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Last Updated: 03/12/2012
Transforming Systemic Inadequacy in International Peacebuilding
Alexandra Dobra

Since the end of the Cold War, the outbreak of new wars has generated an extensive need for international peacebuilding missions. Most of these peacebuilding missions, however, have proved to constitute operational and systemic failures (e.g. Rwanda, Tajikistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka). On top of that, owing to the current New World Order and its implied structural changes, the traditional conceptions of peacebuilding will provide even more inept responses for failed and fragile States. Through a bipartite structure, this paper exploits the underlying reasons for the failure of peacebuilding by categorizing it into three main models. As a response to this failure, Alexandra Dobra develops a new model, the Meta->Micro Evolutionary System, which aims to systemically improve the conduct of peacebuilding, through substantiating the existence of a self-sustained and mutually-alternating dyad. The Meta-Micro Evolutionary System codifies ex-ante the conduct of peacebuilding and therefore constitutes a prescriptive tool.


Image source:  Lance Cpl. Demetrius Munnerlyn

"Something new has to be built to abolish the previous narrowness, because no reform by itself can destroy a system which, in spite of its shortcomings, can fulfil given requirements – or else it would not exist – in the absence of any system above it which could do better" -- Florensky (1905 : 129)

On the 22nd of November 2011, during the Annual Peacebuilding Fund, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon highlighted that States are facing momentous changes that will influence the way peacebuilding is conducted. Is this empirical observation the mark of a turn in the conceptualization and operationalization of peacebuilding? Are traditional conceptions of peacebuilding caught in a deficiency trap? Although the number, size and aims of peacebuilding missions have exponentially increased after the end of the Cold War (Bellamy, 2008), the concept still suffers from a semantic confusion. On top of that, the literature on peacebuilding remains theoretically underdeveloped, vague and strongly entrenched within two ideological strands. On the one hand, optimists list the functions of peacebuilding and magnify it; on the other hand, pessimists describe peacebuilding as counterproductive and irrelevant. Overall, both strands fail to link the functions of peacebuilding with a causal theory of how it works (Fortna, 2008). This absence of causalistic outlook and prescriptiveness is made even more problematic owing to the fact that we have entered into a New World Order, where adaptability and the lowering of risk are major variables determining the positive outcome of peacebuilding operations.

One main answer to this changing pattern has been provided by the new peacebuilding architecture of the United Nations. Indeed, after the Reform Summit of 2005, the United Nations launched the Peace Building Commission (PBC), aiming to prevent countries from relapsing into conflict by strengthening political will, mobilizing financial resources, improving coordination and forging a strategic agenda in peacebuilding operations. The PBC is yet another technical tool that fails to address root causes while also failing to adapt systemically. The peacebuilding agenda is in a perpetum mobile and has to become sensitive to the systemic changes introduced by the New World Order. In other words, old blueprints of peacebuilding design do not match the current meta- and micro-operative structures.

This paper first begins to distinguish three conceptions of peacebuilding, derived from Banks’ model of peace (1987). This examination acts as an evidentiary process shedding light on why all three blueprints of peacebuilding are operationally and systemically flawed. In response to this ut-supra flaw, this paper seeks to provide an argumentum ad novitatem to answer how peacebuilding should be conducted in order to become effective; in order to be proactive. Thus, the author has developed the Meta-Micro Evolutionary System (figure 1), a new model stressing the importance for peacebuilding to be both integrated within and integrative of a two-level dynamic: the meta and the micro. This model shall reassess the conduct of peacebuilding so as to codify its conduct ex-ante and to make it prescriptive.

From peacebuilding as an operational and systemic failure…

Before categorizing the three variants of peacebuilding, we should first address what peacebuilding is. The very concept of peacebuilding suffers from a semantic confusion due to plethoric definitions and evolutions. The definition of peacebuilding is based on a diverse concept, perceived differently according to countries, international organizations and the theatres of intervention. Succinctly, peacebuilding can be defined as “the effort to strengthen the prospects for internal peace and decrease the likelihood of violent conflict. The overarching goal of peacebuilding is to enhance the indigenous capacity of a society to manage conflict without violence” (Debiel & Klein, 2002: 35). Following this purpose-led definition, three concepts of peacebuilding can be inferred.

