Can we know with any certainty if the peace that has been established following a civil war is a stable peace? This is the question at the heart of my latest research and book, Measuring Peace: Principles, Practices, and Politics. It’s an important question because we spend billions of dollars and deploy tens of thousands of personnel each year in support of efforts to build peace in conflict-affected states around the world. Yet despite these prodigious efforts, conflict recidivism has been and remains a chronic problem. By one estimate, on average 40 percent of countries emerging from civil war are likely to revert to violent conﬂict within a decade of the cessation of hostilities.
Conflict dynamics are often too complex to allow us to determine with any certainty whether the peace being built will be a lasting peace. But it is possible to ascertain the quality of a peace, and the vulnerability of that peace to conflict relapse, with greater degrees of confidence. There are numerous ways in which peacebuilding actors have successfully enhanced their capacity to assess the quality of the peace in conflict environments – from early warning and conflict analysis in the case of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), to smart benchmarking in the case of the United Nations, to the use of ‘peace indicators’ on the part of leading non-governmental organisations. Many of these initiatives have brought the quality of peace into sharper focus and have helped to improve the efforts of peacebuilding actors. Indeed, in some cases, these initiatives have arguably prevented the outbreak of renewed violence. Unfortunately, these are often isolated efforts. Effective practices are not diffused across the organisation, or shared with the broader peacebuilding community.
Varied though these initiatives may be, what they all have in common is a recognition of the vital importance of contextual knowledge for the insights it affords into local conflict dynamics and their implications for devising appropriate strategies for the maintenance of peace. The importance of such knowledge may seem obvious and, yet, there is a tendency among peacebuilding actors to rely, to varying degrees, on preconceived models or templates that are either maladapted or plainly ill-suited to local conditions.
This is not to suggest that all peace failures can be foreseen or that, if foreseen, can be prevented. The point is simply, but not unimportantly, that more rigorous assessments of the quality of the peace can facilitate more effective international and domestic engagement. The absence of effective assessment means we don’t necessarily know which peacebuilding interventions work and which don’t. Policy-makers want to know that national and international funds are being invested in constructive initiatives that are most likely to be successful. This will always be difficult as local context will differ from conflict to conflict; however, using more effective measurement practices and encouraging the sharing of good practice among peacebuilding practitioners would be a step in the right direction.
Better assessments of the quality of peace are not a panacea for conflict recurrence. And we know that at the end of the day, the decision to engage, or not, in support of building or maintaining a peace is often a political decision on the part of third parties. However, to the extent that sound analysis can inform policy deliberations, more rigorous assessments of the robustness of the peace have the potential to make a substantial contribution to the prevention of conflict recurrence.
Richard Caplan is Professor of International Relations and Official Fellow, Linacre College