The far horizons of peacebuilding – and the near

Peacebuilding and development can no longer be thought of in terms of what was always an over-simplified polarisation between the powerful stability of the giver and the weak turbulence of the beneficiary. It was always wrong to see the world that way; now it’s impossible.
Dan Smith
1 February 2012

At the Gothenburg summit of June 2001, the EU summit decided that the prevention of violent conflict was to be a priority. Since then it has spent in the vicinity of 7.7 billion Euros, about 10 per cent of its total spending on external aid, on conflict prevention and peacebuilding (which has steadily – and rightly – replaced the former term in the international vocabulary).

Croydon riots

Demotix/Julio Etchart. Requiem for Croydon- after the London riots.All rights reserved.

The approach was adopted in a very different world when Europe was full of expansive and optimistic vision. The Euro and the big enlargement had been decided on. Economies were growing. It was less than three months before 9/11, nearly two years before the invasion of Iraq, just over seven years before Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering chaos in the financial markets and the biggest financial crisis and global recession ever.

In 2001 the EU girded itself to build peace far beyond its borders. In 2011 it couldn’t even manage to complete a ten-year review of what it has done, though an effort to do so was initiated by the Hungarian EU Presidency at the start of the year.

There has been an evaluation by an independent consortium commissioned by the EC, focusing on activities supported by EC money. It finds that the money has been well spent overall with some good impact and nevertheless some things that could be done better, the sort of balanced conclusion one expects from a review like this.

But perhaps, given the situation Europe is in, it is the right time to go a little further, taking a fresh look rather than just evaluating. And that means looking not just at peacebuilding and conflict prevention but a little deeper.

Policies are often founded on assumptions that are not just unquestioned but apparently unquestionable. They express a worldview. When policies run into the sand, unless the worldview changes, those responsible for implementation are told to refuel, rev up and drive harder. Such founding assumptions are part of the anthropology of policy and politics and they need to be brought out into the light by looking at unstated beliefs, unwritten rules, silent norms, the way things are done – rather than just by looking at policy positions, statements, decisions and actions.

Three founding assumptions of peacebuilding – and, indeed, of international development assistance – recommend themselves for a fresh look in these times:

  • It’s for others;
  • It comes from benevolent power;
    • It brings its beneficiaries into a development trajectory that, roughly speaking, is the same as ours.

Taking a look at these underpinnings of peacebuilding does not mean that one is setting out to reject the whole edifice. Far from it in the case of this article. But it does entail an acknowledgement that some self-reflection could be most valuable.

It’s for others

The EU has always thought of peacebuilding as something for ‘out there.’ The grand enterprise of European unity was itself from the outset a project of building peace and it has successfully created and spread a zone of peace and stability. But this was an inherent attribute of the EU, a spillover effect from its core functions. In Europe, it hasn’t needed to do much that is particularly focused on building peace; it just had to go on trading and regulating, steadily breaking down the barriers, and peacefulness resulted.

Conflict prevention and peacebuilding were conceived as an extension of the EU enterprise to other regions that would only slowly (like the western Balkans) join the EU and others that never would. This was about a wealthy, stable and growing region offering others the benefits of its own success and simultaneously acting self-interestedly to protect that success from insecurity and instability in the wider global arena.

I don’t question that underlying motive. But I look around Europe and I ask myself if peacebuilding is really only relevant for ‘out there.’

No – us too

Everywhere we see signs of disaffection and a leaning to violence. From last summer’s riots in England to anti-austerity riots in Greece and the thin patina that many people tell me stands between order and a similarly angry chaos in Ireland; from the youth movements in Spain to the simmering anger in Italy; to the country proclaimed by opinion surveys to be happiest in the world – Denmark, whose capital has been scarred by school-burning and gang warfare in the last couple of years; and from Breivik’s monstrous massacre on the island of Utoya,to  immigrants murdered by right-wing extremists in Germany, to the surging anger the far right is feeding on.

These are different in form, in politics, in their social basis. Listing a few in the same paragraph does not imply they can be equated. But consider the state of the continent that they reflect.

Of course, not all are mass actions and one was the action of a seemingly psychotic loner. But none of these actions, regardless of the number involved – none is entirely divorced from a social and political background of disaffection, a sense of betrayal and exclusion, and an anger that is not far from violence. They occur in a political and social landscape where people’s sense of social belonging and engagement in the common good is challenged as never before. Job opportunities and the belief in a better future diminish before our eyes. Politics is professionalized and in most countries is ever more distant from growing segments of the population, especially among the poor and among the young.

So – no, peacebuilding is not just for others. It can be brought home. The kind of approaches that offer some degree of hope of stability and forward movement out of repetitive cycles of violent conflict in other countries are worth looking at here as well.

The benevolence of power

Closely related to the ‘out there’ assumption, the world the EU saw a decade ago was one in which the OECD countries – developed capitalist economies and democratic polities - had the wealth and power and the rest of the world did not. It’s the world of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ in which the rich North will henceforth have no grounds for internal conflict but outside of that zone is a world of turmoil where, from time to time, the rich North may need to intervene.

The EU version of this was considerably more subtle and far-sighted because the intervention would be long-term, multi-faceted, and involving as little force as possible. But the starting points were the same, albeit largely implicit.

Thus it went without saying that what was willed would be done and what was done would be effective. It might take time to get it right, there could be errors along the way, it would be necessary to be self-critical, but when power went to work on weakness – well, the power would work.

Er, what happened to the power?

