Peacebuilding and Violent Extremism

The question whether countries post-conflict should focus on democratization or economic performance to ensure stability has shifted dramatically in the last few decades towards the latter. At the same time these two developments still, or increasingly so, are treated as independent from each other. In the following few paragraphs I will try to point out that not only the notion of economic performance before political transition is wrong (and vice versa), but also that these two issues cannot be, and should not be treated separately.

The last three or so decades of economic development have reduced global inequalities at an in modern times unprecedented speed. It lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and in many cases prepared the ground for peaceful transitions from old national as well as international conflicts. Countries like India, Algeria, Indonesia, Turkey, the Philippines or Peru are paramount examples of such. While some of these countries still, or even increasingly so since a few years, struggle with violent extremism and political violence, global levels of civil war casualties are down and falling.

At the same time however, two disturbing trends are observable: one is the maintenance and reinforcement of old, and the eruption of new conflicts in certain geographical pockets, which too are often hit by the lack of economic development. Afghanistan, Haiti, Sudan, Syria, Libya or the Central African Republic (CAR) are cases in point. The second is the global economic slowdown, combined with decreasing public space in many, if not most countries, with high fragility for violent conflict (read as: countries prone to violent extremism).

The international community, too ostensibly increasingly ideologically divided again, seems not to be able to get a grip on any of these developments. This might have to do with the growing global influence of actors like China and Russia, who understandingly show little to no interest in promoting democracy. But that also has to do with the general misperception that violent conflicts can be solved without including a broad set of measures.

Bearing in mind that conflicts do show regional and even local differences, all of the following measures – to a varying degree – play a key role in reducing the danger of violent conflict. The first is increasing the cost of violent extremism. This is a two way approach, one includes deterring measures that keeps people from employing violent means, and the other is creating an environment, where non-violent means have lower costs.

Contrary to what one would think, states do not sufficiently employ deterring means, mainly due to the fact that they lack the capacity to do so. Take the conflict in CAR as an example: even if the government if highly repressive towards alleged or real perpetrators of extremist violence, it has no means to deter actors outside the government’s centres of power. If, on the contrary, a group of armed militias thousands of miles away from Washington DC perpetrates acts of violence (or threatens to do so) the federal government can quickly and easily send security personnel to deal with the issue.

Deterrence of violent extremism must include all forms of such (e.g. also gender based violence) and requires international support for countries like the CAR. That includes peacebuilding efforts such as police/military assistance and putting pressure on neighbouring actors to stop harbouring violent extremists jeopardizing peace (like the case for Rwanda). In addition to increasing costs of violent means, the costs of non-violent means must be reduced, which leads me to the second measure.

Cost-reduction of non-violent means, similarly to the cost-increasing ones for violent means, can take many different forms. To start with, there needs to be a presence of non-military state representation on all local levels, particularly in geographically remote areas. For fairly obvious reasons countries like Sudan cannot afford to maintain substantial civilian presences in remote areas, thus they need assistance in putting up public infrastructure of that kind.

There are many ways of doing so, but the key is robust and inclusive local and national economic development, without which it cannot be sustainable. One might agree or not agree with liberalist policies, but the creation of jobs is essential in making rebellion more costly and helping set up civil services. Think of it that way: given the options of a decently remunerated job or joining a rebellion, at least from a rational actor’s perspective, one is far more likely to choose the job. Summarized the first two measures reduce what James Fearon would call overall “feasibility” of conflict.

This, in turn, leads to the third measure, reduction of grievances: local and national governments need to take steps to reduce discrimination, most notably along horizontal lines. To reduce discrimination, a government naturally needs to be more inclusive. For instance if a member of an ethnic group or part of the group that is not in power has political grievances, the government need to set up vehicle to turn these grievances into non-violent political results. An example could be a Sunni clan from western Iraq that feels left out of the daily political process and wants to have it fair say, the central government needs to find a way to peacefully transform those issues into policy output.

To be able to reduce grievances, governments must not only pursue non-discriminatory politics, but also adhere to a certain level of the rule of law and set up institutions that have the capacity to deal with complex political, economic and social problems. One could argue that if achieving economic growth or achieving democratization would be easy, states would simply do it. It is obviously trickier than that and states often are locked in old political, social and economic structures that make larger changes close to impossible. As the last few decades have shown, political development needs to be accompanied by economic development and vice versa.

Yet success models like China seems to show that economic growth is possible without political democratisation. Countries like China, although having plenty capacity for coercion, lack the necessary structures to transform public dissent peacefully, as the conflict in the countries far-west shows – leaving aside the fact that, as Robinson and Acemoglu vividly portrayed, China will have to find a way to turn its increasing societal pluralism into polity structures.

Similarly countries that started a process of democratization without the accompanying economic growth are bound to fail and fall into a vicious circle of violent extremism. There might be voting processes and democratic structures in Afghanistan, but with practically no formal jobs outside Kabul and the total lack of economic infrastructure in all but the capital, joining an extremist group – by coercion or voluntarily – becomes way more likely.

Thus the question whether focusing economic growth or democratisation is a chicken-or-egg one. Both needs to happen at the same time and the international community must put more efforts into solving existing conflicts and prevent new ones from erupting.