How to save the world: poverty, security, and nation-building

openDemocracy Opendemocracy Paul Kingsnorth
23 June 2004

Iraq. Afghanistan. Sierra Leone. Sudan. Haiti. Kosovo. Examples of the need for a global strategy for conflict prevention, and mechanisms to make it work, seem as legion as the unending human capacity for war. Today, nearly sixty years since the founding of the United Nations, the purpose enshrined in Article One of its charter – “to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace” – is far from being fulfilled.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan is painfully aware of this. The question he faces is what to do about it. In November 2003, Annan appointed a “high-level panel” (HLP) of “eminent persons” to recommend “clear and practical measures” which would help him decide.

On 17-18 June 2004 a two-day conference, on “Poverty and Security – an integrated approach”, co-sponsored by openDemocracy and the United Nations Foundation and held at the LSE in London, saw some of the key players in the area of conflict prevention, “nation-building” and UN reform come together to explore the possible answers. Their job was to feed their ideas, suggestions, contentions, experiences and speculations into the process of compiling the HLP’s final report, due by the end of 2004.

Across the great divides

It was apparent from the start that this conference, begun on a hot Thursday morning when many participants possibly regretted wearing ties, would address conflict-prevention from a very particular angle. Nitin Desai, former UN under-secretary-general and currently at the LSE’s Centre for the Study of Global Governance, introduced the first session of the conference by outlining the “three distinct areas of work” that the UN must attempt to connect: “peacekeeping, humanitarian work, and development”.

The three had always been linked, but today there was “a growing recognition that security and development issues cannot be analysed separately”. The “grand purpose” of this conference, Nitin Desai proposed, was to discover “how to meld them together”.

Now, policy wonks sitting in university rooms discussing ways to readjust the mechanisms of the United Nations might not seem particularly new or thrilling – especially to one who has spent the last several years travelling around the world to gather stories from the real world where globalisation, conflict and injustice impacts on some of the most deprived, and in their resistance most dignified, people on the planet.

But people do what they can do, from where they are or choose to be positioned in the global spectrum. This was, in short, an “establishment” gathering – but by assembling a diverse array of people to focus their expertise on the agenda of the high-level panel, the gathering of around forty participants represented a fusion of specialisms that at least created the possibility of creative dialogue with a touch of unpredictability: academics looking beyond their disciplines, diplomats looking beyond their national interests, aid workers looking beyond the situation on the ground in their regions. Breaking down boundaries was at least intended to be the order of the day(s).

Day one: preventing conflicts, building states

The first session, opened by development expert Frances Stewart, found broad agreement among participants that conflict prevention means not simply sending in the UN’s “blue helmets” after trouble had ignited, or dropping aid parcels into war zones; it is about taking steps to address the causes of conflict.

Also in openDemocracy, Kofi Annan outlines the security, poverty, and solidarity needs of the 21st century; see “America, the United Nations and the world” (June 2004)

Frances Stewart stressed this point above all: “we can’t think about anti-poverty without thinking about security, both economic and political”. For her, “development” – the pursuit of economic growth and trade – is as important as humanitarian aid in preventing and ameliorating conflicts, and a lot more sustainable in the long term. “Most deaths in conflicts are caused by indirect economic and social effects, not bullets”, she stressed.

It is most important, then, to focus on the real causes of individual conflicts, and treat with scepticism easy, generalised explanations of “age-old ethnic hatred” or of personal, individual motivation. The triggers of political violence vary greatly from conflict to conflict; thus the international community, which “likes to have a single solution in every country”, needs “a keen eye for the distinct economic and social bases of each trouble spot”. In practice, that means every relevant social factor: group distribution of resources, control of trade and land, inequalities within a society, its position in the global trading framework (does it have a chance to compete?) and the responsiveness of its government to its people.

