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Rethinking the Prevention Mandate of Peace NGOs: An EastWest Route

April 7, 2015

Dove-origami consisting of the word "Peace" in different languages. CREDIT: Azin V/Shutterstock

Twenty years ago, in May 1994, the Carnegie Corporation launched a Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict. The Commission's final report published in 1997 became an essential reference for good policy for all governments and private organizations committed to preventing large-scale violence (the prevention mandate). In a section devoted to the role of civil society, the report asked how could the private actors in countries where conflict is looming be strengthened? The authors concluded that these actors, mostly non-government organizations (NGOs), must improve their coordination with each other, with governments, and with intergovernmental organizations in order "to avoid overlap." The Commission enjoined the leaders of international humanitarian NGOs to meet at least once a year to coordinate with a view to addressing humanitarian aspects of unfolding crises or large-scale violence. As it noted, the Commission was here reflecting an emerging tendency among NGOs in that field toward closer cooperation. But the dichotomy in the report between posing a question on how to strengthen domestic civil society in a country threatened with deadly conflict and answering it with a response about international civil society organizations cleaning up after the violence (the humanitarian mandate) appears as a rather gaping anomaly.

Reflecting on the evolution of the "peace NGO" community since 1997 and the emergence of large-scale conflict since then, we might usefully revisit the main question asked in this section of the Commission report. How could the private actors in countries threatened with deadly conflict be strengthened in ways that contribute to preventing it or reducing its scale? Implicit in this question is the presumption that international actors (governmental and non-governmental) are potentially decisive actors in that strengthening process so that the domestic NGOs can be a force for peace in their own country.

There is a second question that the report does not address in any detail: the role of international (foreign) peace NGOs in helping to create or to channel diplomatic strategies by states on the international stage to help prevent the deadly conflict in one country or locality.

These two purposes (strengthening local capabilities and influencing international diplomatic efforts) became the main focal point of NGOs acting to fulfill the prevention mandate. A third focal point of activity, dialogue, also emerged, often in cases where it might have been seen as reinforcing local potentials for prevention or influencing diplomatic channels. Yet I would argue that dialogue for peace without direct relevance to the two main purposes is unlikely to dissuade bad actors committed to violence.

Peace NGOs: A Broad Church, but a Patchwork One

As the Commission report observed, NGOs vary in size and mandate and at the time there was an "expanding array" of them working "at the frontiers of building the political foundations and international arrangements for the long-term prevention of conflict." The report assigned special importance to NGOs working in some sectors—human rights, humanitarian, and Track 2. Grass-roots efforts were also mentioned.

It should be noted that one of the world's most influential preventive diplomacy organizations, the International Crisis Group (Crisis Group for short), was only established in 1997 and it did not fit into any of these molds. It developed a new model: the provision of timely, field-based analysis developed in consultation with local stakeholders and actors that was then made available publicly and in private to national and international decision-makers with the sole purpose of preventing, defusing, or containing deadly conflict. The Crisis Group model also serves the purpose of letting local actors know that they are being watched and will be held accountable for their actions. In addition, this model created a new form of dialogue about conflict and what might prevent it between local actors and informed Crisis Group staff committed to preventing deadly conflict. Thus the emergence of this new NGO model in 1997, of course not mentioned in the 1997 report, was living proof that the "array" of NGOs referred to in the Commission report was not a complete or comprehensive matrix that covered all necessary aspects of civil society contributions to preventing violent conflicts. Even with an explosion of interest globally in preventive diplomacy because of the Carnegie Commission, and the evolution of NGOs like Crisis Group, civil society actors in this field were not formed according to a master plan of any kind, so many gaps in their preventive activity remain. As a collectivity, they do not and cannot serve as an ideal set of actors for maximum preventive impact. Can we somehow address that gap between assets and actors voluntarily assembled and the totality of what needs to be done.

Acting for Peace or Preventing Deadly Conflict?

Since 1997, the evolution of home-grown NGOs advocating for peace in countries where it is threatened or in post-conflict reconciliation has been spectacular, especially in Africa and Latin America, and international actors have played a key role in assisting that expansion. Yet we can also remark a discrepancy between, on the one hand, the prevention mandate at the heart of the Commission Report (influencing diplomacy to defuse escalating threat of deadly violence) and, on the other hand, a predominance of attention paid by peace NGOs to non-urgent or apolitical efforts simply to promote a culture of peace through consultation and dialogue among conflicted parties.

In a 2001 report on "EU Crisis Response Capability," Crisis Group made a clear distinction between four phases of the conflict intervention cycle, with two addressing prevention and two addressing management of a conflict:

  • Peace building (conflict prevention using longer term structural measures such as institution building, economic and social development, building a culture of peace)
  • Maintaining peace (conflict prevention short-term operational measures, such as preventive diplomacy and even preventive deployment of peacekeepers)
  • Restoring peace (conflict management using non-coercive means)
  • Enforcing peace (conflict management using coercive means).

