What with all the attacks on international development aid of late, at least in the UK, there has been talk of reviewing the narrative about what ‘development’ actually means. In other words, what is this process – let’s simply call it progress – which aid is supposed to support?
After all, to those outside the aid bubble, it can be quite confusing – a complex mix of overlapping and competing ideas: poverty eradication (or is it reduction?), livelihoods, resilience, gender equality, ‘building back better’, better governance, peacebuilding, reducing fragility, building stability – and more recently calls for ‘no-one left behind‘ – to name just a few of the many tropes out there. And of course, some of history’s greatest thinkers have devoted their lives to the project of defining what a better society might look like, and how to get there: names like Plato and Marx spring to mind…
So I went back and looked again at the essay International Alert published in 2010 which unpacked this question. What we said then still seems highly relevant. And, perhaps deceptively, simple. We proposed that development was historically a process in which societies provided their citizens with increasingly fairer and more equal access to justice, security, economic opportunity, health and other factors of well-being, and a voice in decisions which affect them. These are the elements on the right in the diagram below, which was part of the essay I mentioned.
Looking at history, we identified a number of processes which appear to have enabled this kind of progress in the past – the elements on the left. And we also said that leadership, values and institutions were crucial.
None of this is necessarily easy to achieve – history is a way of describing how things may have happened in the past, rather than how to make them happen again. But looking back on this 2010 narrative from the vantage point of 2017, it still seems substantially right.
So the question for progressives is, how to catalyse the kinds of processes on the left in the diagram above, while providing opportunities to strengthen institutions and leadership with the kinds of values which underpin the items on the right? And for those interested in aid: can overseas development aid help?
To both questions I say ‘of course’. Much of the development progress – and setbacks – in Latin America over the past decades can be seen in these terms, and in many ways aid has assisted this. The framework also helps to show how much further a country like – say – China can travel if is people so desire, despite its achievements to date.
One thing this narrative illustrates is that progress necessarily takes time to unfold in specific circumstances, and we need to have patience. For those seeking a more accurate way to describe ‘development’, I recommend a visit to International Alert as a source of ideas.
I’m one of those people who said “don’t worry, the Remainers will carry the day”, and then “I’m sure we’ll end up negotiating a relationship with the EU almost as good as membership”; and then “Trump – surely they won’t vote for him?”, and finally “Wait and see, his bite won’t surely be as bad as his bark?”… So what do I know?
Nevertheless, ignorant or naive as I seem to be, this blog post is my expression of unease at the fervent anti-Trump fever that’s sweeping parts of the world and the twittersphere. Not that I don’t oppose a great deal of what Trump claims to stand for (though I must admit I still doubt he really does), but because I fear that by opposing him we risk strengthening his hand, at least in the short term. This is the Bannon Trap.
Trump was elected on a wave of anti-elitism, and as such has been bracketed with le Pen, Farage and the Brexiteers, and others. The genius of these populist figures, it seems to me, is that they get their opponents to do most of their campaigning. By creating a straw person – the sneering, liberal elitist who has captured all the gains of globalisation and cares more about the welfare of faraway foreigners than about you or me – they can stand back and let those very liberal elitists do the hard work by protesting against the seemingly self-evident truths the populists have coined.
But they don’t just stand back. In classic populist fashion, they produce speeches, tweets, TV spots – and now, presidential decrees – carefully designed to provoke precisely the kind of outraged reaction among those who oppose them that reveals them as members of a single bloc of elitists who are standing in the way of a fairer society. As traitors, indeed – as we can see from Trump’s claim that he fired his Attorney General because of her “betrayal” – rather than for upholding the rule of law which he has said he’ll restore. No wonder the branding of UKIP, the Trump campaign and other similar causes seems so crass and clumsy: not only is that intentional – to show that they don’t care about that slick, metropolitan branding s*** – but it’s also unnecessary to develop a slick brand if you define yourself in terms of who is ranged against you, rather than what or who you are….
