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Kyrgyzstan and Guinea?

October 25, 2012

I am fond of saying that one of the biggest problems in the international development & peacebuilding sectors is the hammer-nail phenomenon. I.e. when organisations tend to identify the problems (nails) for which their particular methods and tools (hammers) just happen to be the most likely solution. This applies most worryingly with the big international beasts of the development sector like the World Bank, UNDP, USAID and DFID; but also to smaller NGOs like the one I work for. It also applies in a slightly different way to individuals, each of whom when designing strategies and projects tends to bring the same set of analytical lenses to the task. I’m the first to admit that I tend to analyse any context in terms of the political economy of peace first and foremost, and I also tend to see the need for interventions which influence the policy discourse, wherever I go. This inherent “professional bias” is why individuals need to work within diverse teams when doing strategic analysis, and why organisations need to make sure they integrate multiple perceptions when they do theirs.

The scope of my job changed this year. Having previously been overseeing International Alert’s Africa and its cross-cutting thematic work, I took on a wider responsibility, including for our work in Asia. After working in and on Africa since 1985, it has been fascinating to try and understand the peacebuilding context in Asian countries where we work. During a trip to Nepal, I was struck by how ideological some of the peace and conflict issues are, compared with my experiences in Africa over two and a half decades. If African conflicts are all too often about how to cut the cake of power, in Nepal I had a sense that at least some of the conflict actors have a genuine desire to bake the policy cake in different ways. One young ex-Maoist soldier interviewed for a documentary was genuinely puzzled that her leaders had agreed to a peace in which they hadn’t yet achieved their (her) aims of changing society.

On my first ever visit to Kyrgyzstan this month, I had another surprise. During the week or so I spent there, I found myself referring again and again to programming options we had selected in the Republic of Guinea, in West Africa; and seeing them as highly relevant to the Kyrgyzstan context. People were surprised and, frankly, so was I. While human societies everywhere exhibit many similarities, I hadn’t expected to find many connections between vast, mountainous landlocked Kyrgyzstan, with its sub-zero winters and ski-resorts, and hot, tropical Guinea, nestled on the West African coast. Yet barely an hour went by without me thinking of similarities in programming, so what was going on? Undoubtedly this was partly because of my professional bias, but was there something more?

On reflection, I realised that there were an uncanny number of similarities between the two countries, for example:

  • They were both colonised by European powers in the nineteenth centuries; both cynically exploited by the metropolitan power in question, and both decolonised in a rush. The leadership of both was captured by big men, post-independence.
  • Neither had much of pre-colonial history of the “nation-state” as the basis for political governance and identity. In any case, the colonial powers undermined and skewed the governance systems they found in place.
  • Both were coloured by communism: Kyrgyzstan as part of the USSR, and Guinea as a soviet client after independence.
  • Both countries have an interesting and at times difficult ethnic mix, and in both cases, one of the main ethnic groups is traditionally pastoral, and another primarily sedentary. In both countries ethnicity and ethnic identity provide simple labels which have been exploited for political and economic purposes by leaders.
  • Both are sparely populated countries with limited infrastructure, and the inherent challenges of communication that brings.
  • In neither country does the population have a great deal of confidence in the capacity of the central government to represent its interests well – although both countries are currently presided over by elected heads of state who seem genuine about promoting national reconciliation, following political disruption in the recent past. Probably it is also fair to say that both governments are operating in a political system which inherently obstructs such efforts.
  • Both are situated in an inherently unstable neighbourhood, where conflicts can spill across borders.
  • Both are countries in which high value improved agricultural land is at a premium.
  • Both face the challenge of exploiting mineral wealth peacefully, in the face of all the well-known ingredients for mining to spark violence.
  • Both have a tradition of out-migration for jobs and economic opportunity.
  • Both have a large bulge of young people with limited economic, political and social prospects – and who are easily attracted to religious or ethnic narratives offering an apparent alternative.
  • Both are major transit routes for drugs – from Afghanistan to Russia, and from Latin America to southern Europe.
  • Both countries are receiving a great deal of assistance from the international community, which finds it hard to figure out where and how best to apply its help conflict-sensitively.
  • In Guinea a few years ago, when designing a project, my colleagues and I were struck by the difficulty Guineans had in pursuing political discussions to consensual outcomes. As a then senior politician said to us: “we have difficulty talking about issues in ways which allow us to find feasible solutions”. This month in Bishkek, a civil society activist told me “we don’t know how to talk about the difficult issues in Kygyzstan”… Uncanny.

So perhaps, yes, I find it hard to shed the analytical lenses I tend to carry from country to country. But perhaps, too, it’s not that surprising that conversations with West Africans and Central Asians lead me to think that a similar mix of programming options make sense in both locations:

  • Extended dialogue, based on a comprehensive political analysis, carefully facilitated to allow participants to explore difficult issues without retreating to knee-jerk pre-defined positions, and linking them too readily to questions of ethnic identity.
  • Research and policy dialogue on how economic development can better serve the interests of peace – and including a focus on the extractive mineral sector and land.
  • Finding ways to help young people shape their future, through education and economic support.
  • Building a local capacity for mediation – i.e. so that people within communities can intervene at an early stage in local disputes, and help avoid them escalating out of control and taking on an ethnic hue; and in so doing reinforce the idea of peaceful co-existence.
  • Working with local actors to try and shape the institutional environment – governance – to be more conducive for peace; and with international institutions like the UN and the World Bank so that their programmes do the same.


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