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Fair enough?

March 12, 2019

Inclusive peace processes are all the rage, but is fairness a better metric than inclusiveness? Yes, because it reflects people’s own metric of improvement, and their own agency.

One of the currently in-vogue concepts in peacebuilding is ‘inclusion’. This is not without controversy: there’s a wide spectrum of opinions about how inclusive peace processes ought to be, with some arguing that short-term stability means focusing on an exclusive deal or settlement; while others maintain it’s important to broaden the number of voices and perspectives at the table right from the start – even if that means risking short-term stability. Like many, I fall somewhere in between, and would argue for a pragmatic approach that nevertheless seeks to encourage and promote diverse engagement from as early as possible, without losing sight of the short-term stability goal. This means seeking opportunities for wider inclusion in local, or perhaps thematic parts of the peace process, if it’s too risky to do so in more central parts of the process.

In any case, ‘inclusion’ needs to be considered not only in terms of ‘peace processes’, but also – and equally or even more importantly – in the outcomes. Hence, as long as – say – a constitutional assembly clearly legislates for universal adult suffrage, it may not matter so much if the assembly itself wasn’t fully representative of society. Ideally, of course, one seeks both inclusive processes and outcomes, and – other things being equal – the former will usually make the latter more likely anyway.

But, in messy and risky circumstances, how do we judge when ‘enough’ inclusion has been achieved? Numbers are one way to do this: assessing the proportion of women, men, young people, members of particular castes or ethnicities, people from different religions or regions, or sexual identities in political and administrative roles, in jobs, obtaining justice, attending school and accessing health care, able to vote, and so on.

But numbers can mask underlying truths: for example the number of men and women have for several years been at parity in Rwanda’s parliament; but that doesn’t necessarily indicate that either wield a great deal of power in the political scheme of things there. And reports from Nepal are that despite places being reserved for women, including low caste women, in national government and local village councils, these tend to be determined by male party leaders who allocate them to women of their choice.

The more I consider questions of inclusion, the more often I find myself coming back to the deeper, more important question of fairness. Although it’s not an absolute concept and therefore may be harder to measure than numerical inclusion, it seems to me that it’s the right chalk to use, on this issue. I can think of at least four reasons for that.

First, fairness is a core issue in peace and conflict. While equality may be the holy grail of peacebuilding, I think fairness matters more. Societies less susceptible to fight are those in which access to livelihoods, justice, services, opportunities for advancement, and political voice is fairly available across different segments of society. And by the same token, it’s notions of unfairness which all too often drive people to undermine stability and take up arms. Surely, as a new status quo evolves in Syria, and the war comes to an end, most Syrians will judge the outcome not only by the degree of security it entails, but by how fair their own situation is, and whether they had a fair role in defining it?

Second, while inclusion is an abstract notion emerging from academia and top-down agendas, fairness is something that everyone understands, and it’s commonly one of the criteria we all use to judge the situation we find ourselves in – whether in relation to a seat on the bus, access to housing, water or farmland, or a myriad of other goods. Every child grows up with a sense of what’s fair and unfair. It’s a familiar metric.

Third, fairness is – almost by definition – a comparative concept, rather than a binary one. Most people, I would contend, see fairness as something they have ‘enough’ or ‘not enough’ of, in relation to the issue at hand. This means that one can engage in a discussion about making things ‘fairer’, and thus reducing friction and restoring stability. This means it is eminently suitable for finding compromise: if I am angry at not having enough access to river water to irrigate my farm, it is possible to seek a solution in which I have a bit more water – or find some other way of improving my livelihood, to make my situation fairer, vis-à-vis that of others.

Fourth, fairness is unpatronizing. It’s harder to treat people as objects through the fairness lens, than through the inclusion lens. Inclusion is a passive idea: people can be included, whereas fairness is something they can achieve themselves. Fairness not only meets grievance holders on their own terms, but it also ensures that any conversation about their situation is meaningfully political. Why? Because any discussion of fairness requires a discussion of the resources available, and the trade-offs required if any adjustment is to be made to give one group or another, a fairer crack of the whip. Making sure the conversation is explicitly political in this way reflects the agency of all concerned.

An obvious problem with this approach is the slipperiness and subjectivity of fairness. But that too is an advantage, really, as it means it’s essential to engage with the stakeholders concerned – those who might gain, and those who might lose out, in any proposed change of circumstances – to understand how fair they think it is.

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