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Magic dragons can’t build peace. Leaders can.

January 5, 2018

A central conceit of Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s wise and beautifully crafted novel The Buried Giant (Faber and Faber, 2015) is that an uneasy peace between the Saxons who had migrated to the British Isles in the fifth and sixth centuries, and the British people they found there, was maintained as long as a magical dragon remained under the spell placed on it by Merlin, King Arthur’s court wizard. To say more would be to spoil the plot for future readers. But a common thread in the novel seems to be about the difficulties of coexisting peacefully, whether for an ageing married couple, within and between local communities, or between ethnic groups – and how magic dragons can help.

But peace is not the natural order of things, and can’t simply be switched on – by a magic spell or any other means. Violence all too often results when people compete over limited resources and power, or when they fear others have designs on the resources and power they hold. So peace has to be built – and then continually sustained, as there is always a risk it will be eroded. This applies to families, communities, countries and internationally.

Stepping down last month after over a decade as director of programmes at peacebuilding NGO International Alert, I reflected on what I’d learned about peacebuilding – an area of practice in which I’ve been involved since 1994, just two years after Boutros Boutros-Ghali set out his Agenda for Peace, an international vision for peacebuilding.


The complex ecology of peacebuilding

Peacebuilding as a discipline has been evolving apace since then. Much has been learned, and I think it’s fair to say that there’s considerable agreement that peace is more sustainable when people and peoples have functional, trusting relationships; transparent, fair and accessible mechanisms for making decisions which reflect all parties’ interests; and when they have fair access to economic opportunity, security, justice, education and the means to stay healthy and well. This way of framing peace permeates the peacebuilding sector, from the programming methodologies of NGOs like International Alert, to the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals associated with the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding and the New Deal for Building Peaceful States, to the UN’s current Sustaining Peace Agenda.

What’s less commonly agreed – not the least because it is less clearly established – is just how to build and sustain peace. There are a plethora of frameworks out there, providing practical guidance and/or setting out different sets of norms and principles: from Responding to Conflict’s essential  Working with Conflict, through sets of guidance linked to various religions, to Alert’s recent (and secular) Redressing the Balance report. All of these contain different takes on how to improve the prospects one’s own peace, help others improve theirs, or contribute to a wider global, mutual, shared peace. Most are probably mostly right, and taken together they reflect the reality that all of us can make a contribution to peace, therefore the methodologies and approaches need to reflect the different capacities, instruments and tools we each have or can aspire to. The complex ecology of peacebuilding, in which many valid and complementary niches co-exist.

I won’t attempt to improve or add to these. They all bring a useful addition to the body of accessible knowledge, and contribute to the understanding of how to make progress towards a peace which transcends the interests a particular, dominant group. But is there anything I’ve learned, that’s worth putting on record as I make my personal transition from long-term NGO employee to freelance consultant?

Alongside all the very useful knowledge and guidance about dialogue, training, conflict-sensitivity, gender, conflict-mapping, root causes analysis, political settlements, stabilisation frameworks, citizen-state relations, prosperity for peace, structural peace, connectors and dividers, political economy analysis, centre-periphery relations, post-conflict reintegration, peacebuilding pyramids, positive and negative peace, reconciliation, security sector reform, inner peace, conflict transformation, social orders … and all the merry rest (the list could go on and on), one thing above all stands out: the importance of leadership.


The order of things

Renaissance writer Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, his book on governance, that ‘there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things’. To that, I would add that at times, the peril and difficulty comes from trying to prevent a negative change in the order of things. In either case, the point is that standing against the tide takes a combination of vision, courage, practical ideas about how to proceed, and the ability to inspire others: in a word, leadership.

Many years ago, I took part in a meeting to discuss how a group of NGOs might contribute to peace in Northern Uganda, where for year after endless year, up to a million people had been held hostage by the conflict between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Our discussion was underpinned by our common frustration that for years, we had been able to do little more than provide inadequate services to people stuck in concentration camps, while the war continued to undermine their livelihoods, and taint or terminate their lives.

