The UN Peacebuilding Fund – four years on

The decision to set up the UN Peacebuilding Commission, Peacebuilding Support Office and Peacebuilding Fund was taken in September 2005 and bit by bit the new architecture was ready for business in 2006 and into 2007. I have just finished four years on the Fund’s independent Advisory Group, the last two as its chair, so here are my reflections.

money & achievement

The Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) was set an initial target to raise $250 million. In fact, $290 million rolled in over the first two years, from one of the broadest group of government donors of any UN fund. As a new set of institutions, the peacebuilding architecture got going slowly and one of the sharpest criticisms of the PBF in the first couple of years was that it wasn’t spending enough money quickly enough. That was mostly unfair, not only because the PBF was dependent on the speed and competence with which other parts of the system and would-be beneficiary governments moved, but also because any new institution has teething problems and goes slowly at first (and so it should or the teething will be all the more painful). One result of that initial impatience is that only $137 million more have been donated in the past three years. There has been a sense that some of the donor governments were waiting and seeing.

What they see now should be pretty reassuring. The PBF is a funding agency not an implementation body – it doesn’t do peacebuilding, it finances it – active in about 20 countries at a level that is pushing towards its business plan target of $100 million a year. It can respond to fully-fledged funding proposals in around three weeks and has been known to do it in a few days – unbelievable speed by UN standards. And there is starting to be a reasonable body of evaluation and assessment of the activities it has financed, which, with all the normal caveats in this kind of analysis, identifies broadly positive impact.

a looming, paradoxical shortfall

This positive record makes it all the more worrying and strange that donations to the PBF are picking up only slowly. This year, the downward trend stopped with just over $70 million donated or promised compared to about $37 million in 2010. And some governments are making multi-year commitments which brings the security of predictable funding levels. But at these levels, the PBF is still living on its initial income and is steadily spending it out. Without a significant increase in donations, it’ll have to cut spending to avoid a deficit in 2013.

Of course, a lot of this is down to the combined impact of waves of economic and financial difficulties hitting donor governments. But it would be staggeringly paradoxical if the PBF were to be left under-resourced today. Consider:

  1. The experimental period of the PBF is over; the PBF has proven its worth.
  2. As a contribution to the security of citizens, countries and regions, peacebuilding is far cheaper than peacekeeping or major humanitarian operations.
  3. The need for peacebuilding is not declining.

This paradox is a symptom of a systemic hangover in the UN – the after-effects of early uncertainty about the concept of peacebuilding and the role of the PBF, alongside impatience because it seemed not to get its gears engaged quickly enough.

starting with uncertainty

The PBF was conceived along the other two pillars of the peacebuilding architecture – the PB Commission and Support Office – by the High Level panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, established by the UN S-G Kofi Annan, with its 2004 report, A more secure world: Our shared responsibility, along with the follow-up response report in 2005 by Kofi Annan, In larger freedom.

The key insight from the High Level Panel was that, though peacebuilding should be seen as an expression of the UN’s core functions of security, human rights and development, it had, thus far, been a missing component from the machinery for securing the basic freedoms from want and from fear. So some new institutional machinery was established to fit in alongside the rest of the UN and focus on peacebuilding.

The term peacebuilding had entered the international vocabulary with Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 report, An agenda for peace. But it didn’t really stick. I realised this when I was commissioned in 2002 by the Norwegian foreign ministry in a project together with the overseas development ministries of Germany (BMZ) and the UK (DFID) and the Dutch foreign ministry to review and evaluate peacebuilding practice. The study set out with the notion that there was a decade’s worth of work to look at and soon tripped over the fact that as late as 2001 and 2002, the high-level adoption of the vocabulary of peacebuilding had had very little traction in on-the-ground practice. My overview report of that study, the so-called Utstein Report* was a small step in early 2004 towards clarifying the meaning of peacebuilding and embedding it in international practice. The significant progress was registered with A more secure world in 2004, In larger freedom in 2005 and later that same year the UN summit that set up the peacebuilding architecture.

So it is not really surprising that as recently as 4-5 years ago, as the UN peacebuilding trio started operating, there was a considerable degree of confusion and uncertainty among different parts of the UN, some donor governments and other multilateral organisations about what peacebuilding was and what the UN PBF was for. Some of this confusion, looking back, was almost certainly deliberate: a turf-based determination among UN agencies to push back the newcomer and, as much as possible, grab hold of the resources allocated to it.

clarifying peacebuilding

The grounds for this confusion and uncertainty have been steadily dispelled in the intervening years. Key developments have been the EU‘s partial adoption of the vocabulary of peacebuilding in about 2008; major policy statements by governments such as Norway (with a strategic paper in 2004 followed by a number of speeches and statements from ministers from 2006 onwards), Sweden and the UK; and developments in OECD-DAC, in the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, and the World Bank with its 2011 World Development Report.