Trump’s supposedly personal midnight tweeting is no doubt also part of the same tactical approach. I’d be amazed if Trump himself is creating or tweeting those messages: they’re straight out of a Goebbels playbook, and no doubt there’s a team of people answerable to Steve Bannon, which drafts them, get them approved within the Trump Team hierarchy, and then puts them out there for all to read. It’s just another simple but clever way to get the elite all riled up about the idea of a president elect or a president sending such obtuse and oafish tweets. I can imagine a room full of hyped up young men (I bet they’re all men) outdoing themselves trying to come up with the most liberal-provocative statement yet.
How happy they must be now. Every time TV stations broadcast yet more footage of President Trump signing yet another executive order – most of which are drafts, and/or temporary in nature and no doubt designed to be modified in the course of the next few months – they rub their hands with glee at how this will push the elite – not just in big US cities, but around the world, for God’s sake! – out to protest, showing themselves up for the out of touch bunch of globalistas they are.
No matter that few of these sham “policies” will actually work. No matter than they may be counter-productive even in terms of Trump’s own rhetoric. Right now their purpose seems largely political: to rile up the opposition and let core supporters see their enemies for who they are – and to make real, the rift which Trump’s team has projected onto American society.
Of course, the “liberal elite” is no more a homogeneous bloc than are the diverse people who support Trump, Le Pen, Brexit, etc. But it serves the populists’ purposes to make it seem as though they are, and a simple way to do so is unite them in opposition to the oafish and abnormal behaviour and pronouncements emanating from the White House. Provocation 101, as it might be called if taught at political insurgency school.
So if, like me, you oppose what Trump appears to stand for – and what Steve Bannon and others in his team really do seem to stand for – you are confronted by a cleverly laid trap: you’re damned if you do react, and damned if you don’t. Either you react and are labelled as elitist, or you keep quiet and leave the way open for policies which will do harm. The Bannon Trap.
If this is right, where does that leave those who oppose Trump? I’m not saying people should stop responding to and criticizing Trump and his ilk, but his tactics do make it hard to oppose him without providing him with yet more oxygen.
I tweeted a few weeks ago – not long after the US election – that the UK and the US both (still) had strong institutions which should be resilient in the face of these populists. After the last week or so of Trumpery, I was challenged on Twitter as to whether I now had cause to change my mind and be less sanguine. It’s an important question and I hope I don’t turn out to be wrong in saying I have not changed my mind.
Brexit and Trump have shone a light clearly enough in parts of the USA and UK – on the margins, if you will – where people have not had a fair chance to participate in the gains of economic growth, where they feel ignored, and where resentment is real. But Trump and Brexit have happened within our political and societal institutions, not outside them. The Brexit referendum was devised by a democratically elected executive and approved by Parliament, and Trump was elected within the rules of a great democracy. Surely those institutions still contain mechanisms with the capacity to allow us to try and put this problem of unfairness right. I am confident that neither Brexit nor Trump will achieve this, but the political and societal systems from which they have emerged, and which have thus enabled such a clear light to be shone on the problem, can perhaps allow others to do so. That is resilience.
If so the key to responding effectively must be to take on the hard work of figuring out – with the participation of those affected and resentful – what those long-term political solutions might be, and argue within our political system for them to be adopted. To take on Trump and the Brexiteers on their own ground, as it were. (As has been said: take them seriously, rather than literally.) I don’t think this means turning our back on liberal economic and political ideas, but it does mean doing more to mitigate the harm which such ideas have caused, and will cause, to those for whom the benefits are harder to access. This will take time and will not be easy.
And in the meantime, I have a (still perhaps naïve) faith that what seems like a political crisis may yet drive newspapers and other traditional media to get their mojo back. They certainly need to. The courts in America are already being used to challenge Trump by the states and civil society.
There are also signs that an opposition coalition of sorts may emerge in the USA which extends beyond the ‘liberal elite’. Already Trump is causing resentment within his senior ‘team’ at the way he is sidelining them as he makes policy announcements which touch on their areas of competence. Either they will quit, or force him to adopt a more collegiate approach. (And if forced to be collegiate, perhaps he’ll quit…).