We were making little real progress in our well-meaning debate, until my neighbour – a humble man I did not until then know well – stood up, brusquely interrupted proceedings, and told us that we were wasting our time. “Until we are able to discuss the real causes of this war, and talk honestly about finding political solutions to the issues which have caused it, we won’t change a thing”, he said. His own daughter had been abducted by the LRA, so he had a very personal stake. And he was right: we were – albeit for understandable reasons – swimming with the tide by avoiding some of the difficult political issues until he spoke up. His  intervention stopped us in our tracks, and from that pivotal moment the discussion took a more useful turn. His intervention led to the formation of an advocacy group – Civil Society for Peace in Northern Uganda – which I am convinced made a significant contribution, through its advocacy with political leaders, thought leaders and members of the international community, to bringing that conflict to an end. Leadership.

During my time at Alert, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with many others who, like my neighbour at that meeting in Uganda more than fifteen years ago, have stood their ground to make a change happen – or prevent a bad change from happening – in the order of things. Some were Alert colleagues, others Alert’s collaborators and partners. Not all of them exercised their leadership in the classic, leading-from-the-front way: indeed, some were happy to play a quieter leadership role. I will not embarrass them by naming them here, but it is actions such as theirs, underpinned by courage, vision and ideas, which make the world fairer and more peaceful, brick by painstaking brick.

Some have stood up for the moderate, middle ground – and risked having both extremes unite against them. Others have stood up for the rights of women, or particular social groups, to be accorded the dignity afforded to others, and to have a say in their future and a say in how to create that future. Some have acted very locally, while others have worked on a broader national or international canvas. Some have found new, creative ways to frame the context and show where the opportunities for change lie. Some have focused their attention more on people than ideas, while others have done the opposite. I have seen some hang their heads in tired defeat, exhausted, before recovering their energy and returning to the task, perhaps approaching it in a new way, learning from their previous experience. But they’ve all combined courage, vision and inspiration with an idea of how, practically, to move forward.

So if there’s a lesson for international agencies like International Alert from this, it’s that their role must surely be to continue trying to get to know and support the people – the leaders – who wish to bring about or prevent a change in the order of things, and thus contribute to making their world fairer and more peaceful. If there are any magic dragons out there, by all means let’s work with them too, but a key component in building peace is always, surely, going to be leadership.

Freedom zone

December 17, 2017

She pauses, lowers the blinds,
departs; the taxi pulls away;
she starts to leave herself behind;

sheds what her check-in baggage weighs,
the life her passport photo knows,
and layer by layer, herself decays,

dissolves, and then a new self grows,
holds court in the airport bar, portraying
an image drawn from movie roles.

The boarding pass still bears her name,
but unmoored, in the here and now
of transit, she can choose the game

and players, set the rules for how
they’ll play, and use her new-found flair
for risk to seize the winner’s crown.

The tannoy sounds. In striplight glare
the five-card poker hands she deals
are the columns and rows of solitaire.

Later she picks at her in-flight meal,
sobs silently at the film that’s shown,
at what the dark almost reveals:

to travel in this neither zone
simply unshackles her to feel
yet more detached, yet more alone.


Published in The Poetry Shed

Paying Respects

November 29, 2017

For Maurice


The quince you so admired each year

has blossomed – a flamenco show.

Your wallflowers have now appeared,

a golden frieze you will not know.


Your clock chimes through the party wall;

no other human sound disturbs

the creaks and phantom footfalls, nor

your silence, nor the garden birds.


You hated dark, and welcomed spring –

the chance to slough off solitude,

absorb the warmth of friends and sun.


I pray, by taking pleasure in

these sights and sounds that lifted you,

we know today as you’d have done.


Published in Pennine Platform, No 82, 2017

Does war have a future?

November 11, 2017

‘History is made by people who don’t know what is going to happen next’. With this truism – a truism we too often forget, whether thinking about our own future history, or trying to interpret the past – Lawrence Freedman introduces his wide ranging and literate analysis of how commentators, experts and society at large over the past 150 years have envisaged and prepared for war and peace, and how they have all too often got it wrong: The Future of War – A History.

