Peacebuilding is surprisingly (or self-evidently) personal

The work of building peace depends at every level on the human qualities of a surprisingly small number of people. Rebuilding communities after violence depends on the ability of individual community leaders to find a path to reconciliation and forgiveness. At the international level, the UN peacebuilding architecture is struggling to get out of a troublesome hiatus caused by the departure of the former UN Assistant Secretary General, Jane Holl Lute, to a position in the Obama administration.

International agencies, organisations and government are often reluctant to recognise the highly personal nature of the peacebuilding process. When the UN Peacebuilding Commission was set up and started work in 2006, its role was (and remains) to give strategic advice on peacebuilding to countries that sought it out and to focus political attention on those countries. Nobody seems to have asked whether the representatives of 31 states who make up the PBC went into the work on day one with all or even much of the knowledge required for such demanding work.

When a country is taken up by the PBC, the local UN presence – usually either a specialised peace mission or the UN Development Programme – is given the task of working with the government and, as much as possible, with non-governmental organisations in that country to be the PBC’s counterpart in developing a strategy, to work with the Peacebuilding Support Office on developing a priority plan, and to develop projects for financing from the Peacebuilding Fund. And again, at the outset, there was no systematic attention given to the issue of knowledge and skills for peacebuilding (and, actually, I am being very polite by inserting the qualifier “systematic” – there was really hardly any attention at all).

In these and other cases it is assumed that people and organisations within the system know what they need to know – even while a whole pile of evaluations, strategic assessments, lessons-learned studies and reviews point out that, for the most part, people do not know what they need to know and, at best, they learn it as they go along. When they do not learn it by doing, they revert to default mode, which normally means trying to take on the 10-15 year task of building peace through a series of one or two-year projects. Too often international agencies declare the problem of peace has been solved and focus their efforts onto sectors they understand like education, health and infrastructure, not apparently thinking seriously about the risks of renewed violence.

The reason why the result is sometimes quite encouraging nonetheless is, in several cases at least, because of key individuals. These individuals, I would argue, are not simply competent and knowledgeable. In fact, I can think of several cases in which the key person is competent, but not especially knowledgeable – not at least in the sense of bringing with them either study of peacebuilding or wide-ranging practical experience of it. They manage to play a key role because of another factor entirely. Let’s call it talent.

The basics of peacebuilding are not actually very complicated. If you can set out on the road of increasing people’s safety, offering them access to adequate income and assets, improving the relations between the citizen and state so the latter is not wholly rapacious, improving and equalising access to justice, and generating the conditions in which communities can care for people’s well-being – you are well set on the peacebuilding road.

Two things are complicated. One is the tricky process of developing the partnerships that are needed in order for outsiders to support this process and for the process to respond to the needs of a country’s population as a whole, rather than favour one group over another and sow the seeds of renewed conflict. The other is that this is not what international agencies have understood by development; it cuts across too many of their core assumptions for them to be easy with it. As a result, the international development aid system does not really favour peacebuilding. In particular, the necessary engagement with the political issues, actors and institutions is hard for the development industry, which would generally prefer a technocratic approach. And that, as I argued in a recent post commenting approvingly on a speech by UK Development Secretary Douglas Alexander, is a major flaw in development policies.

So even though peacebuilding is a pretty straightforward concept, it needs some extraordinary individuals to make it work – it needs them in the villages, in the dysfunctional departments of governments in countries emerging from violence, among the international agencies and foreign governments attempting to contribute supportively to the peace process, and in the international organisations’ headquarters. It needs individuals with insight into the processes and into the societies where they are being carried through, with the skills to bring people together, with the nous to figure out achievable targets and objectives given the circumstances, with the perseverance to follow through on commitments that are made and the force of personality to get others to do so as well.

So if we are going to make peacebuilding work, whether we look at the level of the UN or other international institutions such as the World Bank or the EU, or at national donor governments and ministries such as the UK Department for International Development, or at independent international organisations such as International Alert, or at governments in conflict-affected countries, or at those countries own non-governmental organisations – everywhere, what we see is that the work depends on talented individuals.

It will be good to see Jane Lute, who from my couple of meetings with her seemed like one of those much needed talented individuals, replaced as the UN senior official for peacebuilding by another with the necessary qualities. And it would be good for it to happen soon: too much can begin to go too wrong if the hiatus is not quickly superseded.

Beyond that, the importance of individuals needs to be recognised by the organisations whose tasks include supporting and promoting peacebuilding. This means as a bare minimum proper training programmes and courses for staff. It also means institutions developing the ability to spot talent and to nurture it by providing opportunities to build up experience. As the UN system seeks to strengthen its peacebuilding architecture, with new Terms of Reference soon to be agreed for the Peacebuilding Fund and a key report forthcoming from the Secretary-General on peacebuilding and early recovery, it is essential that it pays proper attention to the personal side of the enterprise.

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