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Five dilemmas faced by peacebuilders

September 1, 2011

The international debate and discussion about peacebuilding has moved on tremendously since Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 speech in which he invigorated the debate and gave new coinage to the idea of international peacebuilding. Today there is a remarkable degree of consensus among those with an interest in the subject which can perhaps be very loosely summarised around a few key elements:

  • Peace is not just the absence of violence, but also the presence of functional relationships within society, and between the people and a responsive and responsible state
  • Institutions that mediate relationships within and between societies, and which enshrine and reinforce certain kinds of values and norms, are critical to maintaining peace
  • Peace is not static: societies and states continue to evolve, as do the relations between societies and between states. Therefore the institutions need to be adequate both to deal with the resulting stresses, and to adapt themselves, to keep up with these changes
  • Peacebuilding, development, statebuilding – these and other jargon words and phrases are all different facets or ways of describing what is essentially human progress, i.e. the evolution of how we as humans live together and try to fulfil our individual and collective aspirations without harming one another. Thus “development” can no longer be defined in purely technical or narrowly sectoral terms
  • While the institutions which mediate inter-state and international relations are legitimately the domain of international agencies, the task and challenge of building peaceful states and societies within a specific polity is the domain of the people of that country. Outsiders can have a legitimate role, but whatever their desire, this is normally limited to a supporting role. Nevertheless, this does not mean they have no influence at all, so they must use it with all due care.

I was at a conference organised by the German development agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) today in Königstein near Frankfurt, where we discussed these issues. It was a wide-ranging and rich discussion, which for me highlighted five dilemmas that peacebuilders face.

  1. Reconciling our desire for fast progress, concrete results – success! – with what we know about the process of building peace, which is that it takes generations, is extremely non-linear, is incremental and subject to repeated setbacks and changes of direction outside anyone’s easy control. In this, we have to hold fast and avoid the temptation – and resist the impatient demands of donor agencies working on 5-year electoral cycles and the need to “show results” to satisfy aid sceptics – to pick strategies and interventions because they are measurable, rather than because they are the right things to do. As Andrew Natsios the ex-Administrator of USAID said in his 2007 Center for Global Development paper The Clash of the Counter-bureaucracy and Development, “ those development programs that are most easily and precisely measured are the least transformational, and those that are most transformational are the least measurable”.
  2. Avoid confusing the ends with the means. Development programming (or peacebuilding, call it what you will) is really an attempt to predict and influence the future; i.e. to influence the course of what will one day be looked at as history. So if we have the arrogance – literally, since we are arrogating to ourselves this role – to try and do this, we must at least learn lessons from actual history. Societies in which universal human rights are relatively widely respected today did not get here by focusing on universal human rights: instead their respect of universal human rights was an unintended consequence of earlier actions. So in the UK for example, it is a result among other things of the efforts of mediaeval barons to limit the powers of the king over them and their families and clients – not over the common people who made up 90% of society and who did as they were told. Similarly, historians tell us that the emergence of shareholder-owned companies was an indirect result of the rise of Protestantism in Western Europe. But nobody supporting Martin Luther in the 16th century did so with that distant outcome in mind. So those of us who wish to promote the broad ownership of capital within fragile societies as a force for peace and stability may need to focus our short-term efforts on what might be interim steps along the way (the means) rather than on the end itself, which might come later. Changes in fragile and conflict-affected societies will only happen if they are seen as being in the interests of the currently powerful, so tactically we need to identify on a case by case basis what such incremental changes might be, with an eye on the later changes they just might make possible, rather than pushing too quickly for outcomes still out of reach – for improved forms of governance, perhaps, which may be resisted and rejected.
  3. Making an omelette without breaking eggs. History also shows us that progress is often accompanied by – or emerges from – violence. Looking at my own country’s history (the UK), parliament emerged as a way to limit the power of the king to go to war; and the Bill of Rights emerged as a protection for the in-power elite after decades of unrest, coups and revolutions. I am obviously not suggesting that we use violence in support of change, as a tool of peacebuilding or development. But the liberal western-oriented institutions promoting development and peace around the world do need to develop a greater appetite for risk, and a greater tolerance for the instability and sometimes violence which accompanies change.
  4. Reconciling the need to promote jobs and wider participation in the economy to reinforce peace, with the orthodoxy of “sustainable development”.  It is increasingly clear – and the influential 2011 World Development Report is very persuasive on this – that one of the keys to stability and development in post-conflict contexts is to ensure that as many people as possible, and especially young men, are decently employed or otherwise legitimately involved in some other way in the economy. “Idle hands do the devil’s work” seems trite, but it contains more than a kernel of truth. What this means in places like Afghanistan or Sierra Leone is the creation of hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of  jobs in short order. But neither Afghanistan’s nor Sierra Leone’s economy is likely to be up to this sustainably in the timeframe we are talking about. Therein lies the dilemma: should international agencies go against their own avowed orthodoxy of sustainable economic development, and wait for the jobs to be created “sustainably” – likely to take decades and risk being prevented by a resurgence of violence by the devil’s idle hands – or invest over a long period of time – perhaps 25 years – in subsidising “unsustainable” jobs as tool for building peace?
  5. Finally, the big one: what do we do with all the development institutions which are no longer – according to the broadly agreed demands of peacebuilding and development agencies as summarised at the start of this article – fit for purpose? We all know that people working for international development and peacebuilding organisations (donors, multilaterals, NGOs – myself included…) are like hammers looking for nails: when we analyse a given context we are looking for reasons to justify our presence, and reasons to justify the kinds of things we tend to do. Whatever else we see, we will certainly find nails. But the consensus I referred to above is very different indeed from the previous consensus, which shaped most of the international organisations active today. Can they really change to suit this new purpose, or will most of them go through the motions of changing but actually stick pretty closely to the mission and approaches they have grown up with, and know how to do – “old wine in new bottles”, in Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart’s memorable phrase? It would only be human if they do the latter. Some big decisions will be needed by risk-taking politicians and organisations’ leaders if the international organisations are to embrace the mission implied by the 2011 WDR, and become much more political and less technical in their orientation, way of working and in the kinds of results they aim to achieve.                                                                           
3 Comments leave one →
  1. LJamin permalink
    November 29, 2011 3:00 am

    If by not being afraid to break eggs you mean just look the other way while women are raped and mutilated and children massacred I can’t go along.

    In many cases the rule of law and respect for human rights has been imposed by occupiers. The reconstruction after WWII is a good example and one recent enough for you to understand.

    Whats more, you don’t seem to take into consideration the role of women in society – every society – so I would suggest that you a closer look at the recent history of Liberia. It might teach you something new about peacemaking. Aside from the role of women in the resolution of that country’s violent conflict, the role of non-violent resistance in the tradition of Ghandi and MLK was capital. It’s interesting that you don’t even mention that tradition and what it has already accomplished in many regions of the world – regions where there is no precedence for “democratic” government except perhaps the form championed by violent, oppressive (and hypocritical) occupiers.


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