing conflicts are seized. What might this look like over the next few years?

Infrastructure for peace and democracy

All decisions about new infrastructure have the potential to inflame or help resolve conflicts. The recent decision to opt for the southern pipeline route, over a northern alternative, has predictably fed pre-existing accusations that Northern Uganda  is somehow losing out on infrastructure investment – nourishing the North-South conflict trope. So it’s important to explain in as much detail as possible why the decision was taken, providing as much background data as possible to allow critics to review, debate and understand the rationale. This, surely, is also an opportunity to reinforce the notion that oil is part of the patrimony of the Ugandan nation, no matter where it is found – hence 94% of oil royalties accrue to the central state, with only 6% remaining in the producing areas – and ensure that all parts of the country benefit from improved infrastructure, whether or not linked it is directly to oil.

Since all decisions about new infrastructure will benefit some and disadvantage others, it is vital that enough time and effort is invested in local discussion and transparent decision-making, reflecting as far as possible the views and interests of those affected (and explaining why some of those interests can’t be met). All infrastructure decisions have implications for land, in an environment where primary production prevails, and access to and ownership of land is thus of prime political and economic moment. Imagine what might happen if recent migrants or land purchasers from outside an area turned out to be the main beneficiaries of compensation pay-outs when land was needed for a pipeline or a new road…  But alternatively, how beneficial it could be to local inter-community relations if all communities were brought into the discussions about potential routes, and the infrastructure designers opted for a route which served all communities more or less equally, as well as providing the access needed for the oil industry. Even if this meant taking a longer route, costing more, it would contribute not only economically but also to building trust and local peace – peacebuilding through infrastructure development…

If cynicism about democratic governance is an issue for stability and peace, as I suggested earlier, this too can be addressed as part of infrastructure development. Democracy is not just about holding elections every few years. It also implies that all citizens are considered equally, and have a right to be consulted over matters which affect them. The disruption to people’s lives where new infrastructure is planned provides an opportunity for the government to put this principle into practice, and give people (in often remote areas) a chance to participate in and contribute to Uganda’s development while also having their interests and views taken into account, and thus internalise the idea that governance can work for them: for people of all ages, women as well as men, and people from different language groups. So an investment in genuinely participatory planning processes can not only help guide infrastructure development for economic reasons, and thus be a sensible way to proceed anyway, but also improve people’s sense of citizenship and their relationship with and trust in the state – an essential public good, and good for peace. 

And finally – for this article, though the list of opportunities for building peace through infrastructure could be far longer if space allowed – the next phase of oil sector development is a wonderful opportunity to start putting to bed the widespread and growing view that public funds benefit the few, not the many. Large scale corruption has either worsened or become more visible in recent years. Either way, the apparent prevalence of cronyism in access to economic opportunity such as in the award of contracts, along with more blatant theft and fraud of public funds, is creating a groundswell of dissatisfaction and grievance. Whether this is a sense of genuine moral outrage, or simply envy that only ‘others’ are benefiting, it is creating a sense of widely shared grievance that can feed instability. And so it is of critical importance that extra measures are taken to limit the scale of corruption linked to oil-related infrastructure – and that any suspicions are properly investigated and where necessary brought to justice.

 Much remains to be done to invest in peace and prosperity in Uganda. Provided the will is there, much can be done to build stability and peace, as an integral part of building economic growth.

The UK can be a force for peace, post-Brexit

July 22, 2016

As the UK heads towards Brexit, and reviews its place in, and relationships with, the wider world, it must not lose sight of its role in building peace. (A  version of this article appeared on the Guardian website, Friday 22 July 2016).

Despite understandable anxiety, suspicion, mistrust and fear of what the future holds today, British people are still pretty likely to be living, some years from now, in a democratically governed, prosperous and peaceful country. That is more than many citizens in other parts of the world, from Syria to parts of Mexico, can say. We need to keep things in perspective.

Conflict will be one of the most important issues of the coming decades, as demographic and environmental pressures, combined with the unmet expectations of growing numbers of dissatisfied people, place inadequate political institutions under stress. Inevitably, there is a risk of unrest, destabilisation and violence.