From the mid 19th century to today, we have all too often misunderstood how and when war would happen, and how it would play out, whether in understanding how what became the Great War would be precipitated and why – to this day people argue about its causes – whether Nato and the Warsaw Pact forces would fight, how post-colonial polities would resolve their inevitable conflicts, how great civilisations might ‘clash’, …. And no-one seemed more surprised at how the Cold War ended, than those who were paid to monitor its progress. Not a great track record.

Freedman quotes Hannah Arendt who claimed that ‘predictions .. are never anything but projections of the present automatic processes and procedures, that is, of occurrences that are likely to come to pass if men do not act and if nothing unexpected happens; every action, for better or worse, and every accident necessarily destroys the whole pattern in whose frame the prediction moves and where it finds it evidence.’ So trying to map the future is a mug’s game.

Nevertheless, people are paid or otherwise motivated to do it. In line with Arendt, what this book shows, in its analysis of how future conflicts were and are framed and planned for, is that our perceptions and predictions of tomorrow are routinely shaped by the ideology and underlying values which shape our view of today – as well as by the genuine difficulty of understanding the complex phenomena and trends which might lead to war and violence. Realism, pacifism, idealism, populism, nationalism, racism – and a whole host of -isms – place lenses before our eyes which distort our view of what may come to pass. A fascinating example of this can be seen in the way some writers of the modern, digital age, have come to believe that they can develop algorithms which predict how people with certain profiles will be drawn into joining violent extremist groups – no doubt reflecting our present-day fascination with automated knowledge.

The Future of War is well worth reading, especially for the non-expert, as its middle section is a kind of tapestry of all the different kinds of conflict which have been going on since the end of the Cold War. So, a useful summary of the turbulence of our era. It has become routine to say that modern day conflicts are increasingly fragmented, interconnected and intractable, and the book reflects this. It pretty much rejects the various attempts which have been made to bring a ‘scientific’ analytical lens to the study and understanding of how wars happen. Such methods don’t seem to have added much to the understanding we had before, imperfect as that has always been. Wars – and the politics and geopolitics they reflect – are so multi-faceted, it is hard to explain them usefully in a scientific way. Just try transposing the constantly evolving Syrian conflict(s) into the straitjacket of a database, if you want to test this.

Perhaps on some level, it’s encouraging that we are still making history without knowing what is going to happen next – despite the valiant attempts of think tanks to predict societal processes and outcomes. This also has lessons for peacebuilding and other social change endeavours: just as it’s hard to predict the onset and character of conflicts accurately, we should be wary of claiming to know how well-meaning actions designed to promote peaceful co-existence within and between societies will actually work out.

Nevertheless, I think Freedman’s analysis bears out the idea that, even if we can’t predict how tomorrow – our future history – will be, we can at least see that there are a number of factors more associated with peace, than with war. And that these factors are also negatively correlated with the presence of violence within society (domestic violence, organised criminal gangs, and violent politics, for example).  So, even if we can’t control how peace evolves or is built, if we focus our attention on trying to strengthen these factors, we can be relatively confident that we’ll become better at redirecting human energy away from war, towards more positive forms of interaction and investment. The attributes which create this kind of resilience to conflict are imbued with the idea of fairness, and can be summarised as:

  • Good governance, and trusting, functional relationships among people and between peoples, and between people and their governments
  • Decent, fair opportunities for people and communities across and between different groups in society, to earn a livelihood
  • Fair access to the means of justice, and the means to stay safe from harm, and
  • Fair access to opportunities for education, health, a decent living environment, and to improve our families’ lives.

Fig 1 peace factors

These are what International Alert, in its Programming Framework, calls the Peace Factors. Even if we can’t predict and prevent all wars, if the global community, nations and local communities were to focus more of their attention on strengthening these attributes of resilience to violent conflict, we’d be heading in the right direction, and the Future of War would be a declining one. Not a bad way to think, today, of all days: 11th November, the anniversary of the Armistice signed at the end of the Great War in 1918 – after millions of people had died.

Ten things MPs need to know and ask about peacebuilding

November 10, 2017
International Alert recently published Redressing the Balance: why we need more peacebuilding in an increasingly uncertain world. This makes the case for a greater focus on and more resources to be invested in peacebuilding, to increase stability and help improve people’s lives in conflict-affected countries around the world.

