The Book Club: Give peace a (better) chance

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How can we use our knowledge of what works and what doesn’t to make peacebuilding efforts more effective. In the latest in our popular Book Club series, Richard Caplan explains the key lessons from his important new work, Measuring Peace: Principles, Practices and Politics.

Each year multilateral organizations, donor governments, and non-governmental organizations expend billions of dollars and deploy tens of thousands of personnel in support of efforts to build peace in countries emerging from violent conflict—the vast majority of which are on the African continent. The United Nations alone at the end of 2019 had more than 85,000 uniformed personnel in the field and is slated to spend some $6.5 billion on peacekeeping operations in the current financial year.

Yet how effective are these and other efforts to establish a stable peace? On average 40 percent of countries emerging from civil war are likely to revert to violent conflict within a decade of the cessation of hostilities. Many of these countries have been recipients of extensive post-conflict recovery assistance on the part of the international community.

Peace may fail for a variety of reasons but many efforts to build peace have been hampered in one important respect: by the lack of effective means of assessing progress towards the achievement of a consolidated peace. As a consequence, peacebuilders are often navigating without a compass.

Organizations and governments routinely monitor and evaluate the programmes that they support in countries emerging from violent conflict but rarely, if ever, do they conduct broad, strategic assessments to ascertain the quality of the peace that they are helping to build and the extent to which the peace they are building is a stable peace. As a result, when the peace is shattered, it can come as a surprise to peacebuilders.

Conflict dynamics are often complex—indeed, too complex sometimes to be able to determine whether the peace that has been established in any given case is a stable peace. However, as I show in my new book, Measuring Peace: Principles, Practices, and Politics, it is possible to assess the quality of a peace, and the vulnerability of that peace to conflict relapse, with higher levels of confidence.

Good practice

There are numerous ways for peacebuilding actors to strengthen their capacity to monitor progress towards achieving a consolidated peace. Better assessment, in turn, can inform peacebuilding actors in the reconfiguration and reprioritization of their operations in cases where conditions on the ground have either deteriorated or improved. In other words, more rigorous assessments of the quality of the peace can facilitate more effective external engagement.

Benchmarking is one way to take the measure of peace. Benchmarking is a form of evaluation that uses specified standards, the attainment of which is thought to contribute to the realization of an operation’s broad objectives, including the consolidation of peace. For instance, the reduction and elimination of militia threats or the inclusion of minority groups in political institutions may be benchmarks for the establishment of a secure environment. Benchmarking has been used to good effect by the United Nations in Sierra Leone, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other conflict-affected states.

Early warning indicators are another way to assess the robustness of peace. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has developed early warning indicators for use in all of its field operations, allowing for a more systematic and structured approach to the identification of potential conflicts and crisis situations. The OSCE Secretary General has raised concerns about ‘worrying developments’ arising from this analysis on numerous occasions, helping to pre-empt the outbreak of violent conflict in the OSCE region.

There’s plenty of good practice around, as I discuss in my book. The problem is that these are often isolated efforts. The practices are neither diffused across the organization; nor are they known outside the organization.

An ‘ethnographic approach’

In all cases it is important to be sensitive to the particularities and peculiarities of the given conflict. What is needed is an ‘ethnographic approach’—an approach that favours greater reliance on knowledge of local culture, local history, and especially, the specific dynamics at work in a given conflict, including at the micro level. What we often see instead is reliance on pre-conceived models or templates that are often either maladapted or plainly ill-suited to local conditions. The attraction of these templates for practitioners is that they serve to compensate for contextual knowledge that is lacking and, moreover, allow peacebuilding organisations subject to time pressures to respond quickly and deliver results. The lack of contextual knowledge is the chief obstacle to assessing progress towards achieving a consolidated peace.

Better assessments of the quality of peace are not a panacea for conflict recurrence. However, to the extent that sound analysis can inform policy choices, more rigorous assessments of the robustness of peace have the potential to make a substantial contribution to the prevention of conflict recurrence. As multilateral organizations, donor governments, and non-governmental organizations reassess the nature of their engagement in any given conflict-affected country, they would benefit from greater effort to ascertain the quality of the peace that they have helped to build and its capacity to withstand the pressures to undermine it.


Richard Caplan, Professor of International Relations, University of Oxford.

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