Peace is more likely when people have access to opportunities, security, justice, education and health, and feel that this access is fair and takes into account the will of the people. Incremental – often very local – progress can be made, even in the most difficult conditions, and the UK can use its generous aid budget to provide support, and show others how to do the same.

But there is much more we can do, to help improve the international prospects for peace. Last year, the UN commissioned a report on its role in peace-building, entitled the Challenge of Sustaining Peace. The study said that the UN had lost its way, and led to security council resolution 2282, which mandates the UN to rediscover its original role in sustaining peace.

This will not be easy, but the UK is well placed to support and shepherd the policy. It is a permanent security council member, a major financial contributor to the UN, an active promoter of Sustainable Development Goal 16 on peace and the Responsibility to Protect, and its 2015 aid strategy identifies building peace as a top priority.

The UK can therefore do a great deal to back efforts to reform the UN, despite the obstacles that will be placed in its way by member states whose interpretation of their national interests means they are likely to block progress.

The recent election of Sweden – a country committed to peacebuilding – to the security council will give the UK a strong ally. The UK should also strengthen its political relationships with emerging economies – middle-income countries mainly in Asia and Latin America – which will be influential in determining the future of a liberal order.

The flow of migrants and refugees shows that borders don’t mean what they once did. During the next few years, the UN will need to revisit international conventions about what constitutes a refugee, and about how the global community can support those in need.

The UN will also – surely – have to accept that non-refugee migrants have a right to seek improved prospects away from their homes. The UK ought to have a strong voice in this debate, standing up for the disempowered by enshrining their rights in new conventions.

The UN is resistant to reform – sadly all of its departments would probably claim they are already playing enough of a peacebuilding role, rather than risk a loss of power and resources by conceding the need for more thorough reform. And this tendency will be exploited by, and exploit the fear among, member states that any commitment to a more sustained and (as they see it) interfering UN peacebuilding role, implies their own loss of sovereignty and agency with regard to conflicts within or near their borders.

Creating a modern vision of global citizenship to replace the migration and refugee conventions of a bygone era will be yet harder – as the EU’s political difficulties in dealing with migrants have shown.

The UK should take a lead not just in setting the terms of international debates, but through its own actions. This means taking in more refugees and reviewing the ways in which its own actions create or reduce the likelihood of instability elsewhere.

It is also time the UK reviewed and reset its relationships in the Middle East, where its support for harsh and unrepresentative regimes is surely storing up trouble.

This international position can be strengthened if we recognise the issues that divide communities in the UK and in other parts of the EU, such as inequality and marginalisation, and have a strong vision to address them.

The UK is most certainly not leaving either Europe or the international community. It must not duck out of playing its part in helping to build a more peaceful and prosperous world, whenever that becomes possible; nor of accepting that – just as leaving the EU will require major changes – the kinds of changes needed to do so, will often going against the grain of public opinion in the UK and of some our international partners. That is exactly why leadership is needed.

The UK must continue facing outwards during and after Brexit

July 5, 2016

Let’s not allow Brexit to distract us from other important things happening around the world. The UK still has a vital role to play. 

(This blog post also appears on

The UK is now on course to leave the European Union after the Brexit referendum vote just over a week ago. Plenty has already been written and said about why most people voted to leave. Suffice it here to say that oversimplification would be a mistake, and that the referendum gave people an opportunity to say many different things. Different people had different reasons for wanting the country to leave: a protest vote, a two-fingers to bankers and the metropolitan elite, a desire for more democracy, concerns about incomes, jobs, farming, fishing, immigration, housing, red tape, a delayed reaction to the de-industrialisation of thirty years ago… or perhaps a wish to bring back some version of the past they either recall, imagine they recall, or have read or heard about. These are not new issues, and only time will tell which of these wishes will be granted.

In the background is the idea that we have managed globalisation and liberalisation – progress, perhaps – poorly; that the move towards a more liberal, internationalist world in the past few decades has hurt vulnerable people economically and emotionally, and that not enough attention has been paid to mitigating or managing this. Too many people are excluded from the fruits of progress, therefore they do not see it as progress. Hence the sense in many parts of the world, that people want something different: nationalist politics and isolationism in the rich world, even as growing numbers of people in poorer countries vote with their feet to seek a better life elsewhere. And hence the sense of ‘greed and grievance’ causing conflicts: grievance on the part of the excluded and disempowered, and greed on the part of those wanting to protect and enhance their access to benefits in the status quo.

