Why peacebuilding fails and what we can do about it

UN Photo JC McIlwaineAccording to a recent UN report, violent conflicts have almost tripled in the past eight years and are drawing unprecedented levels of international engagement. In light of the unfolding events in Syria, Burundi, and many other conflict-afflicted countries, it is of utmost importance that we think about what makes peacebuilding interventions work and how we can avoid counterproductive or ineffective practices. And it is particularly relevant for Canada today in light of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to re-engage in UN peace operations.

In a previous blog post, we highlighted research demonstrating that UN peacekeeping missions, on balance, have a good track record.  But we know all too well that if peacebuilding fails, the costs can be tremendous. Numerous post-conflict countries have relapsed into war despite peacebuilding efforts, sometimes even after a prolonged pause, and sometimes with even greater levels of violence. Many in the humanitarian assistance, peacebuilding, and international development community are thus looking for success stories—and for good reason.

While it is mostly agreed that in order to be more effective, peacebuilding interventions require more financial, logistical, and human resources, there is a growing consensus that local ownership is a key element of success. External interveners, especially UN personnel, are well aware of this. Nonetheless, far too often they have a tendency to live in a bubble, where they interact mostly with other expatriates and lack contact with host populations, which directly works against local ownership.

This, at least, is the argument put forward by Séverine Autesserre, researcher and associate professor at Columbia University, after conducting several years of ethnographic research in conflict zones around the world. According to her, many of the practices, habits, and narratives that shape peacebuilders’ efforts on the ground are, in fact, counterproductive. To put it bluntly, they live lives that are largely separated from the populations they are trying to help.

Everyday routines of most international peacebuilders on the ground involve socializing primarily with other expatriates, gathering information on violence mainly from elites and foreign sources, and living in fortified compounds. [This] disconnect between peacebuilders and the communities they’re trying to help can simply make them unable to see the violence they’re trying to stop. (Autesserre, Foreign Policy, 6 October 2015)

So, when looking at why some peacebuilding interventions fail, we might want to start with an examination of our own behaviours as outside interveners. This, in conjunction with the implementation of other best practices (see for example the UN recommendations), can only make peacebuilding more effective.

Interested in learning more about Autesserre’s findings and ideas? Attend the public lecture in the amphitheater of Saint Paul University, Ottawa, on February 4th at 7:30 pm. The author will present her book Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention.

To read more on the effectiveness of peacekeeping, see Roland Paris, “Peacekeeping works better than you may think,” Centre for International Policy Studies, 2 August 2014.


Image credit: UN Photos/JC McIlwaine

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9 Responses to “Why peacebuilding fails and what we can do about it”

  1. Another PersonJanuary 21, 2016 at 8:17 am #

    Canada Joe, I was just curious about what they thought.

    • Canada JoeJanuary 21, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

      They don’t. Lol

  2. Howard A. DoughtyJanuary 20, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    “Another person” is quite right in saying that “peacekeeping” isn’t the only mission that the Canadian Armed Forces will have to do.

    In Canada, they have major tasks in store such as providing relief in cases of natural catastrophes from ice storms in Quebec and Ontario to floods in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. As well, there are the matters of search and rescue in adjacent oceans and in the Arctic. There are also certain duties with respect to protecting our shorelines and being prepared to intercept smuggling and human trafficking.

    What we need most of all, however, is a workable defence policy. The new government secured its electoral victory (with less than 40% of the vote) by means of slogans and image control. Mr. Trudeau certainly has a more attractive personity than Mr. Harper and, at least during the campaign, hinted at foreign policy commitments that were more in line with what we are pleased to call “Canadian values.”

    Such puff and bluster, however, has a rather short shelf life in politics, and the Liberal administration must now provide specific goals and objectives to fill in the copious blanks in its “happy days” agenda.

    Until that is done, comments, suggestions and even criticisms are pretty much beside the point. Mr. Trudeau must therefore be held to account, and must be pressured into supplying the Canadian public with a set of foreign policy particulars, a rationale for each one and a clear idea of the costs involved.

    The emerging pattern of dithering and dissembling will do do, nor will the apparent “flip-flops” on everything from the actual role and purpose of Canadian aircraft and troops in Iraq, the cringe-worthy performance of Mr. Dion seeking to finesse the $15 billion military equipment deal with Saudi Arabia and the general tendency to try to “have it both ways” as a powdermonkey loyal to US/NATO military adverturism and also as a rational voice for peace and a diplomatic solutions to seemingly intractable problems for which, by the way, “we” (the West in general) are largely culpable.

    • Another PersonJanuary 20, 2016 at 11:24 am #

      I have a question. What is your ideal vision for the Canadian Armed

      • Another PersonJanuary 20, 2016 at 11:27 am #

        Sorry, I sent it by accident…
        Forces? I mean in terms of spending, missions, equipment, etc. Just curious.

        • Another PersonJanuary 20, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

          Anyone can answer my question. I’m just curious.

          • Canada JoeJanuary 21, 2016 at 1:52 am #

            You don’t seriously expect a well thought out answer do you?

            Basically all you will get is military bad, Zionists, Yankees and chemtrails. There done.

  3. Another PersonJanuary 19, 2016 at 9:39 am #

    I’ll admit that this is great, but you can’t assume that it’ll be the only mission the Canadian Armed Forces will have to do.

    • Another PersonJanuary 20, 2016 at 8:57 am #

      Or the most dangerous.