Overlooking the Faults of Peacebuilding

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2009 Volume 30 Issue 3

In the course of a few weeks several summary or reflective articles on the meaning, value, and effectiveness of peacebuilding crossed over my electronic transept. Coincidence? Maybe. It was all quite dispiriting at first. A trip to Istanbul in early July put matters into perspective.

A journey too far

Since the end of the Cold War something called “peacebuilding” has gained increasing salience in international relations circles.

Foreign ministries, academics, and civil society practitioners have taken up the charge. A range of institutions have emerged to study this new policy frontier, producing in-the-field, evidenced-based this and theoretical-comparative that. Early warning and conflict prevention, more deployments of UN Special Representatives and Department of Peacekeeping Operations, track two diplomacy, mediation, conciliation, security sector reform, and governance strengthening and innovation—each and every topic is making careers for a rising slew of writers.

Despite this more welcoming rhetorical cover for those working for peace, Simon Fisher and Lada Zimina (2009) ask if we are “just wasting our time.” Their work started as an open letter to sympathizers, trying to pose “provocative thoughts for peacebuilders” and soliciting responses that helped the letter grow into an article. Despite the clear drop in the number of armed conflicts over the past decade (Project Ploughshares 2009; World Bank and Human Security Report Project 2008), Fisher and Zimina despair that “militarised views of the world still dominate” and peace practitioners “remain weak and implicitly focused on a relatively narrow approach to peace” (p. 11). They ask if the peacebuilding community is “stunted,” lacking vision for the bigger picture (or “peace writ large”) and stuck in “essentially ‘technical’ peacebuilding, focused on project-bound locations and time-scales and trusting that the bigger picture will look after itself” (p. 13).

With a cooler, less passionate approach, Jenna Slotin and Vanessa Wyeth (2009, p. 1), rapporteurs for the 2008 International Peace Institute’s (IPI) New York Seminar, address the shortcomings of the “international community’s toolbox” for improving “international responses to armed conflict.” The seminar participants identify a world of “policy circles” that have failed to recognize “that all conflicts are fundamentally rooted in political dynamics.” The institutional weakness, which corresponds to policy recognition failure, stems from the “lack of a coherent and strategic approach by international actors in any given conflict or postconflict situation.” Is it any wonder that with a “lack of strategic planning capacity,” “confused accountability and authority structures,” “fundamental conceptual dilemmas,” and “contradictions in means and ends” we have the current confused result? The short version of the seminar list of solutions starts with the words “improve,” “address,” “rebuild,” “harmonize,” and “strengthen.”

Laurent Goetschel and Tobias Hagmann (2009, pp. 56-57) continued the parade of unsolicited peacebuilding overviews by sticking a rhetorical needle in the current peace balloon in “Civilian peacebuilding: peace by bureaucratic means?” Some congratulations may be in order because “peace has forcefully entered contemporary discourses and practices of policy-makers, bureaucrats and development planners.” However, the authors claim that the process of peacebuilding has been made reliant on “technocratic and prescriptive interpretations of peace,” follows “a number of vaguely stated assumptions about how peace can be achieved,” and “privileges a top-down variant of liberal peace to the detriment of societal visions of peace, justice and co-existence.”

After they “problematise the normative underpinnings and ethical dilemmas of the current ‘peacebuilding bandwagon’” (Goetschel & Hagmann 2009, p. 57) and take a few other steps, I think Goetschel and Hagmann are zeroing in on the same territory as Fisher and Zimina. It’s hard to say. They are primarily looking at the bottom-up approach of NGOs to peacebuilding, which I have generally viewed as a good thing, at least until reading these articles.

The final paper of my unplanned odyssey into the peacebuilding discourse has roots a little closer to home. The International Development Research Centre (IDRC), in cooperation with the Peacebuilding Support Office and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, also had a seminar that focused on the UN system, called “Bringing Research Perspectives to Inform the UN’s Peacebuilding Work” (Fischer 2008).