James Putzel had a different focus – on the state as the necessary locus of thinking about development and conflict issues: “building a secure state remains essential for maintaining security and potential for growth”. For him, a strong and legitimate state that “monopolises the legitimate use of force” and promotes economic growth is the dual recipe for conflict-free societies. The challenge to short-term politicians is to think long-term about conflict prevention and poverty – long term, for the solutions to both problems are “inter-generational”.

Laurence Tubiana, head of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (Iddri) in France, offered a politely contrasting view. “Historically”, she said, “the central response to poverty and security problems was simple: build nation-states and create wealth”. This “sometimes works”, but its problems are increasingly obvious: the legitimacy and the boundaries of the nation-state are contested, often in ethnic terms. Traditional “nation-building” was “no longer the easiest or only option”.

David Held’s openDemocracy essay “Globalisation – the dangers and the answers”, has provoked strong responses from the Financial Times’s Martin Wolf and David Mepham of the Institute for Public Policy Research

David Held, chairing this session, offered the most pertinent observation of the morning: “For thirty years we have built business schools but not schools of public policy – with the stark result that today we know how to build markets and corporations, but not nation-states.”

After a short break for air and coffee, Nigel Fisher of the UN office of project services linked these academic perspectives with the UN’s work on the ground. There were “too many parachutists in the development community” – experts vaulted into conflict zones after states had collapsed – and not enough long-term vision.

Rebuilding post-conflict nations, he continued, was slow, patient work involving a combination of five essential ingredients:

  • restoring people’s hope in the future
  • creating economic options and alternatives for them
  • promoting the inclusion of all sides on the conflict
  • addressing impunity
  • giving everyone a stake in the recovery process.
This recipe, experience shows, can work – but only if the international community has the stamina to see it through.

This agreeable but serene environment was in need of an infusion of robust energy from the world outside. It arrived in the form of Andy Bearpark, director of operations at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq since June 2003. Bearpark, dismissing “academics who use so many words to say nothing at all”, said that the last thing needed was “debates about how to recognise a war-torn society. It’s quite simple: if they shoot at you, it’s war-torn”.

Bearpark expressed equally pithily the problem of turning of humanitarian and development assistance, which the international community can do quite well, into “post-war state building”. Coming from the CPA, this was quite an admission.

What is lacking, said Bearpark, is a mechanism “to transfer all this academic expertise over to the real world”; “however many books or papers are written” on how to conflict prevention or state rebuilding, those charged with actually doing it were continually “reinventing the wheel”. Here, Bearpark identified a problem that arose constantly during the conference: how do we put ideas into practice? How do we even make those working on the ground aware of what those ideas are?

“We’ve talked too much”, Andy Bearpark concluded. “It doesn’t matter what model you use – you just need a decision to be made, and then to get on and do it”. That decision, though, had to be made by and in consultation with those whose nation is actually being rebuilt. Many members of the CPA, he said with possibly dangerous frankness, “prefer not to meet Iraqis – if you do, all your prejudices might not be confirmed. Internationals need to be a lot less arrogant, and give a lot more power to local people”. That, rather than debates about high-level strategy, was what prevented conflicts from reoccurring.

openDemocracy’s roundtable discussion among Iraqis about the future of their country is just one part of our extensive coverage of the war and its aftermath

Andy Bearpark’s contribution mingled with the breeze fanning through the open windows to enliven the afternoon. A serious debate got going. The whole concept of nation-building is just “a grand, liberal social-engineering project”, suggested one South African participant, based on principles that might not be shared by those whose nation was being built. How could the UN tackle this potential problem? A day that started smoothly ended with fast-paced exchange of ideas and plenty of open questions.

Day two: a question of legitimacy

The Friday opened with a press briefing from two members of the high-level panel. Here, openDemocracy formally presented David Held’s article“Globalisation: the dangers and the answers” for consideration in the panel’s final report.

David Hannay, a panel member and (as a former United Kingdom ambassador to the United Nations) ever a seasoned diplomat, reflected that it is “becoming very clear” that economic development, prosperity and poverty-reduction programmes “greatly reduce” the likelihood of conflicts within or between nations.

