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The Owl in the Olive Tree | Dec. 17, 2019

The Puzzle of International Intervention in Conflict-Affected States

By Jessica Piombo, Naazneen H. Barma, and Naomi Levy

One of the conundrums of post-conflict interventions is that despite copious amounts of international assistance devoted to the dual enterprise of strengthening states and building peace, many post-conflict countries—such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, and South Sudan—remain either poorly governed, stubbornly insecure, or, worst of all, both. Perhaps even more puzzling, however, are countries like Uganda, where peace is lasting but governance remains weak and uneven, or those like Colombia, where the government is relatively strong but a robust peace remains elusive. These outcomes are especially hard to understand because the international community’s mainstream approach to post-conflict intervention for almost three decades has been to build peaceful societies by providing aid to capacitate states.

The road to peace is through strong institutions, or so both scholars and practitioners have increasingly supposed. Two assumptions underpin this “peacebuilding through statebuilding” approach. First, there is a widespread belief that statebuilding and peacebuilding are mutually reinforcing, to the point where, for many, statebuilding became the main way to attempt peacebuilding. Second, despite a prolific body of critical analysis pointing out the problems with top-down, internationally driven peacebuilding models, external interventions are essentially still considered the right way to pursue post-conflict peace. Both of these assumptions are misguided.

To be sure, the logic connecting statebuilding to peacebuilding seems straightforward: endowing governments with the capacity to perform their basic governance functions, including the unbiased delivery of essential public services and collective public goods, lays a crucial foundation for stable, peaceful societies. But the combination of statebuilding and peacebuilding into one meta-enterprise conflates what are in reality two separate processes: building the structures of the state (statebuilding) and crafting sustainable peace on the ground (peacebuilding). Moreover, the internationalized and interventionist nature of peacebuilding itself generates additional challenges. International dominance often robs local contexts of the local ownership and involvement that is necessary for local actors to successfully grow and capacitate their governments, while few international actors are capable of the detailed and lengthy ground operations necessary to build comprehensive and sustainable peace.

A Three-Pronged Approach to a Better Understanding of Statebuilding and Peacebuilding

In order to work through the multilayered challenges presented by current approaches to (re)building states and societies after conflict, we offer a new conceptual framework (see figure below) based on three key steps.

First, we conceptually de-link the exercise of building states from that of building peaceful societies. Second, we analyze how the externally driven nature of the enterprise conditions outcomes by considering how assistance is delivered affects the outcomes of interest. We neither begin with the ex ante belief that external engagement produces the interveners’ desired outcomes, nor do we automatically assume that external engagement necessarily creates perverse outcomes. Finally, as we turn the nature of the international intervention itself into the object of inquiry, we also distinguish more clearly what interventions are intended to influence and how those elements are related to each other.

Step One: Disentangling Statebuilding and Peacebuilding

Statebuilding and peacebuilding are best understood as distinct processes that are oriented toward achieving improvements in two different sets of goals or outcomes in post-conflict countries—state capacity and the depth of peace, respectively. In turn, each of these outcomes must be disaggregated to evaluate the extent to which they are achieved. State capacity varies along three inter-related dimensions: the degree of control states wield within their societies (state authority); their abilities to articulate and carry out their visions and policies (state effectiveness); and the extent to which they are viewed by society as legitimate (state legitimacy).

The depth of peace is, when similarly disaggregated, clearly something else altogether: it measures the extent to which a society can channel and resolve tensions and conflicts without resorting to violence. It also varies along three inter-related dimensions: the extent of violence at multiple levels in society, including both organized violence and everyday forms; conflict recovery, or how well a society has managed to normalize itself in the aftermath of major conflict; and conflict resilience, or the ability of a society to manage the routine tensions of everyday life. A lasting peace is not one where no societal conflict exists, but where that conflict is processed through various institutions within society instead of leading to violence.

It should be clear from these definitions that state capacity and depth of peace are not reliant on each other, either conceptually or empirically. State capacity need not bear any relationship to whether there is peace on the ground. In fact, a strong state could use its strength to terrorize its population, as did the government of Rwanda in the 1990s. And a weak state could, under the right circumstances, make way for local initiatives to create communal peace in localized settings, exemplified by the Puntland region of Somalia.

Step Two: Unpacking International Intervention

International interventions have all too often been measured and assessed in terms of the overall level of resources, especially financing, brought to bear in post-conflict states. This definition is too narrow: gauging the true impacts of external assistance to recipient governments requires viewing aid dynamics as a multidimensional variable, too. Three core dimensions determine the effects of external aid: how much assistance there is (aid level); whether aid donors or recipient government are more influential in determining what external assistance is used for (aid design); and how it is administered (aid implementation).

Aid dynamics can range along a continuum from almost no international presence to wholesale and direct external involvement and even dominance. There are instances of indigenous post-conflict statebuilding and peacebuilding—e.g., Laos, Northern Uganda, Somaliland—in which local decision-makers and actors pursue reforms to achieve sustainable peace and improvements in state capacity in the relative absence of external engagement. In other cases, even when highly dependent on aid revenues, some governments—e.g., Rwanda —exert purposeful control over that aid through policies and implementation processes and thereby retain a degree of autonomy vis-à-vis international actors. By contrast, interventions with a high degree of external involvement—e.g., Afghanistan, Cambodia, Timor-Leste—often attempt to implement statebuilding and peacebuilding programs through the direct and coordinated involvement of international actors and significant international resources (financial, policy, and technical) in these processes.

Step Three: Exploring the Relationship between State Capacity and Depth of Peace

The third conceptual step, in turn, is represented by the question mark in the figure above and offers a crucial analytical advance in the study of statebuilding and peacebuilding. Disentangling the series of processes and outcomes too often conflated in studies of international intervention makes the question we started with—how state capacity and depth of peace influence each other—an empirical one. We thus remove the implicit assumption that state capacity and depth of peace necessarily move together. There can be strong states without peace, and peace without strong states. These outcomes can, in turn, be associated with specific elements of design in international interventions—and, from there, we can begin to refine policy in an empirically informed manner.

Associated Reading
Barma, Naazneen, Naomi Levy, and Jessica Piombo. 2017. Disentangling Aid Dynamics in Statebuilding and Peacebuilding: A Causal Framework. International Peacekeeping 24(2): 187–211.

Naazneen Barma is an Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of The Peacebuilding Puzzle: Political Order in Post-Conflict States.
Naomi Levy is an Associate Professor of in the Department of Political Science at Santa Clara University and has published her research in International Peacekeeping, Polity, The Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, and in Politics, Groups and Identities.
Jessica Piombo is an Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, the Vice Chair of the African Politics Conference Group, and author of Institutions, Ethnicity and Political Mobilization in South Africa.

Associated Minerva Project
Public Service Provision as Peacebuilding

Supporting Service Agency
Office of Naval Research

Nota Bene
Content appearing from Minerva-funded researchers—be it the sharing of their scientific findings or the Owl in the Olive Tree blogs posts—does not constitute Department of Defense policy or endorsement by the Department of Defense.