Jan Pronk

Preventing Conflict Escalation. Hearts & Minds. Boots & Brains.

Robert Milders Lecture, Central European University, Budapest, 8 May 2014

Development and peace are intertwined. There is no development without peace and peace will not last without development. For some this may seem a truism. Others may claim that not all poor countries and stagnating economies have been affected by civil war. However, if we define development as a process in which all members of society take part, share the fruits and enjoy progress, then indeed development requires peaceful relations between citizens. Then, alternately, peace requires development, that is: inclusive development.

However, the real world is different. Any process of development is characterized by scarcities - of land, water, energy, capital and resources -  and this implies that allocation and distribution questions will prevail. There are conflicts of interests between big farmers and land-poor farmers, between farmers and urban citizens, between people of different religious or ethnic background, different nationalities and languages, men and women, older and younger people, traditional elites and people aspiring at modernity, majority and minority groups, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. All development processes are conflict ridden.

However, not all conflicts result in violence. In many societies people know how to manage conflicts. They have reached agreement about the way in which decisions should be made. They have reached consensus regarding principles and values relevant for peace, such as freedom and equality. They have learned to set and obey laws and rules to distribute scarce resources. They have established institutions with a mandate to ensure that all this is done in a credible fashion, for instance democratically. However, being capable to manage conflicts does not mean that these conflicts no longer exist. On the contrary, in any society characterized by inequalities and scarcities – which is always the case, everywhere – there will always be conflicts of interests. Members of society will have different interests in keeping or changing the status quo, in the allocation of scarce resources necessary for change, and in the distribution of the fruits of change.  

So, development is conflict. Growth and development process itself, rather than satisfying the expectations of all people, can feed conflicts, make them worse than before. Initially such conflicts may be more or less hidden, underneath the surface of seemingly stable and calm relations, but in the course of development these conflicts may surface, manifest themselves, and become bigger and more intense.



Much development does not deserve that name. Much development is mal-development. It may seem to lead to progress for the nation, but some people - or even many - feel that they will always lose, and that others will always gain, or gain more. Some stay behind - such as labourers, exploited in dire conditions. Others may be pushed aside, such as indebted farmers, deprived of their land.

Mal-development, resulting in greater inequalities, may also endanger the future, through a rapid depletion of resources, reaping the benefits of growth today, but shifting the costs of growth onto future generations. Any process of development by definition implies a conflict of interests between present generations and people yet unborn, who do not have a voice, but who are bound to be affected. When the interests of future generations are neglected, mal-development may even turn into perverse development.

All these conflicts can originate in a struggle for resources: land, water, energy, the natural environment, the habitat and livelihood. Because all these resources are scarce, such conflicts are basically economic. But when economic inequalities tend to overlap distinctions between religious, ethnic or language groups, or between national majorities and minorities, the conflicts may turn into cultural conflicts. And at a certain moment power relations will be at stake, so that the conflict will turn into a political conflict as well. This can also happen the other way round. In the course of development conflicts can become utterly complex.

So, conflicts exist. They cannot be wished away. They cannot be prevented, nor solved. Development is conflict. Development can even feed conflict.

In development policy making this has not always been a basic common understanding. Roughly speaking until the end of the Cold War there was greater attention for international conflicts: the liberation wars between people in the colonies and the empires which once had ruled these countries, the economic struggles between peripheral countries of the South and the centres in the North, the consequences of the Cold War for the position of Southern countries within the respective spheres of influence of East and West. And when during the first couple of years after the end of the Cold War violent civil wars broke out in some developing countries, this initially was seen as an exemption, or, anyway a mere transition phenomenon. This resulted in the mainstream idea that development would require stability. The prevailing view was that countries lacking stable conditions first and foremost should get their act together. They would not qualify for long term development aid for investment and growth, but for short term relief assistance only. These countries were seen as failed states, failing nations or fragile societies, to be distinguished from stable developing countries and emerging economies, with good governance structures.