The question, then, is how to focus the international community on the kind of long-term investment needed to make this happen. It is also clear, said Hannay carefully, that conflict prevention did not simply involve “taking a narrow view of threats – focusing exclusively on terrorism or weapons of mass destruction (WMD)”. The problem is a wider problem of ‘states under stress’ – also known as failing states. Any approach to this problem which excludes poverty, human rights abuses and problems like HIV/Aids will not work.”

Panel participants, David Hannay & Nafis Sadik

Nafiz Sadik, former director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and another member of Kofi Annan’s panel, followed Hannay’s example of couching criticism in diplomatic language. “80% of UN members consider poverty, hunger and disease the main threats to their security”, she said; “WMDs and terrorism are important, but perhaps not overridingly so”. David Hannay concluded from these reflections that so far the HLP was “longer on analysis than we are on prescription”.

The rest of the participants thought it would be a good idea to try to remedy this, and spent the rest of the day dedicated to the task. David Held drew on his openDemocracy analysis and Global Covenant book in favour of a re-elaborated “social democratic” model of globalisation. “Policy recommendations are great”, he said, “but you can’t deliver them without institutional clout”. If the HLP merely produced a list of things that should be done without specifying the mechanisms for doing them, it would be “just another report”.

Mary Kaldor broadened horizons by focusing on the problem of legitimacy – or lack of it. In the most arresting image of the entire conference, she depicted the occupation of Iraq as a microcosm of the state of the world. Inside Baghdad’s central “green zone”, the CPA operates inside rings of steel, palm trees, and swimming pools; there they plan the future of the country. Outside, in the “red zone” that constitutes the rest of Iraq, its people face daily problems of poverty, violence, health and survival – places where the CPA cannot and do not enter.

If you tell the people inside the green zone, continued Mary Kaldor (recently in Iraq) that ordinary Iraqis give consent neither to their actions nor even to their presence in the country, “they simply deny it”.

This is the world itself in miniature: political elites in their green zones, occasionally meeting at tightly-guarded summits – and the rest of the world, full of “global rancour”, outside. The result? “A crisis of legitimacy which affects all political institutions” – and it is the UN’s extremely tough job, concluded Mary Kaldor, to help restore that legitimacy.

Julian Hunte, president of the United Nations general assembly and foreign minister of St Lucia, had his own ideas on why the United Nations had so far failed to do so. Hunte thought it was time to be honest about the UN’s flaws: talk of democratising the Security Council was pointless – none of the “great powers” would ever give up their vetoes, yet while they existed, the will of the majority could always be flouted.

Hunte suggested that energies should better be focused on increasing the power of the UN’s economic and social council (Ecosoc) as an engine of change – one which could be more democratic, and also focus centrally on poverty and development. David Hannay, sitting beside Hunte, visibly shook his head, in what seemed to be the diplomatic equivalent of a serious punch-up.

The afternoon unfolded to the sound of even more bracing fisticuffs. The scholar and Labour Party appointee in Britain’s upper house of parliament, Meghnad Desai, declared himself “uncomfortable with the level of consensus” at the conference, and proceeded systematically to assail its foundations.

David Held’s optimistic call for global social democracy “wouldn’t stand up to any kind of critical examination”’, said Desai; in any case “social democracy has had its day”. He pointed out that American military power was an unavoidable reality, one which the UN had little chance of tempering. As for poverty alleviation, the world had seen more of it in the last twenty-five years than at any time in history – but because of the market, not aid programmes. Meghnad Desai concluded his peroration by affirming that none of these problems should be treated as “technocratic” – they were political issues, and only old-fashioned politics could address them.

