Neoliberal ‘Peace-building’ and the UN – Part 1

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With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, a new form of

“international peace operation emerged as the dominant security activity of the United Nations: missions aimed at helping war-torn countries make the transition from a fragile ceasefire to a stable peace, or what became known as “post-conflict peacebuilding.”[i]

While the UN had undertaken a similar type of intervention in the Congo during the 1960s, it was still a fresh focus area for the organisation and in the first few years, between 1989 and 1993, there were eight peace-building missions established in post-conflict countries, namely: Namibia, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Liberia and Rwanda.

The initial phase of this process saw the preparation of the Agenda for Peace (AP) in 1992, which attempted to articulate a new role for the UN in the evolving global context.

At this early stage,

“peacebuilding was conceived around certain models of electoral and judicial reform, human rights protection and security sector reform, aimed at building democracies in post-war societies as a means to secure peace. Post-conflict peacebuilding would be a fourth pillar alongside preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, and peacekeeping of a comprehensive UN approach to peace and security within as well as between states.[ii]

A high level of uncertainty still remains concerning how the UN might successfully move from engaging in peacekeeping missions to the state-building functions of peace-building and “consolidation”. As the UN is currently structured, there remains a lack of clarity as to where such a mandate might lie. While the Security Council mandate may be

“clearly defined and limited to issues of global security… peacebuilding goes beyond the need to secure the peace. It encompasses interventions that derive from a development mandate, which is the purview of the Economic and Social Council.”[iii]

One modality for ensuring the effective merging of peacekeeping into “peacebuilding and consolidation” would be for the UN to progress “beyond the immediacy of the political requirements for consolidating peace and address the broader dimensions of governance”. This could be accomplished by encompassing

“a robust capacity-building element into its peacebuilding operations in order to help countries emerging from conflict to be invested with good governance and effective public sector management capabilities. This calls for an extensive UN-supported technical assistance programme to plug the skills gaps in key government sectors, as well as a well-focused training programme for public officials.”[iv]

Of course such an approach would beg the question as to what exactly will these governance and public sector management capabilities’ capacity building support mechanisms be comprised of, whom they will be actually delivered by, what will be the composition of such capacity building programs and who will decide which programs should be financed and the priorities of the ‘needs’ and current governance capability ‘gaps’?

The ‘Free Market’ and Development

Two years later in 1994, the Agenda for Development (AD) building on the 1992 AP was drawn up. This document, having noted the reality that the majority of states that were striving to develop economically had to do so against a ‘background of past, present or threatened conflict’ whereas peace was a crucial ‘dimension of development’. Consequently, as pointed out by Ahmed et al, peace-building played an essential role in ensuring that post-conflict countries would have the opportunity and space to set up the “social, political and judicial institutions that could give impetus to development”.[v]

Furthermore, in addition to advocating a “more conflict-sensitive approach to development in war affected countries”, emphasis was also placed on the requirement for peace-building initiatives to pay attention to the “underlying economic, social, cultural and humanitarian causes of conflict”. The Agenda therefore sees peace-building as a process comprised of the

“action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict. As preventive diplomacy aims to prevent the outbreak of a conflict, peace-building starts during the course of a conflict to prevent its recurrence. Only sustained, cooperative work on the underlying economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems can place an achieved peace on a durable foundation. Unless there is reconstruction and development in the aftermath of conflict, there can be little expectation that peace will endure.”

The economic sphere is seen as being of particular importance with Section B of the AD dealing specifically with this sphere. In this respect, the AD is crystal clear that the form of economic development under discussion is strictly that of free market capitalism.

Governments can no longer be assumed to be paramount economic agents. They nevertheless retain the responsibility to provide a regulatory framework for the effective operation of a competitive market system. Governments have to intervene where appropriate: to invest in infrastructure, to facilitate the development of productive sectors, to provide an enabling environment for the promotion of private enterprise, to ensure that proper social safety nets are in place, to invest in human capital and to protect the environment. Governments provide the framework in which individuals can plan their long-term prospects.

In other words, the government in the state receiving peace-building assistance is to be reduced to the role of providing a protective and/or supportive umbrella within which private individuals can engage in economic activity. Governments are not to pick and choose when and where they might intervene in the economic domain; rather they are under an onus to justify any actions they might undertake in this sphere. They are to ensure that both the physical infrastructure and human ‘capital’ required are sufficiently developed so that private enterprise can benefit to the maximum from them. At the same time, these governments are to assume responsibility for the ‘externalities’ provoked by the institution, cultivation and fostering of an absolute free market system.