I would argue that peace NGOs are best at peace building (phase 1) and much weaker on maintaining peace (phase 2). Most peace NGOs are successful advocates of peace but few work actively on influencing the decision-making process in politics that leads to the deadly conflict. The former is essential but will always be incomplete and perhaps nugatory if insufficient attention is paid to the latter—preventive action. This article uses the term "preventive action" to refer to phase 2 activities: short- term measures designed to defuse political tensions that are escalating or have escalated to deadly violence. Peace NGOs are rarely involved in conflict management (phases 3 and 4). While some would argue that peace NGOs have no role in conflict management, this too could be seen as preventive action designed to contain further escalation and reduce the scale of violence.

Crisis Group represents a clear exception in the array of peace NGOs in that it pays equal attention to structural and diplomatic prevention measures. But Crisis Group remains focused on analysis and advocacy, which however essential, are only a part of preventive diplomacy in a particular crisis. A thorough evaluation and close examination of Crisis Group reporting and advocacy would be necessary before reaching a definitive conclusion about the value and impact of its work, but as an initial hypothesis, one might suggest that it too remains somewhat distant from the front lines of the politics of preventive diplomacy. One might note that its advocacy is more often than not directed at officials rather than to political leaders and that it has little recourse to political or economic incentives to encourage actors away from violence. Moreover, rarely are Crisis Group's recommendations costed in dollar terms or even evaluated in terms of practicality of implementation or likely impact (cost/benefit). Too often, the recommendations pop up, unelaborated, at the end of a long political analysis of the conflict dynamics.

The focus on peacebuilding among peace NGOs, and their successes in it, as opposed to preventive diplomacy, has been reflected in the reform in the United Nations organizational structure after the 2005 High Level Report, In Larger Freedom, to include a Peacebuilding Commission and a Human Rights Council. Sadly, the preventive diplomacy function of the UN, represented in part by the Security Council, received no modernization or reform.

The record of the international community on preventive action in recent decades, and the place of peace NGOs in that, has been mixed. The three most recent cases of "failure to prevent" are the re-invasion of Iraq by Islamic State military units from Syria in December 2013, the Russian instigation of an armed rebellion in Ukraine in February and March 2014, and the wave of North Korean cyber attacks on the United States, Japan, and South Korea beginning in November 2014, which may yet contribute to an outbreak of deadly violence.

We can perhaps legitimate or justify the "failure to prevent" by reference to several powerful realities. First, preventing deadly conflict is impossible if one party or more is totally committed to that course. Second, prevention of deadly conflict, though involving less cost than war itself, is not cost-free either. It entails sustained diplomatic attention and usually massive economic resources to incentivize key actors. Third, prevention usually takes years of sustained engagement by government and NGOs on the very drivers of conflict.

A fourth reality that perhaps overwhelms these first three in the case of the NGO contribution has been elaborated by Diana Chigas in her work, "Track II Citizen Diplomacy" (2003). She observed that "Unofficial intermediaries' contributions to intractable conflicts are limited, and often indirect." She cautioned against assessing results "solely by visible influences on track one negotiations." She highlighted the fact that "Unofficial intermediation can and does change the political cultures on both sides, making the parties more receptive to negotiation and building the capacity of the parties to negotiate and implement a resolution when a window of opportunity arises." She warned that "No single intermediation process—from big power mediation to "track three" civil society bridge building—is adequate to deal with intractable conflicts." Chigas concluded that "A variety of conflict mediation processes are needed to address the complex web of factors that perpetuate intractability" of conflicts.

Yet all too often, these realities become the excuse for failure to prevent rather than the cause. The failure to prevent is actually caused by failure to compensate for those realities. To prevent deadly violence in every single conflict, a grand coalition of states and NGOs need to be working on the problem. In each of the three cases cited above, there has been a visible deficit of preventive activity, whether by governments, international organizations, or NGOs. Moreover, we need to observe three corollaries from the Chigas conclusions. First, she focuses more on structural prevention (building a culture of peace, changing political culture) which is indeed very time-consuming. Second, and more importantly, she does mention the single main criterion by which preventive action by NGOs has to be judged: "visible influences on track one negotiations." Third, since a "variety of conflict mediation processes" are in fact needed to prevent deadly violence, where does the responsibility lie to ensure that a full suite of such processes is set in place appropriate to each case? Whose political objectives and values should such a suite of measures follow?

Neither of these last questions has ever been addressed by any peace NGO in practice or theory in respect of preventive action. On the contrary, a survey of peace NGO activities and funding priorities of their donors in preventive diplomacy will in almost all cases probably show disaggregation and contested norms among NGO actors rather than coordinated action and shared values.

Campaign Mentality Needed for Preventive Action

Peace NGOs working on structural prevention have achieved the most amazing successes, including the Ottawa Treaty banning land mines (opened for signature in 1997), the establishment of the International Criminal Court (statute adopted in 1998), and the Arms Trade Treaty (entered into force on December 24, 2014). These successes not only include the treaties themselves but the entire process of socialization around the world of the associated values, ideas, and policy options. The successes have been achieved directly as a result of the sort of coordination among NGOs foreshadowed by the Carnegie Commission. But the coordination was amplified by the shared commitment to a campaigning process.

