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We need more clarity about the ‘peace’ that peacebuilding aims to build.

January 14, 2023

The UN and other parts of the international aid system are re-emphasising their important peacebuilding role. This matters, as peacebuilding is needed more than ever, and it can’t be left to specialist peacebuilders alone. But the process risks being stymied by a lack of clarity about what ‘peace’ looks like in practice, and therefore how to get there. In this article I propose a simple, generic and adaptable solution.

An increased emphasis on peacebuilding

There has been a welcome resurgence of emphasis in the peacebuilding mission of the United Nations and its Member States and Organisations, over recent years. This commitment has been reflected in UN and Member State policies such as Sustaining Peace and Pathways for Peace, which define an overarching commitment to building peace in line with SDG16, and more broadly across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are supported by specific policies such as UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2250 on Youth Peace and Security (YPS), the longstanding Women Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, and by individual Member State commitments.

Many technical UN organisations have formally adopted peacebuilding within or alongside their core strategies. Donor agencies increasingly require programmes to be designed with an awareness of conflict dynamics, and contribute to peace (i.e. be ‘conflict sensitive’). The International Financial Institutions have also adopted policies for conflict-affected settings, such as the Fragility, Conflict and Violence Strategy of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund’s Strategy for Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries. The aid community has committed to implementing the Humanitarian, Development and Peace Nexus (HDPN), designed to minimise silos and help programmes succeed in fluid and evolving situations.

All this matters, because the number and intensity of conflicts across the world has been on the rise for some time; because geopolitics has become less stable on a macro scale; because far too many people carry grievances about being unfairly excluded from the benefits of development; and because of the security implications of environmental degradation, among other stresses. It also matters because sustainable peace needs all hands to the pump, rather than being left only to peace specialists, who are too few in number and are under-resourced. Hence it’s important that UN and other agencies contribute significantly to building peace.


It is early days yet, and perhaps too early to expect to see significant evidence of the impact of these changes, whether locally, nationally or regionally. Nevertheless, concerns have been raised within the peacebuilding community about whether this widespread adoption of the language of peacebuilding is leading to a genuine change in the way these organisations do business. Some commentators have suggested that, beneath the new rhetorical dressing, most organisations are in fact continuing with business as usual. In other words, adopting the uniform of peacebuilding, but not its practice. This is partly about the need to provide more funds and in new ways. It is also about the difficulty of converting agencies which have evolved to perform specific tasks, to adapt their technical and cultural approaches so as to embrace peacebuilding. This will only happen if the challenges to change are addressed in terms of individual motivation, knowledge and skills, new organisational strategies, effective leadership, and a more conducive organisational and sectoral environment.

Progress can of course be tested by looking at what activities are being carried out, and whether or not they differ substantially from what the agencies were doing before. Because the adoption of peacebuilding clearly requires a visible and substantive change in the way they work. This is because peacebuilding actions are designed to achieve recognisably different ends than ‘development’ or ‘humanitarian’ actions. For example, a developmental education project might focus on improving sustained education outcomes for girls; a humanitarian education project might focus on providing continuity of education services to internally displaced children; whereas a peacebuilding approach to education would be designed specifically to address either the identified causes of conflict, and/or to contribute to an agreed understanding of how peace might be sustained. Obviously it would be designed specifically for the context. But to take an example, one might expect to see an education programme in a conflict-affected context designed to increase education attendance and outcomes among marginalised communities, where their marginalisation has been identified as one of the causes of conflict. And it might also emphasise the involvement of parents and other community members in school management, as a way to improve their sense of empowerment and ownership, since these qualities are often seen as critical to sustaining peace.

Peace: a broad church, yes, but is it too vague?

One of the curious features of the adoption of peacebuilding among UN and other institutions is that they all-too-frequently fail to declare adequately what they mean by ‘peace’. In a context where many staff and other stakeholders of these organisations may be unclear what they are newly being asked to do, this can be a problem. It means they don’t have a clear understanding of what’s required of them, and in the absence of such, many will be tempted to carry on with what they do know and understand: in other words, business as usual. At a very practical level, this lack of clarity also creates a problem for accountability and monitoring and evaluation (M&E): if we haven’t agreed on what we are aiming for, how can we be held to account for making progress towards it?

