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Is peacebuilding just good development?

February 9, 2018

When writing International Alert’s report Redressing the balance last year, I shared the draft with colleagues for comments. When one colleague returned it, one of her main comments was that the report needed to say more clearly that peacebuilding is “just good development” in fragile and conflict-affected places.

This rang a bell for me. When I’d joined Alert back in 2004, peacebuilding was still a relatively distant cousin in the international development family, and many of my new colleagues were fiercely protective of its special status. Some, I felt, were even a little precious and esoteric about it. Whereas I was of the view that we were largely applying familiar development programming interventions: dialogue, capacity-building and training, participatory research, advocacy, knowledge transfer, solidarity, supporting local activism, underlying causes analysis, institutional strengthening, and so on, but with a clear intent to improve cohesion and conflict resolution, rather than – for example – to reduce poverty or improve schooling, as in the mainstream development community whence I had lately come. Certainly our desired outcomes largely fell under the same broad headings of changes in knowledge and awareness, and in individual and institutional behaviour.

Indeed, I remember writing an article then, for publication in a now-defunct journal, which argued that the human security and livelihood security frameworks – then both still in vogue – were almost the same, in that both took the individual citizen’s perspective as the starting point for trying to understand what needed to change in order to increase resilience, but applied a holistic and structure-based analytical framework to map opportunities and obstacles.  Later I co-led the team that articulated Alert’s Programme Framework – its peacebuilding methodology – and we borrowed unashamedly from livelihood security ideas. So the peacebuilding and development projects were certainly related: cousins, perhaps, if not so distant after all.

A key difference between peacebuilding and development programming, it seemed, was not so much the issues one looked at through the analytical lens (governance, economic participation, services, relationships, security, justice, gender and so forth), but the reason one was looking in the first place. If the mainstream development project was looking for obstacles to, opportunities for and drivers of sustained welfare and economic improvement, peacebuilders were looking at obstacles to, opportunities for and drivers of sustained and peaceful coexistence. Of course, they found many of the same things to work on: good governance was beneficial – essential, in fact – for both; and while peace was good for development, development was also very good for peace.

So, are peacebuilding and development very close cousins, or are they in fact the same thing? I kind of agree with my colleague that peacebuilding is “just good development practice” in places where conflict and fragility are dominant issues, simply because there seems no moral or logical justification for not emphasising peace as the main desired impact in any concept of progress there. And progress, surely, is the most appropriate synonym in normal language, for that jaded and overused jargon word: development. Nevertheless, there are, it seems to me, three things which continue typically to mark out and differentiate peacebuilding approaches from development approaches:

  • Goals. When  the higher goal or aim is defined explicitly in terms of peace, this affects  programming choices. These may at first sight seem the same as development approaches. But there will be subtle differences. For example, a peacebuilding programme focused on economic development will promote the kind of economic development that reduces grievances, and increases good relationships, rather than merely one that improves the livelihoods of a particular set of people or aims to increase GDP.
  • Vision-based, vs problem-solving. If development programming is still typically based on articulating and then solving a given and well-comprehended problem – why girls are not attending school, for example – peacebuilding more often requires a vision-based approach. This is because, while there is common agreement on what peace looks, tastes, smells and feels like, less is known about how to reach it. Mainly because the history of peaceful places is disputed, and because the pathways to peace are not based on clear linear relationships between the many variables involved. Transforming conflict into peace is a wicked problem. Using a vision-based approach, peacebuilders may determine the outcomes  they seek  – perhaps  improved trust among people, or between people and those who govern them – and use tentative, iterative approaches which they regularly recalibrate, to do so. In other words, the type of approach appropriate to wicked problems. Not that development programming couldn’t – even shouldn’t – adopt this approach, but typically it does not.
  • Appreciative inquiry. If development is still focused on overcoming problems and obstacles, the better starting point for vision-based peacebuilding is rather appreciative inquiry: what peaceful mechanisms already exist, and how can they be reinforced?

There is no reason for mainstream development activists not to follow these same approaches. But typically, they don’t. If my colleague and I are right that peacebuilding is “just good development” in conflict-affected and fragile places, then I’d argue that in such places, they should.

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