The precise form peacebuilding takes varies from one country to the next because conditions and needs vary so widely. The core is the effort to assist a country that is in a perilous situation move to a situation of greater safety.

While the idea started in the 1992 report, An agenda for peace, as a way of defining the key long-term, post-conflict task, the chronology has since been widely qualified. Building peace after there has been massive violence is, in part, an effort to prevent a relapse – and in principle and also in terms of many of the detailed activities, that effort is qualitatively no different from what is required to help a country avoid tipping into large scale violence in the first place. If some 40-50 per cent of violent conflicts slide back into violence after agreement, how do you know at any one point whether you are in a pre-war or post-war situation?

Beyond this, the focus in the World Development Report 2011 on large scale violence of any kind, including crime as well as political instability and outright war, together with the experience of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 both suggest that peacebuilding has a much wider relevance than a recent war or its looming threat. In both kinds of countries, albeit in different ways, a core need is to develop reliable institutions for citizens’ access to social participation and a political voice, to justice and fairness, to security and prosperity. This is likewise the core set of tasks in peacebuilding. It is part of building a peaceful state and part of peaceful development – and they are a part of peacebuilding.

As the cogency of peacebuilding has become more widely accepted, its wide-ranging relevance understood, and its correspondingly large variety of means and modalities acknowledged, so also the practice has begun to advance and the body of evaluation literature is beginning to build up and reveal impact. With this, the earlier uncertainty and confusion around peacebuilding have dissipated significantly.

the role of the peacebuilding fund

At its broadest, peacebuilding is the process through which risks to human security are diminished and institutions are built so ordinary people can benefit from well-ordered government, the rule of law and relatively fair access to reasonable levels of prosperity. For unstable and conflict-affected societies, it’s a key pre-condition and an enduring component of equitable development.

It is, furthermore, not only a deep-reaching and wide-ranging process but also long-term. The World Development Report 2011 talks of a 15-30 year time frame.

It is not the role of the UN Peacebuilding Fund, aiming to spend about $100 million a year, to accompany a country the whole way along that road. It is its role, rather, to help start the journey and to come back in along the way to help clear some obstacles that may be encountered.

This means the PBF has to be catalytic. It has to know how to kick-start peacebuilding and unblock the process if and when that’s necessary. In turn that means it has to be quick. The three-week target for turning round applications for funds is both necessary and impressive. At the same time as speed, it needs to be relevant and precisely targeted. For example, it may not just be a question of police reform but of a specific component of police reform in a particular part of the country that is most needed. Knowing that – and knowing that it may be necessary to ask that question – is key.

All these qualities also mean the PBF often has to be innovative – or gently nudge UN in-country teams and would-be beneficiary governments into taking an innovative approach. And with that goes possibly the most difficult part of this array of qualities so the PBF can fulfil its niche role: it needs to be able to take risks. These risks are not the risks of doing direct damage but of not succeeding – of backing your judgement and getting it wrong.

We may think that the only people whose judgement never fails are those don’t use it much – and the same is true of institutions. But that is not much of a defence when a donor government asks about $10 million that has frankly speaking been wasted on poor programming. The PBF’s donors all support the idea that it should be less risk-averse than other parts of the UN system but not many can be relied on if the risk doesn’t pay off.

where things now stand

All that said, there is a pretty good feeling around the PBF at the moment and good reason for that. It is a quick acting, well managed, flexible financial instrument. It is building a decent track record. It has the support of some important donor governments and what it needs now is for some of those who are in the habit of giving it $1-2 million a year to promote themselves to the the 3-5 million range, while some of those at 5 or so push on for the 10 million mark.

It would be a good idea to start a fundraising push with the EU, which so far hasn’t given any money to UN peacebuilding but could, and then with countries whose economies are actually working and growing. China and India are both regular financial supporters of the UN Peacebuilding Fund: now would be a good time to join the ranks of the big donors and the main driving forces.


* The group of four governments were known as the Utstein group because their first meeting as a foursome of development ministers was at Utstein abbey in western Norway.

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