Cedric de Coning and Eli Stamnes (Eds.), UN Peacebuilding Architecture: The First 10 Years (New York: Routledge, 2016), 262pp.

Reviewed by: Eric Tanguay, Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University

Since former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali first articulated an early vision for ending violence and reconstructing state institutions in post-conflict contexts in An Agenda for Peace (1992), peacebuilding has grown to occupy an increasingly prominent role within the UN system. International consensus on the need to provide more sustainable and integrated attention and financial support to countries emerging from periods of conflict led to the establishment of three new UN bodies at the 2005 World Summit—the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) and the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF)—collectively known as the UN Peacebuilding Architecture (PBA). While it was hoped that the nascent PBA would be able to fill what former Secretary-General Kofi Annan referred to as a “gaping hole” in the UN’s peacebuilding capacities, by convening and harmonizing the efforts of all relevant peace and post-conflict development actors both within and outside the UN system, subsequent reviews conducted in 2010 and 2015 have indicated that the PBA has, to a significant degree, failed to meet these high expectations.

Security Council Establishes Peacebuilding Commission to Advise on Post-Conflict Situations
(Photo Credit: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz)

This collection of essays provides a balanced account of the overall effectiveness of the PBA over the course of its first ten years in operation by analyzing the structure and performance of its constituent organizations, contextualizing the constraints which have impeded their functioning, and evaluating its impact both in New York and in the field. The contributors consist of prominent peacebuilding scholars and practitioners, including two former assistant Secretaries-General of peacebuilding who oversaw the PBA: Carolyn McAskie and Judy Cheng-Hopkins, who penned the prologue and epilogue respectively. The insights of these authors into the inner workings of the PBC, PBSO and PBF serve as a nuanced counterweight to prevailing interpretations of the PBA among academics and policymakers alike who, in general, have tended to dismiss the apparatus as redundant, ineffectual, and largely symbolic. The overarching argument of the book, cogently laid out in the editors’ introductory and concluding chapters, is that “the PBA is both enabled and constrained by the larger institutional context of which it forms a part” (p. 7). De Coning and Stamnes contend that the work of the PBA has both helped to establish “peacebuilding as an overarching framework and a specific programmatic approach” (p. 219) and, thereby, to strengthen coherence and coordination across the UN system by encouraging the development of country-level strategic frameworks for peacebuilding. Nevertheless, the space for the PBA to perform its functions and reform its operating procedures has been consistently constrained by “internal UN structural tensions and the current turbulent state of global governance” (p. 224).

Peacebuilding Commission Holds 2016 Annual Session
(Photo credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

Excluding the introduction and conclusion, the book is organized into four substantive sections which expand upon this central thesis. Part I contains two chapters which provide a sketch of the politico-institutional climate in which the PBA was conceived and operationalized. In this section, Abiodun Williams and Mark Bailey demonstrate that the PBA’s inception was the result of a series of internal compromises over the scope and locus of authority for peacebuilding within the UN system, as concerns among G-77 countries regarding potential infringements against state sovereignty resulted in an initial preventive mandate for the PBC being scrapped. Thus, while the authors acknowledge that a significant gap exists between the PBA’s preliminary reform proposals and its current institutional reality, they stress that these imperfections are the “result of the middle path between optimum policy and political reality which the Secretary-General and his coalition of reformers carefully trod” (p. 36).  Necla Tshirigi and Richard Ponzio similarly detail how the initial design of the PBA’s structure has had enduring negative consequences, particularly the “fragmented nature of the new mechanism with three distinct pillars, each pillar with its own instinct for self-preservation at the expense of working towards a more integrated mechanism for greater integration and coordination” (p. 42).

Part II evaluates the performance of the PBA’s main operational instruments in greater detail. Jups Kluyskens examines the niche occupied by the PBF as a global financing instrument for peacebuilding which has sought to “fill gaps left by other donors” (p. 64) through its two main funding modalities, the Immediate Response Facility (IRF) and the Peacebuilding Recovery Facility (PRF), which address short- and long-term peacebuilding needs respectively. Kluyskens argues that while the Fund has played a catalytic role in mobilizing resources for peacebuilding in over 20 countries at the time of writing, it will need to take greater risks and develop stronger partnerships with regional banks and international financial institutions in order to expand its reach and impact. Mariska van Beijnum outlines the achievements of, and challenges facing, the Peacebuilding Commission, concluding that while the PBC has helped to solidify peacebuilding on the international agenda, it remains largely disconnected from the field, and has been habitually marginalized within the UN system by the Security Council, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO)—all of whom remain wary of the PBC’s intrusion into their sphere of authority over peace and development issues.

