Peacebuilding complexity: blind spots, off-the-shelf solutions and false hope

In his article ‘Building Inclusive Societies in Fragile States’ Seth Kaplan asserts that three tools are necessary for overcoming the creation of an institutional bias working against the interests of the poor in fragile states. Assuming that governments in these states do not work well and that their societies are divided into different identity groups, he states that: 1) creating social cohesion, 2) promoting an inclusive pro-development ideology, and 3) shaping incentives for the ruling elite to support these practices will align the interests of the elites and disenfranchised, and therefore pave the way towards sustainable development.

In the spirit of debate I would argue that Kaplan’s analysis and offered solutions suffer from two blind spots and one over-simplification.

To start with the over-simplification: the ‘tools’ approach offers false hope, is most likely wasteful, and at worst may cause harm and contribute to the very fragility it aims to address. Do we still think it is credible that an external expert can diagnose ‘one problem’ for such a diverse group of countries, here given the common label ‘fragile states’, and then prescribe ‘one solution’, as if all we have to do is to follow a few steps and then things will change for the better in (all) these countries? I thought we had moved beyond this kind of linear or mechanistic problem-solving approach in development and peacebuilding. Should we not by now be much more aware of the need to empower communities and societies to generate their own solutions? Have we not already recognized the need for community-specific and country-specific solutions, rather than one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf solutions designed in donor capitals? Have we not understood by now that for solutions to be sustainable, they must come from within? As I have argued earlier in the Broker, peacebuilding has to be essentially local: it should not be about making decisions on behalf of others, but safeguarding, stimulating, facilitating and creating the space for societies to develop resilient capacities for self-organization.

Then on to the two blind spots: firstly, ‘fragile states’ are not the only countries that have to deal with poverty or elite-manipulation. Today, three-quarters of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries. Inequality is a global problem, and the perversity caused by the difference in wealth of the top earning 1% and the remaining 99% is as severe, if not more so, in middle-income and high-income countries. Presenting poverty as a periphery problem and elites in the developing world as some kind of exotic criminal class, ignores the degree to which we all live in the same highly interconnected and globalized world. The current debate around the post-2015 development agenda, with its focus on poverty and violence (as a global problem), reflects this reality.

My point is that when it comes to peacebuilding, what is uniquely context specific is more important than what one society may have in common with another. The danger with approaching countries and societies in categories such as ‘fragile states’ is that it leads to top down model solutions that undermine local self-organisation. At the same time it is important to understand that no community, society or country is an island in itself. We are all embedded in larger systems and influenced by their dynamics, the Sahel-region being an obvious current example. Each social system is best placed to make their own judgments about what is local and context specific – and what they thus feel they have agency over.  And what the regional and global drivers are that they don’t have agency over, but that they may be able to influence, and at least have to discount.

The second blind spot is the degree to which external factors contribute to poverty and violence: we cannot deal with conflict and fragility as if they are only due to unique causes that are contained within the borders of a specific nation-state. We have to take into account, for instance, that capital flight is solicited and facilitated by the international banking system that is at the core of the global economy. Fragility is also linked to other external factors such as corruption, transnational organized crime and extractive industries. For instance, the destructive affect that Western-owned, financed and insured fishing fleets, that are involved in bribery and corruption in West Africa, have on resource management and law enforcement in these countries?

If the West is genuinely interested in making a difference to global poverty, inequality and fragility, then a significant portion of their effort should be re-focused on controlling the negative side effects of their own economies and citizens. They should ensure that their own laws and markets do not encourage and facilitate exploitation, crime, corruption and capital flight.

These are thus not problems that can be located only on the periphery of the world system: to be tackled through foreign, security and aid policies. They are also caused by perversities at the core, and domestic solutions are needed to deal with criminals and legitimate, but immoral companies and individuals based in the West, or at least banking and spending their illicit gains in the West.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable question is whether we are all not complicit: to what degree is poverty, inequality and fragility avoidable side-effects of the of the global free market economy? For instance, what are we doing about the link between the mobile phone industry and conflict minerals?

This blog post first appeared in The Broker on 18 August 2014, available at:


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