Should the UK (or other aid donors) ‘hold its nose’ and support an unjust end to civil wars?

September 5, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Anna Chernova, Oxfam’s Senior Humanitarian Policy Adviser

There was some jubilation recently in South Sudan and amongst war-weary diasporas when the two leaders of the factions who have been driving the brutal conflict signed the Khartoum Agreement, which commits parties to a permanent ceasefire and lays the foundation for a peace deal currently expected to be signed later this month. Despite efforts from many, including the UK Government, to include a wider diversity of voices in the process, regional players pushed for an agreement so that at least the extreme violence may stop. This was the archetypal ‘elite bargain’ between two belligerents. However, I am sceptical about how sustainable the peace will be, especially when the whole country is still awash with arms, and so many key groups were excluded from the process.

That scepticism also applies to recent changes in UK foreign policy. Earlier this year, the UK Government published a review of their work on Elite Bargains and Political Deals. The extensive study concludes that making peace without placating the elite is likely to fail. Policymakers echoed the message – we need to embrace the politics of conflict, and to prioritize politics over stabilisation and technocratic state-building.  Conflicts rarely – if ever – have military solutions.

Speaking about the Study’s conclusions at Chatham House, the Minister for the Middle East and for International Development, Alistair Burt, admitted that “There will be times when we have to hold our nose and support dialogue with those who oppose our values, or who may have committed war crimes.”

Surely this isn’t new. The British Government has a long history of supporting unsavoury groups and individuals (including some governments). It would be hard to argue that bilateral relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia are centred on rights and democracy, rather than politico-economic interests of elites and UK national security.

With Brexit looming, the UK looks to be re-defining its role in the world. Are we being prepared for a British foreign policy 2.0, where (British) stability and security come at the expense of rights in conflict affected countries? I’m sure it’s tempting to go for the short-term satisfaction of making a deal with the (often unsavoury, and nearly always) guys at the top. That may reduce immediate, large-scale violence, but often reinforces inequalities and authoritarianism in the long run – and in the end that leads to more fragility and conflict, as whole groups (particularly women and girls) are systematically excluded in these undemocratic contexts, stoking the fires of resentment and unrest.

Development is about power, and its progressive redistribution from the haves to the have-nots. As the UN grapples with the New Ways of Working, and works with the World Bank on the Nexus between conflict and development in search of pathways for peace, we ask ourselves where does this leave the agency of those most affected by conflict? If we define development as “the freedom to be and to do” – are elite bargains really contributing to human development? Where do elite bargains leave human, civil and political rights and the agency of local actors? In the aid sector, we strive to be as local as possible and as international as necessary – should the same approaches apply to UK’s support to sustainable peace?

What we can agree on is that we need to work politically, and to better analyse formal and informal power of elite bargaining. And that this needs to be done through a gendered lens – to better understand how different groups perceive and experience conflicts in their societies, and the structures and institutions (or social norms) that drive conflict and perpetuate inequality. We know that in conflict affected contexts informal power structures are key. Decisions are often not made by courts, policy not set by parliaments. Instead most power is held by vested interests (i.e. war lords, elites, other states, or private sector actors) – the majority of whom are older men. Supporting communities in stabilization and development means a deeper understanding of informal power – at all levels (not just at the top).

Whether you think it’s time to even up peace deals and make them more inclusive, democratic or whether you agree with the Government that more emphasis on elite politics and bargaining is needed – what is clear from the report is that there are losers in elite bargains. Transformative women’s rights are too often off the agenda, while evidence shows ceasefires and peace agreements are more likely to be sustainable if women are meaningfully involved.

For many years, serving as a multi-lateral diplomat, I was often the only woman in all-male meeting rooms discussing peace and security across Europe and its neighbourhood. The European community ranks among the highest in human development, yet the higher level the peace negotiation, the fewer women are in the room. While commitments have been made, too many Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) conflict mediation measures are not representative of those affected by conflict.  When those negotiating political issues (especially political economy) are not accountable to those they claim to be negotiating for – the deals are often hollow, benefiting the few – not the many.

The UK Government’s Stabilisation Unit’s paper on ‘Elite Bargains and Political Deals’ seems to posit a trickle-down theory of peace-building, whereby peace agreed by people at the top will result in stability and reduction of violence that benefits poor and marginalized communities that have likely been denied a seat at the negotiating table.

But can trickle-down economic models really be applied to sustainable stabilisation and peace? A trickle-down approach tends to leave out inclusive, local agency (freedom) representation and participation. What happens when the elites we are bargaining with do not represent the population (in any way)? Even in cases where elite bargains initially reduce violence through “illiberal peace” – in effect consolidating authoritarian systems, fragility often persists, making the recurrence of conflict likely.

As an organization that works with power, Oxfam has campaigned against the elite capture of politics and resources – including in conflict contexts. As the UK reviews and redefines its foreign policy, including aid, we hope it finds more ways to both engage elites and hear and empower those most affected and most voiceless in conflict.