Meantime, our planet seems an increasingly threatening and threatened neighbourhood, with a troubling present and future in which economic and demographic trends are placing more and more stress on the natural environment and political institutions (often themselves in flux, thus weakened) which are too fragile to cope. Something has got to give, and we see evidence of this in war and crisis in the Middle East and Afghanistan, worrying behaviour by Russia in Ukraine, and China in the South China Seas; and more subtly but no less harmful for that, in countless other political, social and economic conflicts around the world, including chronic violence linked to poor governance and organised crime. It is salutary to recall that according to the World Bank, 1.5 billion people live in places affected by violent conflict, which threatens their human rights and holds them back from development progress.

So what are the implications of Brexit for the UK’s role as a force for peace in the world?

One inescapable outcome of the Brexit vote is that political, civil service, media and civil society attention in the UK, Brussels and other parts of the EU will be overwhelmingly focused on negotiating a new relationship between the UK and the EU, and then on unpicking the myriad threads of the existing relationship, and weaving new ones. This could take many years. Meanwhile, relationships between the UK, Brussels and other member states will be soured; as will some internal relationships within countries across Europe. The UK’s economy could be affected by uncertainty and volatility, even if it doesn’t, as widely expected, contract or flatline. People, families and communities will – at least for a time – lose out. We could see more tensions and conflicts between identity and economic groups. All this means, I fear, that the attention of the UK and its European partners will be focused overwhelmingly inwards; the world – including here in Europe – will be the poorer for it.

The importance of staying engaged

During the next few years, the UK must avoid turning inwards. Yes, it will have to put some of its best political and civil service talent on the task of negotiating and implementing Brexit. And yes, some of our best journalists and activists should monitor the process and hold them to account. But we need to remain focused on the rest of the world too, and our role in it.

The UK gets plenty wrong internationally: Iraq, Afghanistan, its uncritical support for dictators over the years, its willingness to sell arms to those who misuse them, its inability to help reduce the harm done by the international drugs trade through decriminalisation at home, and its unwillingness to accept more refugees from Syria, to name a few accusations which have been laid at its door.

But it also tries to get a lot right, in a complex world where the right course of action is not always obvious: e.g. its recent attempts to prevent money laundering and corruption, its generous aid programme, its leadership on many aspects of international development and humanitarian aid, its promotion of the Responsibility to Protect in the UN (R2P) and on climate change, and its excellent work promoting the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the International Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Dialogue (IDPS). Through aid, trade and diplomacy it is engaged in many fragile and war-affected countries, providing humanitarian assistance and helping to build post-conflict institutions and prevent further violence.

Despite fears for the post-Brexit future, the UK’s economy remains the world’s fifth largest, it is a permanent (P5) member of the UN Security Council and a G7 member, has some of the best universities in the world, plays a leadership role in the Commonwealth with 2.3 billion citizens, is a cultural and financial hub, hosts significant diasporas from everywhere in the world and members of more or less every religious group, has one of the most professional and most effective armed forces, and is home to some of the oldest institutions of capitalism and democracy – key components of the kind of political economy to which millions of people in non-democratic and non-capitalist contexts aspire.

So where next?

All this to reaffirm that the UK is a country with a great deal of opportunity to do good. Britons must avoid letting their interest in what happens next for themselves, get in the way of their interest and desire to help people elsewhere. After all, despite their understandable anxiety today, British people are still likely to be living, some years from now, in a democratically governed and prosperous UK not beset by chronic violence, unlike their counterparts in Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan or parts of India and Mexico. We need to keep things in perspective.

So what should UK politicians, media and civil society focus on, outside the inevitable bubble of Brexit which is set to dominate our TV screens and newspapers, and the conversations in pubs, homes, cafés and parliament, in the coming months and years? Here are a few suggestions.

The Middle East and North Africa

Since we are about to revise our relationship with the EU, it is surely also high time to think about revising our relationships in the Middle East.

