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Time for Peacebuilding NGOs to support the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda?

March 14, 2020

The UK’s Conservative government has made Levelling Up one of its slogans. If we put the rather strange tautology of ‘levelling up’ to one side, and think of it as ‘levelling’, then it’s intriguing to me that the government appears to be putting peacebuilding theory at the heart of its domestic rhetoric – and potentially of its policy and practice, too.

Back in 2015, I wrote a paper for International Alert called Peace Through Prosperity. The core (and not especially original) idea of which was that the economic actions of businesses, governments and international agencies have an impact on conflict and peace, and that they should therefore aim purposefully to make a contribution to the latter: i.e. to peace.

Looking back at the paper now, it was over complicated. (Indeed, many of my colleagues said so at the time). In trying to make sense of what’s a fairly simple idea, I created a analytical framework through which economic actors might define how to maximise their contribution to peace – and in so doing I probably made the simple idea more complex than it needed to be.

I proposed looking at the political economy and at seven ‘levers of change’: areas that businesses and governments already influence, that they might use to strengthen social peace, if they so decided: the sectoral make up of the economy, the nature of relationships in society, human capital, security, the rule of law, access to land and capital, and infrastructure. Each of these has a role in determining the degree to which society is functional and inclusive for its citizens, and thus whether it is intrinsically peaceable or not.

My paper was designed primarily to influence policy and practice in the more obviously ‘fragile and conflict affected’ places, among which I did not include the UK. But I knew then, and Brexit has demonstrated in spades, that the UK is certainly conflict-affected, and seems to have become increasingly fragile. Certainly our governance has frayed, even as the sense and reality of exclusion has grown. If the simplest measure of peace is the functioning and resilience of trusting vertical and horizontal relationships in society, as I believe, then peace has degenerated in the UK in the past few years.

Therefore it is good to see that, in theory at least, the present government seems to be following a peacebuilding playbook. They are proposing major infrastructure investments, and to revise the Treasury Green Book this year, to redefine what public investments are legally required to achieve: moving away from simple economic returns to consider societal balancing goals. In 2015, I wrote :

‘Infrastructure: Governments should maintain a balance between large, attractive investments with a high potential return accruing to a particular region or to particularly powerful interests, and the need to promote economic development more widely in the interests of peace. Even as the roads, railways or ports needed to exploit economic comparative advantages are built, the infrastructure servicing regions with a comparative advantage for peace must also be developed. [Governments] should also ensure public and private infrastructure is designed and built with enough consultation and popular participation: this improves effectiveness and sustainability, and also inculcates habits of public participation and good governance more broadly.’

There are many other ideas in that 2015 paper that apply to healing post-Thatcher, post-Blair and post-Brexit Britain, and several of the present government’s policies appear to be aligned with many of them (though I wouldn’t personally include Brexit). It may not sit comfortably with many of my ex-NGO colleagues, that a Tory government is putting some of their cherished peacebuilding ideas into practice. But given the risk that, despite the government’s large majority, predominant interests in the British political economy will continue to resist levelling up – as they have done for 40 years – perhaps now is the time for British peacebuilding NGOs to come to the aid of the (Tory) party!

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