On the importance of understanding the impact of peacekeeping

Jan 20, 2021

By Lesley Myers

When I arrived in Bangui, it was a city in crisis. It was late 2015 and the capital of the Central African Republic had once again descended into sectarian violence, two years after the country’s most recent coup. Civilians were the targets of killings and rape, and looting was widespread. The UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, which had begun its operations in 2014, was helping a transitional government to quell fighting and hold a constitutional referendum and democratic elections that could restore the country to basic order.

2015, Demolition of a grenade in PK5. Photo: UN/MINUSCA, Nektarios Markogiannis

The Bangui I left in 2019 had slowly but dramatically changed. The threat of violent atrocities and ethnic cleansing had been averted. Rumours of genocide had quieted. Although conflict persisted, violence had decreased in the capital and a democratically-elected government was working to implement a peace agreement that it had negotiated and signed with all 14 major armed groups. As a civilian planner for MINUSCA, it was obvious to me that the mission had played a major role in this process. However, exactly how much of this change could be attributed to the mission, was less clear.

Knowing the impact of specific efforts is a challenge in all peacekeeping contexts. Peacekeeping is considered one of the global community’s most effective tools for sustaining or restoring peace, but we can struggle with some fundamental questions:

• How, precisely, do peacekeeping interventions help change the lives of the millions of people facing the threat of conflict, or help to restore peace?

• What benefit do mission-supported negotiations in the capital bring to, say, a herder in the countryside?

• What impact do peace agreements have on the security and well-being of local communities? How do we know?

• What difference have our patrols made to the lives of women and girls?

• When peace fails, is it because the mission failed, or is there more to the story?

These are difficult questions to answer. Peace and conflict dynamics are complex, and peacekeeping missions are just one of many actors who are trying to affect them, for better or for worse. While peacekeepers can influence or pressure parties to a conflict, they cannot control them, nor the myriad economic, social, environmental, and political factors that drive disputes.

The influence of peacekeeping missions is difficult to pinpoint, and it has only become more difficult in modern peacekeeping settings, as conflict dynamics become more complicated and our mandates more ambitious. Counterfactuals are near-impossible to establish, and it would be amoral to set up control groups to test what would happen if peacekeeping missions were not present. Moreover, data that could help us understand how and why dynamics shift is difficult to come by in many conflict zones.

Peacekeeping can clearly articulate its import at the strategic level: it contributes to global peace and security, promotes human rights and supports national authorities in protecting civilians; it can create space for political solutions to be found, and can help peace to take root.

Peacekeeping can also speak precisely about its work: it can list the hours of patrols conducted by our troops and police, the number of workshops held to strengthen civil society organizations, and the number of meetings held to support dialogue.

But we struggle to link the two.

This challenge is not benign. Difficulties in showing how peacekeeping has contributed to progress, or prevented situations from further deterioration, means that peacekeeping’s work can be either undervalued, or that it can disproportionately carry the burden of failures. This can make it more difficult to secure support for missions, both from the people in the countries where they serve, and from the Member States that fund them.

2019, A joint effort for the return to peace in PK5, MINUSCA-Government. Photo: UN/MINUSCA, Leonel Grothe

The difficulty in clearly showing the link between what missions do day-to-day and their impact on peace and security is greater than a public relations problem. When peacekeeping missions can’t clearly link their patrols, workshops, or support for peace negotiations to clear outcomes, it strikes at their ability to deliver on their mandates. If we could know that certain modes of working stood a chance of effectively supporting peace or protecting more civilians, wouldn’t that be helpful? The more precise our understanding of how peacekeeping influences local dynamics, the better we can design operations to effectively and positively change the realities on the ground.

Peacekeeping has begun to make progress in tackling this challenge. Missions have started to use more systematic data collection and analysis to assess their effectiveness, including through the Comprehensive Planning and Performance Assessment System (CPAS), a tool that uses data to assess impact and inform planning, as well as through their efforts to support the UN Data Strategy, which is using data to improve decision-making across the UN system.

The Imam of the Kina Mosque, the priest of the Catholic Church of Fatima, signing the peace agreement. Photo: UN/MINUSCA, Igor Rugwiza

These efforts are beginning to show results. Integrated planning is being strengthened, data and analysis are being collected and used to shape decision-making by senior leadership and to adapt mission operations, making them more effective. In MINUSCA, the first peacekeeping mission to pilot the CPAS project, the use of data to better understand impact and inform planning and communications is underway. The mission’s military, police, and civilian components sit together to review data and assess the mission’s collective impact. They share their perspectives on critical, interlinked issues: from support to the implementation of the peace agreement signed in 2019, to improving community security, to the restoration of state authority throughout the country. These conversations have helped the mission identify where they are making progress and, equally important, where they aren’t, as well as concrete ways to strengthen operations. As more data is being collected, they are becoming better at showing how their work is influencing the country over time — for instance, how their support to the deployment of local authorities, security and defense forces is influencing armed group behavior across the country.

This approach is being adopted across all peacekeeping missions, including as part of the Secretary-General’s Action for Peacekeeping initiative, which aims to renew political commitment to peacekeeping operations on the part of the Security Council, Member States more broadly, and other partners. If the momentum is sustained, and we can routinely track and assess our impact using robust data, peacekeeping operations will be better equipped to tackle the growing complexities of conflicts and mandates. It will help focus limited and shrinking resources where they can do the most good. And it will help missions respond to the calls from Member States to improve peacekeeping performance: Only when peacekeeping more concretely understands its impact, can its impact be strengthened.

Lesley Myers, Programme Management Officer in the United Nations Department of Peace Operations, spent three years with the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic. She now supports the peacekeeping missions in Mali, Lebanon and Western Sahara to implement strategic planning and performance assessment tools, and specializes in political analysis, policy, and operations, as well as the use of data to inform decision-making. This article was written in a personal capacity and the views are solely of the author. It was originally published in Centerpoint Now.


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