This is doubly problematic because ‘peace’ is a fairly vague concept for many; and where they do apply a more specific definition, it can be incomplete, or even in some cases downright unhelpful. Often, peace is seen simply as equating to bringing violence to an end and restoring stability. But this misses the important element of ‘positive peace’—i.e. the sustained presence of factors, behaviours and institutions within and between societies that prevent further outbreaks of violence and enable effective co-existence. After all, half of all armed conflicts between 1989 and 2018 recurred, and one in five recurred three or more times. Mere stability—important though it is—often masks the persistence of grievances and other problems that risk creating further conflicts in the future. For the UN and other major multilaterals meanwhile, peace is often written about in terms of ‘conflict prevention’ or ‘post-conflict recovery’, and this terminology can also draw attention away from the need to promote positive and sustainable peace. Worse, for all too many actors, ‘peace’ is defined in terms of their own victory over others, or of maintaining a status quo from which they and their constituents benefit disproportionately, at the expense of others.

Towards an agreed definition of Peace

Of course, peace is not just a technical issue. On the contrary, it is highly political and therefore highly contextual. This can make it hard to strive for definitions that combine integrity and clarity, because some people or groups may have good reason to shy away from an objective and accurate narrative, especially if it threatens their interests as they perceive them. This is why peace making and peacebuilding are so often approached through a lens of ‘strategic ambiguity’. It is true that this approach can create the kind of ‘big tent’ that peacebuilding so often requires, bringing together different interest groups under a single banner, and seeking the kinds of compromises needed to avoid violence or bring it to a close. But this can be confusing for those not closely involved at the political level. For the staff of organisations tasked with making a contribution to peace in their programmes, it can make it hard to see clearly what is needed. This means it is all the more essential for organisations to own a simple and clear understanding—internally at least—of what kinds of things they should aim to support when they say they are building peace. With this in mind, I propose a broad, generic definition. This draws on manifold sources but has its roots in the concepts of peacebuilding we developed more than a decade ago when I worked for International Alert:

Peace is when societies are anticipating, managing or resolving conflicts non-violently, while continuing to meet peoples’ basic needs and make development progress. In practical terms, their capacity to do so can be seen as the product of three broad, interlinked and overlapping factors: the three core dimensions of peace, if you will. These reflect both the impact of peace on people and their communities/societies, but also their own active engagement in sustaining peace (which is essential, for peace requires constant nourishment from within):

NB: ‘vertical and horizontal relationships’ refer to two-way interactions and relationships between people and those in authority, and between and among people and peoples.

This concept has several advantages.

  • It is simple: easy to understand.
  • It incorporates fairness: something people tend to understand far more readily than technical concepts such as ‘inclusion’, ‘marginalisation’ or ‘equity’. (And fairness is a more realistic and achievable criterion than ‘equality’.) Sustainable peace requires that safety, stability and access to opportunity are all fairly available, and the institutions that govern and enable social cohesion should also promote fairness.
  • The concept encapsulates not just negative peace (i.e. reduced violence) but also positive peace (the construction and strengthening of habits that allow for non-violent problem resolution, and the institutions that support these.)
  • It can be applied at any scale, from village or suburb to regional or even global geopolitics.
  • It acknowledges the interaction between its three elements. Improved safety and stability create an environment conducive to improving access to opportunity and to the development of mechanisms that enhance social cohesion. Enhanced opportunities enable people to take part in these social cohesion mechanisms, and they reduce the grievances that might otherwise threaten stability and security. And social cohesion breeds trust and allows for mechanisms that improve security and provide fairer access to opportunities. A virtuous circle.

Measuring progress towards peace

This simple concept of peace can also be integrated readily with humanitarian or developmental activities, so it’s helpful in promoting the HDP Nexus, and allows agencies historically focused on humanitarian or development to adopt practical peacebuilding measures. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) can easily build social cohesion and fair access goals into its work on land management, in places where access to and use of land are sources of conflict (as is so often the case). Or the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) might help young people steer away from violently criminal or extremist pathways, alongside its existing work on young people’s sexual health. One reason this concept of peace readily enables this kind of integration is because, while its goals are reasonably clear, it is resolutely non-prescriptive regarding strategy, i.e. how to reach those goals. Thus it allows plenty of room for creative programming, linked to any number of technical development or humanitarian priorities.

