Peacebuilding IN Europe?

Riots in Birmingham city centre

In 2001 – a different time and a different world – the EU Gothenburg summit agreed to make the prevention of violent conflict a priority for the EU. Measured by money, it’s now the world’s biggest player in peacebuilding. But look around Europe now and we can ask, should peacebuilding also start to be a priority inside the EU?

The EU's peacebuilding

Since 2001 the European Commission has spent €7.7 billion on conflict prevention and peacebuilding, more than any government or other international organisation and about 10 per cent of its total spending on external aid.

A recent evaluation concluded the money has been well spent overall, albeit with room for improvement – the sort of balanced conclusion you expect from a review like that. The report finds that the EC has undertaken and supported some pretty good work in places as different as the western Balkans, the DRC, Nepal and Central Asia. Not everything works, but nothing has been done that is actually harmful, much that is distinctly beneficial to the common good, and important lessons have been learned.

That was then

The Gothenburg decision was taken at a different time. The Euro and the big enlargement had been decided. Confidence, expansiveness and optimism were in the air. If confidence was shaken by 9/11, the beginning of “the war on terror” and the start of the build-up to invasion of Iraq, nonetheless it was an era of growth and of projecting the EU’s core mission of enlarging the zone of peace to far flung corners of the world.

But in 2007 came the sub-prime crisis in the US and the start of the international credit crunch. In September 2008 Lehman Brothers went down and the world started to be very, very different.

Tragedy and reflection

In fact, for my own organisation, International Alert, things had already started to change. In 2005, the day after London was awarded the Olympic Games of 2012, the city was visited by the worst terrorism it has experienced, far more lethal than anything inflicted in 25 years of war by the Provisional IRA – in four bomb attacks (one on a bus and three on underground trains), 52 people were killed (plus the four bombers) and over 700 severely injured. The city was quiet for the next few days and people worried about whether it was safe to use the bus and tube and go to work. Two weeks later four more bombs were discovered before they detonated.

In that over-heated atmosphere, on the next day, a policeman shot and killed a young Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes. It has since been proven that he had no connection with terror groups of any kind. It has been proven that the police had no basis in fact for following him. They panicked and a young man lost his life. I reflected on this and its implications in a post on the day a permanent memorial was dedicated to his memory.

For me and for colleagues at Alert, this awful incident was very immediate: our office happens to be five minutes’ walk from the station where Menezes was shot. Like many others we reflected on these events and we wondered whether skills we have learned in trying to build peace in Africa, Eurasia and Asia since we started up in 1986 might be useful in Britain. We made contact with groups working on community conflict and cohesion and compared notes. Might what we do in Beirut, Monrovia or Kathmandu have some bearing, some relevance in Bradford, south London or Bristol?

The answer was yes (and we now have a programme of activities in the UK), not because we have a magic technique but because we start with a dispassionate analysis of the context of conflict and use a vision-based approach. We don’t only start with ‘what’s the problem and how do we handle it?’ – but with ‘where do we want to be in x years’ time?

This is now

In the summer of 2011, England had its riots. We look around Europe and we see different sorts of disaffection and action: the anger in the anti-austerity, anti-government riots in Greece, the thin patina that people tell me stands between order and a similarly angry chaos in Ireland, the youth movements in Spain, the simmering anger in Italy. Even in a country self-proclaimed by an opinion survey to be among the two or three happiest in the world* – Denmark’s capital has been scarred by school-burning and gang warfare in the last couple of years. And at the psychotic and extreme end, Breivik’s monstrous massacre on the island of Utoya in July 2011 and the discovery of a series of murders of immigrants by right-wing extremists in Germany.

I am not equating these events. This atmosphere of dissatisfaction and violence does not arise everywhere from the same source, the same social groups or the same politics.

But they are nonetheless connected, not by motive or participants, but by the political and social landscape in which they occur.