I learned that the “body of knowledge” amassed since the 1990s on peacebuilding has “two serious shortcomings. First, the literature on peacebuilding is dominated by Northern and Western views. Second, deep divides characterize the theory, policy and practice of peacebuilding” (Fischer 2008, p. 1). The inevitable key recommendations in the final report (required for the seminar’s funders, to be sure) left me breathless: build capacity, clarify, focus, sequence correctly, put in place public information strategies, do not create unachievable objectives, learn how to affect incentive structures, and “improve expectations management” (Fischer 2008, p. 2).
It’s always nice to know you are part of a larger movement, but honestly, has it come to this? Improve expectations management?

Running back to Istanbul

So, what’s Istanbul got to do with it?

The opportunity blew in on the wind, or rather a general invitation arrived by email from Peacebuild (formerly the Canadian Peacebuilding Coordinating Committee) to attend a workshop in Istanbul, Turkey, July 9-11, 2009 on “Enhancing Engagement between Civil Society Organizations and (Sub)Regional Inter-governmental Organizations.” It was organized by the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), an international network of peacebuilding organizations, in cooperation with the Initiative for Conflict Prevention through Quiet Diplomacy and the Folke Bernadotte Academy. I could barely contain my recently acquired anxiety about the potential deployment of inadequate conceptual frameworks and privileged points of access, but I had never been to Istanbul and the topic looked interesting. I was chosen to go.

The purpose of the workshop was to explore how civil society organizations (CSOs) could work with regional and subregional intergovernmental organizations on conflict prevention. It was facilitated by Canadian John Packer, now at the University of Essex and Coordinator of the Initiative on Conflict Prevention through Quiet Diplomacy. His colleagues from previous work with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Sally Holt and Zdenka Machnyikova, also made presentations.

Seventeen participants represented members of the GPPAC community from Europe, the Middle East, Canada, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In introducing themselves participants named over 25 intergovernmental organizations to which they relate or that are relevant in their various regions. There was some discussion on the nature of these organizations. Are they regional organizations as defined by Chapter VIII of the UN Charter? Are all intergovernmental organizations relevant to this discussion on conflict prevention or only some? It turns out that all are fair game because they may in fact be key actors in violence prevention in a given situation.

Many of the intergovernmental organizations were characterized as being closed to CSO interaction. Why? One possible reason is that recent postcolonial states can be very jealous of their sovereignty—on their own soil or in intergovernmental arenas where they are members—and don’t see the need for the involvement of CSOs. By all appearances, some of these organizations are ineffective in most of their endeavors, not just in building security within and among their members.

Packer emphasized “quiet diplomacy” as a mode or technique of engagement, rather than “diplomacy” formally practised by recognized representatives of states. Intervention via quiet diplomacy is particularly apt at key points in the conflict cycle to prevent an outbreak of violence. While structural prevention that addresses the deeply rooted economic or social causes of conflict needs to be considered, such circumstances exist in too many places. How can limited attention and resources be focused on prevention when 50 or more states are considered fragile, failed, or failing? (The Fund for Peace 2009).

The focus is on operational prevention when the proximate causes of violence—the sparks leading to the actual wild fires of violence—are visible. It’s a timing question. The international community—acting through the UN or regional intergovernmental organizations—often will not respond until the forces of violence are clearly visible. Quiet diplomacy techniques are less useful later in the conflict cycle when violence has broken out or the international community is employing some type of military intervention to stop the violence. The post-conflict period, which requires reconciliation, rehabilitation, and restitution in the violence-affected society, is another prime time for CSO quiet diplomacy.

It was also pointed out that establishing connections to regional intergovernmental organizations is better done ahead of a crisis rather than in the middle of it. Negotiating access to the processes while trying to convey positions and alternatives in the midst of an operational crisis is less likely to be successful. GPPAC is trying to focus its work on these practical points of maximum CSO relevance and effectiveness in the conflict cycle.

