What are the big trends on conflict and fragility? Some great presentations at DFID

I spent a seriously interesting couple of days this week in a rainswept Brighton, attending DFID’s annual get together of its 200 (approx) governance and conflict advisers. Definitely worth a couple of posts – I’ll give some general impressions tomorrow, but want to start with a fascinating panel on conflict and fragility.

First up was David Harland, an ex diplomat with a wry sense of humour whose organization, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, describes itself as a ‘private diplomacy organization’. David said that included handling ‘confidential first contact between governments and rebel/terrorist groups’. V James Bond.

In his 15 minutes, he made some powerful points:

There was a liberal consensus from 1990-2010, summed up in the World Development Report 2011. This argued that enough stability, resources and time would be sufficient to achieve security in most situations. Sending in peacekeepers became the default international response to violence in poor countries. If things didn’t go well, that was because even the best performers take 20 years to sort themselves out. ‘On our individual career trajectories that’s a Mexico v Afghanistanvery happy message’.

There was a clear point of inflexion 1990 on conflict and democracy (see graph, below). Residual conflict is the biggest human security challenge: it is the largest driver of poverty, globally networked (drugs, balloon effects between countries – as an example, look at how many more people have died in drug-related mayhem on the Mexican border, than in Afghanistan, yet we ‘barely have a word to describe’ what is going on there). It is increasingly criminalised, very hard to escape, and impossible to predict (our record is ‘crap’).

But that consensus in now in crisis: there has been an uptick since 2010 in conflict (see slide), but also in autocracy. Is this a blip or another point of inflexion? Interventions have gone bad in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Libya. ‘My whole life story has been a falling out of love with intervention’ (he started in Bosnia). This has led to a growing perception of the ‘futility of force: it is not at all clear that we make things better by going in’.

battlefield deathsOn the retreat from universal norms for example on the desirability of electoral democracy, China provides an ‘active counternarrative’. This has encouraged a reversion to illiberalism in Egypt and elsewhere.

So what can be salvaged? Some elements of a rather more modest/realistic approach:

Inclusion not intervention/imposition. Problems start when it is ‘our project’. Chances of success are much greater when a peace process is locally owned, e.g. the Mindanao process in the Philippines may be messy, but it is inclusive – all the local players feel it is theirs; ditto Kenya, whereas South Sudan contains high levels of external imposition.

‘Good enough states’ such as Rwanda or Fiji, especially given the decline in Western leverage.

Containment – are there places (Eastern Congo, Haiti) where we admit we can’t do more than ‘provide a bed for the night’ to those affected. Otherwise, strategies should be aimed at preventing contagion to neighbouring states.

Brilliant, and here’s his powerpoint (David Harland DFID Presentation). Next up was Mary Kaldor. For her, the real question is what you do after the conflict subsides – ‘peace-building and state-building’ (PBSB) in DFID-speak (they had a 40 page list of acronyms on the intranet when I worked there in 2004, bet it’s got longer since then). ‘Nearly all conflict countries continue to be plagued by violence (social as well as political), despite all the aid dollars. What are we doing wrong?’

For Mary, the problem starts with confusing ‘violence’ and ‘conflict’: peaceful societies evolve a range of mechanisms for dealing with conflicts that aim to resolve problems. We mistakenly tend to see armed conflict as the continuation of such politics by other means (shades of Clausewitz). In fact violence closes down conflict, by framing all disputes as ‘us v them’, making it much harder to resolve those little everyday conflicts and thus solve problems.

Mary thinks that instead, we should see violence as more like a ‘mutual enterprise’, where armed groups have much to gain (politically, or financially) from continuing to fight, rather than from actually winning. Violence constructs sectarian differences, separating out the ‘us’ and ‘them’, which provides the basis for elites to get and retain power + various rents. ‘Violence provides a cover for a predatory political economy, a new set of power relations.’

If we think about bouts of armed violence as a societal condition or mutual enterprise, what are the implications for our action?

Expect no clear beginnings and endings. The imaginary world of conflict resolution plans for phases (prevention, reconciliation, peace making, peace keeping, peace building, exit). Actually those phases don’t really exist.

ONUB: Demobilization of Burundian MilitaryPeace agreements are premised on the idea of conflict as a contest, in which two sides have legitimate grievances that can be solved through talks. But if it’s a mutual enterprise, the only reason armed groups will agree is if it entrenches their power and predation, as in Bosnia.

So we need agreements, but have to think about them differently. She agreed with David on inclusiveness, but also suggested strengthening zones where conflicts don’t exist, supporting local ceasefires, and involving non-violent actors with a stake in peace. Peace Agreements between armed groups need to lose their stature – they are just one element in a broader process, not the Treaty of Versailles.

What can foreign governments do to help? On the economic side, give attention to creating jobs as much as preventing violence. On the political, help bring in ‘the middle people’ who care about the public interest – teachers, doctors, lawyers.

Great stuff. Tomorrow, some general thoughts on tribal rivalries between econs and poliscis, and the alarming absence of rights from the way DFID thinks about governance.

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6 Responses to “What are the big trends on conflict and fragility? Some great presentations at DFID”
  1. Charlotte Heath

    Hi Duncan

    Great stuff! As an ex DFID Social Development Adviser your blog keeps me in touch with many of the development debates that I think are important ones. Todays is exceptionally relevant. Surely Obama is a good example of inclusion rather than intervention – yet his electorate seem to want a real ‘leader’ so his efforts have been framed as showing ‘weak’ leadership. Maybe on our side we should also be asking ourselves what sort of leaders we want – what are the qualities of leadership that we most cherish and want to promote? What sort of people do we like or want to be?

  2. Andrea Johnson


    In your next post, could you give a sense of the composition of the “200 (approx) governance and conflict advisers” who attended, and spoke at, the meeting? Always curious as to balance of advisers from conflict/fragile zones and those from without, along with gender and other important characteristics.

  3. Marc DuBois

    Interesting summary. For those who want more on the views raised by Kaldor, pick up a copy of David Keen’s excellent “Useful Enemies”.

    It seems almost unnecessary to make the point, but looking at conflict through the lens of “mutual enterprise” has consequences beyond peacekeeping and conflict resolution. I’m thinking about aid, in particular humanitarian aid. Aid entering a conflict zone where a status quo of violence against civilians is in the mutual interest of both “sides” plays a different role than aid entering conflict which is viewed as more of a football match with violence. We need to do a better job of understanding humanitarian programs in a place like Eastern DRC as forming an integral part, a pillar of sorts, of what is a brutal status quo. An old Do No Harm idea, but to execute it well one must start with an effective conceptualization of the conflict.

  4. Sam Gardner

    I don’t see anything new in any of these presentations. It seems like we are just running in circles. I just had a look back on the OCDE guidelines of fragility, and was astounded to find that their recipes against fragility would be good ideas to apply in the west too. Apparently we don’t move past the generic.

    What can foreign governments do? What should they do. First do no harm. Harm to the weak.

    When looking back, I see mostly flurries of unguided activism, more informed by the will to do something by politicians than the will to stop actual insecurity of the population. These actions can yield success in the sense of power shifts at the top, but rarely at the bottom. Big schemes to bring genocidarians together in a governments of national unity INSTEAD of protecting the population from them. I don’t advocate going in, just stopping to tread warlords as described by Mary.

    In this regard the stubbornness to support with all means the Government of Rwanda and Uganda while they were actively pursuing crimes against humanity in DRC is copybook.