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In search of a new paradigm for international interventions.

21 August 2013

Nicolas Lemay-HebertNicolas Lemay-Hébert is a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department. He is interested in peacebuilding and statebuilding, humanitarian interventions in post-conflict or post-disaster contexts, and local narratives of resistance to international interventions. Nicolas co-convenes the postgraduate module on Governance and Statebuilding.

Nicolas presented a paper called The Unfulfilled Potential of the Light Footprint Approach for Peace Missions at the International Studies Association Conference at San Francisco in April 2013.  He described a consensus emerging in the statebuilding literature about the unintended consequences of international peacebuilding missions, which often contribute towards creating local tensions instead of creating conditions for lasting peace. The paper analyses the potential of the local ownership paradigm applied to international peacebuilding missions, especially when coupled with the participatory intervention framework. With particular emphasis on the ‘light footprint’ approach of Afghanistan, the paper seeks to contribute to a different understanding of the impacts of peacebuilding missions on local settings, while placing emphasis on new possibilities for international interventions.

Below is a chat I had with him about the issues raised in the paper.

What is responsible for the shift in the ideology of liberal internationalism/ the orthodox peace framework to the local ownership paradigm in international peacebuilding?

First of all, I think “shift” might be too strong a word. The liberal peace paradigm (labelled “liberal interventionism” or “liberal internationalism”) is still the dominant form of internationally-supported peacebuilding. Liberal peace refers here to the idea that certain kinds of society will tend to be more peaceful, both in their domestic affairs and in their international relations, than “illiberal” states. Hence, liberal peacebuilding implies not just managing instability between states, the traditional focus of the International Relations discipline, but also building peace within states on the basis of liberal democracy and market economics. In this context, the increased attention to local ownership shows more a shift in the means of intervention than a shift in the paradigm of intervention.[1] This shift in the means of intervention can be traced to the “lessons learned” in Kosovo and in Timor-Leste for the United Nations (UN), and in Iraq for the US. The UN administered both Kosovo and Timor-Leste, and one of the lessons of the “Timor-Leste experiment” identified by Vieira de Mello himself is that “there must be the will to cede power as soon as possible.

The United Nations, the keenest of proponents of decolonisation, has in East Timor and Kosovo found itself accorded neo-colonial powers. The result was initially unsettling.”[2] The local and international consequences of the UN having to administer these two territories – described in earlier works[3] – led many at the UN Department of Peace-Keeping Operations (DPKO) to ‘fight like hell’ to prevent the creation of a new mission of this sort, in the words of one of them (interview in 2008). Thus, even if debates surrounding the concept of local ownership have already been quite vibrant in the security sector reform and aid and development literatures, they only appeared recently in the peacebuilding literature, mainly following the Timorese, Kosovar and Iraqi experiences.

Is there a difference between the local ownership paradigm and participatory intervention framework?

Image by the US Department of State

Delegates at Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga, or Grand Council, in June 2002

The main difference is that the local ownership concept is broader, straddling different disciplines and debates, whereas the “participatory intervention” framework is more specific to the field of intervention, statebuilding and peacebuilding. Local ownership can be defined as a process where the solutions to a particular society’s needs are developed in concert with the people who are going to live with, and uphold, these solutions in the long run. As for the participatory intervention framework (put forth by Jarat Chopra and Tanja Hohe), it implies “granting space for local voices to be expressed and for communities to get directly involved in the evolution of their own cultural or political foundations.” This means “giving time for an indigenous paradigm to coexist with, or to gradually transform during the creation of, modern institutions.”[4] What is interesting about this framework is that it highlights to academics and practitioners the importance of creating policies “appropriate to the context they are implemented in.” The focus is on the nature of the relationship, rather than on discussions such as “who are the locals?” and the extent the ownership process must be legitimately viewed as local to qualify as such. Thus, this framework contributes in its own way to emancipatory debates in peacebuilding.

In what way can a combined implementation of these two peacebuilding processes prevent the unintended consequences of international peacebuilding missions?

Local ownership or the participatory intervention framework do not fit neatly with top-down approaches to peacebuilding and statebuilding. Within this perspective, local actors have to be recognised as true partners in the statebuilding process rather than mere recipients of foreign aid. If one wants to allow space for local actors in a participatory framework, authority can hardly be monopolised by the international actors. The use of the concept by many international actors as a mere legitimizing principle for the same old international policies tends to discredit this framework. However, by focusing on policies “appropriate to the context they are implemented in,” the participatory intervention framework is designed to mitigate the most blatant consequences of massive international presence on small locales, in line with the “do no harm” approach.

What is meant by the light footprint approach in international peacebuilding missions? How is this different from previously adopted approaches of international peacebuilding missions?

“Light footprint” was a term coined during the planning of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) by Lakhdar Brahimi, serving as Special Representative of the Secretary General to Afghanistan from October 2001 through December 2004. The light footprint approach advocates that UN activities should be limited to those that are appropriate to the local needs and context, and, in order to ensure local capacity-building, international staff should be limited to the minimum required so that nationals can take over from the UN as soon as possible.

