Looking at some peacebuilding assumptions

My most recent post (29 Jan) reflected about peacebuilding inside the bounds of the European Union as well as outside. My thinking grew out of International Alert’s recently started work  in the UK. Going a bit further,  some more thoughts have appeared in the online magazine and discussion forum, openDemocracy. What follows is an abridged version.

Founding assumptions

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 unwritten rules and silent norms – the way things are done – rather than just at policy positions, decisions and actions.

When the world changes, as it is changing in these years, therefore, it is well worth trying to bring those assumptions into the light. The idea of looking at the foundations of peacebuilding is not to reject the whole edifice – far from it – but to ensure it is resilient and relevant for current and future needs.

Three founding assumptions in the EU that underlie peacebuilding and also international development assistance alike 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 ours.
These are not, let me add, the full roster of the underlying assumptions of peacebuilding. There are others – including real fundaments such as the idea that people and societies can change – but these three are key elements underpinning EU policies.

It’s for others

This is what my most  recent blog post was about. The EU has always thought of peacebuilding as something for ‘out there’ – 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

There are numerous signs of disaffection in our societies.  They are different in form, politics and social basis. 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. This background of exclusion, frustration and alienation leans  the disaffected towards something between a tolerance and an embrace for violence.

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.

Benevolent power

Closely related to the ‘out there’ assumption, the world the EU saw a decade ago when it adopted today’s commitment to conflict prevention and peacebuilding 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 thus 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 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. The problem was visible a decade ago and has only grown in weight in the intervening years. This assumption 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.

Much of the discussion in Europe about international development aid has got itself tied up in two things – money and measurable targets. But as the debate warms up about what to do after the target date of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, it’s worth taking the analysis further. 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 overall development trajectory.

The development aid discussion has trouble with setting out a desirable destination. With no clear sense of destination, there is no clear direction – there is only good works, which may or may not add up to development.

Here, peacebuilding is different, perhaps because it is newer. It is 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. And here it turns out that, of course, there are recurrent features of relatively peaceful societies, including not only principles of equality (that are not always respected) but also the institutions that are the basis of how are societies run.

So, perhaps surprisingly, yes, warts and all, recessions and riots notwithstanding, there are things about western societies that make them attractive as development destinations. But in different countries, that destination can look very different. And getting there is not going to be achieved by recalibrating targets and spending more on them.

Power and results

Quickly exploring some of the assumptions underlying peacebuilding has implications for how programmes are understood, discussed and designed. 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 by emphasising short-term results. But if it 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, with proportionately greater attention to cumulative impact.

Destinations and the outsider

Of course, this presupposes a better discussion of destination. That in turns a more honest and perhaps more courageous discussion that stops treating as technical issues that are well understood to be political, cultural and social.

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 and 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.

4 thoughts on “Looking at some peacebuilding assumptions

  1. This is just one strand of the convergence of a number of areas. Conflict + peacebuilding, humanitarian issues + development issues, the effects of climate change, and trade/the economy and economic measures are all coming together. We want to develop and stimulate the economy of a country to raise the standard of living for everyone in that country, but we only want to encourage the “good” industries – eg green energy and not guns. But if you need to stimulate the economy of a country in the first place, the chances are that it is a poor country that?s insecure, which means there is already an innate desire of individuals and groups in that country wanting to arm themselves, to feel more secure. And climate change will ultimately affect poor people more, but in that country they?ve already chosen guns .

  2. Thinking globally, acting locally and defining sustainability

    http://normantranscript.com/opinion/x1915499482/Seek-true-sustainability-over-growth Â

    The Norman Transcript

    June 24, 2012

    NORMAN – Editor, The Transcript:

    My opinion is that the current global recession will not end until human societies change. Very difficult, given the nature of political systems and the human condition.

    Global human population tripled during the 20th century and is currently near 7 billion. Human population diminishes the planetary resource base, increases demand and prices, and is a cause of the present global recession. Nevertheless, global human population is presently increasing by about 80 million annually. Norman and the United States as a whole have contributed. The U.S. human population quadrupled during the 20th century and continues to increase today. Norman’s population was about 27,000 in 1950, 52,000 in 1970, 97,000 in 2000, and was 111,000 in 2010.

    None of this population increase seems enough for Chambers of Commerce in Norman, in Oklahoma, and across our land. In The Norman Transcript on June 19th, John Woods, current chair of the Norman C of C, called for us to “build a community of economic success, strong quality of life amenities that attract the next generation of young professionals and families to help fund the critical components of our city that we all care about. We need to begin a dialogue…” This letter is an effort to contribute to that dialogue. My view is that we already have the above listed attributes in Norman and that CofCs call for more growth is detrimental.

    One of our City Councilors recently said to me, “If you don’t grow, you rot.” This reminds of another local issue, NEDA, which is treated here only by implication. In my opinion, the City Councilor’s opinion is true only for cultural growth. Human numbers and society are past the point that physical growth becomes detrimental. Furthermore, all forms of physical growth are not sustainable, though often so-called. Malthus spoke more than a century ago to an imbalance between population growth and food supply, an imbalance detrimental to human welfare. Forty-five years ago, Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, and Hardin published a collection of numerous papers with dire predictions. These authors were not mistaken, but they were premature because they did not and could not anticipate effects of burgeoning technology, which has greatly facilitated extraction of resources.

    Technology does not contradict science; technology is science in application. The increased rate of resource extraction and still rising human populations are grave threats to future human welfare. But, what can we do? What should we do?

    One action that should be helpful would be for CofCs to renounce population growth as an appropriate objective and to devote their intelligence and efforts to formulation of a healthful alternate paradigm of true sustainability.

    Edwin Kessler

    Norman, Oklahoma

  3. Pingback: The EU’s Nobel Peace Prize | Dan Smith's blog

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