Part III assesses the impact of the PBA in two thematic areas, gender and civilian capacity. Torrum Tryggestad highlights an enduring gap between the rhetoric and reality of the PBA’s commitment to gender-responsive peacebuilding, noting that despite seemingly firm political commitments, “women and gender concerns are still not being effectively integrated into the activities of the PBA” (p. 103). Drawing lessons from the UN’s Civilian Capacity (CIVCAP) reform initiative, John Karlsrud and Lotte Vermeil argue that if the PBA hopes to improve its impact at the field level, it must enhance its commitment to national ownership “based on a clear understanding of the continuous need to align with national decision-making cycles and priorities” (p. 117).

Part IV addresses the impact of the PBA on the ground through a collection of national case-studies which examine five of the six countries which were on the PBC’s agenda during the period under review: Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea. A number of key themes emerge from these case-studies which echo the findings of previous chapters, and which several of the contributors adeptly link to ongoing theoretical debates within the extant peacebuilding scholarship. Abdenur et al.’s contribution illustrates the dangers of reducing peacebuilding to a compartmentalized set of technical tasks when “so many aspects are political or otherwise intangible,” (p. 189) as, in Guinea, this resulted in “narrow mandates and lack of effectiveness on the ground” (p. 192). The chapters on Burundi (Campbell et al.), Sierra Leone (Cavalcante), and Guinea-Bissau (Quick) all demonstrate the critical importance of national ownership in peacebuilding, which was limited in all three cases by the fact that the New York-based PBA often failed to communicate with stakeholders in the field (p. 147), or to seek their input in the formation and implementation of peacebuilding programming (p. 144) which allowed priorities to be established, not by local needs, but rather by what international actors were willing to supply (p. 209). Through an analysis of the Liberian peace process, Marina Caparini provides a more fundamental critique of the ontological foundations of the PBA’s approach to peacebuilding, which she contends is closely aligned to the much-debated “liberal peace” paradigm. Caparini posits that such a “state-centric focus on institutional capacity building can only be a partial approach towards the consolidation of peace,” (p. 174) and cautions that “care must be taken not to reconstruct the state with the same grievances and societal divisions that led to the conflict in the first place” (p. 172).

In several instances, the PBA has been able to learn from its weaknesses, for example, by improving inter-organizational coordination and progressively abandoning a technocratic approach to peacebuilding (pp. 221–223). However, in the final section of the book the editors reiterate that the PBA’s key failings have in large part been the result of structural barriers within the UN system, consisting of inter-organizational turf wars and North-South member state cleavages. Deeming the possibility for major structural reform unlikely, the editors’ main recommendation is that the PBA refocus its priorities away from preventing an imminent relapse of violence and towards sustaining long-term peacebuilding engagement focused on addressing root causes of conflicts. The pace of Secretary-General Guterres’ recent reforms of the entire UN peace system—he has committed to renewing a preventive mandate for the PBA, and proposed significant structural reforms which will merge the PBSO with the Deparment of Political Affairs in order to increase inter-agency coordination—undoubtedly surpasses what the authors believed was possible as they wrote this book.

In the book there are a small number of relatively minor flaws. There is a notable degree of historical repetition between the chapters in Part I and Part II. There are also cases where the argument would benefit from expansion as the analysis of the PBSO is integrated into the chapters detailing the PBF and the PBC; an entire chapter specifically devoted to its functions and impact would have been a welcome addition.  Nevertheless, this is an important and timely book which provides not only an empirically rich and theoretically informed account of the PBA’s performance over the past decade but, moreover, a sobering examination of the inherently messy political realities of United Nations reform efforts. As such, this book will be of interest to current UN officials, policymakers, and scholars of peacebuilding and the United Nations system.