However, even in this area, the State should only play a supporting role through its policies “encouraging research and development or providing infrastructural and educational support”. Most importantly, the State should not in any circumstance fall into the trap of thinking “that growth takes place through State institutions” as the “State gives an impetus to growth; but it is the economy that needs to grow, not the State itself.”

Moreover, the AD goes on to claim that those states that have experienced rapid development have done so due to their conscious decision to place primary emphasis on growth above other economic and social factors. Such a statement appears to relegate issues such as poverty, redistribution of wealth (however modest) in cases of extreme inequality, social justice and so forth to a secondary role in state-building. This reading is made clear in Section C of the AD on ‘Justice as a Pillar of Society’ that while there should be some “flexibility” in relation to providing government assistance in cases of impoverishment, resulting from economic policies such as structural adjustment and so forth, this should not be an excuse for radically changing one’s pursuit of free market principles. (Id.)

Structural adjustment remains a necessary prescription to remedy serious economic imbalance. But it should also be clear that human needs and priorities must not be neglected, and that adjustment and transformation must have a clear human focus. The laws of economics cannot be changed, but their social consequences can be eased. Flexibility is required. In the face of such challenges, Governments must be encouraged to stay the course, but greater care must also be taken to help Governments address the dire human consequences of such reforms. (my emphasis)

Hence, the laws of economics are apparently seen as taking precedence, given their alleged immutability, over the particular social circumstances within which the peace-building mission operates. It would therefore appear that the promotion and upholding of justice is acceptable as long as it does not significantly interfere with adherence to the permanently binding laws of economics. While not explicitly stated in this section, it is clear from the rest of the document that the laws of economics being referred to here are those promoting free market principles and more generally laissez-faire policies on the part of government.

Free Markets: Solution or Problem?

However, many commentators would argue that the real problem faced by vulnerable states is their subjugation to the dictates of the free market. Bulard, for example writes how this approach leads to the state itself being

“subordinated to the market. The political will and the economic means to “progressively realise” human rights have been decimated by the market, the “economisation” of social policy and the commodification of public goods and services.”[vi]

Many critics hold that the main motive behind the ‘West’s’ willingness to engage in state reconstruction would appear to be more about ensuring that the state concerned is directed, more or less forcefully, into adopting a “a market-based capitalist economic system, twinned with a political regime that is willing to promote and defend free market capitalism”. Given these objectives the criteria for assessing the success or failure of peace-building and reconstruction efforts revolve around the level of success in establishing compliance in the country receiving peace-building support to exogenously established principles for setting in place of a “market economy, good governance and liberal democracy”. Therefore, the problem does not lie in associating

“peace with development, but the association of peace with a particular model of development that generates poverty and inequality. “Economic crisis underpins major social tension and instability, so that social conflict and violence are both, effect as well as cause and effect of economic crisis. Economic crisis is fed by northern governmental insistence on the extension of deregulated market globalization intensifying poverty and social polarization, instability and conflict. Although the language of reconstruction programmes is rife with terms such as “rights,” “good governance,” “sovereignty” and “democracy,” countries undergoing reconstruction do not appear to have the right to break with macroeconomic orthodoxy, challenge imbalances of global power and resource distribution, and chart their own paths towards rebuilding their societies and economies.[vii]

If such an observation is true, it raises serious questions with respect to the manner in which the AD emphasises adherence to the immutable laws of economics above all other considerations and the pursuit of a policy of ‘benevolent autocracy’ to implement western liberal democratic norms in countries subject to state-building measures.

In the second part, we will look at some of the primary characteristics of this ‘neo-imperial’ form of Peace-building.


[i] Paris. R. & Sisk, T. D. (2007) Managing Contradictions: The Inherent Dilemmas of Postwar Statebuilding

[ii] Pearce, J. (2005) ‘The International Community and Peacebuilding’, Development, 48(3)

[iii] Grey-Johnson, C. (2006) Beyond Peacekeeping: The Challenge of Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Peacebuilding in Africa, UN Chronicle

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ahmed, S., Keating, P. & Solinas, U. (2007) ‘Shaping the future of UN peace operations: is there a doctrine in the house?’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 20:1

[vi] Bulard, N. (2005) The United Nations and Social Movements. Focus on the Global South.

[vii] Guttal, S. (2005) ‘Reconstruction: A Glimpse into an Emerging Paradigm‘, Silent War

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