As part of a series of recommendations in the report, we have called on members of parliament in donor countries to put more emphasis on peacebuilding. With this in mind, here are five things MPs on the UK’s International Development Committee, and their counterparts in other parliaments and the US Congress need to know, along with five questions they ought to ask as part of their scrutiny.

Five things MPs need to know: 

1. Conflict is on the rise again. After a steady decline in conflict since the end of the cold war, the number of wars has increased from 31 to 40 since 2010. The accompanying graph from the Center for Systemic Peace (figure 2 from our report) shows this trend graphically, based on their index of “war magnitude”. Meantime, the number of battle deaths has tripled since 2003, and went up by 27% in 2016 alone. That so much of today’s conflict is focused in the Middle East and Afghanistan, while other parts of the world seem to be more peaceful, should not make anyone complacent, as conflict crosses borders all too easily, as demonstrated by violent extremist acts taking place across the world.

Fig 2

2. Peacebuilding works, provided it is sustained. Building sustainable peace is a long-term endeavour, as any student of history knows. That puts off some decision makers, who are keen to show rapid, tangible results. But evidence from across the world – a sample of which we included in our report – clearly demonstrates how peacebuilding interventions make a timely, tangible and measurable change in people’s lives, their ability to live more securely, resolve their differences, grow the economy, and meet their aspirations in ways which allow others to do the same. The report shows how levels of trust were increased between warring Christian and Muslim communities in the Central African Republic; conflict resolution was improved in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala and Indonesia; political parties in Lebanon became more collaborative; and Serbian leaders intervened to stop revenge attacks on Albanians in Kosovo, in which they admitted they might previously have taken part themselves. It also features the work of business leaders who helped consolidate peace in Northern Uganda; Burundian activists preventing local political violence; security operatives changing their approaches so as to reduce the risk of violence in the Philippines, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine; and Sudanese women using the mechanisms their mothers had taught them for taunting men to go to war, to persuade community leaders to push for peace instead. And it shows how a variety of mutually supportive peacebuilding initiatives had embedded peaceful attitudes, behaviours and systems in places as diverse as Northern Ireland, Nepal and South Africa.

3. Not nearly enough is being spent on peacebuilding. The policy rhetoric has embraced peacebuilding in the past few years. From the UK Government’s aid programme, the internationally adopted Sustainable Development Goals, the European Union, the World Bank and the UN, to name just a few, policy makers and policies are replete with the language of peacebuilding. And yet, this has not been put into practice on anything like the scale the policies imply, and the needs of peace demand. A recent paper from the Institute for Economics and Peace estimated that the value of peacebuilding investment is only worth about 0.5% of the US$ 1.72 trillion spent globally on the military, and less than 1% of the annual US$ 1.04 trillion cost of lost economic growth due to war. And yet, the same organisation has also demonstrated that every dollar invested in peacebuilding yields sixteen dollars in savings due reduced conflict. So peacebuilding not only works, but is also cost effective – and helps reduce the risk of violent extremism at home, as well as the pain and suffering caused to vulnerable communities far away.

The money piles

4. There is an enormous potential to weave peacebuilding into other forms of engagement: development, diplomacy, trade, etc. Peacebuilding is not something which can be done in isolation, and it can easily be – and should be – integrated into other international initiatives: development aid, diplomacy and so on. In one example, many businesses in Colombia have sought to contribute to the peace process there by their public statements, and also by seeking to support the process of reintegration and reconciliation by workplace initiatives. Meanwhile, it is well known that international initiatives to prevent terrorism are most effective when they rely not just on policing and other traditional security operations, but they also use peacebuilding approaches to reduce tensions and increase the sense of inclusion in the societies where terrorists have typically been recruited.

5. There is a ready-made political constituency willing to back political leaders who champion peacebuilding. This has been demonstrated by polling data recently published by Conciliation Resources and The Alliance for Peacebuilding, which shows that over 70% of people in the UK, the USA and Germany believe peacebuilding is vital, and at least 60% also felt that investment in peacebuilding should be increased, as a both moral and political imperative.

