Study challenges enduring myths of peace and development

August 22, 2012
Debbie Lawes
Does peace lead to democracy and economic development? It’s a commonly held view among development organizations, but new evidence from the largest study of its kind has found that such “untested optimism” can often do more harm than good.
Common sense, it would seem, dictates that “all good things come together” when development groups focus on one priority — such as poverty reduction — assuming that political stability and democracy will naturally follow. However, a new study led by McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID), and funded by IDRC and the World Bank, debunks that assumption. Entitled Peace and Development: Democratization, Poverty and Risk Mitigation in Fragile and Post-conflict States, it examines how seemingly complementary development goals and the desire for quick solutions can actually undermine efforts to promote sustainable peace and development in post-conflict states.
Testing assumptions

The study is the most comprehensive ever undertaken to determine what factors — and actors — can obstruct or facilitate democracy, economic growth, and social cohesion in countries making the painstaking transition from conflict to peace. It is also the most multidisciplinary study of its kind, involving political scientists, economists, and sociologists from across the world.

The researchers identified issues that are common to all post-conflict states, and produced in-depth case studies to illustrate the impact of these issues on seven countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Lebanon, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and Sudan.
“For the Northern authors, they learned that their theories, or assumptions, often don’t conform to the reality on the ground,” says McGill University political scientist and lead author Philip Oxhorn.
Role of major powers
One of those realities is the dominant role that international actors like NATO, the United Nations, major developed countries, and regional powers play in determining what form conflict resolution takes, and who participates in peace negotiations. The studies found that trade-offs and decisions to stop a conflict can compromise democracy and economic development over the longer term. 
In Sri Lanka and Sudan, for example, international moderators tended to favour the most heavily armed groups at the exclusion of other armed or unarmed political actors, and civil society organizations. In Sudan, this bias effectively shut out other voices, which contributed to the eruption of post-conflict violence. 
“This tells us that if you want to be part of a power-sharing agreement, the surest way is to raise arms,” says Oxhorn, founding director of ISID. “But once civil society is out, it is hard to bring it back in.”
Rwanda is a notable exception. Though power-sharing was limited, Oxhorn says its economic success has been impressive, in part because the power elite made a deliberate effort to reach out to society.
The researchers also found that development assistance, while often essential in war-ravaged countries, can be a doubled-edged sword. Dependence on foreign aid can crowd out the potential for economic growth and job creation. “To avoid these problems, donors must develop longer-range planning focusing specifically on its contribution to sustainable economic development, including clear timetables for weaning countries off such aid,” the study states.
Flexibility is key
The inability of political institutions to adapt to change is one of the biggest challenges facing post-conflict states. The researchers found that many peace accords tend to favour the political and institutional status quo and prevent the emergence of alternatives, including ones that might be more conducive to longer-term peace, democracy, and development.
One case study looks at the impacts of the 1990 peace accord in Lebanon, which divided political power between Christians and Muslims: “Twenty years later, the results of such an experience are at best ambiguous and, at worse, a clear case of failure.”

Oxhorn notes that the current system in Lebanon virtually excludes non-religious groups from political power and is unable to rebalance power to reflect demographic or economic changes. Such rigidity, he adds, often results in the emergence of informal institutions, which can lead to corruption and restrictions on democracy. 

“Because the institutions that are set up are too rigid to grow and change with the evolution of the societies, they become more and more irrelevant. This is a real threat not only to democracy and rule of law but ultimately to development and the continuation of non-violence,” he says. However, when key actors are committed to political democracy, informal institutions can make a positive contribution to peace, development, and democratization, he notes.
Downsides of decentralization
Is it better to have a strong centralized government in post-conflict states, or political power that is shared at the regional and local levels? Decentralization can empower citizens and promote democracy — but not always. The researchers found that decentralization can be counterproductive, creating corrupt fiefdoms, weak state institutions, and patronage.
“Colombia is the worst example of this because decentralization in the end fed the extreme right and extreme left, which led to localized violence and the longest-lasting civil war in Latin America,” says Oxhorn.
Again, the exception was Rwanda, where decentralization became a pillar of post-conflict reconstruction. Oxhorn credits this to a national long-term development plan that takes into account the country’s historical and cultural contexts. Local governance, in effect, became the basis for good governance.
“If decentralization is going to work in supporting democracy and economic development and avoiding a resurgence of conflict, you can’t have a one-size-fits-all,” he stresses.
Getting democracy right
Democracy is not a panacea that will preclude civil conflict. However, the researchers found that it can help achieve lasting peace and greater inclusion of civil society if managed correctly.
Mozambique is a case in point. When the civil war ended in 1992, a new constitution had already been enacted providing for a multi-party political system, market economy, and free elections. The country’s democratic institutions allow for change because they are responsive to changing voter interests.
“Even if one party always wins, that party needs to reflect the opposition. It needs to reach accommodations with civil society,” Oxhorn says. The flip side is Sudan, where the recent peace accords focused more on accommodating the armed groups than on creating democratic institutions.
The researchers also found that democracy is an ideal channel for international assistance. Democratic countries can draw on their experience to help create political parties and other electoral institutions in a non-partisan way.
But don’t rush it, the authors caution. Raising democratic expectations is easy compared with the more difficult and time-consuming job of building institutions capable of ensuring free and fair elections.
Debbie Lawes is an Ottawa-based writer.

Photo (right): Globovisión/flickr

Decentralization in Colombia led to localized violence and the longest-lasting civil war in Latin America.