A good NGO campaign is characterized by agreement among the disparate actors to both ends and means. It includes a commitment to:

  • Engaging allies and like-minded actors as campaign participants
  • Changing the minds of policy makers
  • Resetting the context of policy debate, including cost/benefit parameters
  • Creating champions
  • Mobilizing support
  • Creating pathways of change
  • Mapping progress and evaluating interventions
  • A sense of sequencing or timing of policy change
  • Communicating successes achieved.

Track 2 and Preventive Action: the Case of the EastWest Institute

The oldest Track 2 diplomacy organization is probably the EastWest Institute (EastWest for short). It did not invent the term, but EastWest came into being in 1981 just as the term "Track 2" was entering the diplomatic lexicon. Joseph Montville, a former State Department official, who is credited with originating the term "Track 2 diplomacy," defined it as "an unofficial, informal interaction between members of adversary groups or nations that aims to develop strategies, influence public opinion, and organize human and material resources in ways that might help resolve their conflict." The purpose of Track 2 has always been to develop strategies to resolve conflict (whether that be a political conflict conducted by peaceful means or one involving use of force and large-scale violence). The primary tests of success for a Track 2 organization is the quality of the strategies developed in the meetings, the value placed on them by participants, and the extent of any subsequent implementation.

As EastWest's founder, the late John Edwin Mroz, observed in 2014, the "institute's mission is to prevent conflicts, while building trust" (Annual Report 2013). Originally EastWest worked on deadly conflict but by 2014 it had decisively moved to embrace other conflicts, including those over food, water, or energy that might threaten human security. By 2013, in reflecting on more than three decades of experience in Track 2 work in support of preventing deadly conflict, Mroz had decided that EastWest had to become a campaigning organization rather than just a dialogue organization. In October 2013, looking forward to 2030, he outlined his vision of the future of the organization: "EastWest's barrier-breaking ability" will come to be "valued as much as its traditional dialogues and convenings" and the "EastWest legacy" will include "a substantial number of campaign successes that matter."

Mroz had been taking advice from thought leaders around the world on how EastWest, a traditional peace NGO, needed to change to be more effective and to adapt to a changing world, in which large-scale deadly violence within states was still all too common, and where emerging economic security threats would also need to be addressed. The message Mroz heard most loudly, or the one that resonated most with him, was that EastWest had to become a campaigning organization. A model for that existed in NGOs involved in the structural peace building mentioned above. For Mroz, the essence of a campaign was the promotion of a set of ideas that would visibly and in short time create a breakthrough in policy between conflicted parties.

Mroz believed that EastWest had to change radically. The organizational options he considered included five main directions. First, it would be important to double the specialist staff inside the organization, who would constitute a new brains trust for creative ideas that could become political breakthroughs. Second, on the basis of the credibility of the new staff, the institute would strive to build new networks of specialists and allies who would campaign for the implementation of each set of new policy ideas that had the potential to become a breakthrough. Third, the campaign would be unimaginable without the best-in-class technology, communication platforms, and messaging—in essence e-centers to facilitate the campaign strategies. Fourth, the institute would need to create a reserve of funds for rapid response, enabling it to quickly and efficiently bring in specialists and decision-makers as well as NGOs with the right expertise, networks, and reputation to help assure campaign success. Fifth, it would be essential to reorient the staff of EastWest around the idea of advocacy. For Mroz, advocacy meant something different from simply keeping in contact with senior officials. It meant going as close to the top end of politics as was possible; and it meant going to the front lines of conflict—into the field.

The Missing Link: From Building a Culture of Prevention to Promoting Preventive Action

Even in the Mroz vision, there was a missing element—the one exposed by the excerpts above from Chigas. Where does the responsibility lie to ensure that a full suite of NGO-supported mediation processes (for preventive action) is set in place appropriate to defusing political tensions in each conflict? This means that for whatever action might be contemplated by EastWest in pursuit of ideas generated by its own re-vamped brains trust, there would need to be an array of complementary actions taken by other NGOs, by government, and by international organizations.

Thus, in order to move to more robust promotion of preventive action, donors, and boards of peace NGOs committed to the prevention mandate need to begin to insist on a new standard of accountability that has three elements:

  • A campaign plan that sets objectives, means, and time frames for defusing of political tension in a specific crisis or emerging crisis that has the potential to escalate to violence
  • Clear evidence of effective and sustained coordination with all leading governmental and NGO actors in support of such influence in a specific crisis
  • Tracking of clear evidence of influence in defusing of political tension in a crisis that might escalate to violence.

These will be costly and difficult standards to meet, but they are probably preferable to the continued presumption that peace NGOs are significant forces for defusing political crises that threaten large-scale deadly violence. One alternative would be to re-orient these organizations more decisively to structural peace-building programs and to abandon the prevention mandate. However, I personally believe, as John Mroz did, that we must aim high—that we in peace NGOs can work better together in campaign-mode to defuse and prevent large-scale deadly conflict.

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