However, also in supposedly stable countries development and transformation processes often result in greater social and economic inequalities between population groups. In all societies - rich and poor countries, traditional, emerging or modern economies, democratic or authoritarian nation states - conflicts of interests prevail. They cannot be prevented. However, they can be curbed, checked and constrained. Management of conflicts means preventing escalation: escalation into complexity and escalation into violence, also across frontiers.


Prevention of conflict escalation

Preventing conflict escalation will require first and foremost the curbing of practices of mal-development and redirecting perverse development. Instead of aiming at overall fast and high economic growth to the benefit of some interests groups only, a development path can be chosen that is both inclusive - that means: equally benefiting all present members of society - , and sustainable, which means that it will not reduce choice options of future generations. Sustainable development keeps itself alive. It does not eat up the resources needed in the future. Only by choosing a development path which is both inclusive and sustainable, conflict escalation can be halted.

Choosing the right development path requires more than this. Development is also the furthering of social cohesion, the creation of a society, the establishment and integration of cultural identities, nation building, and the formation of a viable state, the design of a good governance structure, democratisation, and reaching agreement on principles, rules and procedures of decision making. People will have to review and reform institutions, which have become obsolete or less credible and establish new ones.

All this has to be given shape on the basis of domestically felt principles and values, rather than imported ones. In order to be lasting, sustainable, and credible in the eyes of all members of society, development should be home-grown, just like nation building, state building, democratisation and the preservation of human rights must come from within. And if development is home-grown, then also the prevention of escalation of developmental conflicts should be home-grown.

Peace can only last if designed and built up from within. Peace cannot be imported.


Assistance from outside

Is this a final ‘no’ to aid from outside, development assistance, foreign aid for democratisation and for the protection of human rights, international help to build a state and to improve governance? Definitely not. Any society is part of a greater society. Nations are part of a global network and decisions within nations concerning their own development will affect other nations as well. That is one reason why nations may hold each other accountable, mutually, at equal footing.

Moreover, nations are obliged to assist countries which are lagging behind economically, for instance due to their colonial past. There is also a moral and even political duty to help countries in distress, because of man-made or natural disasters. And, finally, there is a responsibility to protect people, if and when they fall victim to calamities, injustice or oppression. All these responsibilities, obligations, mandates and duties were laid down in numerous resolutions and treaties of the United Nations. Some of them are legally binding, others are political commitments, well-intended promises, or merely statements of international morality. Together they have laid the basis for an advanced system of international assistance, cooperation and intervention.      

However, practical experience of international development assistance during more than sixty years has taught us that outside help can also feed or sharpen existing domestic conflicts, or even add new conflicts, for instance by introducing foreign interests competing with domestic interests. Preventing harmful effects of foreign intervention is another reason to prefer home-grown development, using mainly own resources: domestic capital, autochthonous knowledge, indigenous technology, national entrepreneurs. The same would apply to intervention in other domains: state building, democratisation, governance, the preservation of human rights, and also the prevention of conflict escalation. In all these fields the introduction of foreign models which are not applicable in the aid receiving country, or not yet, may distort the development process of a country. This often has been the case.

In development cooperation policy we have learned to consider development aid as a catalyst. Providing development assistance implies no more, but also no less, than inserting one additional factor into a process which within that country already for many years had taken place through the interplay of a multitude of domestic factors. The catalyst does not substitute the endogenous factors. These factors remain present, and they stay active. However, their functioning will be influenced by the catalyst. Due to the activity of the latter the endogenous factors will influence each other differently. Some will gain in strength, others will get weaker. Together they may work better, or faster, or steer the process into a somewhat different direction. So, the process will change. The workings of all factors together will result in a speeding of the process, or in changing its course in the desired direction, provided that the character and measured quantity of the catalyst had been chosen well.  After a while the catalyst will lose its strength and disappear, and the process continues in that direction under its own steam.

