What Has Peacekeeping Ever Done for Us?

Are we overlooking positive synergetic effects of peacekeeping operations for peace and development?

UNIFIL soldiers guarding ‘the blue line’ between Lebanon and Israel, August 2023. Photo: Houssam Shbaro / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

While UN peacekeeping operations have increasingly come into disrepute, studies underline that operations can prevent conflict re-escalation, limit violence against civilians, and promote settlement – even if not all missions are fully successful.

In the new The Peace Dividends and Post-conflict Reconstruction (Peace Dividends) project, we argue that we might even be overlooking many positive effects.

These results from peacekeeping are all the more remarkable given that the peacekeeping operations often are deployed to extremely challenging conflicts and that the budget for UN peacekeeping is very small, roughly one tenth of the US annual Department of Defense budget in 2021. Or to be specific, $6.37 billion for running over 20 operations with over 87,000 international staff deployed.

Peacekeeping and the deteriorating effects of civil war

In order to understand how peacekeeping operations can be useful for establishing peace, we need to recognize that countries experiencing internal conflict can get ensnared in a conflict trap.

This means that countries emerging from conflict often relapse into violence and fall further behind on development, never recovering to their pre-conflict trajectory. Moreover, post-conflict situations often exhibit high levels of distrust in central authorities – perceived as weak, corrupt, and inefficient – and security and fostering trust in authorities is key for successful post-conflict reconstruction.

Hence, research argues that peacekeeping needs to contribute to more in-depth state reforms rather than just ending the violence, that is, more than upholding a negative form of peace.

  1. First, poor governance is often considered as a source of conflict. Hence, post-conflict countries must establish political consent to state authority, which will normally depend on the state fulfilling a “social contract”, such as protecting key human rights, providing security and adequate public goods and services to individuals (see UNDP Report 2016: 9).
  2. Second, economic regeneration and the reintegration of former antagonists can help countries to escape the vicious cycles perpetuating conditions promoting conflict and conflict traps. These are elements of a more positive peace, i.e. addressing the root causes.

Can peacekeeping help countries out of a conflict trap?

This is where understanding the synergetic effects of peacekeeping for peacebuilding and economic recovery is so important.

Up to this point, the success of missions is often assessed based on if they reduce deaths and contain violence. Removing violence is a critical first step, but after that, operations are rarely equipped or suitable to achieve more ambitious aims such as state-building or improving governance (see Walter, Fortna, & Howard 2019 for a review). This falls under the auspices of the host state. That said, operations can be central for supporting state-driven reforms established in peace agreements or such. Previous research has focused much on what the peacekeeping missions do once they are deployed, such as the organizational structure of the missions, and peacekeeping missions’ mandates and specific tasks in support to reforms in the political, legal, or economic areas.

What this new project suggests, however, is that the peacekeeping operations’ positive effects on security and the interaction with the society and the economy of the conflict country actually produce synergetic outcomes that enable the establishment of a more positive peace.

In short, peacekeeping can foster a broader peace dividend. Realizing the synergetic effects goes deeper than understanding the support to specific reforms. This is key as there are positive unintended consequences of providing security especially on human, economic, and political development.

This means that security externalities, i.e. positive unintended consequences of peacekeeping, allow for major advances in internal or local efforts in development, far above expected trajectories. Notably, Gizelis and Xun Cao’s recent work suggest that such peacekeeping dividends can have positive effects for development outcomes such as health, education, and female empowerment. Improvements in these areas may in the longer run support stable peace and reconstruction.

In short, by understanding the synergetic dividend effects, we can better design operations to support peacebuilding and economic reform.

Capturing human, political, and economic outcomes from peacekeeping

This means that to fully utilize peacekeeping as a tool to limit the devastating consequences of war, we need to look beyond traditional security objectives and take an ambitious, encompassing approach to post-conflict reconstruction. Expanding ideas from previous work on peacekeeping that missions

a) provide resources and support to enhance local capacity, or

b) act as brokers between ruling classes and local communities, the Peace Dividends project examines how synergistic effects arise from improved security through peacekeeping and allow for local changes that enhance long-term development.

This approach means that we will be able to better understand the link between peacekeeping security and local development and the prospects for positive peace.

This allows for formulating a peace dividend matrix to systematically measure progress. This matrix maps positive outcomes from peacekeeping along three dimensions:

  1. human development;
  2. political inclusion and gender equality; and
  3. state capacity as measured by taxation and public finances.

These dimensions capture fundamental drivers of long-term development and reflect structural and institutional transformations (Hughes and Hillebrand 2006). By tracing and analyzing change in these dimensions, we can evaluate what peacekeeping policies are more (or less) effective and understand how stronger institutions and development can develop in different post-conflict contexts, including the role of state actors and local organizations.

Inclusive and nuanced understandings of peace and development

Concluding, by utilizing this three-dimensional measurement, the project adheres to the idea that to fully understand peace and development, we need to properly consider diverse needs and understandings of human development and political inclusion, gender equality and state capacity to social reform. We especially note that gender equality dynamics is central as institutions regulate the public realm and relations between the state and other actors. These institutions can be more or less inclusive of specific groups and actors. For example, some argue that women might meet different resource and security needs in conflict environments than men, resulting in slightly distinct preferences and priorities for peacebuilding. Moreover, gender equality is a strong predictor in its own right of human development and inclusive governance as gender is a fundamental organizing principle in all societies. Connecting these considerations to that of ensuring an effective taxation system and revenue collection, allows use to understand state capacity and its ability to implement policies and public service provisions for diverse populations (Hughes et al 2015).

Using rigorous methodologies that combine comparative analyses of historical data, case studies, and simulations of future scenarios, the Peace Dividends project will help us utilize the full potential of peacekeeping for both states and populations; much needed at a time when the world face an increasing number of conflicts and growing human suffering.

The Authors

  • Ismene Gizelis is a Professor at the Department of Government, University of Essex
  • Louise Olsson is a Research Director and Senior Researcher at PRIO

More about the Peace Dividends Project

The Peace Dividends and Post-conflict Reconstruction project (Peace Dividends) is led by Professor Ismene Gizelis at the University of Essex and funded by the ERC/UKRI and in partnership with PRIO. Peace Dividends breaks new ground in examining peacekeeping dividends across a broad set of outcomes, evaluating policies that best leverage positive externalities of peacekeeping, and examining if peacekeeping efforts scale and if we can discern broader dividends on post-conflict reconstruction, including successful state-building.

The project will make three specific contributions: First, it will identify pathways from security to improved outcomes on the peace dividends dimensions and what policies are more or less effective. The research will extend the study of positive unintended consequences from peacekeeping beyond health and education to political and social institutions. Second, the research outputs will facilitate the design of peacekeeping missions to better leverage positive externalities to support the improvement of governance and development. Third, and finally, Peace Dividends expands the research agenda from the UN to include other international organizations. Whereas the end of the Cold War led to a surge of UN peacekeeping missions, the current “new” Cold War between the permanent five UN Security Council members leaves less scope for UN peacekeeping. As the UN faces increasing challenges in deploying peace operations, its role in peacekeeping is decreasing while we observe an increase in the distribution of labour between organisations, often operating in the same conflict setting. We will therefore study the peace and reconstruction operations, notably the African Union and European Union. The analyses combine comparative analyses of historical data, case studies, and simulations of future scenarios.  The project also  involves Han Dorussen (University of Essex) , Louise Olsson (PRIO), Andrea den Boer (Women’s Stats, Conflict Analysis Research Center (CARC) University of Kent)  and in collaboration with the Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver.

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