Nor can I imagine his relationship with Republicans in Congress remaining easy for long. They are quiet for now, in the main. But plenty of their swing voters will get riled up too, and the mid-term elections season in the USA starts as soon as the new president takes office – i.e. now. Who knows, maybe the unintended consequence of all this populism will ultimately be the resuscitation of one of the main institutions of modern day democracy: the political party.
In the meantime, even if I’m right about the Bannon Trap, all those who feel disempowered and therefore the need to tweet, take to the streets etc., will not and probably should not stop. But I’d like to think that once we get over the fact that things have changed, and Trump starts policy development in earnest, engaging with and compromising with Congress, opposition voices will move beyond being against what Trump is saying, and get back onto the more familiar ground (for the liberal elite!) of formulating policy ideas which might actually make a difference for the people whose sense of exclusion and alienation has brought Trump to office. Heck, he might even borrow some of those ideas.
Recent articles in British newspapers The Times and the Mail question whether the British Government is able to spend over £12 bn per year on overseas development aid. This in a context of large government cuts in other expenditure, while parliament legislated in 2015 that Britain is required to spend at least 0.7% of the UK’s Gross National Income (GNI) on aid.
The various criticisms which have been levelled at Britain’s aid programme include:
- An over-reliance on expensive consultancy firms which make large profits and reportedly pay their senior staff extremely handsome salaries and bonuses
- An over-reliance on multi-national organisations, to which the government enstrusts some 40% of the annual spend, but over which it has limited control
- A habit of transferring large sums to internationally held funds towards the end of the year, in order to meet the annual spending targets imposed by parliament
- Programmes and projects which aren’t effective
- Examples of seemingly nonsensical projects – some quite small, such as funding a game show in Ethiopia, others very large such as the story of the unusable airport in St Helena.
There will always be those in the UK (and in developing countries) who simply don’t believe in overseas aid, feeling that we should first look after our own needs, or that it is somehow creating a moral hazard to help others out of their own difficulties. I will not address their criticism here – and I doubt most British newspapers fit into that category, anyway.
Regarding the criticisms listed above, I would suggest there are two main responses. The first is to accept that aid programmes will not always be effective, and commit to transparency, continuous improvement and accountability. This, successive governments have done, and it is right and proper for journalists, think thanks, citizens and MPs to continue holding successive governments’ feet to the fire. Neither UK taxpayers nor the people aid is intended to help, deserve anything less. All I would add here is that humanitarian and development aid is, and will always be, a complex, messy and difficult field, so it will be best served by well-informed criticism based on whether it achieves, or is likely to achieve results, in reference to specific problems or goals.
The other response is really about deciding how to balance an equation which currently does not add up. Let’s consider a few key points.
At least half of British Aid is destined for “fragile states”, i.e. poorly governed, unstable places in or at risk of conflict. Corruption and incompetence are unfortunately all-too-common bedfellows in such places. Aid programmes in such contexts are hard to design and implement; they need to be adaptable; they need to be implemented and overseen by expert, politically aware people motivated by achieving the right result for the people they are trying to help, and they need to be done by – or done in genuine partnership with – representatives those being helped. All of this is time consuming.
DFID and the other government departments responsible for spending over £12 bn per year have had their staffing numbers slashed since 2010, even as they have been saddled with the task of spending a budget which had risen by almost 50%. Not surprising therefore, that they have had to outsource so much of their expenditure to opaque multi-laterals and profit-making project delivery companies. Not surprising either, that they have bundled their spending into ever-larger “projects” which are much harder to implement in the adaptable and beneficiary-oriented manner I have just described.
At the time the 0.7% legislation was being debated, I expressed a view that it was a mistake, and would lead to a backlash against aid. My article was entitled Squaring the circle. Now that the backlash is happening, I’d suggest that there are two basic – and opposing – options available, in order to square the circle.
