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Peacebuilding Through Statebuilding? – Analysis


Statebuilding has emerged as a global policy priority and new paradigm for building peace in post-conflict societies. However, the practice of statebuilding is full of dilemmas for which there are no simple solutions. A first step is to realize that state formation is primarily an endogenous process, over which international actors have only limited control.

By David Lanz and Didier Péclard for ISN Insights

Following the verdict of a referendum on self-determination last month, South Sudan looks set to become the world’s youngest independent state come July 2011. The international community, which already has a massive presence in the region, is preparing a series of ‘statebuilding’ programs geared to maintain peace as Africa’s largest county splits in two. South Sudan will thus become a test case for statebuilding, which has emerged as a global policy priority and begs numerous questions: What is statebuilding? How has the concept evolved? Why is it currently en vogue? And what are the dilemmas associated with peacebuilding through statebuilding?

Sudan New Borders
Sudan New Borders

From liberal peacebuilding…

The end of the Cold War freed international organizations of their bipolar constraints and sparked great enthusiasm about (finally) realizing the promise of collective security enshrined in the UN Charter. Thus, the UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed “An Agenda for Peace” as his blueprint for the new era. Boutros-Ghali’s vision included ‘peacebuilding’ in post-conflict contexts, which he defined as “action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict.” A series of operations were thus deployed – to Namibia, Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador and Rwanda among others – with the aim of building peace by overseeing elections, disarming combatants, resettling refugees and spearheading far-reaching political and economic reforms.

The success of these operations was mixed at best. There were some abysmal failures, such as Rwanda and Angola, where the violence that broke out after the peacebuilding operation had been deployed was worse than the initial civil war. In other countries, peacebuilding succeeded in creating relative stability, but the performance of most post-conflict governments was a far cry from the aspirations of ‘liberal peacebuilders’. Critics like Roland Paris attributed this failure to the shock that political and economic liberalization produced in states wholly unprepared for such far-reaching changes. Others maintained that promoting a Western model of democracy is futile in countries that do not have the necessary institutional structure; it took European countries centuries to develop such a framework.

…to statebuilding

The common recommendation resulting from this critique was that more sustainable peacebuilding required an increased emphasis on building political institutions through which the transformation of post-conflict states could be managed. The emergence of statebuilding as the primary tool for peacebuilding was fostered by two developments in world politics post-9/11. One was that ‘failed states’ – alternatively called ‘weak’ or ‘fragile’ states – came to be seen as security threats, providing safe havens for terrorists, and generating unwanted immigration. ‘Fixing states’ through statebuilding has thus become a realpolitik challenge. This was compounded by the US experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the consolidation of the state proved to be far more difficult and costly than the invasions that brought the new regimes to power.

Second, a fragile state has increasingly been framed as an obstacle to development. For example, at last year’s UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), it was often said that no fragile state had managed to achieve even one MDG, and that such countries accounted for 75 percent of the ‘MDG deficit’. In line with Paul Collier’s call to focus aid on the “Bottom Billion”, statebuilding has thus emerged as a remedy for poverty alleviation and economic development in post-conflict societies.

These factors provide the background against which statebuilding has become a global policy priority and as such, “a new paradigm” for building peace in post-conflict societies. Thus, UNDP and the World Bank run a joint program on statebuilding in fragile and post-conflict situations; the US and theUK have declared it a priority, as have major think tanks. The OECD, through its Development Assistance Committee, has been particularly proactive. Its reports have set the standards for international statebuilding policy, encouraging national development agencies to take up the issue.

The trend toward statebuilding is somewhat problematic, because the remedies prescribed are often overly normative and mechanical: fragile states are seen as sick patients in need of treatment, or as problems that can be ‘fixed’ through social and political engineering. The latest OECD reports, however, offer a more complex picture. They go beyond a strictly functionalist approach, according to which the state provides certain public goods – security, public infrastructure, education, health, etc. – and the role of international statebuilders is simply to improve on this delivery. Instead, the reports emphasize the intangible dimensions of the state, such as its legitimacy, as well as the importance of state-society relations. The reports also remind international donors that statebuilding is a deeply political and primarily endogenous process that requires context-specific knowledge and responses – not a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach.

Walking the talk?

It remains to be seen whether the international community is able to ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to statebuilding. Indeed, the practice of statebuilding is riddled with dilemmas. The mantra that ‘statebuilding promotes peace’ cannot conceal the multiple tradeoffs and contradictions between the two objectives. In the interest of peace and stability it can make sense to accommodate ‘spoilers’, for example through a power-sharing agreement, as in Bosnia, but these very actors may also undermine the emergence of an effective state in the long run. Likewise, a heavy international presence may be crucial to maintaining peace in the short run, as in East Timor and Kosovo, but unfortunately this can then lead to donor dependency, and discontent in the host society. Moreover, elections are a necessary step for statebuilding, but they can contribute to re-igniting violent conflict, as recent events in Côte d’Ivoire show.

South Sudan is a case in point for these dilemmas. To strengthen statebuilding, donors should channel funds through the new government in Juba. However, in a country where 85 percent of the population is illiterate, and formal state institutions remain underdeveloped, it is tempting for donors to simply circumvent the state and fund NGOs on the ground instead. Furthermore, statebuilding programs that build the capacity of government agencies inevitably strengthen the party that is currently in power. In the case of South Sudan, this would be the former SPLM rebels. Statebuilding efforts would then be unavoidably bolstering their political leverage, despite the group’s questionable commitment to democracy and allegations of corruption.

South Sudan shows that there is no panacea for dealing with the dilemmas of statebuilding. A first step, however, is to recognize that states are formed in a protracted and often messy process of negotiation, over which international actors have only limited control.


David Lanz is a researcher at the Swiss Peace Foundation, swisspeace, and a PhD candidate at the University of Basel. Dr Didier Péclard is head of the ‘Statehood and Conflict’ program at swisspeace and senior researcher with the NCCR North-South. This article was published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

ISN Security Watch

The ISN is one of the world's leading open access information and knowledge hubs on IR and security issues, based at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

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