This means that M&E can focus on a few core, consistent top level indicators, while developing context- and programme-specific indicators at output and even outcome level. For example, one might envisage goal indicators along the lines suggested in the table below.

This M&E model uses a combination of objectively verifiable indicators (levels of violence, levels of participation, and so on); surveys of people’s perceptions – since perceptions are so vital to stability and fairness – and thus grievances; and what we might call ‘narrative indicators’, e.g. reports of violence averted, or conflict issues resolved.

It’s also worth noting that the indicators proposed here are designed to be scalable, i.e. they can be adapted and measured locally, nationally or even internationally.

In the following table, each of the three core components of peace are considered separately. In practice, as noted above, there is considerable overlap and interaction between them, which can be taken into account in devising theories of change and M&E elements in actual peacebuilding contexts.


These ideas are intentionally simple. They have their limits. But at least they are clear. As such they, or something similar, could be used as the basis for developing a clear definition of peace, so that agencies adopting peacebuilding can explain both internally and externally what this means. This would give their staff a solid basis on which to develop creative programming approaches, to measure progress, and to be held accountable by others.


April 23, 2023


March 21, 2023

I. Tea Plantation

The pickers have long fled south, to bivouacs
that drip with cold; the geometry of tea
subverted where muhuti and flame trees
break cover, watching over weeds and vines.

Hyrax scurry from their burrows. Leopards
have returned to where they never knew.
Cranes circle high above the miracle
of sunbirds drawing nectar, motionless,
from coral and jewels they’d never have found before.

Black kites regard the rebel bands in tired
fatigues and rubber shoes, who thread their quiet
patrols on paths they’ve reimposed on the faintest
traces of a matrix overgrown.

II. Seat of power

And far away, where warlords feasted long
ago, and made their will known to the men
they charged to make it so—and where a king
was killed—the broken masonry is mocked

by oak and birch. A cenotaph’s obscured
by briars among which feral goats and cattle
browse—and dogs in sunken doorways wait
in ambush to reduce those herds to blood
and bones they’ll bare their teeth and battle for.

The dogs are watched in turn from shadowed vantage
points by scouts who’ve travelled from their sundered
homes across a narrow, hostile sea
in search of knowledge of what happened here,
to send back to their camps among the dunes.

This poem was included in Kent & Sussex Folio #76 in 2022. It is part of what I hope will be published as a new collection, of poems exploring the interactions between conflict, peace and place: Guerrilla Country.

(The Muhuti tree is Erythrina abysynica)

The King’s Peace

September 20, 2022

My poem, The King’s Peace, was kindly included by the editors in Flights of the Dragonfly’s FLIGHTS e-Journal Issue 4 earlier this year. They also included it in their ‘Best of the Net‘ nominations for 2022. It’s one of a series of poems I’m developing about peace and conflict in respect of specific geographic locations and moments in history.

The King’s Peace

To keep his peace, our king built temples,
courts and palaces, and scarred
the land he’d won, with ditches, ports
and roads; determined how we die;
and blessed us with his enmities.

To teach us irony, he named
his cousins lords and justices.
Apprised of God’s mistake by priests
and clerks, on pain of punishment
he made us speak a single tongue.

His word was written, maps were drawn.
But laws and maps and roadways lengthened
distances, and when he sailed,
he left no instrument through which
to see, but a kaleidoscope.

We turn and turn its wheels but cannot
make the fractured picture whole.

My Poems on the Radio!

April 21, 2022

Happy to share an interview from Wildhart Radio where I’m interviewed by Sian Thomas who also kindly let me read a few poems from Watching the Moon Landing and Poetry After Auschwitz. You can listen here: WILDHART RADIO.

Phil Vernon interview and poetry readings from Watching the Moon Landing, on Home Stage Poetry

February 10, 2022

I’m very happy to share that there is a 40 minute segment on Home Stage Poetry, featuring me reading seven of the poems from Watching the Moon Landing, and being interviewed by Florrie Crass. It’s available on You Tube or Facebook.