- Reduce the amount of aid to a figure more easily manageable, by removing the 0.7% target so as to remove the perverse incentive which spending targets inevitably generate – according to basic economics. This would also bring politics back into the equation, as the aid budget – and some of its details – would become part of the government budget approved annually by parliament and thus subject to regular debate and scrutiny. (The House of Lords has suggested removing the requirement to spend 0.7% of GNI within every 12 month period, and instead spread it over five years. But this would only only provide a temporary fix. )
- Increase the number of qualified civil servants deployed to oversee and implement Britain’s aid projects, in line with the volume of aid – for example by increasing the numbers in line with the 30% increase we have already seen since 2010. This would allow them to pay continuous attention to ensuring programmes are achieving results and if not, to be adapted or terminated, rather than – as is too often the case now – focusing on getting the money out of the door. They could provide more detailed oversight and accompaniment of multi-lateral organisations to which British funds are allocated. This change would also allow the government to restore some of the partnerships between the government and non-governmental organisations, through which some of the most effective humanitarian and development programmes have long been designed and delivered. This would go some way towards relieving DFID’s much-criticised reliance on profit-making consultancy companies.
Both options are politically difficult in one way or another. Both would go some way to making aid more consistently effective. One of them has to be adopted, and advocates of aid need to recognise this, otherwise they will lose the bigger argument. The alternative is to continue to pretend that the problem can be solved by tweaking (for example by insisting that consulting companies publish more financial details, or pretending that insisting on better ‘value for money’ will fix the problem – it won’t, as any honest public sector economist will admit). Those who support a generous UK aid budget need to get behind either reducing it to more manageable levels, or beefing up the government’s capacity to spend it well. Otherwise they are at risk of attempting to keep their cake while eating it.
11th November 1918. Armistice Day. The end of four years of terrible, industrial scale warfare which caused 18 million deaths, 23 million wounded, and countless other people’s lives ruined. It must never happen again, they said amidst sadness and relief, as they set about organising the peace. But they got it wrong, of course: a combination of victors’ justice imposed at the Treaty of Versailles, short-sighted planning and an inability to absorb all the economic, technological and political changes taking place in subsequent years, nor deal with class and international grievances, meant Europe and then the rest of the world slid into World War II and then the Cold War.
As we remember the end of the First World War today on the anniversary of the armistice, and empathise with the sadness and sorrow felt by those alive at the time, and acknowledge the sacrifices made, we must also focus our attention on the present and the future.
We seem to be surrounded by conflicts: from the naked violence of Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya and Nigeria; through tenuous ceasefires in places like South Sudan and Ukraine; the unresolved “frozen” conflicts such as in the Caucasus and Kashmir; to the structural violence which besets so many undemocratic countries – and is now increasingly visible in the mature western democracies too.
Learning at least some of the lessons of Versailles, the victors of 1945 were less bent on revenge and more on crafting a stable world order. Surely they got much of it wrong, to judge by some of the events which followed. But the establishment of institutions like the United Nations and Bretton Woods and – in the course of the next few years – the various iterations of what became the European Union, was surely one of the positives. The European Communities project was essentially a peacebuilding enterprise, and as such helped reduce the interest and opportunity of France and Germany to fight each other again – as per its design. This was recognised when the Nobel Peace Prize was given to the EU in recognition of this, in 2012.
But the Nobel Committee were not so much recognising past achievements, as encouraging the EU’s member states to try harder. (Just as they did when they awarded the prize to Barrack Obama before he’d had time to get his feet under the Oval Office desk in 2009). For they saw that the EU peace project was foundering, and risked contributing more to conflict than to peace. Clearly they had a point, as the Euro Crisis, Brexit and many other illustrations of European people’s sense of disempowerment, marginalisation and the democratic deficit have shown. Perhaps the existence of the Iron Curtain and NATO as additional incentives for stability within Europe masked the fact that the European project was beginning to crumble, as a peacebuilding enterprise.
