A recent CIGI paper described peacekeeping as the United Nations’ most visible raison d’être — soldiers in blue helmets are a frequent and now very identifiable symbol in global security. Less attention has been given to the important, yet challenging, work done by non-state actors, member states and the UN Secretariat in the area of peacebuilding. To learn more about this essential and evolving element of national, regional and international security and human development, we speak to Timothy Donais. He holds faculty positions at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Balsillie School of International Affairs, and is currently leading a CIGI Collaborative Research Project entitled Vertical Integration and the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture.   

CIGI: Your current CIGI research project explores the linking of bottom-up and top-down peacebuilding efforts, with a particular focus on Haiti and Sierra Leone. Why these two countries? What is their status in terms of peacebuilding success, and do they serve as models for future efforts?  

Timothy Donais: We chose Sierra Leone and Haiti as the two case studies for this project because both are important sites of contemporary peacebuilding, and therefore good places to study the relationship between international and domestic actors. They are also divergent cases in the sense that Sierra Leone was one of the original states on the agenda of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), while Haiti has never been on the commission’s agenda. By comparing the two cases, therefore, we hope to shed some light on the question of whether PBC engagement does in fact make a difference in terms of facilitating more coherent and cohesive international engagement with post-conflict states. On the surace, Sierra Leone has been seen as a relative peacebuilding success story, and while few would label Haiti as such, it remains unclear how much credit the PBC can take for progress in Sierra Leone, or whether PBC engagement with Haiti would have changed the overall peacebuilding dynamic there. While coordinated and coherent international engagement is an important factor in the success of peacebuilding operations, it is only one piece of a very complicated puzzle. In this sense, trying to sort out how much of a difference the PBC has made, and can make, in peacebuilding contexts represents one of the key challenges in our research.

CIGI: What is the link between the PBC, the UN’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) and MINUSTAH (the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti)? Unlike Sierra Leone, Haiti will no longer be on the UN’s PBF portfolio as of 2012. What does this mean for Haiti moving forward, and does the experience offer any lessons for Sierra Leone?

Donais: In contexts such as Haiti, which is not on the PBC agenda, coordination of the broader UN effort is led by a more traditional configuration of actors, including the Security Council, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), the UN country team and the peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH). In this case, the PBF acts as simply an additional multilateral donor, providing funding for a specific project or initiative (in recent years, PBF funds have gone towards prison reform and environmental rehabilitation in Haiti). In the context of Haiti, a key question is whether the absence of PBC involvement will have a negative impact on sustained international engagement in Haiti, which most observers agree is essential if the country is to escape the recurrent turmoil it has suffered over the past two decades. Prior to the 2004 political crisis, the international community had largely disengaged from Haiti.

CIGI: Politics has an obvious way of permeating the General Assembly and Security Council. Can the same be said for peacebuilding organs? Or has the priority of these bodies always been linked to, and focused on ending, UN peacekeeping missions?

Donais: There is no escaping politics when you deal with the UN system, and the PBC and PBF are no exception. Both bodies were meant to fill an obvious gap at the core of the UN system — the absence of any single body with an explicit mandate for peacebuilding — but concerns among existing agencies about the PBC encroaching on “their turf” meant that the PBC was given little actual authority, and relatively few resources. Despite its central coordinating role and overarching responsibility for bringing coherence to UN peacebuilding efforts, the PBC is an advisory body, and has little ability to compel coordination among those agencies who do not wish to be coordinated. Politics also plays out in terms of the countries on the PBC agenda: for various reasons, few high-profile countries and conflicts have been brought under the PBC umbrella, and therefore the PBC has had to carve a niche for itself in terms of addressing more marginalized or “forgotten” conflicts, to date exclusively in Africa, as well as in terms of sustaining international support and engagement in post-conflict situations over the longer term. In this sense, the priority has not been explicitly on “exit strategies,” although questions of transition are always relevant, but rather on avoiding premature international disengagement. 

CIGI: The PBF is among several UN organs and activities that seek funds from member states. Are the PBF and PBC at risk of not having sufficient funds to continue their work?

Donais: Over the longer term, this may be a danger, particularly if neither the PBC nor the PBF is able to demonstrate considerable “value-added” as key elements of the emerging international peacebuilding architecture. Over the shorter term, however, both retain sufficient profile, and sufficient backing among key supporters within the UN membership, to enable them to avoid being starved of resources.  In this context, it’s relevant to note the gap between the annual UN peacekeeping budget for 2012 (approximately US$7.3 billion ) and the total contributions to the PBF since its inception in 2006 (some US$440 million); compared to the broader UN peacekeeping machinery, then, the resources devoted to peacebuilding within the UN system remain quite modest. While this may make the PBF more sustainable, it does raise questions about its overall impact on the countries where it is engaged.

CIGI: How is PBC involvement in countries initiated?

Donais: The PBC’s founding resolution allows for countries to come onto the PBC agenda through referral by a range of UN bodies, including the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the Secretary-General. Of the six countries currently on the PBC agenda — all from Africa — five were placed on the agenda subsequent to referrals by the Security Council, while the sixth — Guinea — made a direct request to the PBC to be placed on its agenda. An explicit understanding exists that no country will be placed on the PBC agenda without that country’s express consent; the countries currently on the PBC agenda have, therefore, calculated that the benefits of being on the agenda, particularly in terms of international attention and support, outweigh the costs in terms of greater international intrusiveness in their domestic affairs.

CIGI: As you’ve noted, your overall objective is “to add policy substance to the emerging debate on improvements, or alternatives, to the existing liberal peacebuilding paradigm” — an approach that has sometimes been viewed as imperialist, ineffective and inappropriate. What obstacles and what outcomes do you foresee for UN peacebuilding efforts if the current approach remains unchanged?

Donais: Liberal peacebuilding, as has often been noted, is in crisis, and peacebuilding projects in places as varied as Afghanistan, Haiti and Bosnia are at serious risk of failure. The danger of failing to rethink peacebuilding, and of leaving many of the current elements of the liberal peacebuilding paradigm unaddressed and unquestioned, is that states will become increasingly reluctant to become engaged in post-conflict “quagmires,” which will be increasingly perceived as involving plenty of risk, and considerable cost, but little actual reward. In other words, if international actors come to view the dilemmas of peacebuilding as largely intractable, we may see a terminal decline in both political and financial support for peacebuilding initiatives. Part of the challenge of rethinking peacebuilding, of course, is that many of the fundamental pillars of the liberal peacebuilding agenda — including human rights, democracy, free markets and the rule of law — are deeply held by both key donors and key international actors, and contemplating peacebuilding processes with different or altered premises may be anathema to the key international actors whose support will still be needed to make peacebuilding successful.



If international actors come to view the dilemmas of peacebuilding as largely intractable, we may see a terminal decline in both political and financial support for peacebuilding initiatives.
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  • Timothy Donais is an associate professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Wilfrid Laurier University's Department of Global Studies. An international security expert, he is currently leading a collaborative research project on vertical integration and the United Nations peacebuilding architecture.