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The root causes of what? How root causes analysis can get in the way of peacebuilding

January 23, 2018

Peacebuilders often say we need to address the root causes of conflict, rather than just the symptoms. They are right, of course. Treating only the symptoms means conflicts remain unresolved, and violence will likely recur. But the language of root causes, while useful – essential, even – if wielded well, can also be unhelpful and misleading.

Root causes analysis has its origins in the field of transport safety and accident investigation. This makes good sense as there is no point finding road accidents are caused by inattentive truck drivers if their inattentiveness is due to weariness resulting from unsafe shift patterns, poor recruitment techniques, or unergonomic lorry cabs. These root causes can be addressed relatively easily, and clearly have the potential to deliver safety improvements. But in conflict and peacebuilding analysis, identifying the root causes of conflict can sometimes lead us too far away from what can readily be addressed.

It is of course essential for peacebuilders to understand the underlying causes of conflict as best they can. Otherwise they’ll have an incomplete picture of things, and may inadvertently make things worse by reinforcing a conflict cause they had not seen or understood. A conflict between two ethnic groups may seem on the surface to be about identity, when in fact it is at an underlying level about access to land and economic opportunity. Knowing that, allows peacebuilders to engage members of both ethnic groups in developing solutions geared to improving their access to economic opportunity, and thus potentially contribute to a sustainable peace by removing one of the underlying causes of the conflict, and allowing both sides to meet their needs and aspirations, without undermining those of the other side.

Things are always more complex than that, and understanding the web of underlying causes can not only help third parties identify possible solutions, it can also be a useful participatory peacebuilding technique. Engaging the conflict parties themselves in a careful exercise to describe the web of interconnected root causes of their conflict, can help them take a step back from their own assumptions about what is at stake, see that the picture is more complex – and sometimes identify common purpose with the other side, they might not otherwise have been able to articulate so readily.

How deeply should we dig?
But there are two ways in which I’ve seen root causes analysis can get in the way: by identifying insoluble problems, and thus unwittingly creating an idea that peaceful solutions aren’t possible, hence reinvigorating the call for violence; and by reinforcing a skewed framing of the problem.

In an example of the first issue, the root causes of the various ongoing conflicts in the middle east, include unresolved historical injustice, in some cases stretching back at least 1400 years, as well as more recent ones linked to the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, crass Franco-British colonialism, the Great Bitter Lake agreement, the creation of modern Israel, and so on. Knowing this is good, but root causes in history have already happened. They can’t be changed, so emphasising them can get in the way of more tractable issues, like for example understanding present day behaviours which impede trust, and working to reduce these.

The root causes of what?
Even more importantly, a focus on the causes of conflict tempts peacebuilders always to see conflict resolution – resolving or addressing the root causes of conflict – as their core goal. It guides them to frame the problematique in terms of unresolved conflicts with a complex web of causes, and the need to address and resolve those causes. That is certainly an important aspect of peacebuilding. But it needs to be allied with an arguably more sustainable approach, which frames the challenge in terms of the inadequate capacity to anticipate, manage, mitigate and resolve conflicts – or in the jargon, an insufficiency of Positive Peace. There will always be conflicts, so it is not enough to resolve the one most in evidence today as, without the capacity to anticipate and address new conflicts, the next one will surely come along to undermine stability again.

If the challenge is thus expressed in terms of insufficient capacity to anticipate, manage, mitigate and resolve conflicts, the search for underlying causes becomes the search for why this capacity is inadequate, and how it can be reinforced – rather than merely looking for the causes of today’s conflicts.

The root causes of the lack of positive peace
Positive peace is often expressed in terms of resilient, two-way relationships of trust among and between peoples, as well as between people and those they are governed by; and by fair access to economic opportunity, security, the means of justice, and other aspects of well-being such as health, education. This generic framework gives us a map we can use to identify where opportunities for strengthening positive peace may lie, by identifying the underlying causes of low levels of positive peace, and how these might be addressed.

The positive peace lens has other advantages. First, it takes people away from the perpetual examination of their conflicts, and provides an often welcome opportunity to embrace a different challenge. This is particularly helpful in long-lasting conflicts where the causes of the conflict – and, often, the demonization of the other side – have become normalised as simply part of the way the world is, and the prevalence of conflict analysis among thought leaders displaces peacebuilding analysis. This is what has happened in the South Caucasus for example, where the conflicts which were frozen by peace agreements in the 1990s remain unresolved, and a constant trope of politics and culture which impedes development.

Another advantage is that the positive peace framework is tremendously accessible, because it is built on the main preoccupations of politics and the development sector: welfare, economic development, governance, justice and security. This makes peacebuilding open to all, rather than the domain of a narrow field of expertise. The task of peacebuilders then becomes guiding others to maximise the degree to which their policies and programmes promote fairness, and thus undermine grievances, while building trusting relationships. To widen access to jobs and political voice, and ensure all citizens are safe and have access to a decent justice system, and can continue to meet their aspirations for improving their welfare and that of their families and communities.

In conclusion then, we need to know why conflicts happen, and this means understand the underlying, as well as the more obvious causes. And it is, of course, important to try and address these where possible. But it is also important to understand why the capacity of societies to anticipate, manage, mitigate and where possible resolve conflicts is below par, and prioritise steps to improve this, and thus strengthen positive peace. Something which the UN is focused on globally in 2018, through its Sustaining Peace agenda; and something to focus on nationally and locally, everywhere, for peace to increase and be sustained.

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