It is a landscape where people’s sense of social belonging and engagement in the common good is challenged as never before. It is challenged by economics as job opportunities and the belief in a better future diminish before our eyes. Politics is professionalized and in most countries is ever more distant from growing segments of the population, especially among the poor and among the young. Ordinary people feel they are paying the price for mistakes they did not make while those who had the biggest part in the errors in politics and finance are paying a much smaller price.

Some people direct their anger about the injustices at the political establishment, some at the finance world and some – in their confusion at this diminished sense of belonging – against immigrants. But even when the anger is mis-targeted and even when the accusations are false, the feelings that lie behind are real. And sometimes lethal.

Bringing peacebuilding home

How might a peacebuilding approach look? Standard procedure for working in fragile states – rule number one – is to start with context. Which means starting with questions and an open mind.

This makes it very difficult for politicians to bring a peacebuilding approach to their own home patch. At home, they are supposed to know the answers. That’s what we have politicians for – and then we get to choose which answers we like best. Or who answers best, which is not always the same thing.

A peacebuilding approach would not look necessarily at the numbers involved in each action, even the riots. It is a staple of peacebuilding to acknowledge that in countries with a population of tens of millions, it only takes a few hundred unemployed young men, some leaders ready to act, and access to weapons – and you have a war. The IRA’s active forces probably numbered well below 1,000 throughout three decades of war in and over Northern Ireland.

No, rather than the numbers, it’s the background that counts, the social, political and economic context in which this occurs. And the question is whether that background fosters peaceful relations or not.

Last year the UK government brought out its Building Stability Overseas Strategy to guide its approach to peacebuilding in developing countries. Here is some of its analysis, full of resonance for Europe’s current social and political challenges. I have already drawn on it for clues for its resonance for the English riots. But its clues about what questions to ask are so useful it’s worth repeating them (but hurdle over the bullet points if you remember them) (and also get a life – come on).

  • ‘The stability we are seeking to support … is built on the consent of the population, is resilient and flexible in the face of shocks, and can evolve over time as the context changes…
  • ‘Effective local politics and strong mechanisms which weave people into the fabric of decision-making – such as civil society, the media, the unions, and business associations – also have a crucial role to play.
  • ‘All sections of the population need to feel they are part of the warp and weft of society, including women, young people and different ethnic and religious groups.
  • ‘Jobs, economic opportunity and wealth creation are critical to stability. Lack of economic opportunity is cited by citizens as a cause of conflict, and is often the most significant reason why young people join gangs…
  • ‘Without growth and employment, it is impossible to meet the basic needs of the population, and people’s aspirations for a better life for themselves and their children…
  • ‘While an inclusive and legitimate political system is a requisite for stability, confidence in the future comes when people see that their needs and expectations are being met on the ground.’

On the basis of this kind of analysis, you would look at social inclusion/exclusion and marginalisation; at the degree of hope and confidence in the future – or their opposites; at our political institutions – both national and local; at the condition of the economy and whether economic policies are creating opportunities; and at the space for civil society and for bodies such as business associations and trades unions to represent people, articulate concerns and influence politics.

How peacebuilding at home would look

Peacebuilding looks different from one country to the next. But the golden thread that connects it all, expressed in abstract terms, is mobilising social energy for building peace. We work out what form this will take based on need, opportunity and ability in the country where we’re working: police reform, starting new institutions to promote transparency, cultural peace festivals, women’s forums, joint micro-investment projects involving genocide victims and perpetrators in Rwanda, getting multinationals and community organisations round the table together, communications across the conflict lines, getting conflict-divided communities to cooperate on adaptation to climate change – and much more. Consistently, the theme is people coming together, their energy becoming synergy.

In our atomised societies, bringing people together, asking questions, listening carefully for answers, and shaping common actions: never in the past 60 years has there been such a shortage of this, never has it been more needed.

Growing youth unemployment is causing hurt and anger that a return to economic growth will not be enough to calm. Something else is needed too. It really does seem time to expand the mandate of peacebuilding to include the EU countries themselves.

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* Denmark was ranked top in 2010 in a Gallup poll reported by Forbes in 2010 but more recently may have been shaded out by Norway.