Peacebuilding as ‘a lot about the state and so much less about its citizens’

My friend Marisa Borges and I have been working for a while now on a joint project that blends our PhDs. As many of you know, I have discussed peacebuilding and empowerment in the analysis of Mozambique. Marisa’s thesis has focused, instead, on peacebuilding and citizenship in the case of Guatemala. While talking about our researches, we realised that, notwithstanding our different topics, our overall focus was not fundamentally different. In fact, I had realised in my fieldwork that one of the main limitations to empowerment in Mozambique was precisely the lack of many individuals’ acknowledgment of their citizenship — i.e., the recognition that they had fundamental rights and the the state had to be the guarantor of those rights (rights which, nevertheless, had also to be demanded…). Conversely, in her own research, Marisa realised that in the discourse and policy domain of peacebuilding, citizenship was often absent or merely understood from the legal/formal perspective, in opposition to a more critical perspective that included issues of power, inclusion and exclusion — i.e., issues of empowerment and disempowerment.

Our conversation led to a first article in Portuguese discussing our initial thoughts on this topic. More recently, we presented a paper at the 57th International Studies Associations’ Convention, further elaborating on that. Our starting point is that the mainstream approaches to peacebuilding have focused eminently, if not exclusively, on ‘rebuilding state institutions’. The justification for this is twofold. First, the absence of a viable state is often related with violent conflicts and thus, reversing state fragility is expected to recreate peace. Second, peacebuilding demands a redesign of the social contract, and this can only be achieved with institutions that improve the relationship between the state and its citizens. Ironically (or purposely?), this institutional approach leaves aside a key aspect of the social contract: the citizen. Indeed, there is a premise that the new (formal) institutions will be efficient in promoting peace by reaffirming citizenship and local empowerment in the long run.

Unfortunately, numerous examples show that this ‘trickle down effect’ does not necessarily take place. On the contrary, in many cases institutional reform take place while retaining the existing political and social status quo, or, adapting the expression used by Anne Pitcher while discussing privatization in Mozambique, what happens is ‘transformation through preservation’. In sum, while a new expression of formal citizenship (which is legally bound) exists in the context of peacebuilding, this does not necessarily revert into concrete expressions of local empowerment. In fact, empowerment — in its critical conception — is not even discussed. On the contrary, when it is, it is mixed with ‘local ownership’, connoting a technical perspective mostly linked with ‘participation in existing institutions’, rather than addressing power issues.

It is our content that in the mainstream policy discourse, there has been, in fact, a clear preference to avoid concepts that may lead to the more direct questioning of how power is distributed in a post-violent conflict setting, even though this is a fundamental aspect to be discussed. However, this technical perspective of peace as an institutional outcome cannot conceal the reality of power dynamics and how they affect the very functioning of state institutions and social relations more generally. As a result, as it often happens, institutional change alone can easily coexist with unchanged patterns of domination that, in turn, refrain citizenship to be de facto renegotiated in the context a new social contract.

In our joint research, we are interested in two fundamental questions, to be explored in different case studies. First, ‘How is citizenship defined in post-war scenarios?’ Second, ‘To which extent formal citizenship translates into people’s empowerment?’ In our view, it is crucial that any attempts at promoting empowerment are rooted in the consolidation of citizenship of local actors. One of the reasons for this is the issue of sustainability: empowerment, in whichever arena, is not a single target, but an on-going process that has to be nurtured. Similarly, citizenship is a never-ending process. Moreover, both are rooted in the idea of conscientisation: they only work as tools for improvement if individuals are aware of their power and feel able to question the distribution of power within their society.

This leads us to a fundamental question, that is, ‘to which extent the new social contracts adopted in peacebuilding scenarios change power internally?’ It is our view that empowerment and citizenship can only make sense as long as they may influence the distribution of resources in a country. It is true that it is much more difficult to talk about citizenship while engaging in the power debate. But then again, how can new states be built without a solid foundation on citizenship and the redistribution of national resources?


PS: If you happen to be working with citizenship in the context of peacebuilding, please contact us. We are looking for more empirical material on this topic and really happy to engage in this discussion, read/comment on texts, and share ideas.


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