Watching the Moon Landing: my new poetry collection

January 26, 2022

I’m very happy to be able to say that my new poetry collection, Watching the Moon Landing, is published today by Hedgehog Poetry Press.

Following my 2020 collection Poetry After Auschwitz, these poems, mainly written in the last decade, cover a variety of themes. COVID-19 is there, but the poems also speak of love and loss, uncertainty, well-being, migration, power, violence, nature, superstition, memory, art and faith. Above all, they seem to explore connections, separation, nearness and distance in time and space, and the fragile frameworks we construct to make sense of and protect the (equally fragile) emotional, social, political and physical landscapes in which we live.

Many of the poems are based on imagined characters trying to comprehend the world they see and imagine – and the blurred lines between seeing and imagining. The title poem describes a person watching the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, on live TV in 1492 Spain. Or are they watching the first moon landing on TV, in 1969? We aren’t quite sure.

Watching the Moon Landing on TV, in a taverna in Castile

We let the fire die,
the cheese and bread remain
untouched, beside the wine;
each heard his own heart beat;
no one could look away

as the pinaza beached,
and Colón stepped ashore
and knelt – the first to reach
and claim those talked-of lands,
with flags on upturned oars.

So much to understand:
the tapestries of hills,
heaped rain clouds, untrod sands,
dark here, but daylight there,
their bravery and skill…

He crossed himself in prayer –
God’s truth: for all we knew,
that glistening strand he’d dared
sail to and land on might
as well have been the moon.

But knowledge woke that night
in us: a wind had changed.
We roused the fire. The sight
of carabela sails
could never be the same.

This theme of exploring sometimes slippery connections across both time and space recurs throughout the book. It also provided the inspiration for Lebona Vernon's artwork for the front and back covers, mixing the Apollo space programme with 15th Century European exploration across the Atlantic.

Details of where and how to buy the book can be found here. Meanwhile, I'm launching the book online, alongside fellow Hedgehog Poetry Press authors Raine Geoghegan and Nigel Kent on 2 February at 7.30pm: free tickets available here. All comers are very welcome.

And the book will also be featured on Home Stage Poetry: Meet the Poet on 9th February. 

Everyday Peace

January 19, 2022

Book review: Everyday Peace: How So-called Ordinary People Can Disrupt Violent Conflict (OUP, 2021). By Roger Mac Ginty.

I once wrote in a poem that ‘every violence is intimate’. I was taken to task at the time by a fellow poet who’d been a bomb loader in the RAF as a teenager during the Second World War. But I still think I was right.

I was reminded of this when reading Roger Mac Ginty’s new book, Everyday Peace: How So-called Ordinary People Can Disrupt Violent Conflict (OUP, 2021). Because in making a case for what he calls Everyday Peace, Mac Ginty seems to be saying that much of what constitutes and enables peace in a given context is the collection of many, many small-scale ‘hyperlocal’ acts of intentional omission and commission done by people as they go about their day. Intimate peace, perhaps.

To be clear, he is not saying that all peace is local, simply that in understanding peace, we need to consider the everyday as well as looking on a wider scope and scale at grander, more obviously political actions: peace processes, political deals, government policies, international negotiations, and the like.

Everyday peace, he points out, includes acts of tolerance and kindness between neighbours – perhaps neighbours from ‘opposing’ communities. It includes routine actions such as greeting neighbours civilly or shopping in the same market; one-off actions such as helping out a person or a family in trouble; and rarer actions that require us to stand up against societal norms, even when these are brutally enforced, such as when young Germans stood up against the Nazis, or Sudanese soldiers more recently acted to protect, rather than fire upon civilian demonstrators in Khartoum. The book reminds us that when asked what constitutes peace for them, people across the world almost always include commonplace issues such as the freedom to hang out with others, send their children to school, conduct business affairs safely, and so on.

The book draws on many years of research, and also on Mac Ginty’s personal experience of growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He brings both an academic and a very human approach to the work.

The book is a helpful reminder that while formal, political peace processes and peacebuilding remain essential, so as to create the space in which Everyday Peace can flourish, they will also fail in the absence of Everyday Peace. Both are therefore part of the rich ecology of peace and peacefulness.