International Alert’s peacebuilding framework acknowledges that no peace can even be seen as “achieved” – it has to be constantly maintained and nourished. This is why – for example – we continue to work in Rwanda, long after the terrible events of 1994. The institutions through which peaceful coexistence is enabled – whether local, national or supranational – need to be maintained and continuously renewed. Had the great powers recognised this, they might have been able to overcome the flaws of Versailles. But they did not – or at least acted as though they did not.
The implications for us today are manifold. But to take just a few examples:
- Those with the means to do so must redouble their efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the various ongoing wars in the Middle East and North Africa. And in the meantime, we should all be seeking ways to build the future peace, where we can. For example, by providing young people with non-violent ways to engage in local politics, and help them access livelihood opportunities so they are not forced to join armed groups just to provide for their families; and by creating opportunities for inter-community dialogue around issues of common concern.
- In NE Nigeria, as Boko Haram’s influence and territorial domination is reduced, the need to foster the reintegration of ex-fighters and those they have kidnapped and captured back into society, and into a society where the trust between citizen and state is rebuilt and re-energized, so that any problems which arise in the future can be resolved before they spill out of hand.
- Across the EU and in the USA, there is a need for leaders at all levels to re-energise the political culture and institutions in which far too many citizens appear to have lost faith – to judge by the result of recent elections and the Brexit referendum, and ensure they are providing an opportunity to channel and address citizens’ grievances as well as their creative ideas.
- And the global institutions also need to be revitalised, and oriented towards the proactive nourishment of peace – as recommended by the 2015 Sustaining peace – and towards shaping a fairer world. This means for example putting Responsibility to Protect into action more routinely, so that it becomes an accepted part of international precedence and doctrine. It means taking the Sustainable Development Goals seriously, and especially those which relate to peace, security, good governance and fair participation in a growing economy. It means implementing a fairer and simpler international approach to taxation, so that people and corporations pay tax in the countries where they operate. And it means continuing to close down money laundering opportunities.
These are just a few examples. All these and thousands of other mechanisms for nourishing peace in order to release human potential are available to us, and need to be exploited. Societies throughout history and the world recognise the sacrifices of those who give their lives in war. But such sacrifices are surely in vain if those who survive do not seize every opportunity to nourish and sustain the peace which comes after war, so people and societies can flourish and reach their potential. And so that when differences and conflicts do arise, they are resolved non-violently and fairly, and future generations remembering Armistice Day wonder why war was deemed necessary at all. Building peace today s surely the greatest way to honour those who have died in war.
This was also published on International Alert website.
Some are proposing the UK uses its overseas development aid more as a soft power tool to enhance UK security and trade. This is unsurprisingly controversial. I propose two simple tests which might make this more easily and widely accepted. First, the UK should adopt the foreign policy goal of contributing to an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world – or something along those lines. Second, the simple principle, that aid policies and programmes should put the interests and needs of the recipient society first and above all, with any proposed benefit to the UK being transparently articulated and tested against whether it would undermine this principle.
(A version of this was posted on International Alert’s website.)
The term soft power is used a lot in relation to overseas aid. Most recently, the UK government has been saying it intends to use aid as soft power in British interests, notably trade and national security.
Joseph Nye, who invented the term soft power, saw foreign aid as ‘purchase power’, not soft power. (For Nye, soft power was more a matter of attracting and coopting others to one’s ends). International Alert explored this in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into soft power in 2013. Our conclusion then was that it depended on one’s ends, or aims. We posited that an unwritten foreign policy aim for the UK was probably an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world. Three years on, this does seem to be the case: the UK was a proponent as well as an enthusiastic signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals which enshrine the ideas of sustainable prosperity and peace; and Theresa May has made much of her desire for the UK to provide global leadership in free trade.
But perhaps more important than what the government of the day might think, I believe that the UK as a nation does have this goal. That is to say, if one asked a representative sample of citizens specific questions designed to elucidate their world view, this is one of the beliefs that would emerge. (Of course, as in Brexit, if one asked the abstract question do you believe the UK should seek to create an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world? You might elicit a less favourable response. It’s about how you ask the question.)