Good international development assistance is functioning as a catalyst. Well-meant development aid does not intend to take over the steering wheel. It does not substitute domestic factors, but helps those working better. In development policy making foreign capital, foreign knowledge, technology, skills, experts, entrepreneurs and public personnel are not brought into a country to control the process, but to facilitate its workings. However, badly designed development assistance can catalyse into a wrong direction: slowing down or paralysing the process, making it even less inclusive and less sustainable, and changing its course into a perverse direction.

The same would apply to foreign assistance in all the other fields: state and nation building, governance, democratisation, human rights, and also peace. International peace operations should catalyse, in the right direction, no less, no more. This may not seem very ambitious, but practice has taught us: it is a tall order.

Why? Because acting as a catalyst requires taking the right decision at the right time. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld once wrote that peacekeeping requires acting “as a good tailor quickly when the need arises”. This is a good description of how a catalyst should work. However, as had become clear after some dramatic failures of UN peacekeeping in the early nineteen nineties of the previous century, precisely these conditions were not met. The right decisions had not been taken at the right time.

The failures of those years were reflected in a cartoon by  Alan Moir, comparing the strategies in Somalia (“we can appear to do something and fail”), Cambodia (“we can do something and appear to fail”), Bosnia (“we can appear to do something and appear to fail”) and Rwanda (“we can fail to appear”).

In the words of Erskine Childers, a stern critic of the practice of UN peacekeeping in those days, the good tailor role had come apart at the seams. Faulty needs assessments, inadequate resources, bad timing and ambiguity of mandates had turned peace operations ineffective or, even, counterproductive. 

Childers came to this assessment of UN Peacekeeping about twenty years ago, in the mid-nineties.  At the time one might argue that failures of international peacekeeping were due to the teething troubles of the first years after the end of the Cold War and that we were still learning by doing. However, I am afraid that present assessments would have to be no less harsh. Alan Moir could draw a similar cartoon about peacekeeping in the first decade of the new century: Darfur (“we can appear to do something and fail”), Afghanistan (“we can do something and appear to fail”), Libya (“we can appear to do something and appear to fail”), and Syria (“we can fail to appear”). Likewise, which of these categories would fit Sri Lanka, Congo, the Central African Republic or Iraq?

Dag Hammarskjöld was the father of UN peacekeeping. Thirty year later one of his successors, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, became the father of UN peace building. He wrote an Agenda for Peace (1992), an Agenda for Development (1994) and an Agenda for Democratization (1996). More clearly than before, Boutros made a distinction between preventive diplomacy (‘preventing disputes from arising, escalating and spreading‘), peace-making (bringing conflicting parties to agreement, with the help of non-military means), peacekeeping (the same, but through deploying a civilian plus military UN presence in the field), and, finally, peace building: solidifying peace, preventing relapse into hostilities and avoiding recurrence of violence. The relations between these four phases and also with humanitarian relief programmes, reconstruction of war torn societies, and, thereafter, development were set out in a number of UN documents and resolutions.

In practice most of the attention of the international community was given to peace keeping, in particular through military deployment. Either expectations regarding the use of non-military action were low, or diplomacy had failed. However, I am afraid that Erskine Childers’ four main reasons of failure of UN peace-keeping (failing political needs assessments, bad timing, inadequate resources and flawed mandates) also apply to UN preventive diplomacy, peace-making and peace building. While the situation in quite a few countries would have qualified for diplomatic interventions, in order to see, listen, talk, mediate and put some pressure, the international community seldom has taken timely action.

Childers had blamed in particular the permanent members of the Security Council for non-action or false action. In his view restoration of the truly multilateral character of UN decision making was necessary in order to get timely and more effective peace operations. However, UN reform is far away. Since the beginning of this century the main powers have become even more reluctant to reform international decision making. Moreover, due to the situation around Ukraine, the climate between the East and West is going from bad to worse.



This raises the question to which extent peace operations could be improved, despite the present paralysis in the decision making machinery to launch such operations. How can we get better operations in the field?

Can we learn from experience and formulate some general guidelines, based on the insights gained in development policy and conflict management?

