Democracy and Peacebuilding

I will be humbled this week. Not humiliated. Just shown how little I know about something I should know a lot about.

A colleague will be in DC to interview me and others for a project a leading British funder with ties to the British government has asked him to do on best practices for restoring democratic legitimacy in countries emerging from war, including places like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the like.

I’m writing this post to prepare myself so that I don’t waste his time. The ideas in it will also find their way into the peace and conflict studies textbook I’m finishing.  As a result, this post will be a bit longer than usual.

Like my interlocutor, I have come to stress the importance of local peacebuilding as part of any effort to build democracy or anything else. So, I used the opportunity of being interviewed to think about how we could answer his unanswerable question.

Meanwhile, I was reading William MacAskill’s, Doing Good Better (whose ideas can be distilled from his website and TED talk as well as from my quick overview) when I sat down to write this post. He doesn’t deal with peacebuilding much in the book, but some of his ideas that go beyond our venerated “do no harm” can be transferred to peacebuilding work. His is a long term perspective that looks deep into the past and well into the future. More importantly, he seeks to measure our impact in terms like public health’s QALY which measures improvement in what it calls Quality Adjusted Life Years.

This is not the place to delve into that or any other indicator, none of which are perfect. Rather thing about shifting away from not doing harm to promoting values and actions that improved say some future measure of QADY (Quality Adjusted Democratic Years) or QAPY (Quality Adjusted Peace Years).

From what I know from thirty years as a peacebuilder and fifty years studying comparative politics, I end up with eight themes I will want to raise in that interview (and work into the book).

The first four conclusions build on each other and lead to the more important final three.

  1. There are no magic wands for building democracy of anything else after the kinds of conflicts I was asked to think about.
  2. Democratization will take time. Researchers like MacAskill or the late Hans Rosling demonstrate that it took a long time before improvements were made in living conditions and so on. Then, there often was an inflection or tipping point somewhere a long time into that time period at which the rate of improvement took off. But not always. Why should it be any different for building democracy or peace?
  3. Don’t think in either/or terms which may well be a variant on magic-wand-thinking. Too many policy makers and the indicators they rely on ask if a country is democratic (or peaceful) or not. Such questions never make sense if you are looking at problems for which progress can be slow. In this case don’t think of democratic v. not democratic, but in terms of the extent to which democracy or peace has been reached.
  4. If you want to build peace or democracy, assume that whatever you build won’t look much like anything that exists today. In the fifty years that I’ve studied comparative politics, we have yet to escape the assumption that a developed or democratic or peaceful country will have to resemble the ones that exist today. We’ve made progress in countering those prejudices, but not enough. Besides, we’ve learned enough about the problems facing the U.S. or the U.K. today, that I’m not sure anyone would be happy if Libya looked the United States a few generations from now.
  5. Fifth—and this is the most important of my conclusions—any democratization or peacebuilding program has to be led by people on the ground if it is going to survive, let alone thrive. They have a lot better sense of what will work for QADY or QAPY at least in the short run. We in the Global North have to put our egos and interests and understand that we don’t have the answers and are actually less likely to have them than people who have lived through the violence. We do have things to add, but we have to temper our enthusiasm and anything that looks at all like a savior mentality. We probably have to act more like good camp counselors who mentor their campers and help them reach their own goals than behave like a typical university lecturer or policy pundit who tells people what they should think or do.
  6. Although every intervention will be context specific (in real English, they will all be different because their circumstances are different), it helps to start by focusing on what Chip and Dan Heath call the bright spots or the outlying cases that seem to be working no matter how miserable the conditions. Thus, my email this morning contained a story about a Syrian couple who started a falafel stand in a refugee camp. Their success won’t immediately translate into peacebuilding or democracy, per se, but you could start building from there. Or, put in terms of what I was writing about this morning for my book: if you want to succeed, you have to address the social, economic, and political problems that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. You have to build a culture of peace and democracy, but that only happens if  you address those wicked problems along the way.
  7. Seventh, assume you will encounter setbacks as well as make progress and the whole process will be agonizing. In the design thinking world, the idea of iteration, experimentation, and learning the mistakes is all the rage. Indeed, people love to point out that James Dyson made 5,127 prototypes of his eponymous vacuum cleaner before it finally worked. Ethically, we can’t try even one percent of that number of prototypes and have that number of failures. Still, we have to assume that not everything will work.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.


About the Author:

Chip Hauss is Senior Fellow for Innovation and Board Member Emeritus at the Alliance for Peacbuilding.