Perhaps worth noting that I take my definition of liberalism from Edmund Fawcett, as being based on four core ideas: progress, freedom, non-intrusive government and the ever-present need to anticipate, resolve or manage the conflicts which inevitably occur over resources and ideas.
Is Britain’s aid programme a soft power tool that can help us achieve this aim? I think it is. At its best, it enhances our voice in the international system which sets, supports and enforces the standards, rules and behaviours which increase prosperity, peace and liberalism, be it on climate change, international tax norms, justice, security, transparency, the Responsibility to Protect, or the rights and treatment of refugees.
At its best, the British aid programme helps increase people’s choices so they can play more active citizenship roles, and contribute to prosperity through business enterprise and employment. By improving their welfare it reduces the potential for grievances. It helps citizens and governments in developing and fragile countries work together to achieve more that either could alone. It helps save lives and supports peacebuilding initiatives so that people in conflict-affected situations can restore stability and rebuild their livelihoods, families and societies.
It is no great leap of faith to see how these kinds of outcomes help contribute to an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world. So is this aid as soft power? Through aid, are we attracting others to this higher cause?
For some, the crucial test of whether aid is ‘attractive’ or simply ‘purchasing power’ depends on the degree to which it is instrumentalised in pursuit of narrower foreign policy goals: trade deals for UK companies, say, or the propping up of friendly governments. The OECD’s Official Development Assistance criteria are a useful protection against donor governments abusing aid, and it’s important these are maintained. But we would be naïve to imagine a £12 bn aid programme from which other foreign policy goals were absent, and it’s certainly better to be transparently truthful about this when it is the case. But if Churchill’s comment about Lend-lease (aid which Britain received from the USA during the Second World War), that it was “the most unselfish and unsordid act in history”, can typically be applied to British aid, then I think we could legitimately claim it makes both an economic and a values contribution to achieving the aim of an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world.
One of the ideas currently being proposed is that aid can do more to enhance British security and trade interests. We have to step carefully here. If this means using aid simply to continue propping up bad governments which prevent progress towards shared prosperity and peace, and the advancement of liberal values, then I have strong doubts indeed. If this means a return to the era of using UK aid projects to sweeten the attractiveness of UK bidders for large infrastructure, or a return of tied aid, then here again I have strong doubts indeed: this seems like using purchasing power, not attracting others, to our ends – and it risks supporting aid projects which have little intrinsic value and may even do harm to the people of the recipient countries. And if it means a focus on the UK’s short-term security interests, potentially incubating future security threats, rather than the common long-term security and trade interests of Britain and aid recipient countries, then here too, I have strong doubts indeed.
Britain is a democracy, and overseas aid should remain something the UK electorate supports, so I recognise that it may need to do more to demonstrate an impact on Britain’s own peaceful prosperity, beyond the rather abstract (and perhaps electorally unconvincing) notion that ‘a more peaceful, prosperous and liberal world is good for us, too’. So if there are ethical ways to do that by demonstrating a link between doing good for others while also improving our own prospects, why not? The key is that it should be ethical, and this suggests a simple principle, that aid policies and programmes should put the interests and needs of the recipient society first and above all, with any proposed benefit to the UK being transparently articulated and tested against whether it would undermine this principle.
Provided that principle is accepted and followed transparently, and some version of my proposed foreign policy goal is also taken on board, I would be more relaxed at any proposals to link our aid programme to other foreign policy or trade agendas, and at the idea we are using aid in a soft power way.
We would thus be aligned with Churchill’s notion by making our aid as unsordid and unselfish as possible – and I can’t think of a better way than that, to – in Nye’s words – attract others to our agenda.
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!
So, 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:
- 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 to have a wide geographic impact, while the movement remains resilient to local defeats.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Long-running sub-national conflicts. These aren’t always in the news internationally (or even nationally), but plenty 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.
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.
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?
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.