No. 9: Peacebuilding, Power, and Politics in Africa / Max Stephenson Jr. / Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, June 2014

Reviewed in: Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, June 2014

Peacebuilding, Power, and Politics in Africa edited by Devon Curtis and Gwinyayi A. Dzinesa. Ohio University Press, Athens, OH, 2012, pp. 353, bibliography, index, $22.26

Editors Devon Curtis and Gwinyayi Dzinesa, affiliated with the University of Cambridge, UK, and the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, South Africa, respectively, and their fifteen contributors, many from African universities, have created a thoughtful text that assays the character and efficacy of peacebuilding efforts in Africa during the two decades since the Cold War's end. The authors employ a variety of analytical approaches including policy and institutional analysis (African Union, New Partnership for Africa's Development, African Development Bank, Pan-African Ministers Conference for Public and Civil Service, UN peacebuilding Commission, World Bank and International Criminal Court), and case studies (Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Great Lakes region, Sudan, Somalia and the Niger Delta) that together provide rich and relevant detail.

In an especially trenchant chapter that raises the principal themes of the book, Dzinesa examines the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration activities of recent years in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique. Those subjects include a view of peacebuilding as a dynamic and dialectical set of processes that engage local, regional, national, and international actors over time. He also suggests that peacebuilding is always a contested political process and that "local ownership" is not a single monolithic understanding to be tapped, but instead a mosaic of actors and forces that must be recognized and addressed. Finally, Dzinesa argues that peace interventions demand patience and social learning.

Devon Curtis also treats these concerns in the introduction arguing that "existing frameworks for understanding peacebuilding are largely insufficient."

Rather than interpreting peacebuilding as a fixed set of procedures and practices leading to some universally defined end called 'peace,' the introduction and the chapters that follow suggest that peacebuilding may be best thought of as a set of multiple ideas, relationships and experiences that are embedded within hierarchies of power and knowledge (p. 3).

In short, local (intra-national) socio-cultural norms, conditions and political and economic dynamics mediate any international peacebuilding intervention. Those customs and values are the product of history and are likely contested. Peacebuilding is neither a technical, nor a straightforward process. Rather, those pursuing it must develop trust relationships with a variety of country partners, while they navigate local, regional and national power relationships, and community understandings. In consequence, peacebuilding demands not only the cessation of conflict, but also social learning. One key lesson of this volume is that international actors must pay much greater heed to the truism that context matters.

A corollary of this lesson these essays suggest is that even sincere international efforts to involve local actors in building peace will not succeed if they are constructed on a view that country firmaments everywhere may be approached similarly. Instead, peacebuilders must take the time to work persistently both to chart and to come to understand national dynamics, and to go further and discern ways to work with leaders and citizens (at local, regional and national scales as necessary) to seek to change those values and conditions that are the strongest impediments to peace. These will often involve deeply entrenched assumptions and beliefs, so simply exhorting individuals to shift their views is unlikely to secure change. Since missteps and unexpected reactions will surely arise, those intervening need to be prepared to shift course and adopt new strategies to address the range of obstacles they may encounter. This book's essays make clear that post-conflict nation's social, political, cultural, and economic contexts are hardly uniform, and would-be peacebuilders who do not acknowledge the realities and vagaries and dynamics of knowledge and power within the countries with which they work will fail. Indeed, these chapters also suggest that most peacebuilding interventions in Africa in the post-war era have, by most measures, failed.

Another broad conclusion to be drawn from this volume's analyses is that international financial institutions, United Nations agencies, regional organizations of states or individual states engaged in peacebuilding must develop a much broader tolerance for "learning by doing" and must be willing to shift course and accountability metrics and timelines to address conditions in the nations in which they are operating. Some countries will lack nearly all capacities necessary for governance, and therefore, for conflict amelioration. Other states will need to develop selected capacities, while still other nations may need to address dominant social views among their citizens that permit systemic discrimination of one or more groups if peace is to be sustained.

Taken together, the chapters in this excellent book caution international leaders to be prepared to be surprised by the twists and turns that attend their peacebuilding efforts, to be modest concerning their expectations and, above all, to be flexible, as they learn more about the conditions and social, political and economic dynamics in the countries they would seek to assist. Rigid views premised on short-term results will likely prove the enemy of successful peacebuilding.

Max Stephenson Jr.
Institute for Policy and Governance, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, USA

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