Dr. Sukanya Podder

Several rounds of peace negotiations between the main protagonists – Riek Machar and Salva Kiir – have not yet brought an end to the violence that is tearing the social fabric of South Sudan apart. The cycle of events shows how the many can suffer at the hands of the few. At the same time, the Afghan technocrat-cum-warlord government of President Ghani and CEO Abdullah attempts to increase security and prosperity while also maintaining networks of customary authority, patronage and grand corruption – rendering the war of attrition against the Taliban un-winnable. It shows how the forces of modernity and traditional rule compete and mesh in the cauldron of conflict. Many conflict-affected and fragile settings feature shades of grey of these examples. Negotiating peace in complex wars in Syria, Libya or Yemen on the one hand, and efforts to rationalise ‘hybrid’ governance arrangements in Somalia, the DRC, and Lebanon all offer contemporary illustrations of the challenges involved. What these cases share despite their numerous differences, is that international actors increasingly analyse their domestic power balance through the concept of a ‘political settlement’.

A political settlement is shorthand for the set of (in)formal representation, control and distribution rules between national political elites that guide governance and resource allocation in a particular country. These elite groups negotiate the extent to which they can pursue their interests on the basis of their relative power and skill within the boundaries of what their constituencies tolerate. The settlement that is the outcome of these negotiations is argued to influence the type of institutions that can exist and the nature of their performance. For example, an informal parameter of Iraq’s political settlement is that, whatever their differences, its main Shi’a parties unite when it matters to retain their dominance over the central Iraqi state.

The focus on politics and power that the concept of political settlement brings to the analysis of developmental problems is a welcome analytical tool for development and humanitarian policy makers. It is especially relevant in fragile or conflict-affected societies where lower levels of social capital reduce the ability of the population to contest elite preferences and where violence is reinforced by social norms that facilitate its contagion. Nevertheless, a more critical analytical perspective on the application of the concept of political settlements is warranted for several reasons. Key among those is that its use is likely to perpetuate existing ‘arrangements to rule’ between the selected few. This can reinforce structural conflict drivers that mostly benefit those with guns, funds or status and entrench inequalities that are difficult to remedy.

From this perspective, the establishment of a Peace- and Statebuilding Goal (PSG) entitled ‘achieving legitimate politics through fostering inclusive political settlements and conflict resolution’ by the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, strengthens the conception that the procedural aspects of legitimacy can be furthered through elections that in turns progress democracy. In practice, international statebuilding’s focus on elections as a viable pathway out of conflict tends to legitimise the status quo. This perpetuates the dominance of powerful elites that were often at the root of the conflict. For example, in Afghanistan as the competition between elite networks over the state has shaped the very nature of politics in Afghanistan since 2001. Elections in 2009 and more recently, have failed to overcome the logics of ethno-regional solidarity and patronage relations in Afghanistan. Unlike previous political settlements such as the the Riwalpindi Accord 1989; the Peshawar Accord 1992; and the Macca Accord 1993, the logic of the externally driven 2001 Bonn agreement was largely socially and politically constructed by external powers.

According to Heathershaw and Sharan (2011), the 2009 presidential election marked the negotiation and re-negotiation of these societal logics. It was a forum for conflict and compromise between two opposing elite networks – namely the oppositional former Northern Alliance (NA) Jihadis, in particular the Panjesheri in Shura-yi Nezar, the military wing of the Jamiat Tanzim, represented by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, and the incumbent President Karzai network, represented by the post-Bonn Western-educated technocratic elites who were brought in from the diaspora.

The former elite network emerged during the Jihad years, in particular 1992-2001, while the latter emerged with the outcome of the political settlement at the Bonn Conference in 2001. Both networks represent politically constructed ethno-regional factions which have been resourced by decades of intervention and interference by Western, Soviet and regional powers. The 2009 presidential election was a last attempt by the former network, the Jamiat Tanzim (predominantly ethnically Tajik), to regain its political dominance of 2001-4.

However, these two political networks are fluid as they have been reinforced, renewed, and reproduced in the post-Bonn statebuilding process and regime formation. Most of the Northern Alliance elites, especially those not belonging to the Jamiat Tanzim, have been effectively co-opted to the dominant network through bargains and exchange.

Elite bargaining within a loose and evolving political settlement remains a key source of instability as evidenced by the 2014 electoral compromise. The government of national unity has been far from smooth sailing, with the two leaders disagreeing on a number of issues. Meanwhile, the Taliban have gained strength, and President Ghani has not succeeded in convincing them to come to the negotiating table.

