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Governance as a root cause of protracted conflict and sustainable peace: Moving from rhetoric to a new way of working

Governance as a root cause of protracted conflict and sustainable peace:  Moving from rhetoric to a new way of working
Members of a youth-led civil society organization in Somalia work with local media and community members as part of an advocacy campaign focused on girls’ education. Photo: Mercy Corps/Lindsay Murphy.

Following the 2019 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, SIPRI is pleased to share guest blog posts from partner organizations.

An emerging global consensus has identified that to effectively prevent violence, it is necessary to directly address the underlying causes of conflict. Within this integrated approach to prevention, governance has emerged as a particularly important factor. The joint World Bank-UN Pathways for Peace report highlights that governance systems are a key area where prevention activities can help shift violent conflict into productive discourse. The close linkage between good governance, stability, and sustained peace is also reflected in Sustainable Development Goal 16, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) Building Stability Framework, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) States of Fragility Framework.

The focus on governance as a root cause of conflict and peace is helpful in focusing high-level discussions on the connection between conflict prevention and development. However, much of the policy dialogue comes with an embedded set of assumptions. Relying too heavily on these assumptions runs the risk of misidentifying the ways in which governance-related factors lead to conflict in a given context.

At the 2019 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, Mercy Corps convened a roundtable session that brought together policymakers, practitioners, and researchers to gather broader lessons on the challenges of addressing governance factors in peacebuilding and conflict prevention.

Explicitly categorizing root causes into broad categories helps to bring the common assumptions shaping the policy discourse into focus and can help organizations working on conflict prevention to match context-specific diagnoses of root causes to innovative program designs.  

Root cause family #1: Weak state capacity, accountability, and legitimacy

Governance institutions that are unable or unwilling to respond to citizen needs—due to corruption, capacity and resource shortages, and the absence of accountability mechanisms—have been identified as an enabling factor for unrest and violence and have been linked to rising instability and violence in a variety of conflict settings (for example, violent extremism, civil war, and the recurrence of violence in a post-conflict context). An assumption underpinning many stabilization efforts is that improving the delivery of basic services can help to break out of this vicious cycle by increasing state legitimacy and reducing the propensity for violent conflict.

There is little evidence that singular emphasis on transactional service delivery and other technocratic state-building projects improves government legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. Instead, evidence collected by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium shows that access to services alone is less important for building legitimacy than a variety of other factors—including the quality of services, the identity of who delivers them, the inclusiveness of decision-making, and the existence of grievance mechanisms.

Mercy Corps’ Supporting Sustainable Peace and Resiliency (PROSPER) program in Karen state in eastern Myanmar is one example of an approach to building state legitimacy that focuses on the perceptions of citizens and service providers. This program, which ran from 2015–18, set out to address underlying grievances related to lack of trust in the government and strained minority-majority relations by delivering measurable improvements in the lives of ordinary people in vulnerable areas. The program trained local governance actors on methods for community engagement, planning, and participation. Local authorities and communities collaborated on implementing action plans to make community development planning more inclusive and participatory.

Root cause family #2: Exclusion and marginalization

Violent conflict is more likely to emerge in divided societies where different groups are subject to political, social, and economic inequalities. Governance structures,  institutions, and processes that favor certain groups and exclude or discriminate against others can exacerbate grievances and lead to violence. An implicit assumption in many policy responses is that inclusion is best advanced by formal institutional reforms and platforms. As a result, establishing institutional inclusion through quotas and other reforms are often the first approaches to tackling the challenge of inclusion.