I will try to do so, based on the ideas mentioned earlier. The gist of those ideas can be summarized in five sentences: First: development is conflict. Second: the aim should be to prevent the escalation of conflicts, rather than conflicts themselves. Third: such prevention, like development itself, should basically come from within. Fourth: foreign assistance can help, but also hamper.  Fifth: such assistance should function as a catalyst only.      

I would like to offer the following guidelines.

First: There are no general guidelines, uniformly applicable in all situations. Just as with development policy or adjustment policy there is no fit for all. All countries are different. All regions are different as well: geographically, in terms of endowment with resources, economically, socially, and culturally. The traditions differ between countries and regions, and also the institutions and power relations. In development differences are more important than similarities. It is the specificity of a country, region, or village which should be taken as the starting point in the formulation of development policies and policies of adjustment to a crisis. We have learned that such policies should be tailor made. As a matter of fact that is the same term as the one used by dag Hammarskjöld with regard to peace making: tailor made, no straight jacket approach, but acting as a good tailor, as and when the need arises, and the need is different everywhere.

Second: Building up peace building is a bottom up endeavour, just like development. In development cooperation we have learned to speak about ‘development not for the people, but of people, with people and by people themselves’, ‘human development’, ‘participatory development’, ‘bottom up instead of top down’, and ‘local ownership’. These concepts may seem fashionable, but we have also learned that policies merely aiming at macro-economic growth under the assumption that in the end such growth will trickle everybody, will miss the mark. Many people will be excluded, inequalities will increase, and dissatisfaction will grow. People will resist such policies, which tempts a regime to go for national security, irrespective of human rights. Conflict management should aim at human security instead. Peace building should be integrated with development policies right from the start, instead of waiting for the so-called post- conflict phase. The whole concept of post-conflict is an anomaly.  Moreover, many countries are in a ‘half war/half peace’ situation. When violent hostilities are reduced, or when a ceasefire has been reached, reconstruction activities should start right away, in order to sustain and broaden the peace, and win the hearts and minds of people. Peace building should not be seen as a separate phase in conflict management, after peacekeeping. Peace building and peacekeeping ought to be mutually integrated and take place at the same time.  

Third: Give the highest priority to multilateral prevention of escalation of conflicts within countries. Strengthen the capacity of the UN system to this end, for instance by establishing a special pre-Chamber of the Security Council, without veto rights, with a mandate to use diplomatic instruments, also at its own initiative, and the duty to respond to appeals from groups within countries. This would not require major UN reform. Build up a strong knowledge base regarding individual countries, far in advance of a possible peace intervention. Do this system wide, not for each UN agency separately. Do so proactively, without relying on people belonging to diasporas.

Fourth: If and when prevention has failed and a decision has been made to launch a peacekeeping operation, do so merely on the basis of the principle of the Responsibility to Protect. The acceptance of R2P in 2005 as a norm justifying international intervention in situations of mass atrocity, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing was a major step forward. Presently the UN would be wise limiting itself, in national conflicts, to R2P and to refrain from regime change. Politically any step beyond R2P would be a non-starter, not only because of the present cold climate between East and West, but also because of the way in which NATO had unilaterally interpreted the R2P based Security Council resolution on Libya as a mandate for regime change, despite the fact that Russia and China had stated unequivocally that this should not be part of the mandate. NATO’s view that protecting people would require regime change should have been brought to the Security Council, asking for a widening of the mandate. As soon as NATO bypassed the Security Council, it became politically impossible to get any Russian or Chinese support for an R2P resolution concerning the atrocities in Syria. This was a major political mistake. Western countries share an important part of the responsibility for the failure of the international community to appear and act in the most tragic conflict of recent years.  All countries should consider diplomatic and political initiatives towards a renaissance of R2P in peace operations.

