Holding It Together

Ending conflict demands more than knowing why countries go to pieces -- it calls for knowing why they don't.

SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images
SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images

The glimmer of hope that South Sudan’s warring parties might restart their peace process faltered this past weekend, as the armed opposition announced that it planned to boycott in protest of the process used to select representatives from a broad collection of parties, including religious and civil society leaders, that were invited to the table. Given the violence that has engulfed much of South Sudan in recent months, claiming the lives of well over 10,000 people and displacing some 1.3 million, this stumble only reinforced the bleak forecast for the country’s struggle for peace.

Yet several of South Sudan’s 10 states have remained mostly unaffected by the upheaval. One state in particular, Western Equatoria, also weathered Sudan’s brutal, two-decade civil war — which lasted from 1983 to 2005 — better than other parts of the country. This raises the question: What makes Western Equatoria more peaceful than South Sudan’s other states? The answer could involve the state’s ethnic composition or geographic isolation, but it could also involve how it has been governed, the strength of its traditional authorities and local justice mechanisms, or its lack of dependence on the capital, Juba, and its resources. Any of those explanatory factors would suggest new approaches for confronting South Sudan’s broader instability.

The question of what makes Western Equatoria different isn’t necessarily one that people working to resolve the conflict are going to study — but they should. And this points to a broader problem: Lawyers spend plenty of time studying the law, soldiers do the same with war. Why don’t the policymakers and practitioners looking to end the world’s deadliest wars spend more time studying peace?

Many people in the loosely defined peacebuilding field — which includes individuals working with international NGOs, local civil society organizations, and international organizations such as the United Nations, as well as diplomats (and myself) — devote much of their time and resources to understanding sources of violence, without making nearly as much effort to understand why certain places and people resist violence, despite circumstances that may be expected to provoke conflict. In fact, there is more to learn about what makes peace work from places that are actually peaceful, than from those engulfed by violence.

Peace isn’t just the absence of conflict, but the presence of positive factors that prevent people and groups from resorting to violence. Those factors vary based on context, but there are common themes in peaceful societies, such as the presence of important norms, values, and institutions. Yet the peacebuilding field devotes a surprisingly modest amount of analytical — and financial — resources to understanding peaceful places. As a result, many in the field have a good understanding of what they are trying to help societies move away from, but less understanding of what they are trying to help them move toward.

For example, when a rebellion overtook large parts of northern Mali in 2012 and successive coups by the disgruntled military rocked the capital of Bamako, policymakers and commentators  looked to other strife-torn countries for clues on how to respond effectively. The African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia was considered as a possible model. Or perhaps, the thinking went, lessons from previously volatile countries in the region — Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone — could be applied.

Largely overlooked, however, was the country right next door: Niger. Even though Niger grapples with many of the same sources of potential instability as Mali, it has not yet suffered the state of collapse that has derailed its neighbor. One explanation could be how Niger has worked to integrate its ethnic Tuareg population into government and society. By contrast, Tuaregs in Mali have been marginalized, fueling resentment and driving some to join rebel groups.

In short, Mali has something to learn from Niger’s stability — and what lies behind it — as do other states in the volatile Sahel region.

This dynamic stretches across the globe: Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have many similarities in geography, population, resources, and religious divides, yet Ghana maintains impressive stability, while Cote d’Ivoire imploded in the last decade. Why? Tanzania is surrounded by volatile neighbors, but stays relatively calm. What explains that? Beyond Africa, Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island, but have traveled sharply divergent paths. In the Middle East, meanwhile, Jordan remains relatively stable, while many of its neighbors are convulsed by conflict.

If peacebuilders could better understand why some countries are more stable than others, and why they are able to absorb shocks and navigate potentially contentious processes — such as elections — without breaking down, they could identify elements of societies that help them persevere. This could add to the conflict-prevention strategies available to the policymakers and others, and also lead to more precise forecasting of violent conflict.

So why do the building blocks of peace get so little attention? Part of the problem is that there is little incentive to study peace. The day-to-day excitement and drama of conflict zones is attractive, and conflict-focused donors rarely fund analyses of peaceful places. Think tanks and policy institutes are not often inclined to support such work either — and good luck getting the media to pay attention. There may be more focus on the ingredients of peace in academia, but the stubborn divide between academics and practitioners persists, and those making difficult policy decisions or implementing programs rarely consume relevant work done in the Ivory Tower.

All of this must be overcome. Peacebuilders need to rethink the balance between studying violence and peace. And in the midst of conflict, the questions of why violence is present and why peace is absent must both be asked.

This requires thinkers and practitioners to focus more on the components of peace. Donors, both public and private, should provide consistent funding for analyses of places and people who are not in conflict (avoiding the usual spikes in funding when conflicts erupt), and groups pursuing conflict prevention need to make a stronger case for why they should fund such projects. Peacebuilding organizations need to recalibrate how they prioritize their research and learning agendas, so that they are not just reacting to the latest crisis, but constantly learning from the peaceful places not in the news. The lessons they absorb should then be readily accessible to policymakers for use in crisis management, when time and bandwidth are limited.

Between the shocking violence in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, continuing turmoil in Syria and recent 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, there have been many rhetorical commitments to ending and preventing violent conflict. Policymakers often lament, however, that all they have to choose from are bad options, and that the tools at their disposal do not fit the problems at hand. But a closer examination of peaceful places may help to expand those options and tools, change the frame of reference, and stimulate new thinking. To fulfill the mission of helping countries pull themselves out of seemingly endless conflicts, it isn’t enough to understand what makes them fall apart — we have understand what makes them strong.

Jon Temin is the director of the Africa program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Jon Temin is the director of Africa programs at Freedom House. From 2014 to 2017 he served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State. Twitter: @JonTemin

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