The continuum of Everyday Peace

Mac Ginty introduces a simple continuum of Everyday Peace, characterised by three overlapping categories of norms and behaviour:

Sociality <-> Reciprocity <-> Solidarity

… with Solidarity representing the strongest and most effective form of Everyday Peace, and Sociality being weaker but still better than no peace at all.

An example of Sociality might be when a business woman purposefully employs members of another ethnic group, driven perhaps by a sense of empathy and an appreciation of the need to use her influence to help build bridges for the greater good. Reciprocity, as the name implies, includes when people from antagonistic communities reach out in collaboration because they understand they ‘need each other’. And Solidarity is when the ‘circuits’ of people from different groups are genuinely entangled in a way that supports a sense of common identity. The book provides real examples of these three types of Everyday Peace from various contexts.

Circuits, power, families and courage

Everyday Peace as a concept highlights the importance of overlapping, entangled, ‘circuits’ that contribute to our sense of identity and motivation, driving and enabling our choices and actions. Each of us is part of several different circuits, for example a state security operative may also be a church member and part of a peer group that attended university together, and is subject to the different motivations and norms, and can avail himself of the different opportunities each circuit entails.

The concept also rightly emphasises the importance of power or agency in permitting and enabling individuals to behave in the way they do. It’s welcome that in considering the scalability of Everyday Peace, the book acknowledges the importance of the family – i.e. almost the smallest scale – in fomenting values and behaviour; and acknowledges too that the family is a unit of society in which, if it is itself ‘everyday peaceful’, thus contributes as a peaceful component, to a peaceful society more widely.

It’s also welcome that Mac Ginty highlights the importance of courage, bravery and leadership to peace, as this is often forgotten. For example, in a context where two communities live side by side but with a history of unresolved enmity – an all-too-common scenario – it can require a great deal of courage to reach out across the inter-community divide. If doing so goes against community norms, this can lead to ostracization or worse by members of one’s own in-group. And of course the Sudanese soldiers mentioned earlier may well have put themselves at risk of their own lives, by protecting the protestors.

In praise of negative peace

The book is also welcome in its acknowledgement of the importance of negative peace. Negative peace – put simply, when armed violence has stopped, but its causes remain unresolved – has a bad press in peacebuilding circles. Quite rightly, peacebuilders decry negative peace as unsustainable, citing the risk of a return to violence because of unresolved grievances. But sometimes a form of negative peace is as much as can be achieved for now: or in better circumstances, it provides a platform of short-term stability that can be built upon and converted to ‘positive peace’ – i.e. the capacity to anticipate, manage and resolve tensions and conflicts without resort to violence, and promote fairness.

Mac Ginty provides examples of the small things people do in conflict-prone societies to avoid the tripwires they see around them: to avoid exacerbating tensions or triggering incidents. In one of his Northern Ireland examples, he cites his own attempt to minimise potential problems with people from ‘the other’ community in Northern Ireland by making sure his hire car radio is not tuned to ‘the wrong station’ when he returns it to the airport. That he feels the need to do so is an indication of the negative peace that still persists there. But that he does so as an act of Everyday Peace is an example of how individuals learn how to behave in ways that maintain stability and avoid inflaming tensions, as part of their everyday.


Mac Ginty takes great care over his choice of words, recognising their importance in creating or perpetuating the lens through which we regard any given context. This matters, and his choice of metaphors is careful and helpful. He talks about ‘scaling out’, rather than just ‘scaling up’ – acknowledging that everyday peace acts may transfer more effectively on the horizontal, than the vertical plane. And he borrows Jean Paul Lederach’s idea of ‘critical yeast’, to replace ‘critical mass’, as a way to describe the organic processes through which Everyday Peace ideas and behaviours can trabsfer, grow and evolve within and between communities and societies.

I would however take issue with way he describes the difference between local and other dimensions: frequently characterising them in terms of levels. This is a common problem in peace (and other) studies. It’s true that one can helpfully differentiate between ‘levels’ of government and administration: from national/state downwards to county, to municipality, for example. This ‘vertical’ trope can be helpful in analysing power and subsidiarity. But it seems to me that to talk of everyday peace actions as happening at a ‘local level’ is to undermine his core idea somewhat, and could perhaps lead to wrong-headed policy responses (since ‘the essential character of metaphor is prophetic‘ as Denis Donoghue has written). Surely it is a more three-dimensional issue of scope and scale, than of level?

