Business as usual is not an option: Peacebuilding between shrinking space and new opportunities


Marc Baxmann

Shrinking space …

Many of the developments that have taken place in recent years point to a shrinking space for governmental and civil society peacebuilding practitioners. Due to a number of trends that have emerged during this period, peacebuilding is coming under growing pressure to justify itself and prove its worth with reference to the successes that it has achieved. This is decreasing – or at least changing – the options for action:

  1. The current – Western-influenced – peacebuilding principles and approaches, such as the liberal peace paradigm and the responsibility to protect (R2P), are being subjected to more critical scrutiny than ever before. As a result of global power shifts and the growing engagement of new stakeholders in fragile and conflict-affected states, the influence of Western actors is diminishing, ultimately calling the legitimacy of external interventions as a whole into question. In this dynamic world, the West is losing its power to dictate the agenda, and this is accompanied by a loss of credibility. Experiences of Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia are not only synonymous with the mixed track record in peacebuilding; they also illustrate the important role played by regional actors. As the protracted conflict in Syria and developments in Ukraine painfully demonstrate, the international community’s conflict resolution regime and sanctions policy are reaching their limits.
  2. Fragile and conflict-affected countries are gaining in confidence and are demanding that international donors align their engagement to these countries’ own priorities and strategies for overcoming fragility and conflict. The New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States epitomizes the changed understanding of the donor-recipient relationship and raises new questions about accountability and partnership.
  3. The increasing focus on results puts pressure on peacebuilding practitioners in another respect as well. Budgetary constraints, short-term expectations of success, a logframe mentality and toolbox thinking cannot do justice to peacebuilding’s specific requirements. “Best-practice-itis”, instead of context-appropriate strategies, often determines the action taken. There is a tendency to shy away from the risks that necessarily arise during engagement in highly complex conflict and post-conflict settings, with the result that peacebuilding potential goes untapped.
  4. But it is not only the influence of governmental actors that is declining. In many countries, the space for civil society engagement in the interests of peace and social transformation is increasingly shrinking or merely serves vested interests. Restrictive legislation and other forms of monitoring by the state are making constructive but critical engagement for peace, human rights and democracy much more difficult.

Faced with these developments, peacebuilding practitioners – not only from the Global North – have been engaged in a process of critical self-reflection for some time. They are seeking new ways of contributing effectively to peacebuilding and social transformation in light of these new dynamics and the greater awareness of complexities. In this global quest, the future of peacebuilding is still unclear.

… vs. global momentum

Somewhat paradoxically, however, the opposite trends can also be discerned – for the issues of conflict and fragility have never been so close to the heart of the international development policy debate as they are today. Over recent years, moves towards linking peace and development have gained powerful momentum, hinting at a renaissance of development-oriented peacebuilding. The World Development Report 2011 identifies trust between social groups, as well as legitimate institutions, as key objectives of conflict transformation, and emphasizes that engagement must be guided by the local community’s needs. The Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs) defined in the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States build on these approaches.

These processes go hand in hand with a rediscovery of the peacebuilding potential afforded by development cooperation. It is no coincidence that the integration of peace into the post-2015 agenda – both as a goal in its own right and as an enabler for development – no longer appears to be a question of “whether” but “how”.

Already, an ever-increasing percentage of the world’s poor live in fragile and conflict-affected states. According to reliable predictions, the share of the world’s poor found in fragile and conflict-affected states is set to rise to more than a half by 2018. There is substantial evidence that conflict and weak institutions are the most enduring enemies of sustainable development. The time, it seems, is ripe for a renaissance of peacebuilding in politics and practice.

However, the parameters have changed. New forms of violence – associated, for example, with organized crime – are affecting the dynamics of social conflicts. Peace and security are under threat in many countries, not only from internal causes. Regional and global factors – such as the illegal arms trade, human and drug trafficking, climate change and international investments in land and resources – are influencing local conflict dynamics as well.

From “liberal peacebuilding” to “dealing with complexity”

So it is worth thinking about our understanding of peacebuilding in a complex globalized world and how we wish to shape it in the future – for governmental and civil society actors have no option but to respond to the changes outlined above. In this complex situation, clinging to established peace policy paradigms is not enough. Which roles and responsibilities fall to external civil society and governmental actors? How are global dynamics and thematic trends changing peacebuilding policy and practice, and what kind of response is appropriate?

Some needs – and dilemmas – can already be discerned from the current debate:

  1. Slowly but surely, there is a growing recognition that in the face of complex conflict and post-conflict situations, linear thinking will not take us forward. However, instead of leaving peacebuilding to happenstance, long-term, systemic and context-appropriate approaches are required.
  2. In this context, peacebuilding cannot be viewed in isolation but must be linked with more traditional development sectors, democracy building, human rights promotion and security measures. Holistic, integrated approaches are required – not silo thinking and a sector-specific approach.
  3. Peacebuilding is, first and foremost, a local process. External actors must focus on local systems, capacities, dynamics and priorities. But despite this awareness, the extent to which support can and should be aligned with local priorities and strategies and the situations in which such an approach may be counterproductive are still contentious issues. This field of tension must be considered as peacebuilding continues to evolve.

With the FriEnt Peacebuilding Forum, our aim is to engage in this debate and encourage shared reflection on these issues.

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