Monday 25 April 2016

Conflict, peacebuilding & open government: opportunities & threats

“Election victories bring legitimacy to new leaders and provide windows of opportunity for bold action … nevertheless ethnic armed groups … also enjoy significant, if contested, legitimacy, particularly among marginalised communities that often regard the State as alien.”
A key passage from an excellent review by Ashley South of the peace processes in Myanmar and the Philippines, and the daunting challenges they face now. This review is written from a political economy perspective and looks at the bargaining and deals that have or have not yet been done in both contexts. The comparative study makes a number of observations that to my mind highlight a set of challenges but also opportunities for a combined open government/peacebuilding approach to have greater traction on openness as well as long term peace. Ultimately this calls for a unified institutional approach to an SDG agenda that places conflict together with governance and justice in a way that will force us to confront this challenge. In my view not a moment too soon.

Don’t rush

South points out that as a peace process takes hold there is an increasing asymmetry of power which threatens vested interests on the part of non-State armed groups. Put bluntly they start to lose relevance. South states:

“While the current transition in Myanmar may prove an opportunity to reassess State-society relations in the country, it might also represent a turning point in influence for the ethnic armed organisations”.
Another way of looking at this, is that the elites at the top of armed organisations are at their most vulnerable as this process takes hold. A quick look at the overthrow of elites in other former armed groups that were attempting non-violence in the past makes this point. Not appreciating this, and rushing towards elections and/or new forms of electoral or otherwise political contestation before democratic institutions and armed groups themselves are ready for this, therefore poses huge risks. Timing and sequencing for governance initiatives, especially those under the ‘democratisation’ banner, is critical.

Build trust

South notes that in both Myanmar and the Philippines, the conflicts dividing society have lasted so long that there is now a lack of understanding on both sides of the other, particularly among the young. A lack of understanding by a majority population of the history, circumstances and grievances of marginalised communities is acutely dangerous if a governance approach is not itself informed and shaped by it. The “Open Government Partnership”, for example, is a title that implies one singular government with one State to which all citizens subscribe. If that is not the case and, furthermore, the people themselves do not understand each other's perspectives let alone universally self-define as citizens of that State, such an approach is doomed to fail or even do harm. Yet we do now have States joining OGP who face such challenges. The organisation I work for Saferworld is thinking hard about how to bring those approaches together to minimise harm and maximise potential. Because, amid the danger, there is potential.


I used to work in Sri Lanka just after the civil war. Not only did communities there not understand each other’s perspectives, in the case of younger generations they didn’t even speak the same language. English had been the official language which enabled Sinhalese and Tamil speakers to communicate prior to a war which erupted in 1983 and prevented most Tamil children born afterwards from learning it. To me it seemed symbolic of the challenge but also the chance to build: you can in the end learn to speak another language and, albeit in similarly lengthy timescales to learning a language, learn to understand and trust others too.

The potential presented by the entry of open governance initiatives into fragile contexts to create opportunities to support that process of learning to understand and trust through collaboration can be harnessed if the initiatives are designed in a way that is conflict sensitive, genuinely inclusive but also that do not shy away from difficult and intensely political issues. Otherwise you risk having a dialogue between international donors with privileged civil society and political elites that do not speak to the underlying grievances that at any time could re-emerge in favour of data-led projects that only scratch the surface. It’s worth remembering that the majority of conflicts are relapses of old.

Two themes seem likely to emerge from these initiatives in Myanmar, the Philippines but also Sri Lanka, Kenya and a wide range of other fragile contexts: federalism or some form of devolution on the one hand; and transparency/accountability on the other. Marginalised groups will tend to be interested in the former while relatively privileged majority groups the latter. Open government initiatives tend to avoid questions of devolution while peacebuilding approaches avoid transparency, beyond the superficial. Yet if they can be combined as part of the peacebuilding/openness deal then there could be very clear dividends for both. Devolution need not only be framed as answering a political demand from a formerly armed group but also as enhancing transparency for all groups in society, including the majority group, by bringing decision making closer to the people. Similarly enhancing transparency need not only be framed as something of relevance to the majority communities in society but also has the benefit of shining a light on the elites who for years have controlled the lives of marginalised groups in times of conflict.

An inclusive approach to peacebuilding and open governance – for example by ensuring the participation of all groups (defined by ethnicity, gender, geography etc.) – in determining political settlements as well as the themes on which a new era of governance is to be founded is going to be really, really hard. That’s why it hasn’t been tried before. But with the new era of SDGs that will compel donors and practitioners to come together to try them there are grounds for some hope. And the relevance of what we learn from this work will have implications way beyond post conflict states.

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