How peace gets stronger in society

I am writing an International Alert report about how peacebuilding can be more routinely and effectively integrated into economic development, for publication in mid-year. In other words, going beyond conflict-sensitive business practice, to promote peace-conducive economic policy and economic activities. I plan to publish a few blog posts over the next few weeks related to this, and am particularly interested in feedback, challenge, ideas and examples for the report. In this post, I summarise five ‘lessons learned’ that seem particularly relevant to this subject.

Some of Alert’s learning about how change happens in fragile societies can be captured in terms of five broad lessons of relevance to anyone seeking to embed peacebuilding within economic development:

  • change is indirect, multi-dimensional and incremental;
  • sustainable significant change often implies changes in the political economy;
  • many important changes happen from the particular to the general, rather thanvice versa;
  • the importance of opportunities and opportunism…; and
  • …of leadership and agency.

1. Change is indirect, multi-dimensional and incremental

Important changes happen indirectly, making it hard to plan long-term processes of change with confidence. To add to the complexity, the implications of actions in one area or sector spill over readily into others; and of course not only is progress non-linear, but is also liable to checks and reverses.

For example, the enactment of a land reform law intended to open land access to wider sections of society leads to violent local responses on the part of landowners against those newly entitled to land, or their co-option of political leaders into a land-owning cabal to neutralise the new law. This turn increases the rate of urbanisation, which supports industrialisation, but also the prevalence of gang-dominated political economies in new urban areas. This in turn favours improved citizen-engagement by newly-urban populations wanting to reduce levels of violence, and so in the longer run contributes to improved governance, the re-capture of the monopoly of violence by an increasingly accountable state, and increased stability and prosperity.

This game of development snakes and ladders makes planning hard. But it also shows that change is incremental, and that one can recognise specific and simpler steps forward within larger, complex causal networks. These, at least, can be planned and implemented.

2. Sustainable significant change often implies changes in the political economy

For significant changes to be sustainable within society (at whatever scale), tends to require actual changes in the way power is held and resources are allocated, and thus in the spheres of institutions, values, interests and incentives.

Changes to governance systems in Mali through the decentralisation project of the 1990s are now seen not to have increased accountability and responsiveness as intended, because budgets were not genuinely decentralised institutionally; the locus of local decisions over important local resources such as land was never really moved to the new system, hence there was no interest or incentive for local power holders to take account of it; and thus the value of democratic accountability and responsiveness was neither felt nor embraced (indeed, was probably undermined). On the other hand, the economic incentives provided to the elite in parts of eastern Europe linked to accession to the EU, provided genuine incentives to adopt changed economic practices and institutions that later became open to others, in what remains a work in progress.

However, trying to ‘change the political economy’ directly is probably a fool’s errand – or at least a mission reserved for risk-taking political leaders seizing rare historic moments of opportunity. Political economies do change, but they usually evolve rather than undergo major disruptions, because of the power of incumbency, or because new incumbents exploit the system that ‘works’, rather than trying to change it. When the features of the political economy do change, it is as a response to changed circumstances that require adaptations to incentives, interests, values and institutions in order for the powerful to retain and use their power. Thus theories of change in the political economy need to identify the changes in circumstances that may lead to these adaptations.

3. Many important changes happen from the particular to the general, rather than vice versa

Despite the grand language of political science, and the tendency among some politicians, economic developers and peacebuilders to define their ambitions in terms writ large, important changes often happen at first on a relatively narrow or granular scale, and are later generalised. It is well documented that communities demanding more control of their affairs, or civil society demanding a voice, can be a more sustainable mechanism for systemic political change, than a top-down ‘decentralisation’ process or the formal recognition of the role of NGOs. Work on a specific economic sector or sub-sector – or even a particular project in a particular locality – if promoted in a way conducive to peace, can have knock-on impacts on other sectors through systemic change.

4. The importance of opportunities and opportunism…

Moments occur that are propitious for change, and these are opportunities for progress, provided they are seized and good leadership is engaged. The risks of conflict associated with the arrival of a large mining or oil project in a fragile context, for example, are well-known, and can be illustrated with many examples: the experience of conflict linked to oil production in Nigeria’s Delta over many years is probably the best known.

On the other hand, the arrival of a large mining or other economic project, with multiple stakeholders and potential winners and losers, can also serve as an opportunity to demonstrate good governance, since the project itself needs such a high degree of participatory governance, to succeed. By engaging multiple stakeholders and respecting their interests, those leading such a project can create an experience of participation and win-win compromise that may be relatively rare in the context, and improved relationships among citizens and between citizen, state and economic actors that can be built upon for other governance purposes.

Likewise, new technologies, the end of a period of violent conflict or reconstruction after a natural disaster represent opportunities to use or test new approaches. It has been suggested that the response to the Pacific tsumani disaster in 2004 contributed positive progress for peace in the long-running civil war in Aceh, but the opposite in Sri Lanka, because of different approaches and different circumstances. Likewise the unexpected death of a political figure can provide opportunities; or a change in external circumstances. Changes in drugs policy in Europe or the US could have a significant impact on the political economy, incomes, access to land, and other factors in drug producing nations affected by conflict.

5. …and of leadership and agency

Finally, and despite the preceding paragraph, leadership and agency are also essential in determining when changes happen, and the nature of those changes; and can be critical in harnessing opportunities to progressive ends.

This might be done by politicians and government, as in the case of structural changes to the rural economy underway in Rwanda, designed to promote economic growth and long-term stability; by businesses, as in the development of roads and the fair allocation of jobs by investors; by civil society activists promoting local livelihoods, education, etc.; or by international agencies operating within the country in question; or by international actions with cross-border impacts, such as the implementation of anti-money laundering measures or moves to legalise drugs. Despite concerns about ‘doing-no-harm’, and the complexities and limits of cause-and-effect models, the role of progressive agency remains critical, at whatever level or scope.


Much of the foregoing appears to render ‘theories of change’ very limiting and limited as ways to think about progress, unless they are either very short term and project-based, or contain multiple possible scenarios of cause-and-effect, and remain under regular review. Despite the best intentions of Karl Marx, the whig historians, and Francis Fukuyama with his End of history, there is no room for a teleological perspective in either economic development nor peacebuilding: both peace and economic development require a combination of circumstance and agency.

One final point here: despite what I have said above, people want the changes they want, and as soon as possible. So one of the important elements for promoters of peace-conducive economic development to bear in mind is the need to seek short-term changes that are reasonably progressive in delivering sufficient dividends to new beneficiaries, and seem like incremental steps in the right direction, while maintaining a sufficient flow of benefits to incumbents and enabling further change to occur, as in the following diagram.