Book review: Eleanor O’Gorman’s ‘Conflict and Development’

I really enjoyed Eleanor O’Gorman’s ‘Conflict and Development’ as a concise introduction to core debates, theories and practical responses on the complex nexus between peace, conflict and development. Although it comprises only 136 pages, the book is a very useful resource for undergraduate teaching and learning or for facilitating discussions or trainings with non-expert audiences.

To achieve the aim ‘to map out the thinking and practices that are redefining contemporary responses to violent conflict in the Global South’ (2), O’Gorman’s five core chapters aim at delivering the following insights:
· Understanding violent conflict and its relationship with poverty and development (Chapter 2);
· Designing and using conflict analysis as a tool for development (Chapter 3);
· The evolving international aid architecture – policies and organisations, including competing ideas of security – that shapes the conflict and development agenda (Chapter 4);
· The political momentum surrounding women, peace and security and its implications for gendered understandings of conflict, violence and development (Chapter 5);
· The current dominance of the peacebuilding/statebuilding axis and to what extent it may indicate the overreach of development policies and programmes in conflict zones (Chapter 6). (2)
The Introduction provides core facts, figures and references to the development of violent conflict after the Cold war. Although O’Gorman has worked in academia and policy-making before, I found her comment that ‘academic-practitioner relations are at best wary and fuelled by mutual suspicion, or, at worst, mutually dismissive’ (13) not particularly helpful and more of a repetition of old stereotypes rather than a constructive contribution to the debate. You could also argue that academia has delivered a range of critical insights into the realities of peacebuilding (and she uses the full range of impressive references) and that many insights simply do not reach the level of policy-making. But her conscious choice throughout the book is to take a ‘constructive’ stance towards the willingness, approaches and intentions of Western peacebuilding rather than a more ‘discursive’ stance towards policy, institutions and the development ‘industry’. The second chapter, Greed, Grievances and Poverty: the Politics of Analysing Conflict, is a necessary overview over key debates around root causes of conflict and her accessible writing style makes this an informative, theory-driven chapter without being too ‘academic’ and dull. There are also important references to ‘complexity’ (37) and anthropology (43) in the second half of the chapter which remind readers/students to look beyond datasets, democratisation theories and regressions. Using Conflict Analysis Frameworks provides an overview over practical dimensions of conflict analysis, focussing on the ‘Do no harm’ concept and Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment (PCIA). The chapter is a good bridge between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’, but it could have emphasised the challenges, politics and power dynamics of ‘mainstreaming’ a concept, e.g. by referring to other key development concepts such as ‘participation’. The fourth chapter, The Aid Policies and Architecture of International Conflict and Development, is the least exciting one. Many concepts such as ‘humanitarian intervention’, ‘responsibility to protect’ or ‘fragile states’ are introduced briefly, but they follow official definitions, documents and discourses. I understand the argument that you have to know a concept before you can critique is, but I wish there was a bit more critical commentary at the end of the chapter. Even a link to Rita Abrahamsen’s excellent book ‘Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance in Africa’ (also published with Zed Books) would have been sufficient to remind the reader that another view on development policies is possible. However, she mentions the changing environment and ‘securitisation’ in the post-9/11 context; Iraq and Afghanistan are described throughout the book as ‘exceptional cases’ (91) of peace- and state-building which really made me reflect upon them and their uncomfortable relationship vis-a-vis peace and development research and practice. Given how much money, time and energy has been spent on operations that basically ignored every piece of advice or insight from decades of peacebuilding, we can only hope that these remain exceptions from an already less-than-perfect peacebuilding norm...
The following chapter, Women. Peace and Security: the Gendering of International Conflict and Development, is exceptionally informative and manages really well to bring together the debates of women in conflict with current research on men, masculinities, militarism and religion. The focus is still on women, but there are many interesting links to additional research and readings that are great examples of the book’s usefulness for teaching. The final chapter, Fragile States and the Limits of Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, highlights a range of current dilemmas and challenges, e.g. transitional administrations (e.g. in Kosovo and Timor-Leste) (121-124) or alternative forms of governance, e.g. in the case of Somaliland (126-127). The dilemmas of civil-military cooperation in Afghanistan are also addressed. The only thing that seems missing for me was a stronger critical engagement with the concept of ‘civil society’ peacebuilding and the ‘NGOisation’ of post-conflict development and how donors tend to favour a narrow understanding of the term rather than a broader view on what organisations best represent ‘the people’ or at least important stakeholders. In the end, I tend to agree with O’Gorman’s conclusion:

It remains an imperfect world. It may be that development is charged with being the ‘intellectual handmaiden’ of the status quo and a bulwark for neo-liberal adventurism in international conflicts – and yet the ideas and programmes discussed here also reveal a radical agenda of change, one that does not accept conflict as inherent and seeks instead to transform the causes and courses of conflicts at many different points (135).
All in all, I recommend the book as a starting point for engaging with debates on conflict and development. On a side note, it would have been a perfect way to round off the book with a chapter on advice for students who are interested in working in the sector. Besides theoretical and programmatic challenges, this is one of the key issues for students and it deserves more attention. I understand that this is a short introduction, but a few pages on ‘Should I work in this field?’ with a brief mentioning of ‘voluntourism’, the hardship of conflict zones and a reference to Stuff Expat Aidworkers Like would have been a great resource for teachers and student – but then again, there are so many excellent blogs that provide insights and are worth browsing for advice...

Note: Zed Books kindly provided me with a review copy of the book.

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