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Pamina Firchow and Harry Anastasiou (eds.), Practical Approaches to Peacebuilding: Putting Theory to Work, (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2016), 180 pp.

Reviewed by: Herman T. Salton (Associate Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE), Asian University for Women, Bangladesh and USA).

The question of what to do in a war-torn society when the dust of conflict settles has occupied academics and practitioners for a long time. This volume has both audiences in mind. Its core claim is that establishing a durable peace requires knowledge of conflict in general, as well as familiarity with the reasons why a given society was engulfed in war. This is not a new claim: in the interwar period, E. H. Carr had already acknowledged the divide in international relations (IR) between what he called ‘the Intellectual’ and ‘the Bureaucrat’. With academics increasingly involved in policy and a rising number of practitioners emerging from graduate schools, the situation has undoubtedly improved since Carr wrote The Twenty Year’s Crisis in the 1930s. Yet, a fundamental (some would say existential) divide remains between IR theorists—who tend to think along broad lines and whose training makes them more adroit at identifying problems than at finding solutions—and the practitioners, whose task it is to implement a durable peace. This book is a welcome attempt to bridge that divide on a subject as contentious and critical as ‘peacebuilding’.

Security Council Discusses Peacebuilding Issues. photo credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras.

The editors bridge this divide in an introductory chapter where they set out the theoretical framework and explain how the volume intends to contribute both to academic and to practical debates on ‘peacebuilding’ – a term whose complexity they acknowledge, but which they refrain from defining (hence my use of inverted commas). The introduction is followed by six empirical chapters written by several contributors who tackle six ‘peacebuilding’ examples: (1) the reconciliation efforts initiated during and after the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009; (2) the conflict between the Brazilian government and indigenous groups surrounding a dam construction in the Amazon; (3) the links between religion and peacebuilding in Myanmar; (4) the role of gender in reconciliation efforts in the Pacific Islands; (5) the plight of refugees in post-war Cambodia and Bosnia; and (6) the contribution of Rotary International to peace studies and to practical ‘peacebuilding’ initiatives. Data on Rotary’s projects and milestones since its founding in 1905 are included in the appendix.

The volume’s common thread lies in its central argument. The authors write that ‘peacebuilding’ ought to be understood as a continuum without a clearly identified beginning and an end (p.1). This conceptualization necessitates both theoretical awareness of the general features of war (what IR theorists do so well) and an in-depth knowledge of the specificities and challenges of each conflict-laden society (what practitioners confront ‘on the ground’). Since ‘peacebuilding’ is both ‘expansive’ and ‘elastic’ (p.7), a one-size-fits-all approach is not only ineffective in stabilizing a war-torn society, but also risks reproducing top-down solutions that ignore the local context and fail to engage domestic stakeholders. Examples of ‘novel’ phenomena encountered by ‘peacebuilding’ professionals are the resurgence of religious extremism, including religiously-motivated insurgencies; the challenges faced by globalization’s ‘losers’; nativism and populist discontent; terrorism; and power asymmetries, especially gender inequality. IR theorists have not paid enough attention to these context-specific factors as the editors argue. Since “the agenda of what is researched and highlighted is led by the scholar rather than the practitioner—and definitely not by the recipient of any policy or social analysis” (p.4), it is unsurprising that ‘peacebuilding’ of the top-down variety is encouraged—if not directly imposed—by international organizations and donors. Top-down ‘peacebuilding’ efforts in the 1990s have often failed to stabilize conflict-torn societies and have even resulted in accusations of ‘neo-imperialism’.

