Peace means different things to different people, but most assume that preventing violence or escalation of a conflict leads to sustainable peace. They also assume that peacebuilding efforts will address the root causes of conflicts, build or rebuild social institutions and set up effective governance structures, and institute the rule of law. But what happens when various actors in a country are not willing to stop violence or resolve conflicts because war and violence serves their economic, political and psychological functions? Do we kowtow their line and join the plunder? Or do we heighten our calls for negative peace (absence of violence)?

David Keen’s 2012 book, Useful Enemies: When Waging War is more Important than Winning them, responds to these questions and offers a critique of liberal peace, which assumes that people in a country have an interest in peace since they can obtain material and non-material well-being only during peace. He shows that ‘winning hearts and minds’ approach to peacebuilding has not yielded considerable success. In fact, it is the very process of liberal peacebuilding – political and economic liberalization – that often generate destabilizing consequences in conflict torn countries, hindering the attainment of peace. Thus, prompting the question: How can we move beyond peacebuilding activities that exacerbate violence?

Keen challenges us to reconceptualize our approaches to peacebuilding to devote substantial time to conflict analysis. We should ask tough questions such as who has vested interests in the continuation of the conflict? Who is gaining politically or economically? Clearly, winning a war or reconciling a country may not be in the interest of some actors – they will try all means to block a sustainable solution. Keen challenges peacebuilders to reconsider their understanding of conflict and their current peacebuilding strategies. Often peacebuilders succumb to the “planning trap”. They base their activities on wrong assumptions, informed by poor analysis, and do not see the big picture that winning is not what war is always about. Most problems in peacebuilding are caused by this short-sightedness on the part of peacebuilders. For instance, peacebuilders have in the past blamed rebels for causing violence but ignored their grievances or the greed within the counter insurgence forces and the role of corrupt governments. History is replete with examples where government soldiers have forged a mutually beneficial system with the rebels making war a profitable venture.

Failures in societies and governments where corruption and greed sabotages peacebuilding efforts are not an accident, they are rather a reflection of powerful structural factors that are not easy to transform. You cannot transform these societies by winning their hearts and minds. Keen disagrees with peacebuilders who attribute modern conflicts to the breakdown of political, economic and social order. Sometimes the reverse is true, that is, governments, rebels, and peacebuilders have contributed to the breakdown of economic, political, and social institutions of a country. Hence, it is not enough for peacebuilders to have good intentions for rebuilding these ‘failed’ societies as good intentions alone cannot bring sustainable peace.

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