These are artefacts of post-colonialism, the first and second World Wars, the Cold War, our unwillingness to let go of past power, and energy security policies of days gone by. We have backed ourselves into a corner in which we – as a fully paid-up member of the liberal ‘West’ – are in bed with the House of Saud and Wahhabist fundamentalists, maintaining repressive power in Saudi Arabia, and with a murderous and torturing military dictatorship in Egypt; are part of the coalition which ‘broke’ – and thus has a responsibility to help ‘fix’ – the political status quo in Iraq and Libya; and which helped create the space in which the murderous ISIS and its affiliates have flourished in the Levant and elsewhere.

The UK is part of the coalition fighting ISIS. But as every student of war and peace has always known, and as every informed commentator on the Middle East continues to make clear, the war against Islamic fundamentalist extremists will not be won by military violence alone. It will be won – though this may take many years – when the governance of the countries from which many ISIS militants emanate allows a greater political voice and economic opportunity, and ensures the safety and access to justice of all those who live there. Because of its historic and present day ties to many of those countries and their regimes, the UK has a role to play in supporting change – at the very least, by no longer supporting repression. Perhaps violent extremism of one kind or another will always be with us. But it can be much reduced by reducing grievances at their source, which is local, i.e. where those vulnerable to joining violent groups actually live.

The eastern neighbourhood

There is unfinished business in eastern and south-eastern Europe. The future development prospects for Turkey, Ukraine, the South Caucasus and Russia itself, are uncertain. The EU has not always done a good job at managing its part in this story, but it certainly has a role to play through its relationship with its eastern neighbours. If the UK is leaving the EU, it is not leaving Europe, nor NATO, so it’s important it does not duck out of playing its part in helping to rebuild a cooperative relationship with Russia wherever and whenever that becomes possible. And it must also continue to help countries in eastern parts of Europe – as far east as the Caucasus – build the kinds of institutions and economies which help them become stable, prosperous and confident. This will be harder now that the shine has come off the EU in the past few years, and will do again thanks to Brexit, in the eyes of people in countries like Georgia and Moldova where the initial cost of reforms encouraged by the EU is not negligible, thus where the cost-benefit analysis of such reforms may be recalculated in favour of the status quo. Perhaps this gives the UK – once it has left the EU – a new role as an independent, honest broker.

Maintaining a liberal, peaceful global order

Liberalism has taken a knock over past years, not least because it is associated with a globalisation which seems to ignore humans. But this is to mistake ‘neo-liberalism’ for simple liberalism. Liberalism is founded on four basic pillars:

  • A belief in progress which is beneficial to people across society;
  • The need for governmental and other institutions to manage the conflicts and differences which inevitably occur within and between societies, non-violently and fairly;
  • The need to prevent government becoming overweening or repressive;
  • Respect for the freedom of individuals, associations and communities.

All this is highly compatible with, indeed supportive of peace.

But liberalism obstructs certain interests, thus is constantly under threat, nationally and internationally and thus must be nurtured and sustained. The UK in general identifies with these liberal tenets, which are embedded in British society and institutions. It thus has an important role to play in defending and promoting them wherever they are weak or under threat – international systems and relations, as within individual polities. For the UK, this means using its influence in specific countries through bilateral diplomacy, aid and trade, and through the work of British NGOs. It also means supporting international institutions, especially the UN.

Last year the UN commissioned a report by an Advisory Group of Experts, on its role in peacebuilding: the Challenge of Sustaining Peace. This pointed out that the UN had lost its way, and led to Security Council Resolution 2282 which mandates the UN to rediscover its original role in sustaining peace. This will not be easy, but the UK as a permanent Security Council member, a major financial contributor to the UN, an active proponent of Sustainability Goal 16 on Peace and the R2P, and whose own 2015 Aid Strategy counts building peace among its top priorities, is well placed to support and shepherd this policy in the UN system. It must do so, despite the obstacles which will be placed in its way by member states whose interpretation of their national interests means they are likely to block progress. The recent election of Sweden – a country committed to peacebuilding – to the Security Council would give the UK a strong ally in this endeavour. The UK should also strengthen its political relationships with the second tier of ‘emerging economies’ – middle-income countries mainly in Asia and Latin America in particular – which will be influential in determining the future of a liberal order.