Fifth: All this requires a comprehensive approach. Development is a holistic concept, and conflicts have multiple roots. In order to do justice to all aspects of development and to address all possible causes of conflict escalation, development and peace programs should be all in, full scale, and even-handed. This should not only be the norm for domestic policies, but also for international development assistance and foreign peace operations. This means that the so called DDD approach for international peace operations should imply more than carrying out diplomatic, defence and development activities at the same time. They should also serve the same purpose: ensuring human rights (with the D of Diplomacy, politics and law), together with human security (the D of Defence and police) and human development (the D of Development cooperation, economic and social). This goes far beyond national security, in particular national security as defined from outside. DDD should not become a fake approach

Sixth:  Once a peacekeeping operation has started the utmost should be done in order not to harm peace building. Peacekeeping can destroy peace building in different ways, for instance if carried out as a narrow exercise, a military intervention only, or when it results in many civilian casualties, rape or sexual misconduct. Then peacekeeping has lost its credibility. This will breed distrust amongst parties which have to be brought together. A peacekeeping operation can also harm peace building if peacekeepers demonstrate partisan behaviour. Peacekeepers, favouring one party to the conflict, lose their impartiality, and make it impossible for peace builders to build trust and inspire confidence. Moreover, peacekeeping which is imposed from outside will easily result in all parties to a conflict turning against the operation itself. The fact that these parties have found a common enemy does not mean that they found a common basis to make peace between themselves.

Seventh: Peace operations should use boots on the ground. The people who must be protected live on the ground. Their lives have to be saved, their hearts have to be won, and their minds will have to be convinced that the intervention is taking place in their interests, rather than serving foreign interests. This can only be done using a direct approach, on the ground, person to person: listening to people, talking with them, seeing them in the eye, understanding body language, exchanging information and sharing insights. Peace operations using drones, or bombs dropped by air planes in the sky far above where people till their land and build their schools and houses, inflicting so-called collateral damage, stand diametrically opposed to R2P. This will not result in de-escalation of conflict, but feed revenge and hatred. Promises can be made to investigate civilian casualties and find out responsibilities, but those promises will neither be kept nor believed.

We know that boots on the ground can do harm as well. They have done so. But Blue Helmet military personnel carrying out a peace operation in cities and on the countryside, working close by civilian peace builders, is more visible, less anonymous, and more directly accountable.      

Eighth: This calls for a unified approach to be carried out by all components of a peace operation in conjunction with each other. I am using the term ‘unified’ approach rather than ‘integrated’ approach, because I am aware that the different agencies and organizations within the United Nations detest integration and wish to stay as much as possible autonomous. Endeavouring integration is flagging a dead horse. I am also not calling for ‘co-ordination’, because this is a rather hollow concept. Separate units are only too happy agreeing to the need for coordination, because in practice they can easily get around the requirements. A unified approach implies that all agencies, units and organizations declare having the same objective and obey the same boundary conditions set by those who carry the ultimate political responsibility for launching the operation: the Security Council and the Secretary General of the UN. A unified approach furthermore implies that everybody has a duty to consult each other and cooperate, when working in the same sector (such as health) or the same region. All constituents of a unified operation should also be obliged to use common resources and a common infrastructure, instead of building their own security, communication, transport, information and intelligence systems.  All this has to be carried out under unified command, in a decentralised structure. For outsiders this may seem self-evident. In practice the opposite is true. Many peace operations do not only fail because of the four main reasons mentioned by Erskine Chiders twenty years ago, but also because of fragmentary implementation on the ground and repeated disputes between military and civilian personnel and staff. In a unified approach, under decentralised unified command, with situation specific flexibility, and delegated responsibilities, a peace operation can become a true catalyst in local processes, rather than a foreign body.   

Ninth: Peacekeepers and development workers, in order to be welcomed as a catalyst rather than being looked at with suspicion as a foreigner, should understand that they are guests, not new occupants of the house. Peacekeepers and peace builders come and go. The locals stay. It is their country, their history, their culture, their future. They know more. Often they know better. Arrogant behaviour of peacekeepers, showing little respect for the culture and traditions of their hosts, driving around in big cars, spending a lot of money in broad daylight and night clubs, drinking whisky in alcohol free societies, paying low salaries to local staff, which are given only minor responsibilities, below their grade and capacities, is detrimental for peace building based on trust and cooperation. Good guest behaviour is crucial for a peaceful house.