But that’s a small criticism. Mac Ginty ends by asking four questions of his own analysis. Is Everyday Peace really peace, or is it just tolerance and an unsustainable status quo? How significant is it, in the scheme of things? Given its small scale, by definition, and often somewhat hidden nature, how can researchers or peace promoters see, measure or harness it? And finally, to what extent does it connect up and out to, and nourish, other peace dynamics on a larger scale?

Rightly I think, he finds that Everyday Peace does matter – even if in some cases it is ‘merely tolerance’ – as it provides the basis for non-violent co-existence and creates the potential for more. He recommends that researchers – and, I would add, policy makers and peacebuilders – train their eyes and ears so they are better attuned to the subtleties of Everyday Peace. (Though they also need to take care not to mess with peace capacities they understand poorly, and potentially undermine them through ignorance.) And he makes a good case that Everyday Peace is indeed part of the interconnected ecology that enables peaceful co-existence, at least partly through the interaction of the complex ‘circuitry’ that helps describe and explain relationships and people’s motivation.

I recommend this book. It’s easy to read, even for this non-academic reader. It flows well and although it presents a somewhat original concept, it does so with relative humility. Despite suggesting plausibly that Everyday Peace is the ‘first and last’ peace (representing the first peaceful acts as violence diminishes, and the last peaceful acts as violence takes hold), this is stated quietly: he doesn’t call it the Alpha and Omega of peace!

Perhaps, returning to poetry where I began, Mac Ginty is a fan of Keats’s idea of Negative Capability: that we don’t need to claim or even aim for certainty, and that exploring an important idea is already a good step made.

Applying Just War Theory to the occupation in Afghanistan

October 13, 2021

The West’s departure from Afghanistan was a debacle. But was it a just war?

The debacle of the West quitting Afghanistan in a hurry was clearly a failure of statecraft and planning, and a moral failure. That’s despite the staggering operational success in negotiating the opportunity to help thousands of people leave, and getting them safely out.

I’ve never worked in or on Afghanistan, but I’d always felt instinctively that the whole enterprise was a mistake. When it started, I was concerned it would cause harm to Afghans and Afghanistan, and upset the tricky balance of power in the region. It also seemed unrealistic that the West would be willing or able to stay the course, at least by the light of its own declared intentions – malleable though these turned out to be.

That seems to have been the case. The West has left. The balance of power in the region has certainly been affected, with India and Pakistan seeing Afghanistan largely through the lens of their own conflict. Hundreds of thousands of civilians and security personnel have died in armed conflict, who would not have done, had ISAF and its successors not intervened, and many more have been harmed. Meanwhile many lives have also been improved in ways they would not have been without the Western intervention. I don’t know enough to be able to create a detailed balance sheet of harmful vs good outcomes during 20 years of NATO occupation, and in any case we’ll have to wait many years before we can assess the true outcomes.

But was it in any way a just war? I turned to the six Jus ad bellum conditions of Just War theory, for help in considering this question. (I omit the seventh condition, Comparative Justice, as it seems hard to pin down accurately; as well as the second set of principles jus in bello, as I don’t have the detailed knowledge to assess them usefully here).

1. Just intention. The war must be for a just cause.

This first condition is somewhat tricky to assess, since there remains a great deal of argument over the actual intentions, which seem anyway to have been redefined over time to suit the decisions of the day. But let’s go with the idea that there were two main intentions:

  • To punish Al-Qaeda and the regime that harboured Al-Qaeda, for the atrocities of 9/11, and prevent further such action by them.
  • To remove the Taleban regime and replace it with a democratic, more liberal regime and associated institutions.

These almost fit within the ethical boundaries of justification: both reflect the justification of self-defence, and the second can be further justified on the grounds of replacing the Taleban’s brutal and repressive approach to governance (albeit this was supported by many Afghans). It can perhaps be justified still further on the grounds that the Taleban were themselves not a fully legitimate government, having achieved power through force and not supported by large proportion of the Afghan people.

The intention of punishment per se is less easy to justify, unless one considers it a necessary element of preventing further atrocity.

