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How do outsiders measure the results of their peacebuilding work in conflict affected environments?

February 22, 2011

I spent two days last week at a conference surrounded by experts in peacebuilding, and in monitoring evaluation. The challenge? To try and figure out how to measure the success of the increasing volume of efforts by well-meaning outsiders to contribute to peacebuilding in places like Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, etc. Why? Because it’s important to know if well-meaning efforts translate into impacts on the ground; and because the governments and international agencies who fund and mount these efforts have to be held accountable for the good use of resources.

Working for a peacebuilding organisation myself – albeit a much smaller one than the likes of the UN and big donors like the UK who were represented at the meeting – I know all too well how difficult it is to measure the impact of what we do. In fact I tend to use the word estimate, rather than measure, since it’s such an approximate art.

The difficulty for many of those involved in peacebuilding is that they frame their work as “conflict prevention”. This gives rise to two problems. First, conflict per se is not necessarily a problem, provided it does not become violent. After all, without differences, without conflict, how would we make progress as a society? So preventing violent conflict is really what they mean.

Second, if you set out to prevent violent conflict, it is hard to measure success except through the use of counter-factuals, and what-ifs? But then one is in the realms of speculation. Can one really uses measures such as “a civil war avoided” as a way to demonstrate the effectiveness of peacebuilding programmes? How can you demonstrate the war would otherwise have happened? And anyway, how likely is “civil war averted” to be sustainable as an outcome, since you are unlikely to have been able to magic away the underlying causes of the putative war through outside intervention, and thus the war has more likely just been postponed?

I think the clue is in the word “peacebuilding”. This is not so much about negotiating a solution to a specific conflict which has become or threatens to become violent. It is about building the attributes in society – locally, nationally, even internationally – which allow people to anticipate and resolve their conflicts without resorting to violence. These are wide ranging and complex. They include the way people relate to one another in society, and whether they have institutions, systems and a culture which provide mechanisms to resolve problems. Parliaments and other councils are obvious examples, but mostly such institutions are deeply embedded, cultural.

Other elements of peacebuilding are that the economy has to be working well enough for most of the people: they have decent opportunities for work, or to run a business. There should be a relatively high degree of well-being, with regards education, health, etc. People should feel safe, and that they will have access to justice, should sonebody harm them or if they are accused of harming others. And above all, access and opportunity to all of the above – political voice, economic opportunity, well-being, safety and justice – should be open to all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, etc. If you doubt that these are the attributes of a peaceful society, consider the degree to which they are present in Libya, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the core countries of the Middle East.

Obviously these attributes take time to build; and in the main, they cannot be gifted or imposed from outside – though outsiders can certainly provide assistance. They can, to a large degree, be measured, and thus they provide the basis for the international commnity to judge whether its long-term peacebuilding efforts are bearing fruit. What they need to do, if they want to know if the billions of dollars they are spending in places like Congo and Sudan are making a difference, is look at whether progress is being made in the areas I have mentioned above, and whether their efforts have contributed.

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