Meanwhile the refugee flows of recent years tell us that we now live in an era where borders simply don’t mean what they once did: all borders are porous, and international communications and travel are increasingly easy. During the next few years the UN will need to revisit international conventions about what constitutes a refugee, and about how the global community combines its resources as a responsible duty bearer to those in need of support. The UK ought to have a strong voice in this debate, standing up for the rights of the disempowered by enshrining their rights in new conventions setting out how they must be fulfilled in a new era. And making sure that people everywhere are not left behind and enjoy the fruits of progress.

Aid and international development

The UK has long played a leading role in international aid, and is one of the few rich nations to meet the target of giving 0.7% of Gross National Income as aid – over £12 bn this year. Spending this much money effectively is hard, and so the nation must perforce pay great attention to where and how it is spent, to what purpose, and what difference it actually makes. If parliamentarians and the media keep scrutinising how aid is spent, this will keep the public’s attention on the plight and challenges faced by people far away, rather than just on Brexit.

‘Development’ has become an impoverished concept – associated far too often with aid programmes, rather than with ‘progress’ or ‘human flourishing’ as it ought to be. The UK has been in the forefront of recent efforts to redefine development, and was a leading voice in crafting the SDGs, which set out a fairly comprehensive notion of progress.

Perhaps even more important from the point of view of a peacebuilding organisation, the UK helped craft the five Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs), which are a simple way to consider what progress could look like in fragile or conflict-affected countries: more legitimate and effective politics which take account of people’s needs across society, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, safety for all, fair access to justice, and the provision of fair and decent services.

Both of these normative frameworks – the SDGs and the PSGs – will inevitably be ignored, at least in part, by leaders whose people would benefit the most if they were observed. As a major donor and P5 member, the UK has an important role to play in sustaining and financing progress towards the SDGs and the PSGs. And as a major trading nation too, it can help promote the kind of fair, participatory economic growth combined with good governance which is needed to overcome the twin forces of greed and grievance which so often undermine peace. It is critical the UK continues its efforts to implement peacebuilding programmes as a priority in fragile and conflict-affected countries.

In addition, as a major shareholder of the World Bank and funder of so many other international development banks and multilaterals, the UK should continue promote their adoption of the kinds of development programming and lending which are most likely to contribute towards the PSGs in fragile contexts.

Climate change

The EU is rightly applauded for its lead in creating rules and norms to help reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate climate change: this exploits one of the advantages of a large, liberal, single market. Perhaps the Brexit negotiations will maintain the UK’s membership of these schemes. But in any case, climate change is the ultimate international public good issue, in which greenhouse gases respect no boundaries, creating negative impacts for people wherever sea levels rise, storms become stronger and more frequent, rainfall is less predictable, and where the consequently increased competition for resources can lead to violence.

The UK – as a wealthy and long-term carbon emitter, and a member of the UN – has an important responsibility and role to play both in adopting and promoting carbon neutral technologies for energy generation, and in assisting affected communities to adapt in ways which minimise conflicts. This means maintaining an externally facing stance and recognising its membership of the global community trying to deal with climate change, not remaining focused only on its links to Europe.

… and back at home

 Finally, coming back to home: to the UK and other parts of the EU. After decades without war, there are more reasons to be concerned about conflicts within the EU now than there have been for years. Inequality was on the decline for many years after the Second World War, but this has been reversed. Conflicts which need to be managed and eventually resolved include those between:

  • Young people and old;
  • Various groups of alienated people and the authorities – e.g. between disaffected young Muslims and the state, and between alienated, impoverished ‘indigenous’ communities and the state;
  • Northern and southern countries within the EU;
  • Different nations within and between modern states;
  • Metropolitan and peripheral communities;
  • Different ethnic and religious communities co-existing locally, including those who have moved there from far away, or whose parents or grandparents did;
  • Gender and sexual identities: sexual and gender-based violence remains far too prevalent across Europe, belying the modern and sophisticated feel of European culture.

It’s important such conflicts do not become violent, and are resolved. UK politicians, media and civil society must pay more attention to creating an environment at home which is propitious to shared prosperity and tolerance; and in so doing to collaborate with their counterparts in the rest of Europe.

As Francis Fukuyama has said in The Origins of Political Order, liberal democracy is not the natural order of things and needs to be nourished, and although Western Europe’s democratic norms and systems are far from broken, despite the worries of today, we must do our utmost to reinvest in good, functional relationships among people and peoples, and between people and the state, in which all parties have an opportunity to listen to the others, and act so that, as the SDGs have it, “no-one is left behind”.

