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Security, development and stabilisation: Promoting peaceful transitions through international engagement

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


Donald Steinberg - Deputy President, International Crisis Group


Julian Lindley-French - Netherlands Defence Academy

Rory Keane - International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF), OECD


Robin Niblett - Director, Chatham House

Key points

  • The stakes of the game have gone up. Global security risks are too great to ignore fragile states. In addition, available resources have diminished both in terms of available troops and of funding. Humanitarian relief continues to attract funds, but longer-term aid has suffered, creating a situation of “billions for relief, but very few pennies for prevention or reconstruction”.

  • Narrowly-focused peace enforcement is no longer the answer. A ‘comprehensive’ approach is required, encompassing security sector reform (SSR), disarmament, demobilsation and reintegration (DDR), transitional justice, support to state administration, civil society involvement, and political reconciliation.

  • But we are still learning how to do this. New institutions and structures reflect a new interest in achieving more comprehensive and effective support for stabilisation and post-conflict transition – such as integrated UN missions, the UN Peacebuilding Commission, UK Stabilisation Unit, S\CRS in the US, and START in Canada – but what matters most is whether all the key actors are aligned around a shared common vision and strategy, including regional and national actors. Real alignment of actors and joint strategies have yet to be achieved in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

  • To succeed, new people-centred approaches must meet people’s expectations of immediate improvement in their lives. If they fail, international stabilisation efforts will fail.

  • More effective comprehensive engagement  also requires levels of resourcing way beyond what is currently on offer.

  • ‘Success’ will also prove elusive without more sophisticated monitoring of success or failure, more sophisticated analysis of the underlying problems to be tackled and of the risks of doing harm, and more sophisticated sequencing and prioritisation of different stabilisation efforts.

  • Without a true joined-up approach and accompanying political legitimacy, significant tension will continue to exist between intent and capability. The room for manoeuvre for countries currently engaged in stabilisation operations is increasingly constrained by political considerations.

Robin Niblett, (Chatham House):

Robin Niblett opened the second meeting of the fragile states series by emphasizing the need to manage the internal impacts of fragile states, as well as their external, regional and global effects.  He stressed that there is a great deal of work that can be done at national and international level to support governments and communities that are attempting to place their country on a stable path of growth, security and stability.

Don Steinberg, (International Crisis Group):

Don Steinberg highlighted the interlocking challenges and myriad tasks faced by peacebuilders today. The clear division of security issues has vanished, and in its place today’s UN envoy must fulfil a variety of roles. The modern mandate is no longer simple peace enforcement, but encompasses security sector reform (SSR), disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR), transitional justice, extension of state administration, elections, gender empowerment, humanitarian de-mining and others. Engagement cannot be limited to the warring parties, special envoys and civil society actors must be factored into the equation and success can depend on the involvement of regional actors.

How do you identify fragile states, or states that may go into armed conflict?

Don pointed out seven indicators of fragile or potentially fragile states: the degree of political participation, responsive government and rule of law; rapid urbanisation tied with a weak economy; the absence of institutions of civil society; location and regional influences; militarization of society; isolation from the international stage; and historical conflicts.

Don identified six factors to consider when rebuilding a stable society after conflict. Most of which have sequential and self-reinforcing aspects, but are also sometimes contradictory.

Firstly, stabilise the security situation. The building of credible, local security (plus DDR, SSR) is essential. This cannot be provided by the same forces that fought the conflict. Women have to be part of the security force; otherwise an essential link to the community is lost. Common problems with this approach are reliance on warlords, over-strengthening of the military vis-à-vis the political system, and foreign engagement being driven by defence departments (i.e. Afghanistan).

Secondly, create a legitimate political framework, judiciaries, and legislature. This usually requires decentralisation or local empowerment.

Thirdly, get the economy on track again. This includes rebuilding roads, schools, reviving agriculture, improving income distribution, and youth employment. Land reform is often a crucial element of this. However, meeting expectations of improved quality of life can be difficult.

Fourthly, dealing with the past and transitional justice. There needs to be a pragmatic balancing of accountability for past abuses with the concept of national reconciliation, and addressing a culture of impunity.

Fifthly, rebuilding civil society, which is often the first victim of conflict. The engagement of women is a key determinant in the potential success of a peace process.

Finally, regional context - In general neighbours have an interest in a stable environment, and this can provide a dampening effect on violence. However, neighbours may encourage continuing regional instability for various reasons (e.g. to prevent rise of rivals).

Julian Lindley-French, (Netherlands Defence Academy)

Julian Lindley-French opened by noting that he comes to the discussion with a military perspective, and has recently focused heavily on Afghanistan. He struck a sombre note early on, pointing out that if the international community cannot strike balance soon between efficiency and effectiveness, and move beyond the rhetorical comprehensive approach, then progress on stabilisation, with its balance between values and interest, will be lost. The result could very likely be a regression to a more self-interested ‘balance of power’ world.

He laid out six major problems inherent in the contemporary comprehensive approach.

Firstly, civilian planners must come into military campaign sessions earlier than is currently being done. The military traditionally develops the plan, and then asks for civilian assistance in making it operational.

Secondly, thus far we have not developed a methodology for determining success with the comprehensive approach.

Thirdly, we have never successfully created a meaningful transnational set of metrics for assessing performance across theatres. This is exacerbated by a host of different capitals with difference national agendas, making it extremely difficult to know who is doing what in the broader picture.