Banks (1987) defines the conception of peace according to three variants:

(i) A conservative order-stability equated with State-building.

(ii) An orthodox liberal peacebuilding model equated with pluralism and democratic reforms.

(iii) A justice-emancipatory variant equated with a civil-society mode of peacebuilding.

Based on a similar structure, three variants of peacebuilding can be derived. Top-down Institutional Peacebuilding (derived from model (i)) is based on the premise that “peacebuilding without an institutional foundation is a recipe for failure” (Barrett et al., 2007: 37). This concept of peacebuilding marginalizes local interests and dis-empowers communities. As an example, in the 1991-2002 conflict in Sierra Leone, reconstruction efforts had to deal with much more than just physical infrastructure (Jabbi & Kpaka, 2007: 9); the social fabric had to be reconstructed. In this light, in the long-term, “change can only be brought by Sierra Leoneans themselves” (Albrecht & Malan, 2006: 21) and calls for an attitudinal change. The Top-down Institutional Peacebuilding Model reduces peacebuilding to a functional and technocratic exercise of “ticking boxes, counting heads and weapons, amending constitutions, and reconstructing housing units”» (Mac Ginty, 2006: 3-4). In light of this, what is being reconstructed is not an emancipatory peace, but a proto-liberal peace led by hegemonic powers, who are more concerned with stabilizing the enduring pattern of the Western-dominated world order, than with enabling a liberating, effective transformation to occur.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democratic Reformist model (derived from model (ii)) poses the problem of over-relying on an autarkic syncretism of Western democracies, dismissive of local dynamics and culturally and historically embedded patterns. The UN Charter is largely premised on a conventional conception of democracy, and as a result, the UN has failed to implement the prescription of the 1992 Agenda for Peace in countries such as Somalia, Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.

As a response to the structural failures of the ut-supra models, the Transformative and Cosmopolitan Peacebuilding Model (derived from model (iii)), is based on the ontology that “any viable concept of peace must not displace indigenous legitimacy with preponderant institutions that are inflexible and actually obscure the indigenous” (Richmond, 2008: 163). Although this model has worked in Somaliland and Bougainville and integrates the missing variable, namely that of local interests, it does not provide a viable response for effective peacebuilding. Indeed, the prioritization and empowerment of local and indigenous communities and interests in the peacebuilding process proves to be problematic. If conflicts are transforming, it is also on the basis of the emergence of a new connection between individuals, spaces and social solidarities, still operating in the framework of the globalized dynamic. On this basis, we “see the advent of a construction of identity politics as a sequel to the political vacuum and as a source of criminal mobilization, along with the rise of structures acting as fuel for the perpetuation of conflict.” (Dobra, 2011). Hence, local cultures and communities are the locus of power asymmetry, “mirrored also in the centralized and clientelistic nature of civil society” (Goodhard & Klem, 2005: 24, as cited in Ramsbotham et al., 2011). Sri Lanka, where the civil war lasted from 1983 to 2009, provides an excellent illustration in this sense. Sri Lanka’s civil society was itself divided, and activist civil society organizations were very prone to hampering peacebuilding efforts, therefore playing a zero-sum politics game.

Overall, the main problem faced by these models is that they are mutually-exclusive, and adopt a narrow-minded view by using one independent variable. In addition, although peacebuilding should be context-specific, we must not follow Heathershaw’s (2008) suggestion and talk about “peacebuildings”, because we would fall into the taxonomy of peacebuilding typologies. Hence, a model providing a universal validity regarding the conduct of peacebuilding should be defined. With this aim, the next section determines this new model, able to bridge the international and local levels while providing a prescriptive frame surrounding how peacebuilding should be conducted.

… to the Meta-Micro Evolutionary System, or how to transform systemic inadequacy into adequacy

The current experience of economic turmoil opens the door for a New World Order, involving structural and systemic transformations, where the paradigm of globalization as a disintegrational process acts at the infra-State scale (Dobra, 2012). The New World Order is to be understood as a centrifugal force, where national and cultural empathies are re-defining the distribution of power and subsequent foreign policy agendas. In light of this, a new holistic epistemology and ontology of peacebuilding design should be defined. The new internal dynamic of peacebuilding design should aim to diminish the returns of repetition, by providing systemically-sensitive responses to conflicts.