Britain and Europe can only be a force for good in the world, if they are at ease themselves.

It’s right to question aid, but better to focus on effectiveness, rather than the 0.7%

May 26, 2016

A version of this post is on Huffington Post and International Alert‘s website.

In the UK, a parliamentary debate can be initiated by popular petition. On 13th June, Parliament will debate the proposition that the government’s approach to foreign aid is flawed. This is based on a petition, initiated by the Mail on Sunday newspaper and signed by over 230,000 people, as follows:

Despite spending cuts at home the Government is committed to hand over 0.7% of national income in overseas aid, regardless of need. The Mail on Sunday believes voters do not want this and instead, we should provide money only for truly deserving causes, on a case-by-case basis. A bill passed in 2015 required the Government to spend a fixed 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid. UK handouts will rise from current £12bn to £16bn by 2020. This is by far the highest rate of any G20 nation and is leading to huge waste and corruption. We believe this is the wrong approach because it fuels waste by focussing on targets, not outcomes. Foreign aid should provide money for the job, not jobs for the money.

Essentially the petition reiterates the perfectly rational idea that creating a budget before agreeing a task is back-to-front, and risks creating perverse incentives due to the need to spend a certain amount of money annually; whereas building a budget based on a set of agreed goals and tasks would be a better approach. On top of that, the petition implies this is unfair on UK taxpayers because most other countries contribute less money and/or less as a proportion of national income.

One can question whether the fact 230,000 people – less than four for every 100,000 people – have signed up really represents significant support for the point being made. After all, more than four times as many people signed a recent petition to reinstate a controversial TV presenter. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to agree with both the argument and the implied sentiment of the petition as they are articulated, so no wonder people have signed it. I’ve worked for overseas charities since 1985, and I completely respect the point of view of those who question aid. In fact, I’d go further and say that I welcome the attention this petition and the parliamentary debate brings. The role of civil society and especially the media is surely to cast a sceptical eye on all government policy, and why should overseas aid be exempt?

0.7%, need and allocation
It is right to question whether the 0.7% target undermines effective policies and actions. After all, it is a more or less arbitrary figure based on a calculation made decades ago of the assumed “investment gap” in poor countries, reckoned as a percentage of national income in wealthy donor countries. It was based on the idea that wealthy countries should transfer the investment funds for a period of years until the economies were more equalised. Not only have the data changed hugely in the intervening years, but the simplistic notion of an “investment gap” is no longer thought useful, if it ever was.

But by its rhetorical use of the expressions hand over, regardless of need, and truly deserving causes on a case by case basis, the petition does its own argument a disservice. It assumes the government simply ‘hands over’ the money, but in fact, funds are programmed for specific purposes. It also assumes that a wholesale commitment to 0.7% (£12 bn this year) removes the link between the volume of aid and the size of the need.

Would that it were so. If there are roughly 700 million people living below the poverty line today, as the World Bank estimates, the UK’s budget works out at £17  per person. And that only includes those living on less than $1.9 per day – hardly a king’s ransom.  So without getting into the complex economic jargon which is used to explain aid flows, and accepting that the UK does not and should not try to reach every poor person on the planet, it is quite easy to see that 0.7% is completely inadequate when set against the level of need.

As for the idea that aid should be targeted towards ‘truly deserving causes on a case by case basis’, this is quite right. Fortunately, the UK Aid strategy clearly sets out four causes towards which aid is directed:
• Strengthening global peace, security and governance.
• Strengthen resilience and response to crises.
• Promoting global prosperity.
• Tackling extreme poverty and helping the world’s most vulnerable.

As sceptical as one may be about aid, it would be hard to argue that these are not all truly deserving causes. Not only that, but they benefit the UK too: the first three quite directly, and the fourth indirectly.

And the petition is also right that even within these overall categories, allocations should be made on a case by case basis. I have worked in the aid sector since 1985, and although no donor organisation or NGO is perfect, I can attest that UK aid money is already allocated based on an assessment of whether or not it will make a specific difference in respect of specific needs and contexts. Even when the funds are provided to other organisations – UN agencies, NGOs, etc. – they are required to spend them (and report) based on an assessment of whether they make a difference. It is true that not all aid programmes work as well as intended, but that’s another story which I will come to in a moment. They certainly are designed to do so, and on a case by case basis.