Fourthly, there are too many ‘comprehensive approaches’. The stabilisation theatre has a tendency to turn multinational agendas into national agendas (once the original, multilateral plans get on the ground). Ironically, this national stovepiping undermines the legitimacy that transnational bring to a stabilisation effort.

Fifthly, there are few commitments to the comprehensive agenda outside of Europe and North America.

Finally, Political reconciliation is almost a mere afterthought within the stabilisation agenda. We never seem to have a political plan before we go into a theatre.

Rory Keane, (OECD):

Rory Keane began by emphasising that stabilisation is an emerging theme in the development discourse. The older paradigms of containment, which gave way to the liberal imperialist agenda (e.g. the liberation of Kosovo), have now blurred and the borders of formerly discrete kinds of security (hard, soft, human) have morphed into what is now known as stabilisation.

He pointed out a number of emerging practices for stabilisation on the ground in post-conflict and fragile settings, noting that these should not necessarily be considered ‘good practice’.

·         A more active promotion by the international community of the community security approach; using local mechanisms to stabilise local areas.

·         An increase in contracting out. This is done through local, non-state providers of security and justice - local NGO and community chiefs – but also through the use of private security companies. This is only useful when the host government has capacity to regulate, monitor and control the activity of such companies.

·         The progressive development of civil-military relations (e.g. Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan) presents several challenges for the international community. In particular it can create lack of clarity in planning and the chain of command – does a military lead in a PRT really create an equal partnership? It is also difficult to get the right balance of staff and financing while ensuring that civil-military structures are effectively linked into locally led development plans. 

·         The use of stabilisation to counter radicalisation and unrest. The drivers of violent extremism are complex, and need a nuanced consideration that goes beyond placing all the responsibility on socio-economic or poverty-led factors. 

Key points raised in the discussion included:

Robin Niblett began by noting the usefulness of Don’s framework of six potential drivers of success. Regarding military dominance, the traditional military focus on results is an uneasy mix with the process focus of stabilisation and development. If the military takes the lead in this process-driven environment, humanitarian and development actors may not get to where they want to go, or at least be disappointed with their expectations.

The comprehensive approach beyond Afghanistan

The focus of much of the discussion centred on the complexities of international engagement and stabilisation operations. Looking away from the context of Afghanistan and towards fragility in Africa – there is an ongoing highly ambitious exercise in fire fighting, and far too few fire extinguishers. Given what the international community is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan, the comprehensive approach has effectiveness as a label – but the less ambitious-sounding agenda of ‘coherence’ may better suit the context of Africa. Is the ambition of the comprehensive approach too far ahead of what is achievable in contexts lower on the international strategic agenda (i.e. not Afghanistan)? If this is true, what are the implications for humanitarian actors?


There is a challenge for stabilisation planners in reconciling short-term political and military imperatives for ‘quick wins’, and 18-month windows for ‘success’, with longer-term goals that may take years to realise. Realism is required: you cannot fight drug trafficking, build a stable government and resolve regional tensions in 18 months. However, you can show enough wins on a variety of these in the short-term to maintain political buy-in for longer-term objectives. One key element is the need to define the metrics of success for stabilisation operations, a task often blurred by domestic politics back home. There is an issue of sequencing of interventions: you have to fix basic infrastructure before trying to do anything else. Problems ensue when military forces take the lead on these issues and in this respect Afghanistan was done all wrong. Increasing the effectiveness of financing mechanisms is also an important step towards ensuring the international community adopts a coherent approach towards fragile states.


A robust discussion ensued as to why the international community continues to push for electoral processes (which are inherently destabilising) in fragile states, while also continuing to expect positive results. Elections often have a self-serving purpose of legitimising foreign intervention in the eyes of foreigners, but can also provide legitimacy and draw communities together if done right. Sequencing is an important factor: reconstruction should be done during conflict, not after conflict. Enhancing state-society relations can also improve legitimacy. This is assisted with a closer focus on context-based sequencing. The example was given of Bosnia, where Lord Ashdown said that in retrospect the rule of law should have come first, and elections second.

Civil-military issues

There is a gap between stabilisation and reconstruction – between the handover of responsibility from military to civilian elements. Expeditionary military forces are currently stretched. The high-tech, network-centric focus of the ‘revolution in military affairs’ has reduced boots on the ground, replacing them with hardware and sensors. This means the military can clear but not hold. The need is for more ‘robust’ civilians, possibly ex-military, to fill the gap. In addition, a large majority of UN military forces have very little experience with the implementation of stabilisation operations, and there are no mechanisms allowing UN peacekeeping forces to improve and enhance their effectiveness over the long term by retaining ‘lessons learned’.


International actors have become increasingly concerned with the threat that fragile states pose to global peace and security and to the populations living within their boundaries. In order to tackle the difficulties and complexities associated with stabilising these contexts, new approaches have been developed that seek to align traditionally distinct policy spheres (defence, development and diplomacy) through so-called ‘integrated’ or ‘comprehensive’ approaches. Principles and guidelines have also been developed to guide good international engagement in these contexts. Yet, in practice, there is a recognition that engagement in fragile and conflict-affected states is not working as well as it should and more needs to be done. There are on-going debates between the precise relationship between security and development and the ability and role of external actors in stabilising these contexts and supporting wider war to peace transitions. 

This meeting, the second of a series on fragile states, will discuss these emerging policy responses, how they translate into practice and what needs to be done to improve peaceful transitions through international engagement.

This event has been supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.