Except, of course, it’s not like that. That vision of the world doesn’t coincide with reality at ground level and in fact it didn’t ten years ago either. There have long been plenty of actors around, powerful in their arenas, whom neither the EU nor the US could bend to their will, whether with aid, bribery or force. And some of those actors are powerful in very large arenas.

About five or six years ago, in a discussion of the longer range and broader questions of peacebuilding and development with, for example, officials at the EC, DFID or SIDA, it would often be remarked late on in the meeting that there was a topic we hadn’t quite discussed, an elephant in the room. Today, China is not ignored. During the world recession it has continued to grow. Its clout as fastest growing major economy and the holder of massive amounts of American debt is undoubted. The December 2011 grand strategy for the Eurozone bail-out included asking China to stump up some funds. The markets stabilised at this, then China raised a quizzical eyebrow and the markets resumed their normal haywire ways.

So, no, peacebuilding and development can no longer be thought of in terms of what was always an over-simplified polarisation between the powerful stability of the giver and the weak turbulence of the beneficiary. It was always wrong to see the world that way; now it’s impossible.

The development pathway

With our economies stagnant, joblessness rising, growth next to invisible, politicians impotent and politics alienating, plenty of people are asking what’s so attractive about a development trajectory that leads to where we are. And that’s before we even begin to think about environmental sustainability, climate change and the pressures of demography.

There is a well-established literature criticising development aid and, more recently, peacebuilding as an export drive for a normative model of economics or politics or both. The arguments are a bit shop worn these days because they tend to overdo the role of development aid in exporting norms and over-simplify the uniformity of social and political models among OECD countries. But there are worthwhile insights there still and a very large part of the policy discussion among European politicians and development NGOs unfolds without much reference to them. Instead, that discourse has got itself tied up in predominantly two things – money and measurable targets.

The thing about money and targets is that they guide you towards working out how to do more of the same only better. The next big issue for international development discourse is the new set of targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals when their target date comes round in 2015. Current projections indicate that by 2015 not a single MDG will be met in any conflict-affected and unstable country. That is not something that better targets and more money will fix. It is something that should precipitate a rethink. And part of that rethink ought to be about the trajectory.

To which destination

In this respect, peacebuilding is quite different, perhaps because it is newer. It is worth spending time with the questions, what kinds of countries are stable and why? Both the World Bank’s World Development Report 2011 and the independent Global Peace Index reflect this process of inquiry and analysis.

The more the development discussion keeps narrowly to targets and money, the more trouble it has with the issue of destination. With no destination, there is no direction for development assistance, there is only good works – a humanitarianism chronologically extended beyond the humanitarian emergency, doing good but not necessarily adding up to development.

That is the challenge that the peacebuilding discussion is taking on by attempting to identify the features of society that shape its prospects for peace – the peace factors.  And here it turns out that, of course, there are features of relatively peaceful societies – including our own – that recur in a variety of different forms and guises. These are not only the principles of equality, however inadequately respected, but the deep foundations of the institutions that are the basis of how are societies run. (See the ground-breaking work on institutions, social violence and development of D. C. North, J. J. Wallis & B. R. Weingast, Violence and social orders: A conceptual framework for interpreting recorded human history, 2009.) 

So, perhaps surprisingly, yes, warts and all, recessions and riots notwithstanding, there are things about western societies that make them attractive as development destinations. On the other hand, the destination looks different from country to country – sometimes slightly, sometimes significantly. And on the third hand, no, arriving at these destinations is not going to be achieved through recalibrating targets and spending more money on them.

Power and results

The first place to look for some practical conclusions from this quick look at some of the unstated assumptions underlying peacebuilding is not in the kind of actions that are undertaken. It is initially in the way they are understood and discussed. For example, the results agenda that now predominates in many governments’ overseas aid policies is predicated on an untenable assumption about power and effectiveness and has side-stepped thinking properly about the development destination. It could go badly wrong, especially as it gets transferred into the peacebuilding sector, by emphasising short-term results at the expense of understanding that these results are but small steps on a long journey. But if the results agenda can be contextualised by greater realism about power and a clearer view of destination, it could be very helpful. It will mean a downwards adjustment in the importance of individual results, which may sound bad to a politician, and greater attention to cumulative impact. The outcome could offer a useful map and compass for development aid and peacebuilding.

Destinations and the outsider

Of course, this presupposes a better discussion of destination. Here the problem for peacebuilding is the unwillingness of the much larger, better established development sector to change. Too often the international development community – NGOs, donors, international agencies – collude to present the key issues as essentially technical. But they aren’t and everybody knows they aren’t. This goes along with an unhelpful confusion between development and development aid – the latter is a small part of the former. Everybody knows it but only recently has it started to be respectable to say so. If there could be more honest and precise discussions about destination, it could be better understood that, so far as we know up till now, most peaceful societies have some features in common, which get to be arranged in very different ways by the ins and outs of culture and history. If a national political discussion identifies which way to go, the question then is how can outsiders help? There’s politics everywhere in this process, including in judging whether the national political discussion is a genuine one. But development and peacebuilding are political and it doesn’t help to duck it.

And then there’s the perplexing issue of the outsider – the assumption that peacebuilding is for others out there. Extending the mandate of peacebuilding to include the problems within the EU would bring a new range of approaches to bear on familiar problems. It’s at least an option worth exploring. Also of benefit, it would change the way in which the enterprise of peacebuilding is presented, discussed and operationalized. It is not an issue that is dead, even in Scandinavian social democracies. Instead of treading dangerously close to presenting peace as a good to be brought from here to there – which is nonsense – it would allow us all to get on even terms, sharing with partners in the still vital task of building a more peaceful and secure world.

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