Disproportionality and Aid effectiveness
On the question of proportionality I think the petition has a point: why should we spend 0.7% if other rich nations don’t? The petition is right to draw attention to the risks of a budget-driven approach. Its conclusion is that the debate should be about the 0.7% commitment. But the 0.7% commitment is already enshrined in law, and there is no parliamentary time available to overturn the law. This would take many months of valuable parliamentary time, and would be unlikely to succeed anyway, given the views of a majority of MPs including party leaders and their whips. I therefore suggest a different conclusion to the petition’s concerns, and a different debate on 13th June.

On the question of disproportionality: because we have already enacted the legislation and are unlikely to change it, I’d suggest that the debate should be about how to encourage other wealthy nations to match our commitment. After all, arbitrary spending levels like the 0.7% figure only really make sense as a way to prevent free riders – as with NATO members’ commitment to spend 2% on their military capacity.

But most importantly I would suggest the debate should focus on be how to ensure that UK aid is spent most effectively in pursuit of the four goals listed above, so that taxpayers can have confidence that their money is well spent. Because none of the four aid goals will be easy to achieve. If they were, we would have achieved them long ago. And all public policy is contestable – that’s why we have a parliament and a proactive civil society and media. One has only to look at the UK’s education, justice, health or energy sectors to see that.

Nor do any “policy solutions” seem to last long. A decade ago, Finland’s education sector was the envy of the world, and Whitehall was examining Finnish policies for clues as to what we should do here. Now, Finland – with the same policies in place – has slid down the international education league tables and is looking for new solutions.

If international aid policy is not unique in being imperfect, it is perhaps unique in being multi-dimensional, operating as it does in diverse and changing local contexts, and covering a wide range of needs and sectors. This means all the more need for a healthy and regular debate about what works best. My suggestion is therefore that any parliamentary debate about the aid budget and aid policies should focus on how to ensure that our aid is spent as effectively as possible, and how parliamentarians can hold the government and its partners to account for how well they contributes to the goals which have been set.

Don’t forget how crucial the economy is to peace in Syria

April 22, 2016

This blog, written with Julia Karlysheva, was originally published in The Guardian on 15 March 2016, and is also on International Alert’s website.

Economy and peace are intimately linked. But the economy can also play a role in conflict, and competition over resources is at the heart of most of the conflicts we see today.

Syria is no exception. The erosion of livelihoods by prolonged drought, and a history of excluding certain groups, helped trigger the conflict, which is now in its sixth year. With more than 4.5 million Syrians living as refugees in neighbouring countries and unemployment in Syria at up to 90%, the need to generate livelihood opportunities for both refugees and people inside Syria is critical, as highlighted at February’s donor conference in London.

Those promoting economic development in fragile and conflict-affected places – including businesses, governments, and local and international organisations – can and must ensure their projects make a contribution both to livelihoods and peace.

While official peace talks are ongoing, it is not too early to begin planning post-war reconstruction of the economy, which should aim to improve access to livelihoods and gradually build bridges between those who have been divided.

This will not end the civil war: to do this, an urgent political solution is required. But economic reconstruction could help de-escalate the conflict at a local level, and reduce the risk that peace would be undermined.

A strong economy could:

1) Reduce the risk that people will be recruited by armed groups by providing alternative income sources and giving young people, especially, a sense of purpose, dignity and hope;

A young man with a reliable income – especially if he has several mouths to feed – is less vulnerable to the blandishments of armed groups seeking recruits. The sense of purpose he gets from being economically engaged in society also means there is less chance he will be swayed by ideological arguments.

2) build bridges between divided communities by bringing people together around a common purpose and need, and gradually create a web of connections through trade. Communities connected by trade are less likely to go to war than those who are not;

3) Sow the seeds for a “peace-supporting” economy. This means ensuring that businesses and entrepreneurs understand the causes of conflict and are conscious of how their actions can exacerbate or help resolve tensions. For example, they could ensure they do not restrict employment or supply chain opportunities to one preferred social group. By spreading the peace dividend across social divisions, they can do much to promote peace.