The Secretary General’s Report preparing the establishment of UNAMA states that ‘UNAMA should aim to bolster Afghan capacity (both official and non-governmental), relying on as limited an international presence and on as many Afghan staff as possible, and using common support services where possible, thereby leaving a light expatriate “footprint.” In the midst of calls for the setting up an international administration in Afghanistan (on the model of Timor-Leste and Kosovo), Lakhdar Brahimi mentioned in a press conference that the United Nations is “definitely” not seeking to form a protectorate. Brahimi added that “the bitter experience of the last 10 years shows that the solution must be carefully put together and be homegrown, so that it enjoys the support of all the internal and external players, and so that there are no spoilers from the inside or outside who would disrupt its implementation.” That’s what differentiates UNAMA from UNTAET and UNMIK, at least on the conceptual level.

What accounted for the failure of UNAMA especially when the light footprint approach was the core of the peacebuilding mission?

The reality of the light footprint was complicated in Afghanistan by the fact that, although UNAMA had few staff on the ground, the myriad of UN agencies and programs had a relatively heavy footprint, creating parallel service delivery mechanisms. The major difficulties in Afghanistan are not directly linked to the light footprint approach per se – UNAMA was a marginal component of the international intervention after all – but rather to three specific features of the intervention.

First, the policy of excluding the Talibans from the peace negotiations, a policy taken from an ideological standpoint in the first years of the intervention, clashes with the principle of a wide inclusion of local actors in the peacebuilding process as envisioned by Brahimi. Brahimi was already pushing for an inclusion of moderate Talibans in 2003 in a second Loya jirgah, and the US administration revived the idea of negotiations with moderate Talibans only in 2009 (too little, too late?). Second, there was only a low amount of financial aid that went directly to Afghan institutions. Many donors bypassed state institutions over fears of corruption, preferring to deal directly with local or international NGOs. Only approximately 25-30 per cent of all aid coming into the country is routed through the government, “eroding its legitimacy, planning capacity and authority.” This neglect of state institutions is bound to have an impact on the Afghan social contract. Third, the political obstacles to the extension of the security presence beyond Kabul have hurt the peacebuilding process.

The “light footprint” approach as devised by Brahimi is commonly mixed with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “light footprint” approach, which advocates minimal commitment of ground forces by the United States in Afghanistan. However, the two approaches should not be bundled together, as they are in fact completely different. After all, Rumsfeld’s conception has nothing to do with “working ourselves out of a job;” but has everything to do with the need to keep US troops for the forthcoming Iraqi invasion and focusing on the “war against terror” in the border areas. Furthermore, Brahimi never advocated a minimal security presence in the country. To the contrary, he relentlessly advocated for a security presence deployed over the entire Afghan territory. Finally, there was also the fact that the principle of local ownership was manipulated by certain donors. As Matteo Tondini points out, “some laws are officially passed by the Afghan parliament but are in fact drafted by ‘independent’ experts hired by foreign government cooperation agencies and assigned to local institutions, while the latter are in turn pressured by international donors to cooperate.”[5]

What lessons does the Afghan experience offer to future peacebuilding missions and wider statebuilding processes?

The “light footprint” approach should not be seen as a general template for state-building activities, which would turn this alternative model into what it tried to oppose from the outset. Chesterman, who is really critical also admits that “one element of the “light footprint” approach that is certainly of general application is the need to justify every post occupied by international staff rather than a local.”[6] It is actually the core meaning of the “light footprint” approach as conceived originally by Brahimi. So rather than tout it as a model, the light footprint approach should be understood as an attempt to apply the general lessons of the 1990s to a trying set of circumstances.

Interview by Francisca Darfour


[1] See: Nicolas Lemay-Hébert, “Review Essay: Critical Debates on Liberal Peacebuilding”, Civil Wars 15(2), 2013.

[2] Sergio Vieira de Mello, “Introductory Remark and Keynote Speech” in Nassrine Azimi and Chang Li Lin (eds) The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET): Debriefing and Lessons, London: Martinus Nijhoff, 2003.

[3] See: Nicolas Lemay-Hébert, “Coerced Transitions in Timor-Leste and Kosovo: Managing Competing Objectives of Institution-Building and Local Empowerment,” Democratization 19(3), 2012; Nicolas Lemay-Hébert , “The Bifurcation of the Two Worlds: Assessing the Gap Between the Internationals and Locals in State-Building Processes,” Third World Quarterly 32(10), 2011.

[4] Jarat Chopra and Tanja Hoje, “Participatory Intervention,” Global Governance 10(3), 2004.

[5] Matteo Tondini, “From Neo-Colonialism to a ‘Light Footprint Approach’: Restoring Justice Systems,” International Peacekeeping 15(2), 2008.

[6] Simon Chesterman, You, The People. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

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