The consequence of the idea that elections can significantly influence the composition and dynamics of a political settlement is that elections as events tend to sanction the status quo that effectively perpetuate the dominance of powerful elites that were often at the root of the conflict. The fact that these elites are elected after the event is of course convenient for international actors as it relieves them from the much more complex task of engaging with hybrid governance structures. While it confers greater legitimacy on their support for the central state and provides them with a convenient exit strategy. It also overlooks ‘hidden’ social capacities and tends to underemphasise alternative political pathways to developmental change.

Image: Salva Kiir Mayardit, President of the Government of Southern Sudan that speaks to news reporters outside the Security Council chamber at United Nations Headquarters in New York, United States of America. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Youth in peace building and the legacy of interventions

Dr Sukanya Podder

This post is based on Dr Podder’s article ‘The power in-between: youth’s subaltern agency and the post-conflict everyday‘ and book titled Youth in Conflict and Peacebuilding: Mobilization, Reintegration and Reconciliation. The latter connects with issues of youth agency and transformative capacity in post-conflict environments.

Over the past three decades we have seen the development of ever more sophisticated peace-support interventions by international organisations, bilateral donors and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). From Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia in the early post-Cold War years to the latest interventions in South Sudan and Libya, we have seen enormous energies and resources poured into peacebuilding. Given the huge resources invested over such a long time period, it is worth asking: what is the long-term legacy of these peacebuilding interventions, and how do we go about attempting to capture this legacy?

By peacebuilding legacy I mean the long-term impact of peacebuilding interventions. This takes us beyond project and programme monitoring and evaluation to instead develop methodologies that can assess the cumulative impact of peacebuilding interventions and their relationships with associated processes such as statebuilding and development. The nub of the problem is how to dis-aggregate and ‘measure’ the outcome (not immediate output) of peacebuilding interventions. This primarily involves assessing the extent to which peacebuilding staved off conflict recidivism, and also the extent to which it contributed to linked processes of inter-group civility, civil society development, smooth political transitions, and conflict-ameliorating forms of governance. These are long-term processes that are likely to outlast any peacebuilding programme or project. Moreover, it is difficult to identify – with precision – the factors that support or interrupt any peacebuilding objective. As a result, we need to develop research tools that can help us judge peacebuilding interventions over the longer-term.

The questions are particularly pertinent given the long-term nature of violent conflict, and how successive generations engage in conflict. It is also pertinent because the current suite of conflict analysis, and monitoring and evaluation, tools while well-suited to ‘snapshot research’, is less well-equipped to examine longer-term change. Although some longitudinal survey research has been in operation for many years in Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine, these are the exceptions. In most other conflict-affected locations, we are unsure of the longer-term impact of ameliorative interventions. Often, and for understandable reasons, attention is focused on exit strategies, quick impact projects, and passing responsibility to local actors. International attention rarely has the luxury of being able to look back, yet there is a widespread consensus that peacebuilding is, by necessity, a long-term endeavor.

In order to capture the temporal aspect of change, my new research project on ‘Programming for change: Peacebuilding legacies and Young People’s Attitudes to Peace in Sierra Leone and Macedonia’ funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust (2016-2018), looks at factors that break as well as perpetuate conflict across generations. It will engage with the change agents that matter in a particular context, and the organizational legacies that help us understand these dimensions from an ‘intervention’ perspective.

Two youth programmes run by the international NGO ‘Search for Common Ground’ (SFCG) in Macedonia and Sierra Leone will be considered. Both programmes have run for over a decade and enable us to study the longer-term effects. The Macedonia programme focuses on the inter-group dynamics of peacebuilding, while the Sierra Leone programme allows an exploration of shifts in inter-generational attitudes about the role of youth as peace builders. Both cases have regular follow up and consultations with programme participants, which makes access to research subjects’ possible. These cases help us to study two key issues in relation to youth and peacebuilding, education, and the role of media, namely radio. Further, they present geographic diversity, and enable observation of different types of conflicts and peacebuilding experiences. Both cases received a lot of attention in terms of peace building resources, and are now stable transitions. As a result the peacebuilding ‘industry’ has moved on to other more urgent hotspots, leaving historical aspects that enable a study on peace building legacies.

While trends from periodic evaluations by SFCG suggest a positive correlation between positive peacebuilding and young people’s capacity as change agents, the aim here is to, (1) capture the modes of transmission of peacebuilding norms and values between the two cases; (2) examine young people’s shifting beliefs and attitudes about peace over time as a result of programme participation, (3) analyse the mechanisms of peacebuilding across inter-group and inter-generational levels and (4) determine the broader effects and cumulative peacebuilding beyond project based monitoring and evaluation.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.