Most participants seemed more persuaded of the existence of Mary Kaldor’s crisis of legitimacy. As the conference drew to a close, other common themes emerged:

  • that attempting to “prevent conflicts” without addressing poverty, development and the inequities of the global economy is doomed to fail

  • that “nation-building” is a term that must be used carefully if at all

  • that if this process is to work in a post-conflict situation, it has to involve, deeply and institutionally, the people of the nation itself – even those on the extremes

  • that any new policies recommended by the high-level panel must be accompanied by some degree of institutional reform at international level if they are to be both practical and legitimate in the eyes of the world

  • that, ultimately, any attempt at nation-building imposed from outside is doomed to fail.
There are, as one participant in the final session remarked, simply “no easy answers” to this or any of the problems addressed over the two days. As the captains and the kings – and the occasional activist – departed, few seemed to envy the panel its task. But everyone also seemed inclined to agree that while it had a thankless job, somebody has to do it – and soon.

Four post-conference comments

Frances Stewart: Development and security

The policy agenda must be guided by an understanding of how conflict impacts on human security as a whole, says Frances Stewart, professor of development economics at the University of Oxford.

In my presentation to the London conference, I argued that it is the links between development and security – rather than poverty and security – that matter, because (excluding macro-economic issues) the current poverty agenda is too narrow to encompass important interconnections; and while poverty is important, the development, or lack of development, of a society as a whole is an important determinant of the propensity to insecurity.

I explore how these links operate in three ways:

  • the way that human security as an important objective of development, and of poverty eradication; freedom from insecurity arising from economic, health and political events is an important dimension of individual well-being

  • the ways in which lack of security – notably violent conflict – worsens development and raises poverty; plentiful evidence shows that violent conflict reduces the rate of economic growth and worsens people’s entitlements

  • the ways in which levels and patterns of development affect the propensity to conflict. There is multiple evidence suggesting that lack of development tends to be associated with higher rates of violent intranational conflict; moreover, inequalities, especially horizontal inequalities or those between culturally defined groups are often an important cause of conflict between groups.
I go on to argue that in countries vulnerable to conflicts, policies pursued both for conflict prevention and during conflict can make a difference:
  • policies which may help to prevent conflict in the first place, or in its recurrence, should focus on correcting horizontal inequalities in access to political and economic resources – as well, as far as possible, in sustaining development efforts

  • policies are needed during conflict which move away from a total focus on humanitarian relief, to sustaining people’s livelihoods, as well as health and education services. The majority of deaths during conflict, after all, are caused indirectly – by economic collapse and weak services, and many of these could be prevented by appropriate policies.
Lack of development and high poverty rates, as well as sharp international inequalities, are also a major cause of international conflicts. International insecurity will only be eliminated when these issues are addressed. James Putzel: State-making, development and security

There is no quick fix; the world needs long-term vision and commitment to tackle deep-rooted problems, says James Putzel, reader in development studies at the LSE.

Max Weber, over a century ago, expressed clearly an essential precondition of guaranteeing security: the need to create a public authority that establishes a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in a society. While momentary security may be achieved through international interventions, mercenaries or contracted police, lasting security is achieved only by constructing a public authority capable of exercising a monopoly over the deployment of coercive force.

NGOs and private contractors cannot fulfil this objective. Similarly, history demonstrates that the foundations for growth, and for ensuring access to education and health, require purposive action at the level of the state.

The world’s development community has recently refocused attention onto the gains that can be reaped from globalised markets as a result of international economic integration. But its attention on what was once a given, the need for internal economic integration, has all but disappeared.

The debates about development, poverty reduction and security have been coloured by intellectual paradigms without strategic vision. Yet a long-term vision and perspective is precisely what such debates need.

The institutional and organisational requirements necessary to manage conflict, or to underpin dynamic processes of growth, take time to establish; building the capacity for public administration requires not only the transmission of skills but the development of norms of public service.

Establishing armed forces and a police capacity responsive to civilian authority, where coercive force is tempered by adherence to law and human rights norms, cannot be accomplished on the time horizons of current international aid programmes.

The creation of legislative, judicial and democratic organisations and institutions require more than constitution-writing and the staging of elections. Infrastructure and sectoral development, new markets and major productivity gains take time to emerge. We know this from the history of both today’s developed countries and the more recent success stories in Asia; but the time horizons on which economic strategy is now discussed do not permit taking the long view.