2. Competent authority. The war must be lawfully declared by a lawful authority.

The war seems to pass this test, having been blessed from the start by NATO, constituted of many, mainly democratic governments, and by the UN among others.  These institutions are widely considered to be informed and driven by concepts of justice.  

3. Right intention. The intention behind the war must be good.

Again, the war passes this test. One can certainly show that the armed forces (and associated industries) of the occupying forces benefited as institutions from huge injections of resources and the opportunity to serve. But this was not a primary driver of the political intentions behind the war. (Of course, although the military institutions may have benefitted, many individuals who served in them and their families palpably did not, and many continue to suffer harm.)

4. Last resort. All other ways of resolving the problem should have been tried first.

Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. Since the Taleban were unwilling to give up Al-Qaeda, one can argue that the condition of last resort was met, at least for the first intention (prevention and punishment). But it is also true that the USA was in a hurry to deliver retribution. So I’m not entirely sure on this one.

5. There must be a reasonable chance of success.

In hindsight, and very clearly, the war fails this test. Al-Qaeda remains in Afghanistan, and now alongside other forces such as ISIS, and there are no reasons to expect that Taleban will either fully desire or be able to prevent them from their activities. Meanwhile the Taleban, although it was initially removed, is now back in power. The future of the political, economic and social institutions that were under construction during the 20 years of occupation looks bleak in the main: certainly any liberal or democratic colours in which they had been painted are fast washing away. While the corpus of relevant political science (on fragility, state building, etc.) has expanded hugely since the occupation began, and largely as a result of it, there was every reason to know from even a cursory reading of history that success would take decades to achieve; and every reason to predict that the occupiers from democratic countries would have insufficient appetite to continue for long enough, in the face of their voters’ priorities. So even without hindsight, this is a fail.

6. Proportionality. The benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.

Strictly speaking, here too one should consider the anticipated benefits versus the anticipated harms, rather than judge proportionality in 2001 from the vantage point of the present. Because it doesn’t seem, today, that the death and destruction was worthwhile.

But if we stick to the idea of what was anticipated at the start: remembering the public pronouncements from Washington and elsewhere in those early days, it does seem that they were either naïve or cynical. Western governments at that time considered – or claimed publicly, at least – that it would be possible to pacify a country like Afghanistan and then implant liberal and democratic institutions there with the minimum of pain and maximum speed. If they were truly that naïve, we might judge them as having met the proportionality test on the face of it. However, just war ethics requires decision makers to take steps so they are well-informed about the actual circumstances and likely impacts of their decisions, so naivety is no excuse. Therefore I think it’s pretty clear the war also fails this test.


I found this process helpful. According to my assessment, the six conditions reveal:

Just intentionMet, but with caveats
Competent authorityMet
Right intentionMet
Last resortUncertain
Reasonable chance of success Unmet

I make no claim that this is completely accurate. Nor am I a trained philosopher well-versed in the intricacies of Just War theory. And I haven’t even touched on the second set of principles, jus in bello. But if this admittedly superficial analysis is anywhere close to right, the war was the wrong approach.

Operationalising the Triple Nexus

August 20, 2021

How individual agencies can ensure the Humanitarian, Development and Peacebuilding Nexus (HDPN) is genuinely useful to them and their work.

The relevance of the Triple Nexus to individual agencies

The Triple Nexus was a response to the incoherence, and the paucity and weakness of linkages between humanitarian, development and peacebuilding interventions and agencies. Aid agencies have long failed to work in the joined up away that supporting people in fragile contexts requires, and the Nexus implies they should collaborate more effectively across the boundaries that have long built up between humanitarian, development and peace work. It has been endorsed by institutional donors, including collectively through the OECD-DAC. Most UN and international agencies have integrated at least the language of the Nexus into their programming and communications.

For a typical development, humanitarian or peacebuilding agency, or a multi-purpose agency, its relevance might be seen as fourfold, helping to:

  1. Improve coherence across its own humanitarian, development and peacebuilding actions, including with and among local partners across the three dimensions of the Nexus.
  2. Improve coherence and linkages with other agencies, across the three dimensions of the Nexus.
  3. Inform its advocacy, for example towards donors and other international and national institutions including governments.
  4. Reassure donors and other stakeholders of its commitment to the Nexus, to help secure their support.

