International interventions are often criticized by scholars for not doing enough, including not enough local ownership. The newly emerging concept of resilience also falls victim to these critiques. In a new article, Pol Bargués-Pedreny warns that this may lead to a dangerous nihilism in processes of international intervention: the acceptance of a permanent failure.
International policymakers assisting disaster and conflict-affected societies often appear confused. While overwhelmed by implementation dilemmas, they continue working nevertheless. Their policies are riddled with inconsistencies that regularly fail or lead to unanticipated consequences, and yet they learn and try again.
A commentator captures this well, when he writes: “policymaking has found its ways of living with affirmation. It has developed concepts of peace governance ambiguous enough to conceptually work even when failing in practice.” Why is it that policies to enhance resilience suffer from a chronic deficiency, which needs to be made good?
Nowhere is the perception of deficit clearer than in accounts that promote “local ownership.” Drawing on the poor track record of international interventions designed from the “top-down,” the underlying assumption is that interventions should be locally-driven and context specific. Yet the policy of “local ownership” never seems to work out in practice. Sometimes local actors appear incapable of taking the lead, some other times interests of different groups conflict with one another. Thus the preferences of international interveners end up imposing themselves.
Today, the key concern is how to bridge the gap between discourse and practice of local ownership; how to fulfill the commitment to transferring competences satisfactorily, in every context and policy area, so that local actors are more than mere implementers of an external agenda. Critical scholars have insisted on the need to push the policy further. For them, as for policymakers, more resources and efforts are required to make local ownership real, meaningful. As one scholar notes, “[The international community must] rely more on the very people it is ostensibly trying to protect.”
The perception of deficit can also be seen when looking at the new technologies that enhance humanitarian interventions. The bond between technology and innovation for humanitarian purposes started a decade ago and reached its climax in May 2016, in the firstever World Humanitarian Summit. The Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation was created to bring the aid industry, governments, private sector partners, and hubs together to scale innovation. New technologies are at the core of innovation ventures and bring the promise of “finding needles in haystacks,” penetrating up to the most isolated areas and leaving no one behind. Yet there are always biasis, deficiencies, glitches, that need to be corrected.
For instance, digital maps collect large amounts of diverse information at unprecedented speeds with the promise that the information that is updated and verified by local actors could help practitioners understand, be attentive and respond to the everyday needs and concerns of the people affected by conflict or disaster. However, the conclusion seems to be that information given by crisis mapping projects is incomplete, distorted, tinged with power biases and false representations of space. Thus, the demand is that more (and better) data should be gathered to meet expectations. Innovation always requires new and better maps and gadgets.
The third example where the perception of deficit energizes international intervention can be seen in accounts that demand longer missions and operations. International policymakers that seek immediate results provide reductionist and simplistic analyses, neglecting several unforeseen effects. Instead, prolonged engagements offer the opportunity to build contacts and strengthen alliances; make insightful observations and conduct more accurate, context-specific and in-depth analyses; also, they increase the likelihood of witnessing the evolution of events and allowing serendipitous discoveries.
Although current international missions and operations are already committed to long-term conflict prevention (before conflict starts) and peace consolidation strategies (after conflict ends), “more” is always better. A generalised feeling is that implementation programs are still dominated by short-term concerns and are not open enough to unpredictability and change. They operate with too much haste. Therefore, long-term perspectives are always necessary to be able to foster resilience and adapt to uncertainty. There is never an end-state called resilience, where peace and harmony could settle: no mission, initiative or policy seems to get us close enough to finally achieve resilience.
What are the consequences of thinking that policies are always in the wrong? On the one hand, by identifying a “lack” in processes of promoting resilience (something was absent, someone was omitted, something else could be done) may be liberating and useful, giving another chance of genuine improvement. On the other hand, however, it is important to relate this perception of deficit to contemporary forms of neoliberal governance that continually expand. A sense of “deficit” sustains “the economic logic of late-capitalism”: “the endless willingness to happily fail-forward into the future.” By “governing through failure and denial” and interpreting crises and past failures as new opportunities, measures for further monitoring and control are legitimized, while critiques and challenges to broader structures are deemed impossible.
The feeling that resilience is “always more” also leads to a dangerous nihilism in processes of international intervention: the acceptance of a permanent failure. As Jessica Schmidt puts it, resilience approaches today accept the problem of “never getting it right” and, in consequence, translate it into a virtue: “always having to adapt.” As practitioners are in awe with resilience, skepticism about programs and policies spreads. Results seem impossible to achieve and the end appears remote. The general direction is towards accepting idleness and despair.
Pol Bargués-Pedreny is a researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and the author of “Resilience is ‘always more’ than our practices: Limits, critiques, and skepticism about international intervention”, Contemporary Security Policy, 41(2), pp. 263-286. The article is available here.