Peacebuilding Isn’t Always a Force for Good: Interview with Devon Curtis

“The idea that peacebuilding isn’t necessarily a force for good is related to this idea that there are always beneficiaries and losers from any kind of initiative, program, or change in society,” said Devon Curtis, the co-editor of the volume Peacebuilding, Power, and Politics in Africa. She said several authors in the book made the argument that “if one thinks about peacebuilding as liberal governance or as stabilization,”—which are two of the three peacebuilding frameworks discussed in the book, the third being social justice—“that closes off other avenues, or other ways of thinking about how to build a peaceful society.”

Ms. Curtis gave a positive example of peacebuilding from the DRC, where local groups were brought into discussions about land disputes. “But, it really is a very difficult challenge, because I think this distinction between positive and negative often becomes quite muddied as soon as we get into the details.”

When asked how people working at the United Nations could have more successful outcomes to peacebuilding, Ms. Curtis said, “That’s the million dollar question. I suppose it really is about building up processes, better kinds of processes, more inclusive dialogues with different societal groups that tend to be marginalized. That’s different from arguments about local ownership, and processes such as the Gacaca process in Rwanda is sometimes presented as this locally grown initiative for justice and reconciliation. But there, too, it’s bound up with relations of power in Rwanda and authoritarian structures of governance, for instance."

"So, I think that in terms of recommendations, how to think about including those voices that tend to be marginalized–so, not necessarily the voices of national elites only, in the countries that are emerging from conflict, but also groups within those countries with different sets of interests, ideas, different visions of peace and how to get their voices to be heard.”

The interview was conducted by John Hirsch, Senior Adviser to the Africa program at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript:

John Hirsch: Good afternoon, we’re here with Professor Devon Curtis, the co-editor of a volume called Peacebuilding, Power, and Politics in Africa, which is a result of seminars between Cambridge University and the Centre for Conflict Resolution and involves seventeen authors.

So, Devon, in the book you describe different frameworks for peacebuilding–a liberal governance framework, a stabilization framework, and a social justice framework. Could you briefly summarize the distinction in contrast among those frameworks?

Devon Curtis: Essentially, we say that there’s a number of different ways of thinking about peacebuilding and these different frameworks lead to different sets of priorities, really, and different goals for peacebuilding. So, the first one we discussed is peacebuilding as liberal governance, and essentially, this is really the most common way of thinking about peacebuilding. And really, the assumption underlying peacebuilding as liberal governance is that multi-party electoral democracy and market economies are inherently peaceful, and so that is the end goal of peacebuilding. So, the initiatives that are promoted in countries emerging from conflict are initiatives that ultimately are intended to lead to that end goal through building up the state and institutions and so on.

Second way of thinking about peacebuilding that we identify is peacebuilding as stabilization, and, like liberal governance, stabilization is concerned with order, but instead of order through the state and its institutions and liberal governance, it’s order through coercion and military power. And you see that in a lot of the recent peace operations, for instance—even just the language of stabilization is there, building up the coercive apparatus of the state, military, and so on. That this then becomes the priority and, paradoxically, then militarization becomes part of peacebuilding–so, militarization is peacebuilding.

And the third framework, or way, to think about peacebuilding is peacebuilding as social justice. And social justice, of course, there’s a number of different questions there–what is social justice, justice for whom, who gets to define what justice consists of–but essentially, issues then such as inequality, both global inequality as well as inequality within countries, becomes a much higher priority item if you see peacebuilding as social justice.

JH: Given those contrasts, and looking at the writers in the volume, you make the point in your introduction that these writers reflect an interaction between local and global ideas and practices, and then you say which ones showcase the tension that occurs within and between the multitudes of actors involved in the peacebuilding industry, as well as their intended beneficiaries. Could you say some more about the tensions? I understand that there are different frameworks here, but what are the tensions among those frameworks?

DC: So, the different frameworks, they’re both normative ideas about peacebuilding–I mean, what peacebuilding should look like, what should be prioritized, what should be emphasized–so normative ideas, but also they’re descriptive–different people believing that peacebuilding is liberal governance. So you might be for or against it, or think that this is a problem, but will still see peacebuilding generally as a form of liberal governance.

In terms of the tensions that various authors bring out, and this comes out very clearly in the section of the book that is looking at different case studies, in a country emerging from conflict, there’s many different end goals. Different people have different ideas of what peace should or could look like, and it means that sometimes international actors that are promoting particular forms or ideas or institutions, maybe doing so for certain sets of reasons and former belligerents or others on the ground might very different end goals.And so you see this for instance in the chapter by David Keen about peace negotiations that for international or African regional mediators, for instance, they have particular sets of goals in that they want people to sign on to a piece of paper that will then lead to the cessation of violence, whereas the belligerents to the conflict might sign on, but might do so for very different reasons– they might sign on for legitimacy reasons, but might continue to fight or might fractionalize or they might have different end goals, different objectives.

