Give Optimism a Chance
Author: Jan Kozak
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 01/26/2004
Category: Book Review
Winston Churchill once said: “The optimist sees opportunity in every danger. The pessimist sees danger in every opportunity.” Optimists have had little cause for cheer in the first years of the 21st century. Security and prosperity are under threat. Instability and conflict are clouding a rosy view of the future.
– Klaus Schwab, International Herald Tribune
At such an important moment in our history, Robert J. Muscat highlights the opportunities as well as the dangers faced by the international development community’s collective efforts to preventing violent conflict. Ultimately, the success of development agencies in meeting this objective will depend on the degree of optimism or pessimism regarding the potential effects of development aid on conflict prevention. Although the threat of a major interstate war in the post-Cold War era has diminished significantly, the phenomena of intra-state conflicts, particularly in the Third World, have made the prospect of peace and development an even more distant dream for millions of people around the world. The international community, often failing to develop a coherent policy and assemble an effective intervention coalition, has, in many instances, largely failed to prevent such conflicts from emerging, thus further encouraging future potential aggressors to discount the probability of such intervention (p. 6).
Robert J. Muscat’s Investing in Peace is, in certain ways, a pioneering effort and an attempt to outline the contours of a consensus on a new policy framework, which the international development community needs to adopt to more effectively address the root causes of violent conflict in the 21st century. Contrary to much of contemporary prescriptive literature, Muscat does not automatically assume that economic development is always conflict-reducing. Through a series of case studies and a detailed examination of the three cross-cutting themes of development, aid and conflict, Muscat identifies development aid as perhaps “the most powerful tool that the international community possesses as a means of non-violent conflict resolution in the Third World today” (p. xvi). Rather than portraying foreign aid as exemplifying Northern philanthropy or altruism, however, Muscat makes an important acknowledgement. As most threats to global security in the 21st century stem from Third World states’ chronic intra-state conflict, state failure, and economic underdevelopment and associated problems of social dislocation and environmental degradation, it is in the interest of the donor nations to modify their approach to development aid and conflict prevention, and place those on top of their foreign policy agenda. Economic development can be conflict-reducing if development experts succeed in acquiring an intimate knowledge of local histories, particularities and circumstances, and accordingly tailor development strategies to effectively prevent violent conflict from reversing years, if not decades, of past development efforts. As such, conflict prevention through development aid and cooperation should lie at the heart of all development efforts in the Third World.
Muscat’s conclusions regarding the connection between development and conflict prevention build on field experience and prior research work of a large number of actors in the field of international development, which pinpoint apparent successes and failures. Namely, he draws on research findings of leading academics and institutions in the field, as well as on concrete examples from the field provided by the experiences of UNDP, IMF, World Bank staff and a number of bilateral donor agencies.
Unfortunately, his account could, only with great difficulties, be considered as objective and free of bias. Given his professional background (USAID, UNDP, World Bank), it should be of no surprise that his conclusions suffer from some serious limitations and omissions. Muscat delineates a comprehensive overview of the activities of the international development community in an effort to evaluate its effectiveness in preventing violent conflicts. Yet, the development doctrine, which continues to define so much of the contemporary work of many development agencies, is hardly questioned. The essential ingredients of successful development remain the same, while any failure to prevent conflict is ascribed to inadequate coordination among donors, a failure, on the part of donors, to recognize that even seemingly apolitical aid such as technical assistance can have political implications for violent conflict, or to weak commitment or state capacity on the part of the recipient nations to diligently follow the rules of the game.
When examining the potentially conflict-exacerbating effects of structural adjustment programs (SAPs), he advances the argument that “evidence does not show significant association between SAPs in general and subsequent conflict, except for the occasional ‘IMF riot’ and the exceptional case of Yugoslavia” (p. 199). While this correlation may not be supported by econometric research using measures of “overall inequality”, qualitative research suggesting that inequality between regions or groups – known as “horizontal inequality” may be, in fact, responsible for the eruption of violent conflict. Obtained results in this regard are reducible to employed data sets. Additionally, multiple sections of his book focus on the failure of development agencies to foresee the negative economic impacts of their work in the Third World, without further examining the conflict-exacerbating implications of such failures. In an attempt to provide a balanced view, Muscat mentions, on the margins, Joseph Stiglitz and his criticisms of IMF and the US Treasury’s roles in exacerbating the 1997-1998 crises in East Asia on page 200.
The book amounts to nothing more than a series of observations and evaluations of past efforts of development agencies in the Third World and the oft-missing “conflict prevention lens” in their work. In other words, as an overview, it adequately informs the general audience that conflict prevention has been largely missing in the work of the international development community, yet their activities clearly are of high importance to the problem at hand. As Muscat illustrates development aid can both mitigate/prevent and exacerbate societal tensions in particular and violent conflict in general.
Although he recognizes that it is hard to codify a single unified formula that development agencies could adopt to more effectively contribute to conflict prevention through their work, I would have wished to see a more systematic approach permitting the reader to at least sketch a rough image of the nature of such a formula. While practitioners in the field of development cooperation might find this book useful, Muscat’s policy prescriptions are too disorganized and scattered throughout the book for anyone to be able to devise clear and effective conflict prevention strategies. Instead, we learn that it is important to abandon any attempt to use cookie-cutter formulas and to deal with individual scenarios on a case-by-case basis. For readers interested in a more systematic policy guide, I would certainly recommend the Development Assistance Committee Guidelines: Helping Prevent Violent Conflict published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2001 or consult works prepared by the International Development Research Center and associated organizations.
I was equally disappointed by Muscat’s failure to wholeheartedly delve into the question of democracy and its potentially conflict-reducing implications. Again, Muscat seems contented with a basic overview of existing literature, without attempting to, at a minimum, suggest tangible ways in which specific forms of democracy may be appropriate in particular contexts. He certainly fails to mention major research work on the subject conducted by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which seems to suggest that democracy may in fact be a viable solution for conflict prevention in any context as long as its design closely reflects the wishes and aspiration of the particular population in question.
Despite some of these shortcomings, I have enjoyed reading Investing in Peace. Muscat draws on a rich set of real life examples of what has and has not worked, and as such will provide a good overview and understanding of the intricate relationships between development, aid and conflict to anyone interested in the issues at hand. Indeed, representing one of the pioneering works in the field, it is only understandable that the reader will likely be left with more questions to ask rather than questions definitely answered. That should only be a good sign, as Muscat’s volume will surely provoke others to undertake additional research and refine his observations, thus further strengthening the body of knowledge in this still largely neglected field.
Robert J. Muscat, Investing in Peace: How Development Aid Can Prevent or Promote Conflict, Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe. 2002.
Macartan Humphreys, “Economics and Violent Conflict”, Human Security Bulletin: the Canadian Consortium on Human Security, October 2002, Vol. 1, No. 3, http://www.humansecuritybulletin.info/archive/en_v1i3/research_3.htm (January 19, 2004)
Klaus Schwab, “Shaping prospects for a dangerous world”, International Herald Tribune, January 19, 2004, http://www.iht.com./articles/125562.htm (January 19, 2004)
 See Macartan Humphreys, “Economics and Violent Conflict”, Human Security Bulletin: The Canadian Consortium on Human Security, October 2002, Vol. 1, No. 3, http://www.humansecuritybulletin.info/archive/en_v1i3/research_3.htm (January 19, 2004)
Bio: Jan Kozak, who is from the Czech Republic, has studied in
Norway, United States and France, and is now doing postgraduate work in Costa Rica, Central America.