Can the Secretary-General and UN Deliver on the Sustaining Peace Agenda?

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addressing the high-level dialogue on "Building Sustainable Peace for All" on January 24, 2017. (UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

In recent weeks, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres released his report on peacebuilding and sustaining peace to the General Assembly. The report focuses on how he and his team plan to implement the peacebuilding and sustaining peace agenda, which aims to put prevention at the heart of the UN’s work. It is difficult not to feel for him given the context in which he aims to achieve his goals. The scale of violent conflict, the numbers of refugees, and global military spending have all reached historic highs in recent years. Indeed, the world is now in the biggest arms race since the end of the Cold War.

The Secretary-General’s report is based on twin resolutions at the General Assembly 70/262 and Security Council 2282 in 2016. These followed the recommendations of two comprehensive reviews of UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding. The ambitious and paradigm-shifting ideas included in these resolutions demonstrate that preventing, ending, and transforming violent conflict requires a deliberate alignment of development, humanitarian, diplomatic, and security interventions. Furthermore, it is made clear that the approach of leaving the active agenda of sustaining peace to those most directly engaged in preventive diplomacy, mediation, and peacebuilding, and for the rest to be more “conflict-sensitive” is insufficient. It re-affirms an international political consensus that building and sustaining peace is a shared and paramount priority, and that it should be an explicit and superordinate goal for all members of the UN family. Each has an essential role to play. No longer should it be possible to say “I am a humanitarian” or “I am a development worker—I don’t do peacebuilding.”

Not only was this new articulation of the peace agenda an explicitly system-wide goal, but it also underscored the importance of its pursuit throughout the whole of non-linear transitions out of violence. It acknowledged the reality of the UN’s limited control, that even its troops and country teams cannot fully determine peaceful outcomes. Success in this environment would require effective partnerships and stronger joint analysis, shared plans, and implementation. Perhaps most importantly, the UN committed to getting out of the assumed driver’s seat that comes with power, and to enable state and civil actors to pursue their own domestically-driven prevention and peacebuilding as “sovereignty-supporting” outsiders.

I was part of an Overseas Development Institute team who were tasked to independently review how the UN and its affiliated “agencies, funds and programmes” could deliver on the General Assembly and Security Council’s commitment. Our team worked over a period of nine months, interviewing hundreds of people in five countries and within UN headquarters following a detailed review of existing research.

The first problem that I saw in my interviews with UN staff in West Africa and Central Asia was that not everyone had read and understood these twin resolutions or the guidance note helpfully issued by the Peacebuilding Support Office. Thus, the first hurdle to UN system-wide change will be to better communicate this still-new vision, and for local staff to have opportunities to discuss and interpret what it will mean for them in practice.

In my view, and as someone who has worked for over 30 years in the peacebuilding sector with civil society organizations, all the changes outlined are essential. But, though war is not a winnable proposition these days for any government or multilateral organization, the question remains: does this plan generate confidence that the UN will now be capable of winning and sustaining peace? Have the secretary-general’s changes to organizational structures been bold enough?

Despite the level of detail in the report, it is not clear how, exactly, UN will operate differently, or what the factors that encourage and support change will be. Nevertheless, the secretary-general sets out an important agenda that includes:

  1. The creation of “additional cross-system models for United Nations joint technical support that pool capacities and funding, resulting in programming that helps to sustain peace.” Learning from past experiences, for example in Nepal, will be central in this regard;
  2. A “funding dashboard for peacebuilding….to track global peacebuilding resources, and promote greater strategic alignment of funding”;
  3. Guidelines on system-wide engagement with civil society for sustaining peace—including initiatives that allow civil society organizations to be direct recipients of UN funding for peacebuilding activities with an agreed percentage of funding to be allocated;
  4. Encouraging Member States to explore innovative means of financing peacebuilding activities, including the voluntary implementation of a tax on the trade in (specific) arms.”

While these new commitments are all essential, they are also insufficient. There are many outstanding challenges that this report does not adequately address, the primary one being that the UN is not passing the test of doing no harm. Peacekeeping, humanitarian, and development assistance are having the unintended consequences of contributing to dependency, exclusion, clientelism, corruption, and self-sustaining systems of violence, as evidenced by eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Another challenge is a shared culture of both excessive self-confidence and a lack of urgency and ambition. There is a sense that UN agencies are often doing all that is possible in their own separate areas and under the circumstances. Engagement with social and political movements—especially marginalized and opposition groups—is also an unaddressed challenge. Relations between the UN and government and incumbent elites too often fail to offer adequate support to those excluded stakeholders who offer constructive contributions to formal and informal political settlements. A connected issue is weak accountability to and communication with conflict-affected populations.

Furthermore, the right funding relationships with donor partners are not in place. Too often there is an “are we there yet” problem. Funding is not adequate, predictable, or sustainable and is not in line with what is known about best practices, i.e., it is not locally-led, long-term, politically risk-taking, or adaptable.

Ultimately, if we are truly going to have a “United Nations system that is better oriented towards prevention, human rights and sustainable development” it is going to have to trust and invest more in people including partner governments, local peacebuilders, and its own staff. The UN system and its agencies have the capabilities and commitment, they are just separated by their silos. The job of UN leadership is to support them in realizing their shared potential, and to align their work around what they all agree is most important: ending and preventing wars.

Andy Carl is a Senior Research Associate in Politics and Governance at the Overseas Development Institute.