The Meta-Micro Evolutionary System (figure 1), sheds light on how, under the impetus of globalization, the State is re-configured, and how this implies the re-definition of identity belongings, which in turn affect the process of peacebuilding.

Meta Micro Evolutionary System (Dobra)

In the new international arena, globalization provides the meta-operative frame within which interrelated micro-operative dynamics and interest formation operate. Within this process, two conflicting consequences arise. First, the State (when failed or fragile) is becoming increasingly multidimensional; its propensity to recognize itself in collectives of defence of categorical interests is declining. This creates a political vacuum. Second, this vacuum provides the grounds for local communities to structure themselves around a shared identity. This shared identity is split across States (when failed or fragile) and gives rise to ethnicity based identification, neo-tribalism and neo-nationalism. On top of that, owing to the interconnection of States, due to the meta-operative structure, this reification of structured identity has a contaminating effect. This domino effect is well-illustrated through the Arab Spring of 2011 and implies the risk of increasing infra- and inter-State conflicts. In a similar vein, after the Bonn Agreement of December 2001 and the establishment of the Afghan Transitional Authority (ATA) in June 2002, both providing a framework for peacebuilding processes under the auspices of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), the Afghan case could seem a prima facie to provide an example of effective peacebuilding. However, after closer scrutiny it appears that the international community, by stigmatizing the ‘enemy’ (the Taliban), provided the Taliban with inflated political and social agency, instead of disempowering them. Here, the international system (the meta-operative system), through the use of a liberal narrative, has shaped and strengthened the Taliban (micro-operative system) by providing them with further tools for instrumentalizing their identity.

The Meta-Micro Evolutionary System (figure 1), substantiates that the micro-level reality (the national arena) is constructed within a meta-level reality (the international arena). This two-level system constitutes a dyad, to the extent to which both operative levels are constructed within each other and are therefore altering each other mutually. As a result of the Meta-Micro Evolutionary System, four variables must be integrated within the internal dynamic of the peacebuilding policy process in order to diminish the returns of repetition (e.g. re-escalation of conflict). These four variables are as follows:

1. Place the stabilization and ‘nationalization’ of the State at the heart of the peacebuilding process in order to:

a) avoid / forestall State disintegration;

b) prevent the instrumentalization of the political vacuum.

2. Sequential involvement of all major actors in order to:

a) ensure an integrated strategic framework;

b) alter the perceptions, beliefs and structures of target groups;

c) incorporate these target groups into the action process.

3. Structure the negotation of peace around a collective epistemic understanding of interests in order to:

a) create shared ownership;

b) offer a discursive practice;

c) provide an ethical solution responsive to the divergent needs.

4. Application of external instruments (e.g. military intervention) according to degree of urgency of potential problems; or application of internal instruments in order to:

a) avoid systemic relapse.


“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” – Martin Luther King (1968: 49)

To conclude, there is an obsolescence of the concept and applicability of the three traditional blueprints of peacebuilding. This obsolescence stems from a double-edged sword. First, these concepts do not provide a universally applicable paradigm. These models neither constitute a guiding principle, nor an explanatory device. Second, owing to the changing global dynamic (e.g. the New World Order) affecting systemically the international and national architecture, these concepts fail to adapt to the new global reality.

In order to palliate this epistemological failure, this paper has developed the so-called Meta-Micro Evolutionary System (figure 1). This model aims to provide an ad capita ad calcem guiding and prescriptive device for designing international peacebuilding. It therefore moves the epistemology of the conduct of international peacebuilding from a reactive to a proactive strand and provides a bridge between the international and local operative levels.

In the frame of future cogitations, it might be worth accentuating the need to move towards a fundamental redefinition of peacebuilding. This redefinition should alter its ab origine scope by transforming peacebuilding into an educational instrument able to transcend international and local conflicting narratives. One must not forget that, “Only the educated are free” Epictetus (1995: 134).


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Dobra, A., (2011). New wars, old wars : is the distinction valid ?, The Peace Monitor, United Nations University for Peace, November 2011. URL :, [Accessed the 28th of November 2011].

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Alexandra Dobra is a masters student at Cambridge University. She is the Editor of Politikon, Council Board Member for Gerson Lehrman Group, Chapter Chair and Founder for The Transatlantic. She has published more than 20 articles in international academic journals, most of them ISI.