Obstacles to integrating the Nexus

But many agencies have found it hard to operationalise the Nexus. There are three main reasons for this. The first, most often cited reason, is the existence of silos in the aid sector, and within individual organisations. These are the result of long-standing cultural and practical differences in the way the three ‘tribes’, representing the three dimensions of the Nexus, approach their work. Many factors are at play here, including:

  • The rapid response and shorter-term solutions, versus slower onset, longer-term approaches that understandably separate humanitarians from peacebuilding and development actors.
  • Humanitarians’ concern that embracing ‘political’ considerations may undermine their neutrality and access; whereas for peacebuilders, politics is an essential factor to be understood and addressed; while development actors may sit somewhere between the two.

The second reason is quite simply the difficulty of introducing major change into a complex and fragmented sector which already follows ‘tried and tested’ approaches, and in which accountability is blurred. Levers of change are widely distributed across the sector, hard to locate, and often ineffective.

The third reason is that the Nexus has been defined in a way that is inherently unhelpful. It was coined by people looking at the aid sector as though from above. What they saw was a lack of operational coordination, hence their fix was defined in terms of better operational linkages.

But people in need of support seldom make such clear distinctions between humanitarian, development and peacebuilding. A person fleeing conflict or disaster may express their initial needs in humanitarian terms, but they do not thus relinquish their right or aspiration for peaceful progress. A person can be simultaneously in receipt of support to stay alive, while also improving their prospects for the future, amid improved security, stability and governance: reflecting all three dimensions of the Nexus.

So coining the problem and its solution in terms of inter-agency collaboration, rather than programmatic and ethical coherence, is maladroit. This has fed a widespread sense of cynicism among agencies, where genuine commitment to the Nexus per se is thin – even where staff may already understand the need for, and be using flexible approaches. Local organisations in aid recipient countries can be even more sceptical, seeing the Nexus as yet another distraction from more pressing issues such as their own empowerment and access to aid resources.

So it’s essential that any agency wishing to operationalise the Nexus should start with an honest appraisal of its utility for the agency concerned. This means defining or interpreting the Nexus in a way that fits its own values and organisational realties, and then making a conscious decision to invest in the kinds of approaches that emerge from this analysis. The Nexus is only useful if by adopting it, we can increase the positive impact of our own and / or others’ work. Otherwise it’s a distraction.

An approach to identifying an agency-specific approach to the HDPN

A generic approach to developing an agency’s strategic approach to the HDPN might look something like this. It could be divided into four main stages, probably led by a cross-departmental working group.

1. Identify Niche

Discussions/interviews with the working group, staff and partners (programme and non-programme departments; field and HQ), to identify how the Triple Nexus can be most useful to the organisation. Draft a paper outlining its strategic focus, for example using Moore’s Public Value model, which locates strategy in the overlap (and potential overlap) between Capacity, Mission, and Enabling Environment. 

2. Validate Strategic Niche and Develop Plan

After initial vetting by the working group, the draft paper would be used as the basis for an online workshop with two objectives:

  • Amend and validate the draft strategic niche
  • Outline areas of action for taking the strategy forward across different departments.

Based on the workshop outputs, and subsequent informal internal bilateral and group discussions, the strategy and plan of actions is finalised. This process would involve all staff expected to play a key role in leading its implementation. The plan would contain a mixture of measures, e.g. piloting and measuring progress in specific projects/contexts; awareness raising/capacity building for staff and partners; adaptations in programme design, monitoring and evaluation and learning (DMEL); the development of external messaging; and tailoring approaches to institutional donors. If possible, these should be integrated into existing plans, to avoid overloading budgets and people’s time.

3. Piloting

During implementation, teams should have access to hands on technical assistance and also a helpdesk. The working group keeps finger on the pulse of progress, takes note of and responds to key lessons learned, and keeps the project alive (among all the competing priorities staff are faced with).

4. Lesson Learned, and Phase 2 Plan

At the end of the pilot period – say a year – a workshop is planned to elucidate lessons learned. Its design is influenced by a review of relevant reports, and a number of internal stakeholder interviews. This would be used to write a short, synthesised final report, with lessons learned and recommendations, and develop a phase 2 plan.