Friday, July 3, 2015

Is the UN keeping up with the most recent approaches to building peace? Reflections of a loyal practitioner.

My reflections on the question of whether the UN really stays at the cutting edge of peacebuilding theory and practice come from a deep commitment to and appreciation for the UN, who needs to be commended for taking major strides in improving its effectiveness and efficiency.

These reflections are not comprehensive. In fact, they are quite narrow and were inspired by reading  the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review of the United Nations (QPCR) and the Open Working Group proposal for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) together with the White Paper on Peacebuilding (WPP),  Major Recent Trends in Violent Conflict and the Guidance for Effective Mediation.

There is concern amongst my peers in the peacebuilding field that the UN needs to move closer to the "thriving field of practice and underused capabilities" that the WPP points to. There is a real danger that while the UN recognises the fundamental principle of national ownership it actually achieves the opposite—the disempowerment of local and professional capabilities—and that it is less effective than it should be. 

Let me explain this in more detail.

Despite its best efforts, the UN is often compromised as a result of poor implementation because it seems to (maybe unconsciously?) neglect the notion that peace should be built by those who are affected by it—not by high level diplomats and mediators alone. The focus should always be on whether those who are affected by conflict are better able to build peace themselves as a result of our efforts. 

The UN, however, is not the only casualty.  Regional organisations and INGOs are also struggling to make the shift from good theory to solid implementation:  
"Over the last 20 years, peacebuilding practice has grown in extent and professionalism. Much of this practice involves the use of dialogue, trust-building, and consensus-seeking processes to resolve or manage conflict through non-violent means. However, despite the growth in experience, peacebuilding practice is often poorly implemented." (WPP)
One of the reasons for the poor implementation, the WPP says, maybe an institutional one: 

"...there is a lack of confidence in institutions that prepare for and address risks to peace. The background papers illustrate that the practice of many UN institutions has become increasingly driven by institutional incentives. This trend … highlights that the incentive to maintain and fund a specific institution, mandate, department or position has tended to trump the purpose of said institution or department. This incentive has made institutions less agile to adapt to changing contexts and has fortified professional silos around different concepts. In some contexts, this has also led to a gap between institutional practices and local needs for peacebuilding support.”

If the UN wants to remain relevant in terms of being an effective peacebuilding institution, it needs to shift its institutional approaches and practices closer to the wisdom emerging from the peacebuilding field of practice. It has to take its stated commitment to national ownership much more seriously. It simply has to listen better. That is the essence of process wisdom.

I am hearing from several UN staffers and civil society peacebuilders on the ground that their best advice is often ignored at the higher level of the UN, e.g. by special envoys or high level mediators.  The ideas and proposals of local peacebuilders seem to weigh far less than the position papers of analysts, diplomats or mediators. Insider mediators, professional and local peacebuilders on the ground—although being in the best position to understand and influence the context—often find themselves excluded from the tables where deals are negotiated. And too often are the agendas and proposals for solutions suggested by outsiders who have in interest in either the conflict or in getting credit for possible agreements.

Like fish that don't know any other environment than the water they swim in, high level mediators and negotiators often cannot recognise realities that are different from their own. They find it hard to narrow the gap between the current “high level efforts by eminent envoys” and the inclusion of wisdom from the ground, as White Paper on Peacebuilding and Major Recent Trends in Violent Conflict documents suggest. If locals complain that they find it hard to access high level mediators and that when they succeed in meeting them, they are given little time. They get the impression that  Geneva or New York's agenda is more important than their own.

In my view the UN too often seeks to take ownership of the responsibility to solve the problem (e.g. the Annan plan, the Brahimi plan, the De Mistura plan, etc.) without there being any substantial evidence that local actors are sufficiently empowered to take the lead. (An exception to this was when Kofi Annan worked very closely with civil society in Kenya to end the political violence in 2008.)  If the UN gets stuck in a paradigm of high-level—what used to be known as Track I—style peacebuilding, which is showing up as not very applicable and effective in most socio-political settings, the focus will always be on the profile of the mediator or the prominence of the "UN plan". 

Franzisca Zanker, in Mediation Arguments points out that 

"current research suggests that mediation processes are more likely to achieve durable peace if they are inclusive because they are then likely to enjoy the support of the entire population. One way to ensure this public support is to include civil society groups, either directly at the negotiation table or indirectly in supportive roles."