JH: In the introduction, you also make the rather problematic, certainly very interesting point, that peacebuilding may not necessarily always be a force for good. Could you explain what you mean by that, and give one of two examples where one of your authors perhaps looks on a peacebuilding experience as not having been or not being a force for good?

DC: The idea that peacebuilding isn’t necessarily a force for good is related to this idea that there are always beneficiaries and losers from any kind of initiative, program, or change in society. And so, it very much depends upon where one stands as to whether they see peacebuilding as a good thing or a bad thing.

In terms of examples, I suppose, the chapter on Somalia by Christopher Clapham talks about some of the failures of international efforts to build peace in Somalia, through statebuilding in Somalia. If the lack of a functioning state is seen as part of the problem, there’s this idea that building up the state is very important in terms of building peace. But, he traces some of the problems with that and says that in fact international involvement in Somalia has had counter productive effects and actually has in some cases been responsible for further violence because of different factions that have then resorted to violence.And essentially, several of the authors then talk about various international initiatives as potentially closing off some alternatives for peace. It’s always very difficult to build up a counter-factional or to know what would have happened had there not been international intervention or had international intervention looked somewhat different. But essentially that’s the argument that if one thinks about peacebuilding as liberal governance or as stabilization, that that closes off other avenues or other ways of thinking about how to build a peaceful society.

JH: A similar amount of the work at IPI has focused on the relationship between the United Nations and the African Union in the peace and security field. But at the same time, peacebuilding has to happen within a particular country, not just at meetings of the General Assembly, the Security Council, or the Peace and Security Council. So, how important, in your judgment, is strengthening the relationship between these international, regional institutions for peacebuilding as against actual activities inside a particular country, whether it be the Congo, DRC or Somalia, or Mali, etc.?

DC: There’s a very good chapter in the book by Gilbert Khadiagala, looking at the AU and NEPAD [New Partnership for Africa's Development], and also the relationship between the AU and the UN and other international donors. But I suppose the question really is, does the AU and subregional organizations, do they have a different vision of peace than international visions of peace, and, for the most part, at least in the formal documents, I would argue not necessarily, that in fact, the AU frameworks also present a very sort of liberal view of peacebuilding.

And that then becomes problematic if we think of peacebuilding in terms of social justice, and also which people within a country. So when we talk about African alternatives or African agencies, who really are we talking about? Are we talking about the AU? Are we talking about national governments? Are we talking about community groups? And who gets to sit at that table, who gets to decide on those priorities? And I think there really is a tension—and this is brought out in the chapter on statebuilding by Dominik Zaum—between local ownership and statebuilding and this desire by internationals to have a sort of a light footprint and then the need for a very heavy footprint if you’re actually trying to really transform society. And I think that’s really a tension that’s very difficult to overcome and very difficult to know what to do about.

JH: Following what you have just said, can you suggest one or two examples where communities’ groups have positively and constructively been involved in positive peacebuilding?

DC: Again, I find it difficult to decide what does it mean to be sort of “positive peacebuilding” versus negative peacebuilding, because there’s always a downside, really, to any kind of initiative. But I think that some of the recent attempts to bring in local groups, for instance in the DRC, in Congo, to start looking at disputes over land as a matter for peacebuilding. I mean, this is something that I think we’re going to hear more about, but that is really important in terms of listening to other types of voices that aren’t usually at the table, especially over issues of land. But it really is a very difficult challenge, because I think this distinction between positive and negative often becomes quite muddied as soon as we get into the details.

JH: Finally, here we are across the street from the United Nations Secretariat, so let me ask you, Devon, what recommendations would you have for the people working at the United Nations to contribute to or strengthen their approach to have more successful outcomes to peacebuilding?

DC: That’s the million dollar question. I suppose it really is about building up processes, better kinds of processes, more inclusive dialogues with different societal groups that tend to be marginalized. That’s different from arguments about local ownership and processes such as the Gacaca process in Rwanda is sometimes presented as this locally grown initiative for justice and reconciliation. But there, too, it’s bound up with relations of power in Rwanda and authoritarian structures of governance, for instance. So I think that in terms of recommendations, how to think about including those voices that tend to be marginalized–so not necessarily the voices of national elites only, in the countries that are emerging from conflict, but also groups within those countries with different sets of interests, ideas, different visions of peace and how to get their voices to be heard.

JH: Well this is a very challenging volume, and we’ve had a brief but, I think, a very thoughtful discussion just now, so let me again congratulate you and the co-editor Mr. Dzinesa and all the authors who have contributed to this volume, thank you very much.

DC: Thank you, very glad to be here, thanks.



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