Practical examples of interventions that worked and did not came from workshop participants around the table. Andrés Serbin from CRIES (Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales), a Latin American and Caribbean network of academics and CSOs working on conflict prevention, systematically described interventions in the Americas. There are many types of regional and subregional intergovernmental organizations, the oldest and best established being the Organization of American States (OAS). The exclusion of Cuba from the OAS in 1962, the current UN-mandated operation in Haiti primarily by member countries of the OAS, and the recent military coup in Honduras served as examples of openings and challenges for CSOs to play an active part in conflict prevention through the OAS.

Creating a new path to a peaceful future

Because the final Istanbul workshop report hasn’t come out yet, I can’t poke fun at its terminology, as I have done with the articles that put me in the dumps about peacebuilding. Let’s just say that we CSO peacebuilding practitioners aren’t immune from terminological hyperbole and obfuscation. We can reasonably expect phrases like “shared interests,” “comparative advantages,” “complementarities and synergy,” and “efficiency and leverage” to show up. “Strategic partnerships” and “entry points” will figure prominently. Knowing “mandates, activities, and capacities” of those you hope to influence will play a role. “Knowledge transfer” was mumbled at some point.

But I can say with calm assurance that not once were the words “improve expectations management” used at this GPPAC workshop.
More typical of our CSO discussions and less visible in the peacebuilding overview articles cited earlier are terms such as “civilian monitoring” and “incorporating local knowledge of specific dynamics into ongoing conflict analysis.” Talk of “creating spaces for political dialogue” in intergovernmental organizations and in conflict zones may be an antidote to the “depoliticization of violent conflict” so disparaged in reviews of technocratic peacebuilding adjusted to results-based management (RBM) and log frame funding requirements.

The workshop got me talking—from my Northern and Western perspective—with peacebuilders from the Philippines, Tajikistan, and Zambia about whether my job was to build the capacity of Southern partners to work with intergovernmental organizations in their own regions1 or to start working with the OAS to prevent and resolve violence in my own part of the world.

Alas, Northern and Western perspectives still dominated the GPPAC workshop, even with the diverse participation. And I came home to confront the piles of unfinished peacebuilding project proposals to be submitted to funders who need those RBM and log frames filled out precisely.

The peacebuilding critics have struck nerves. The Istanbul workshop gave some hope, however, that by sharing practical experience and wrestling with the road blocks encountered in different parts of the world, peacebuilding will remain a worthy pursuit.

Of course there also is the fact that the number and intensity of armed conflicts have dramatically decreased over the past decade. Coincidence? Maybe.



  1. See Siebert 2009.


Fischer, Martin. 2008. The Peacebuilding Roundtable: Bringing Research Perspectives to Inform the UN’s Peacebuilding Work. Final report of a two-day event initiated by the International Development Research Centre, the Peacebuilding Support Office, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ottawa, December 10-11, 2008.

Fisher, Simon & Lada Zimina. 2009. Just wasting our time? Provocative thoughts for peacebuilders. Peacebuilding at a Crossroads: Dilemmas and Paths for Another Generation. Berghof Handbook No. 7.

Fund for Peace, The. 2009. The Failed States Index 2009.

Goetschel, Laurent & Tobias Hagmann. 2009. Civilian peacebuilding: peace by bureaucratic means? Conflict Security & Development 9:1, pp. 55-73.

Project Ploughshares. 2009. The Armed Conflicts Report 2008.

Siebert, John. 2009. Human security. Setting the agenda for the Horn of Africa. The Ploughshares Monitor 30:2 (Summer), pp. 19-21.

Slotin, Jenna & Vanessa Wyeth (rapporteurs). 2009. Improving International Responses to Armed Conflict. International Peace Institute.

World Bank and Human Security Report Project. 2008. miniAtlas of Human Security.

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