It is important to note that the walls between Track I, II and III have crumbled. It is now possible for civil society — traditionally regarded as Track II or III — to actively participate in national and international peace mediation and dialogue efforts. The recent MILF-Government of the Philippines peace process is a case in point.  

Before I conclude with a few recommendations, let share some key observations about the two UN documents:

Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review of the United Nations (QPCR)
  1. The QPCR is spot on in terms of its emphasis on strengthening national ownership and capacities (see paragraph 64, 95, and 102 for example). Keeping this as the key operational and strategic focus of the UN is very, very important. We definitely see signs that this message is beginning to filter through, but I often wonder whether the realization of its importance translates sufficiently into practice at HQ level. 
  2. The call for greater inter-agency collaboration (par. 102, 106, 107, 152 and 158) is also a good sign. The problem, in my view, lies in the fact that agencies still talk about “comparative advantage” and not enough about “collaborative advantage”. UN agencies often compete for the same funding for similar and duplicate projects and programmes and then elbow each other to fly their own flag to claim credit for results.
  3. In contrast and in a welcome development, we are seeing major improvements in how the UN responds to conflict in countries where Peace and Development Advisers (PDAs) are deployed by the Joint Programme (Department of Political Affairs [DPA] and the UNDP's Buro for Policy and Programme Support [BPPS].  The PDA focuses the attention of the UN county team (UNCT) on the peacebuilding challenges: the prevention of and constructive response to destructive conflict. PDAs are highly skilled professionals whose task it is to unite the UNCT in its understanding of how the conflict system works (therefore you need systemic analysis done by in-house professionals in collaboration with locals); a vision of how it can be different (i.e. the ultimate purpose of our interventions); commitment to help shift capacities, skills, mindsets and relationships in order to achieve the change; solid theory and practice that underpin the design and implementation of processes to make the change happen (e.g. cutting edge analysis, facilitation, dialogue and mediation processes); and, very importantly, ongoing facilitation and accompaniment of local efforts to build peace. The so-called "Montreux RC retreats" and the recent Independent Review of Peace and Development Advisors and the Joint UNDP/DPA Programme on Building National Capacities for Conflict Prevention confirm the value of having the PDAs develop a more coherent, focused support for the RC in responding to conflict.
  4. From where I sit it is a pity that the QPCR, almost without exception, situates peacebuilding in the context of “transition from relief to development” and “disasters”. While it is true that conflicts are often a symptom or outcome of disasters and that relief and development are key elements of our response to conflict, the two are not always connected. Some of the most disastrous conflicts happen in resource rich countries where powerful multi-national corporations and weak governments collude to exploit the environment and people’s opportunities. One needs to separate out violence  and then spell out its causes and effects if we were to examine strategies to deal with it.
  5. There is, in my view, far too little attention paid to the UN’s role to prevent conflict through using joint systemic analysis, dialogue, mediation and facilitation — which, in almost all the literature, are mentioned as key approaches to addressing the root causes of conflict. For example, “mediation” and “dialogue” are not mentioned once; “prevention” is used paragraphs 94 and 106 and 109 but always in the context of disasters and relief. As I’ve said in the previous paragraph, it’s a pity that the prevention of violent conflict does not get more explicit attention. A natural link for me would have been the connection between national ownership and capacities to local mechanisms for peacebuilding through strengthening “insider mediators”. (In Ghana, e.g., local insider mediators, with the help of PDAs helped to establish the National Peace Council, which now has a national mandate to help the country resolve disputes.
  6. The call for more efficient and flexible funding mechanisms (par 96) is something that is long overdue. Evidence suggests that donors now prefer to fund “hard development” over what they call “soft approaches” such as dialogue and mediation. I find it ludicrous to refer to dialogue and relationship building as “soft approaches”. It is much harder to sit down to talk to the enemy until you reach mutual understanding than to reward nations with development contracts if they stand up to terrorism and extremism. 