Tenth: Peace-making, peacekeeping and peace building require talking. The temporary and partial stability and security brought about with the help of peacekeepers will have to be used to reach agreement through negotiations. It is not up to peacekeepers from abroad to decide who should be invited to sit at the negotiation table, and who not. Peace will not be kept, let alone sustained, if one or more parties to the conflict are excluded from talks. After all, these talks should lead to agreement by consensus. Foreign powers may have a preference for some parties and dislike others. However, foreign powers acting as mediators should exercise restraint. For peacekeeping it is essential that foreign interests should not determine who may join, and who should leave the room.

Eleventh: Peacekeeping based on R2P should leave ample humanitarian space for relief workers. Protection of civilians requires more than physical security in enclaves. Food and nutrition, health care and medication, and water and shelter are essential. NGO’s sometimes prefer providing these services without themselves being protected by armed peacekeepers. They often have good reasons. Armed protection of convoys can attract fire, instead of deterring attacks. Villagers may trust a nurse, but not when there are soldiers around. Once relief workers and Blue Helmets have left the village, militia may return and retaliate, accusing villagers of siding with the government.

Peacekeepers should respect choices by humanitarians to go into the field unprotected. However, if these workers or their local staff, despite having demonstrated neutrality, fall victim to armed rebel groups or even to the army and the secret service, peacekeepers should not hesitate launching efforts to their rescue. This too belongs to R2P.

Twelve: Lasting peace requires justice, and justice requires ending impunity. Should justice be done before or after peace? Again, there is no ’one size fits all’. However, in most cases peace-making requires talking, and talks require the cooperation of people in power. Those may be the very people who were responsible for mass murder. Atrocities should stop and the perpetrators should be held accountable. However, bringing them to court before concluding the talks will not bring peace close by.

Once peace has been made there is a risk that doing justice will be postponed. However, the signing of a peace treaty is not the final stage. Doing justice is a matter of time. Those who were in power during civil war, will have to exercise restraint after having agreed making peace, also when challenged by their former victims or by the surviving families and relatives of those who were killed. This may open the way to court at a later stage. Moreover, a country may choose linking up justice with reconciliation, for the sake of healing the society. This may not be conform Western views, but under the circumstances a better way to sustain peace.


Fragile states

Recently a new concept has become fashionable in conflict analysis: fragile states.  The term speaks for itself, though it would deserve analytical refinement and a definition. Two and a half years ago, early 2012, OECD published a list of so-called fragile countries. For many of those it was self-evident that they would be listed as such. However, four countries did not figure on the list: Libya, Mali, Central African Republic and Ukraine. Yet shortly thereafter precisely these countries became utterly unstable, and plagued by civil war. Why had they been they overlooked in compiling the list? Because of foreign interests at play? Or because the outside world did not know what was happening in and around these countries?

Clearly the international community has missed an opportunity to timely start diplomatic and political initiatives to prevent conflict escalation. Again. At present we hardly know how to make, keep and build peace in these countries.

I am afraid that there is more to come. Countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria are plagued by internal unrest, domestic violence and escalating conflicts between groups: ethnic, religious, tribal, national, political, economic, and nothing excluded. When the conflicts in these countries further escalate, for instance across their national frontiers, international security will be at stake. Whole regions may be set in flames.

Maybe we should pay more attention in particular to countries which are not yet fragile. We could also stop using the concept of fragile countries altogether and look at all countries, because there is conflict everywhere. We could come to the conclusion that all countries are more or less fragile, because all of them may experience conflict escalation. But whatever analytical conclusion will be drawn, policy wise we urgently need new and better international mechanisms to deal with domestic conflict.



Jan Pronk

Robert Milders Lecture, Central European University, Budapest, 8 May 2014




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Idem, ‘Post-Conflict Peacebuilding. Don’t Put the Cart Before the Horse’, Hans Singer Lecture, Brighton, 2012.  www.janpronk.nl