The challenges of peacebuilding for “transforming our world”

This Impulse-article is based on Cornelia Ulbert’s concluding reflections on the FriEnt Peacebuilding Forum 2015. After two days of intense debates she acted as a kind of sounding board resonating some of the points participants had discussed in different Forum sessions. Her reflections focus on five issues: the nature of violent conflicts; the state and its relationship with civil society; visions and motivations to act: the role of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); institutional silos and organisational entrapments; and peacebuilding “beyond aid”.

1. The nature of violent conflicts

Although the number of overall ongoing violent conflicts is not as high as it used to be in the mid-1990s, we perceive them as more serious, because our established tools of multilateral peacekeeping and peacebuilding do not work well in a multipolar world. When we think back to the 1990s, those years were characterised by a renaissance of the UN Security Council, actively shaping a politics of humanitarian intervention (the keyword here is the “Responsibility to Protect”, R2P), and a reinvigorated UN system, which dedicated itself to “bring in” civil society and extend its mandate into many issue areas.

Twenty years later we witness stalemate at the UN Security Council and a new humility about what the UN as an organisation can actually achieve. What is more – we have to acknowledge that there are violent actors who resort to violence for the sake of violence. And we are at a loss how to interact with those or what to offer them at the negotiating table.

How did this “crisis of multilateral peacebuilding” come about? Undoubtedly, one factor is the “war on terror”, in which Western countries lost their credibility by violating human rights, which in turn contributed to worsening the situation in countries like Iraq, Afghani-stan and subsequently even in Syria now. Moreover, the project of liberal state- and peacebuilding did not succeed in the way we had expected; the more so, since economic development did not always contribute to stabilising or even democratising a post-conflict country. As a consequence, the significance of a traditional liberal peacebuilding approach will decline further and development cooperation will have to focus more on causes of political (often in combination with social and economic) destabilisation and possible strategies to counter it.

2. The state and its relationship with civil society

Many discussions on peacebuilding centre on the role of the state. Interestingly, we per-ceive the state as some kind of blueprint or prerequisite, not only for executing a variety of policies, but also for safeguarding “the general will”. However, this functioning (liberal democratic and maybe welfare) state is rather an exception than the overall rule in many quarters of the world.

Therefore, sometimes you have to look for “functional equivalents” of traditional statehood when you want to address the structures (and people behind them) that are able to provide public goods like peace and security. So the question we have to ask is where and with whom does political authority rest? In this context “political” relates to who takes decisions for a community or group. Framed like this, traditional (subnational) structures of political authority like a clan or tribe or religious leaders come to the fore.

From a (liberal) democratic point of view, we tend to think about the relationship of civil society with the state in terms of a social contract. But what do you do with governments which simply don’t care about whatever social contract you might claim to exist? And the bleak reality is that there are many states which fall into this category.

3. Visions and motivations to act: the role of the Sustainable Development Goals

At the opening panel discussion of the Peacebuilding Forum Sandra Melone emphatically said “same old, same old is not gonna work”. But let’s face it: although those who were in New York had the impression that they had achieved much with the adoption of the SDGs, there is still a long way to go until the news of the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda for Sustaina-ble Development will have reached the wider public.

In many media – at least in Germany – the launch of the 2030 Agenda was framed as “old wine in new bottles”. This means: there remains a lot to be done for state and civil society actors to spread the news about “new wine in new bottles” in their home countries and around the world. The SDGs do have the potential to serve as a guiding vision for “trans-forming our world” over the next 15 years as headlined in the outcome document.

But what is even more important: it can be used as an instrument for holding governments accountable and rallying societies around a set of common goals. The crucial question then is: accountable for what? This is where indicators come in.

Against the backdrop of our experience with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) many practitioners share a considerable uneasiness about a lot of quantitative indicators which only reflect what is quantifiable – and hence measureable. But they might be meaningless in terms of what has actually been achieved and what might be significant for people.

An alternative approach might be to let each country (i.e. governments and civil society) decide in which areas it would like to achieve what kind of qualitative progress, and then devise bottom-up qualitative tools to track and monitor the progress (or regress) that has occurred. As has become obvious by the discussions during the Peacebuilding Forum, people on the ground know pretty well if there is “peace” and “security” out there or not. Since we know that a subjective feeling of security (or insecurity) might sometimes be misleading – especially in societies which live in relative peace – you can combine the qualitatively collected subjective data with other indicators. Like in the example of a villager selling cooked rice in a neighbouring village mentioned by Sweta Velpillay at the opening panel discussion: figures of trade and the exchange of goods.

I think we will be able to creatively devise appropriate, i.e. meaningful, sets of indicators. Something which worries me more is the next point.

4. Institutional silos and organisational entrapments

“Same old, same old is not gonna work”, but “new, new” obviously does not work either. The sobering lesson I draw from our debates at the Peacebuilding Forum is that we have been discussing about the same deficits and prospective remedies for quite some time now. Why is that so?

Some – also at the Peacebuilding Forum – point to the fact that there are many “big tankers of aid industry” having difficulties to change their course. However, not all of us belong to those “big tankers”. We all deplore the bureaucratic outgrowth of the professionalisation of our field, but most of us are very reluctant to cut it back. Part of the explanation might be that civil society organisations “guard their terrain” too, as one of the participants called it. This prevents a more open exchange of ideas, but also leads to some kind of self-disciplining behaviour when it comes to competing for funds.
But another part of it is that the more institutionalised we get, the more pervasive institu-tional logics of action get. They help us doing our work more professionally, but they can become quite detrimental when the problem at hand requires more thinking out of the box.

The SDGs reflect the interrelations between peace, security and development. In imple-menting the SDGs, we have to face the challenge of devising integrated approaches to connect issue areas which have been unrelated before in our day-to-day work. Wolfgang Heinrich reminded us in his input, how important it is to establish a culture of cross-policy field conversation in our institutions. But this requires that enough space, time and – above all – money will be provided and reserved for that kind of exercise!
In his opening statement at the Peacebuilding Forum, the Parliamentary State Secretary to the German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Thomas Silber-horn, suggested to pursue a 360 degree vision to widen one’s own perspective. But this would necessitate that we do not exclude other angles too easily or dismiss them as being irrelevant – or ignore them simply because they are represented by “the other” (e.g. busi-ness actors). This is why an honest and serious exchange of state and civil society actors, on the basis of mutual respect, is crucial!

5. Peacebuilding “beyond aid”

Cases like Burundi are quite typical of the new “donor landscape”: There, the ruling government is in a position to decline Western “advice” – coupled with the prospect of aid – because it can turn to other donors like Russia, China or Saudi Arabia. This example clearly shows that traditional development cooperation via official development assistance (ODA) has lost its importance. On the one hand this is due to the fact that the sheer number of actors in development cooperation and peacebuilding has risen significantly, which makes all our efforts of coordination and harmonisation even more difficult. But on the other hand, besides the financial contributions of non-traditional state donors, remittances, foreign direct investments or funds by private donors have increased considerably narrowing the impact of traditional ODA.

This is why Western concepts of peacebuilding and statehood are challenged by competing models of economic development, which very often do not entail the idea of some kind of democratic political or social development. Therefore, the SDGs as common goals for all UN member states should also be taken up in the Global North. Because only if we in the Global North succeed in meeting the SDGs, our societies and political systems will be able to act as credible role models for just and peaceful societies.

Dr. Cornelia Ulbert is Executive Director at the Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

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Cornelia Ulbert, Institute for Development and Peace (INEF)

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