Open Working Group proposal for Sustainable Development Goals

  1. The Open Working Group proposal for Sustainable Development Goals is very rich and promising. I realise that it has to be general and it’s therefore not too specific on the how. The danger is that the enthusiasm about the noble goals may prevent us from realising how much hard work it takes to put these goals into practice through conflict sensitive approaches, and that is where I think the document can be stronger.
  2. I do find it strange, once again, that dialogue, mediation, facilitation and negotiation are not mentioned once in the entire document. Rule of Law (RoL), on the other hand, is mentioned three times. It speaks to the conceptual framework underpinning the working group’s view on the foundation of peacebuilding. Rule of Law, of course, is very, very important. But in my view, RoL is not an end goal and access to justice is not the only avenue to build peace. The end goal should be to promote a more human and dignified world where people can develop and prosper in a peaceful, just, equitable society. In short, as par. 15 says "…(those practices that are) incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person (should be) combated and eliminated”.  In order to do that, relationships (geo-politically, regionally, intra-state, and intergroup) have to shift; humiliation of states and their leaders has to stop; fear has to be eliminated; and hope and dignity need to be created and promoted. (Dominique Mo├»si: The Geopolitics of Emotion. Also The Clash of Emotions in  Foreign Affairs, January/February 2007). No institution or government can significantly create this change without building, having and sustaining local mechanisms and approaches that are based on dialogue, mediation and facilitation.
  3. Conflict is driven by tangible and intangible key driving factors. The UN must not fall into the trap of viewing the tangible factors (poverty, access to justice, infrastructure, etc) as more important as the intangible factors (such as fear, anger, woundedness, humiliation, societal imbalances). The latter will not disappear simply because there is now “development” or "aid". Having mechanisms to vent, debate, dialogue, and heal together as as important as having access to better roads and health care. That is the responsibility of responsible governments. And it deserves the attention and support of the UN.
  4. The document is completely silent on the issue of power: its use and abuse.  It does not mention power anywhere, except in the context of empowerment. Yet, if we continue to accept the dominant paradigm of power as something that is linked to money, status, history, military might and geographical location, nothing will change. The current deficiencies in how the UN Security Council operates is a case in point. The concept of servant-leadership is virtually non-existent in the field of politics. At national level, what will be the goals and incentives for governments that have been abusing their power for decades?
  5. I find Goal 10 on Inequality quite powerful and in line with one of the most important key drivers of conflict. 10.2 quite rightly says: “By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.”  10.1-7 are clear, but I don’t understand why 10 a-c only focuses on the economic dimension of inequality. The social and political inequality is often the most potent fuel for conflict and deserves mentioning.   
In essence, my plea is for the UN to make bold shifts its institutional habits and practice by 
  • integrating and operationalising the 8 fundamental principles of mediation in all the UN led- or supported initiatives; 
  • recognising that peacebuilding is about people building their own peace and not about the profile, status or plan of the facilitator/mediator; 
  • actively reversing the current perceptions that the UN does not listen to the people on the ground;
  • exploring alternatives to the outdated high-level carrot-and-stick dominated mediation styles;
  • including and working more in support of insider mediators, local peacebuilders and local stakeholders;
  • prioritising building joint systemic analysis, dialogue, mediation and facilitation capacities at local, national and regional levels; 
  • raising the profile of the DPA Mediation Support Unit in the UN by investing much more human and financial resources into the Unit and by making it mandatory in DPA to include MSU at all levels during the initiation, design, support, implementation and monitoring phases of mediation efforts; and
  • giving maximum support and collaboration to RCs and their Peace and Development Advisors.

1 comment:

Barbara Orlandini said...

Thanks for this insightful reflections Chris. They sound extremely familiar for someone like me who has worked for over 10 years in UN coordination at the country level and for a few of them as a de facto PDA…I couldn’t agree more on the importance of UN “collaborative” advantage vs the “comparative” one, way too often agencies are still caught up in competition for funds, space, and branding. I can’t say things have not improved in the past decade, they certainly did, but there so much more that can and should be done for the UN to reinforce its relevance, especially in this post-2015 framework. I am glad you see positive inputs coming from the QCPR, although the link between peace and development is still blurred in the minds of many working on ‘improving people’s lives’ on the ground. The political dimension of everything which is done in the name of development is often disregarded, if acknowledged at all, by UN development practitioners. It is time we overcome the fictitious divide between development/humanitarian response/conflict prevention/peacebuilding and consider all these dimensions as interlinked, as they often are in many contexts. And yes, you are certainly right that the intangible factors underpinning conflict are often neglected as we are too used to tackle the tangible ones…that’s what we are trained to approach and is ‘less political’ (and hence ‘dangerous’) to challenge. By doing so not only we miss the target, we end up perpetuating misconceptions and ultimately exacerbating conflict drivers, rather than mitigating them.