Clearly, the pre-conflict economy had within it the seeds of the war now being fought and these included the structural exclusion of some groups and the preferential access to opportunity granted to others, both nationally and on a local scale. Recovery must be based on the need to spread opportunities and benefits more fairly, and reduce the tensions which exclusion and unfairness can cause, while at the same time taking care not to create a situation in which former elites become the new excluded, storing up the potential for future unrest.

4) Galvanise regional private sector leaders into shaping and delivering a peace-supporting economy now and in the long term. Many business people are also civil society leaders, highly respected and often powerful and well-connected. Their voices are critical in lowering tensions and bringing people together in dialogue, especially during the dangerous period after any peace agreement is made, when mistrust and the desire for revenge will remain at high levels.

Leadership will be key – and business people in Syria and the region will have an important role to play.

In an interconnected world, security must be our shared responsibility

March 24, 2016

This was also published on International Alert‘s website
The UK government’s U-turn over changes in support to people with disabilities last week leaves a gap of over £4bn in fiscal plans for the current parliament. Some commentators have taken this opportunity to call for this to be plugged, or partly plugged, by reducing the overseas development aid (ODA) budget, which stands at about £12bn this year, and is set to rise annually in line with GDP growth.

I work for International Alert which receives some of these funds, which we use to help build peace in more than 25 countries and territories. Nevertheless, we have in the past questioned the need to fix the UK’s ODA budget at a somewhat arbitrary 0.7% of GDP, feeling that it would surely make more sense to base the budget on achieving particular policy goals, than on a rather arbitrary percentage whose origins are somewhat lost in the mists of time.

But now is not the time to raid the aid budget to balance the books. The terrorist attacks in Belgium and Turkey this week are a sharp reminder that we live in a world simultaneously connected and unsettled. Indeed, the two phenomena are related, both for good and for ill.

For good, because development progress (i.e. change) is by nature unsettling and is enabled by connections – travel, the exchange of knowledge and ideas, mutual support and learning, trade, etc.; and an unsettled status quo often creates opportunities for good changes (development) to happen.

For ill, because people’s ability to travel to other parts of the world and connect with others can be unsettling to the status quo and sometimes make life more risky for them and others; and an unsettled world drives some people to travel and create disruption elsewhere – whether intentionally or not.

The current ‘wave’ of refugees into Europe, linked as it is to war and international terrorism, is one obvious example of the latter. If one adds in the impacts of climate change – whose impacts will be felt by all nations, who therefore share an interest in doing something about it – it makes sense to recognise that we are living in an era when, perhaps more than ever before, it is possible to speak in terms of common or shared security (and common or shared insecurity), rather than only narrowly of national security.

So if the UK is – as a P5 member, historically a trading nation and the fifth largest national economy – a significant player in this unsettled and connected world, it makes sense to apply a portion of the government’s budget to reducing the risks the world faces in the next few years: the common or shared risks. If done in the right way, this has an impact not only on people’s wellbeing and security in the most obviously unsettled parts of the world, but on the wellbeing and security of UK citizens too.

So rather than call for the UK’s ODA to be reduced to plug the apparent fiscal hole in the budget approved by parliament this week, perhaps those who want to place the UK’s interests first should instead call for ODA to be used to help make the world a safer place – and a safer place for all, including British citizens. The UK’s aid strategy, released at the end of last year, already recognises this, with its headline focus on building peace and prosperity, reducing poverty, promoting resilience in the face of natural and political disasters, and responding to humanitarian crises when local resilience is insufficient.

While the UK alone is not responsible for fixing the world’s ills – and nor could it – £12bn per year or about 1.5% of government spending doesn’t seem too high a price set against the scale of the challenge, and certainly not if it helps keep people safe in fragile and conflict-prone countries and in the UK too.

As Cicero said, the safety of the people is the highest law. But safety is not just provided by people in uniform, it’s provided by friends, family and neighbours looking out for one another in prosperous and harmonious communities; by all people – especially young people – feeling they are part of that community with all the political, economic and social opportunities and duties which that entails.

These are some of the outcomes ODA helps achieve, by improving livelihoods, infrastructure and governance in conflict-prone and conflict-affected countries and regions. By thus contributing to stability far away in a connected and unsettled world, British ODA does have a domestic impact too.