Non-Violence by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd – United Nations, New York, USA. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Giorgio Galeotti

The book’s contributors successfully highlight both the importance and the benefits of what one observer has termed ‘positive peace’, understood as “the goal of peace through legitimacy and justice, eliminating the underlying structural issues that lead to war” (p.3). This is a normative goal of considerable scope and ambition, one that is said to distinguish between fields of research such as peace studies and conflict-resolution, from war and security studies. It is also a goal that dovetails with the normative side of the conceptual and organizational structure that was set up by the UN Charter in 1945 (the other being its ‘realist’ component, including the presence of Permanent Members on the Security Council and their power of veto). Although IR scholars aligned with the realist tradition may roll their eyes at the idea of ‘liberal peacebuilding’, this book suggests that so do those liberal thinkers who oppose top-down solutions which are ignorant of local history, grievances, and actors. As for accusations of utopianism, among the difficult (if not impossible) objectives bestowed upon the UN in 1945, an achievement of the global peace was arguably the most ‘alchemic’ of them all. Given the nature of the task, it is hardly surprising that the organization has had a mixed record. While an uncharitable view would suggest that it has failed, others would argue that, in this fraught area, even a limited success indicates that ‘building peace’ is possible, if the right approach is taken.

Yet, one may still wonder what does the latter entail exactly? And how are the theoretical and practical components of ‘peacebuilding’—the interplay of which is considered to be indispensable by the book’s contributors—be best integrated? The case studies presented in this volume provide some useful suggestions. After reading about the challenges posed by ethno-nationalism to Sri Lanka’s ‘peacebuilding’ process, for instance, one is hard-pressed to argue that an in-depth analysis of the local context, players, and dynamics is superfluous; equally helpful is the authors’ suggestion that total war victory—in the Sri Lanka’s case, by the government—hinders, rather than facilitates, a ‘peacebuilding’ process. Likewise, the Amazonian example suggests that ‘conflict sensitivity’ (p.35) does matter, especially in a developing country like Brazil that is experiencing opposition, staged by indigenous and aboriginal groups, to the government’s energy plans. Similarly, an analysis of Myanmar’s history exposes the colonial roots of the country’s current failure to deal with minority rights, especially the Rohingyas’ (p.66). On the other hand, gender disparity in Fiji shows that no durable peace can be achieved unless the challenges faced by women are addressed. As for the case of refugees in Cambodia and Bosnia—countries that have emerged from exceptionally traumatic events, including genocide—a more comprehensive definition of local power dynamics (including at the individual level) is necessary if these societies are to address the immense challenges posed by the years of violent conflict.

The Allée des Nations in front of the Palace of Nations. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Tom Page.

What is more difficult to ascertain is how combining theory and practice can help local stakeholders build a durable peace. The editors are certainly correct to note that “knowledge of the general features of certain conflict dynamic”’ must go hand in hand with “a focused knowledge of the unique and localized features of each conflict’” (p.2). Likewise, local ownership of peacebuilding initiatives is no doubt critical if one is to avoid the top-down ‘peacebuilding’ failures of the 1990s. But there is a reason why the theory and the practice of ‘peacebuilding’ remain so distant and why IR theorists and practitioners seem to have different priorities and even at times speak different languages (a sorry state of affairs that, to their credit, this book’s publishers have been trying to remedy for some time through a list of titles that challenge this divide). Although awareness of each other’s challenges can certainly lessen the gulf between Carr’s ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Bureaucrat’, the underlying problem is in the development of substantive, theoretically informed, and practically viable policy recommendations that assist local stakeholders in rebuilding their societies and that go beyond encouragements to take a ‘less Orientalist approach (p.136). Although this is a task that no single volume can achieve—especially a slim, edited book of contributions by different authors—a concluding chapter indicating how the case studies fit together would have been very welcome. The ‘peace triangle’ mentioned in Chapter 2, the ‘conflict sensitivity’ analyzed in Chapter 3, the ‘colonial legacies’ explained in Chapter 4, the ‘hybridity’ highlighted in Chapter 5, and the risks of a top-down ‘liberal peace’ explained in Chapter 6 are all helpful contributions to the ‘peacebuilding’ debate. Whether they also suggest the contours of a coherent and novel ‘peacebuilding’ approach, rather than a set of fascinating examples, remains unclear. The challenge of ‘putting theory to work’ is fraught with difficulties and it will take more than this volume to make it happen. But this book is a courageous, welcome, and thought-provoking step in the right direction.