Five questions MPs need to ask: 

​1. Is enough money and effort going into peacebuilding? The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that peacebuilding expenditure in conflict-affected places needs to be worth at least $27 per capita, for a critical mass of change to occur, but is currently only half that.

2. Are government interventions in conflict-affected places focused on building peace and reducing fragility; are they focused not only on short-term stability and security, but also on long-term durable security, engineered through deep and wide political and economic inclusion? It is all too easy to fall into the trap of supporting short term arrangements which help create the stability needed to end or avoid violence, and then turn into repressive and non-inclusive political arrangements which harm their citizens and create grievances which later foment violence. The excitement of the Arab Spring has given way to a military dictatorship in Egypt which is as bad if not worse than the Mubarak regime the Arab Spring brought down. It’s critical that international support for stabilisation integrates support for the development of increasingly inclusive political economy which highlights tolerance, fairness and the inclusion pf women, men and people of all ages and identity groups. Are development and humanitarian programmes in fragile and conflict affected places being designed so they integrate elements of peacebuilding – as they can all too easily be?

3. Are peace activities being sustained for long enough to make a real difference to durable peace? It takes decades to build the foundations for sustainable peace, so it is important that peacebuilding remains a central goal of initiatives, long after the violence which first inspired them may have subsided. And yet all too often, the need for peacebuilding is forgotten as other, familiar tropes take centre stage: economic growth, infrastructure, and so on. It’s critical that providers of international aid focus their support to fragile or conflict affected countries on the need to reduce fragility and embed sustainable peace, for at least twenty-five years after the last fighting ended. After all, at least one third of peace agreements still fail to hold.

4. Are decision makers in government departments and the multilaterals they fund, sufficiently aware of the peacebuilding options available to them or otherwise active in accessing relevant advice? One of the obstacles to peacebuilding is that politicians and officials tend to support initiatives with they are already familiar: health, education and livelihoods aid programmes; military and security initiatives, etc. An important question to ask ministers facing parliamentary inquiries is: what do they know of peacebuilding methods, and what do their key advisors and decision-makers know?

5. Are international organisations being supported to work in fragile/conflict-affected places, sufficiently skilled in peacebuilding? Huge budgets are allocated to intergovernmental organisations: the UN and its various departments; the World Bank and its regional sister organisations, etc. Much of this money is spent in fragile and conflict-affected states. Are such organisation directing these resources to peacebuilding, and do they have the knowledge and skills to do so?



November 10, 2017

Throughout your life, you suffered prejudice:

a look, a word, the absence of a word,

led you to add offenders to your list –

though what they’d said was seldom what you’d heard.


And yet to those who knew their place, and yours,

as I did naturally, you shone so bright

we basked, and took for granted the applause

accorded – sought by – you was yours by right.


When your candescence died before you did,

if you knew us, or you, you gave no sign;

we prayed you weren’t aware of how you lived –

the helplessness, the odour of decline,


your not quite puzzled commentary and tone:

I knew you yesterday; don’t make that face;

my brother’s ship is due; is this my home?

And then withdrawal: an empty pupa case.


One morning like today, in spring’s chaste light

you drew me close – you knew me after all –

and whispered I went to the edge last night –

they held me back – they should have let me fall.


In that clear glimpse before the clouds closed in

again, your hopeless eyes told me you knew.

We kept your flame alight but faltering.

And now, I struggle to remember you.


Published in Pennine Platform, No. 82, 2017

Letting down

November 10, 2017

There are péchés véniels of letting down:

the dates and deadlines missed, the cards unsent,

implied commitments quietly disavowed,

and un-run errands; small forgettings. Then

the more important kind: the two men dead

because of things he failed to do; the pains

ignored, solicitations left unsaid:

his ceaseless failure to untangle shame

from guilt. You swam in swelling waters and

I looked away. You wandered unprepared

into the badlands; I could only stand

there as your voice grew ever fainter – scared

to act. You’re still not safe. I still can’t move.

I let down furthest, those I’m closest to.


Published in Pennine Platform, No.82, 2017