Evidence shows that more inclusive and representative decision-making improves governance outcomes, reduces the likelihood of civil war and violence, and improves perceptions of legitimacy. However, inclusion is not just about institutions, but also the underlying power structures, values, and expectations that shape behavior by both decision-makers and citizens. Institutional inclusion mandates like quotas, though critical first steps, can fall short because they don’t take the effectiveness and quality of participation into account. Efforts to address political marginalization as a means of building peace need to move from simply mandating broad inclusion to identifying and addressing the specific drivers of exclusion and their linkage to violence. Similarly, DFID’s Building Stability Framework highlights the need to manage the political tensions that can lead to violence in the short-run with attempts to broaden inclusion over the long-run. The DFID-funded Enabling State Programme, operating in Nepal from 2001–13, is an example of this way of promoting inclusion by building political analysis into the project. This approach helped to enhance the substantive participation of women in policymaking, which contributed to a stronger government commitment to addressing gender-based violence, among other policy changes.

Mercy Corps identified that in Somalia, political and economic exclusion of youth was a key driver of participation in violent extremism. Based on this diagnosis, the Somalia Youth Learners Initiative (SYLI) used both secondary education and building connections between youth and the government as tools to address these dimensions of exclusion in south-central Somalia, Puntland, and Somaliland. The impact evaluation of SYLI found that while youth who gained improved access to secondary schools were nearly half as likely to support political violence, youth in SYLI- supported schools—who were also part of the SYLI civic engagement program—were even less likely to support violence.

Root cause family #3: Weak civic engagement

The absence of a well-functioning, vibrant civic sector can have detrimental impacts on governance, peace, and stability by increasing the likelihood that grievances are addressed through violence rather than through constructive deliberation. In conflict-affected contexts—particularly where there was limited space for civic engagement prior to the outbreak of violence—many donors and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) implicitly assume that building the technical and operational capacity of local civil society organizations will be sufficient to strengthen civic engagement, improve governance, and prevent violence.

There are many factors that can contribute to weak civic engagement, including lack of access to basic information about rights, a lack of the social connections needed for meaningful participation, and constrained civic space. As a result, building social capital and civic engagement is about strengthening the civil society ecosystem, from informal platforms and civic actors to established organizations and networks. Training programs for individual organizations that narrowly focus on improving operational capabilities cannot address higher order skills like advocacy, influence, and leadership. These interventions should be paired with efforts to identify, consult, and connect a broad range of actors across the civic sector. Support for civic engagement should amplify how citizens are organizing and mobilizing themselves rather than duplicating efforts. 

Towards a new way of working with governance-related root causes of conflict and peace

Grouping governance root causes into categories and examining the evidence of their relationship with conflict and peace can help to address prominent assumptions embedded in many policy frameworks and best practices. This provides practitioners with a simple framework to reference when moving from context-specific problem diagnosis and conflict analysis to intervention design.

During the roundtable session at the Stockholm Forum, participants were in broad agreement about the importance of addressing governance-related root causes, but also identified that major changes are needed by all actors. In order to realize the potential benefits of this shared commitment, the session generated recommendations for all actors working in this space.

First, the roundtable identified that practitioners across every sector need to invest in developing the human and organizational capabilities needed to identify and address the psychological, cultural, and political factors associated with the legitimacy gaps, exclusion, and civic disengagement that drive violent conflict. 

Second, there was broad agreement in the session that researchers need to strengthen and deepen the evidence base about ‘what works’ in addressing governance root causes of conflict and peace. This will involve conducting rigorous impact evaluations on a broader set of interventions in more conflict-affected places, as well as investing in long-term studies that more clearly and convincingly show the link between addressing governance-related root causes and violence prevention.

A final recommendation from the session that was echoed in other sessions during the forum was that donors and policymakers need to expand program timeframes and add flexibility to funding modalities. These changes are necessary to allow for the type of context-focused analysis and learning that will be central to any approach to conflict prevention and peacebuilding that takes governance-related root causes seriously.


Carrie O’Neil is a Senior Advisor in Governance and Peacebuilding in Mercy Corps’ Cambridge, MA, office.
Ryan Sheely <p><span><span><span lang="EN-US">is a Senior Researcher in Governance in Mercy Corps’&nbsp;Washington, DC, office.</span></span></span></p>