The National Youth Commission; the office was recently constructed inside an emptied outdoor pool at the National Stadium in Freetown (Michael Lawrence).
The National Youth Commission; the office was recently constructed inside an emptied outdoor pool at the National Stadium in Freetown (Michael Lawrence).

The previous post argued that the root causes of conflict in Sierra Leone persist today, explained three possible mechanisms (spiralling electoral violence, growing drug trade, and educated but unemployed youth) by which they could reignite mass violence, and pointed to the ongoing youth crisis as the key fuel for any such path to conflict. Given this context, we can return to the question: how much vertical integration is necessary for successful peacebuilding in Sierra Leone?

The answer, of course, depends largely on the definition of "peacebuilding success." UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali first defined the concept of post-conflict peacebuilding in his 1992 Agenda For Peace as “action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict” (1992: art. 21) and “in the largest sense, to address the deepest causes of conflict: economic despair, social injustice and political oppression” (art. 15). Once a peace agreement has been made, “only sustained, cooperative work to deal with underlying economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems can place an achieved peace on a durable foundation” (art. 57).

Much of the peacebuilding literature employs this approach by attempting to resolve the root causes of conflict. For some, however, the elimination of such underlying conditions is too tall an order for international peacebuilders;  Elizabeth Cousens and Chetan Kumar thus propose that peacebuilding should be “ruthlessly modest” in its ambitions, so that success “is to cultivate political processes and institutions that can manage group conflict without violence but with authority and, eventually, legitimacy” (2001: 15). Rather than eliminating the root causes of conflict, peacebuilding should aim to construct institutions that can contend with them without resorting to violence. I call these definitions, respectively, the "root causes" and "institutional" approaches.

In Sierra Leone, the United Nations has to some extent adopted both approaches, but relies primarily on the institutional approach. The UNDP, World Bank, UNIDO and other members of the UN family have implemented programs that address the youth crisis directly, including skills training, cash for work, business training and support for small enterprise; but despite many individually successful programs, they hardly put a dent in an issue with such scale and intractability as youth marginalization (as the quote from Michael van der Schulenburg in my previous post suggests; indeed, some of these measures, such as cash for work, constitute a form of relief from the crisis, but not a solution). Given that youth and the other structural causes of the war are incredibly persistent and deeply entrenched, the UN has largely adopted the institutional approach to peacebuilding and seeks to construct national institutions that can contend with these causes and gradually resolve them over the long-term.

More specifically, the United Nations aspires to develop government institutions that can interrupt the mechanisms of a return to violence outlined in my previous post, as well as support development and security more broadly. To prevent electoral violence, it has assisted the National Electoral Commission to promote free and fair elections and works directly with the parties to ensure observance of the electoral laws. UNIPSIL’s rationale is that the conflict had political causes, and UNIPSIL is by its basic nature a political mission, so it is only natural to concentrate most of its efforts on Sierra Leone’s elections as the institutional process by which the country will steer its own more peaceful future.  Meanwhile, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime and other donors have established an inter-agency Transnational Organized Crime Unit to stem the flow of drugs, and are working with the Ministry of the Interior to improve border controls. On the issue of youth more broadly, the UN works with the Ministry of Youth Employment and Sport, as well as the Ministry of Education, to help generate better livelihood opportunities, while the UNDP has been indispensable to the establishment of a National Youth Commission mandated to coordinate youth activities throughout the country and provide a voice for youth in government.

Although the UN does work directly with local civil society actors,[1]  this institutional approach does not require much vertical integration. The UN works primarily with government agencies (such as Ministries and Commissions) in order to build their capacities. The gradual resolution of the root causes of conflict and the construction of a strong cooperative relationship with civil society are the responsibility of the Sierra Leonean government, which is much better positioned than foreigners to contend with the country’s complex problems and challenging social environment. The role of the UN is primarily to develop the institutional capacity necessary for the government of Sierra Leone to achieve these sovereign obligations, rather than take them on itself.

The institutional approach in Sierra Leone, however, faces three challenges. First, all government institutions need to rapidly and extensively expand their capacity while remaining fiscally sustainable. At the moment, they depend upon continued donor funding. Second, these institutions must actually serve citizens’ needs, and citizens must perceive non-violent institutional processes as an effective and legitimate means of addressing the structural causes of conflict in Sierra Leone. Finally, so long as the youth crisis persists, it poses a latent but potentially destabilizing threat to any institutions that the UN supports, and this is where more vertical integration is needed for successful peacebuilding.

The National Youth Commission holds promise for resolving the latter two issues. Youth-serving civil society groups are highly optimistic that it can play a vital and effective coordinating role so long as it has the necessary resources and sticks to its mandate. It will also work directly with youth and civil society to make progress on the challenges facing youth. In the latter function, the key challenge for the Youth Commission is to compensate for a lack of vertical integration in past youth programming. Within civil society, there has been a great yearning for UN support (especially funding and cooperation) to work directly to ameliorate the root causes of conflict, especially the youth crisis. Given the small scale and limited budget of the UN presence, however, such expectations were largely disappointed.

Youth were exploited by the war, but also feel exploited by the peace. Lots of money has been spent in their name, and yet they feel excluded from the design, execution and benefits of these measures. The general consensus is that any program that is not designed and implemented by youths is not really helping them. For bureaucracies like the UN and other donors, such a participatory approach to development is inefficient and unwieldy; but for civil society, active involvement in development is an indispensable part of development itself. International approaches aspire to achieve local buy-in to a peacebuilding program, but here this is the wrong approach. Youth civil society wants to actively design and participate in the program, not passively approve a preset agenda, and this feature of the process is simultaneously a key successful outcome, whatever the other results are. For the National Youth Commission to succeed as an institution and provide non-violent processes that effectively address youth concerns, it is absolutely essential that it achieve this balance of top-down and bottom-up peacebuilding, and the key mission of the UN is to support this function.

To paraphrase one government minister: no matter what other peacebuilding successes are achieved, to fail on youth is to fail entirely. To succeed in youth empowerment is to enable youth to develop and pursue their own solutions, and this is where vertical integration becomes imperative. If the UN can enable this process through support to the National Youth Commission, then the institutional approach will have worked by facilitating vertical integration between national and local scales.

[1] For example, UNIPSIL works with the youth wings of the political parties to promote peaceful elections, and the Non-State Actor program has mobilized civil society groups to campaign for non-violent elections across the country. The latter program includes a civil society engagement pillar that organizes civil society into six thematic clusters for a more efficient interface with the UN. At present, all of these organizations are engaged for one very specific and temporary campaign for non-violent elections; it remains to be seen whether the cluster system will be sustained and have a budget that enables civil society groups to work in their actual focus areas. If sustained and operational, however, this mechanism would represent a UN innovation in vertical integration.  

Rather than eliminating the root causes of conflict, peacebuilding should aim to construct institutions that can contend with them without resorting to violence.
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