Thus, creating an integrated approach to development and security requires the international community to renew attention to the long-term problem of state-building and its associated commitments. Johanna Mendelson Forman: Don’t leave it to the military alone

The vital task of the high-level panel is no less than to help facilitate the United Nations’ self-reinvention, says Johanna Mendelson Forman of the United Nations Foundation.

Security is part of development. Security issues affecting a nation’s trajectory toward economic self-sufficiency, social justice, political development and poverty are often a consequence of insecurity and bad governance. But how can development proceed alongside the management of security in developing countries? Today, the advantage of resources and capacity lays with the military as the blunt tool of choice in managing “post-conflict reconstruction”. There is a failure to join the skills, knowledge and understanding of those in the development community with the capacities of practitioners who are concerned with security. If this continues it will result in many more missed opportunities to help fragile states make the transition from war to peace.

What are the implications of this connection between security and development for the United Nations? A high-level panel is currently deliberating on how new threats to peace and security will impact on the UN’s capacity to respond to internal wars, or to the decimation of states. If the UN is to change its way of doing business – if it is to move beyond the culture of the second world war, indeed the cold war – it must accept a new diagnosis of what is an international problem, as a first step toward its own reinvention. Will the high-level panel, due to report in mid-December 2004, produce it?

If it does, what practical actions should follow? How do we move from the knowledge created by scholars about specific ways to reduce insecurity or rebuilding war-torn states to the application of this information in the field? The failure to answer this is often the missing link between success or failure in restoring public authority.

Unfortunately, the nation-building record of the post-cold war has not yielded much in the way of long-term solutions. Existing conflicts continue to drain the international community’s time, energy and treasure. And this doesn’t even take into consideration the cost at a national level of lives unfinished, economies ruined, or political participation rendered meaningless when the state no longer exercises legitimate power over its citizens.

The UN and the high-level panel must now grapple with the implications of the way good development lays the foundations for security. Does this mean the UN should be a framework creation system, or a service agency that operates around the globe to prevent conflicts, reduce poverty and enable citizens to participate in their governments? Should the UN, whose core mission is to maintain peace and security, now address development initiatives? Should the Security Council, whose actions are more tactical than strategic, have a complementary body that address the prevention of conflict through mandating development interventions as a means to reduce political tensions?

The hope is that by understanding the problems in detail, the solutions will become more obvious. Certainly, UN Foundation-hosted conference in London clarified the identification of the core issues, and the recognition that security is too important to be left to the generals alone.

Nitin Desai: The politics of intervention

An emphasis on state security must be matched by a concern for human security, says Nitin Desai, formerly UN under-secretary-general.

The conversation between academics and practitioners on security and development held on 17-18 June 2004 at the London School of Economics, sponsored by the UN Foundation, focused largely on the international response to failed (or failing) states and post-conflict reconstruction.

Iraq was never very far away in the discussions; everyone seemed to be looking for what the occupying forces should have done differently in that sad land. One participant said that Iraq may previously have been a threat to some but was not a failed state before the invasion; now it is one – because the occupying powers have not so far been able to reconstitute its machinery of government.

Who should decide when and how to intervene in the affairs of another country? This involves questions about the operations of the UN Security Council and the great powers who have a capacity to project force. Can intervention be driven by widely agreed criteria, or must it often be an arbitrary exercise of national strategic interest masquerading as the pursuit of some global end? For many states great-power behaviour is a greater source of uncertainty and instability in their security environment than terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.

Security and development are connected. This means we must look beyond the compulsions of state security to human security. Such a shift can help define criteria for a range of types of intervention – from development aid to humanitarian relief to good offices or, in extreme instances of a breakdown of human security, to armed intervention. The shared element is that such intervention must increase, not decrease, human security.

But this shift is not possible without a greater measure of global democracy. Otherwise intervention will be seen as a new type of evangelical imperialism. At the end of the conference we came closer to understanding that the issue is not a technocratic one of efficiency and coordination – but a political one of legitimacy, power and consent.

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