This blog was written by Kathrin Quesada

When I recently interviewed several experts on stabilisation approaches for a research project mediatEUr was requested to carry out for the EEAS, one definition of the term stuck with me for a very long time:

“Stabilisaton is about people regaining harmony; it is about societies being able to reorganise their lives together”.

I found it not only simply and beautifully said, but also a very noble goal. And yet the reality of the lives of people in countries where stabilisation activities have taken place or are currently underway seems very far from having reached this state.

Just have a look at recent headlines for Iraq or Afghanistan, where some of the biggest international stabilisation missions have been deployed. Massive bombings take place on a regular basis, killing and injuring hundreds, not to mention the number of displaced persons, the destruction of infrastructure, and the economic losses these protracted conflicts still create.

So, does this mean that the definition of stabilisation I heard from my interviewee is just too idealistic and cannot be applied to real life contexts? Or is it rather that the activities we develop and implement to stabilise a country are too much of a quick fix, adapting to the urgent nature of the work and hence loosing this end-goal out of sight? Obviously, the answer is not as easy and straightforward as that; and, as is often the case, it begins with how we define a term.

What are we actually talking about?

Whilst research has acknowledged the difficulty of nailing down the definition of “stabilisation” in social sciences, it seems worthwhile to go back to the origins of the word. The original Latin adjective, “stabile”, stems from “stō”, and means “to stand firm”. Similarly, it is defined as “steady and stable”, but also “durable, lasting and established.” Indeed, many peacebuilding actors working on stabilisation use exactly these elements as key objectives when setting up their activities.

Research that we at mediatEUr have recently undertaken reveals that, for experts and practitioners working on stabilisation, there are three key narratives that re-occur:

  1. Stabilisation as a planning tool
  2. Stabilisation as a pragmatic approach
  3. Stabilisation as transformation.

While the first two narratives highlight the different phases in stabilisation and the need for coordination and context-specific activities, interpreting stabilisation as an act of transformation emphasises the importance of inclusive and holistic approaches and of understanding the local context. This is a point that many of our interviewees stressed, with one of them putting it most clearly:

“When we tried our practice in Iraq, it was like blind people sitting around the table describing an elephant. We could define parts of it, but not the whole. This halted the process.”.

In other words, the focus was placed on a certain array of stabilisation activities, mainly designed to address immediate security concerns and to halt the migration flows to Europe, while other areas of stabilisation work were neglected.

So how do we know what the elephant looks like?

As any good student of conflict studies would suggest, a sound conflict analysis must be carried out before any stabilisation intervention takes place. But that is not enough. As conflict is neither linear nor static, any conflict analysis must continue throughout the “life” of a mission, and should be regularly updated. To understand the needs of a stabilisation effort, the analyst’s ears need to be “close to the ground”. Not drawing on local resources sufficiently (for example, failing to involve local men and women alike) also leads to missing out on the opportunity to build strategic alliances for locally owned and credible stabilisation activities.

Admittedly, “holistic and inclusive approaches” is a concept that is all too often used as an empty buzzword, filling up concept notes and reports, rather than being filled with life.

What do I concretely mean by it? Let me give you two examples from my own peacebuilding experience with the OSCE and DCAF where dialogue and trust building proved to be just as important as implementing infrastructural projects and reforming security institutions:

During my time with the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, it was a frequent challenge to build trust between Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs, in particular in small enclaves where Serbian residents were the majority. One of the projects I was in charge of was to create a safe space for Serbian children, who usually played in the street causing safety concerns for the police and the community. When we decided to build a playground in the village, the tender for it was awarded to a Kosovo Albanian firm.  Thanks to our regular mediation between their staff and the villagers, not only did the firm work on the playground itself, but also started taking up smaller tasks for the surrounding neighbours. So, while the key objective of the project was to build a playground (addressing infrastructural and security needs), the project also allowed us to provide a platform for more interaction and building trust between Kosovo-Albanian and Kosovo-Serbian communities.

A few years later, while working with DCAF on gender and security sector reform, one of my main tasks was to bring together different sectors of society that were traditionally suspicious, if not hostile, towards each other: police and military on the one hand, and women’s organisations and other security service users on the other. In three countries, including in North Africa after the so called Arab Spring, we used extensive stakeholder consultations with all parties to raise awareness on gender issues and create support for the development of gender-sensitive policies in the security sector. I remember all too well how in one consultation in Novi Pazar, in Serbia, women’s NGOs had never sat on the same table with the police. Once they did, both sides realised that, while their security priorities were not necessarily the same, talking about them together built the foundations for change and mutual trust that was missing so far.

To me, these examples on a community level illustrate well with how little you can embark on the road of reconciliation and dialogue, two areas of work that we at mediatEUr believe are vital for any stabilisation effort to be effective and sustainable.

In fact, the research that we have conducted revealed that dialogue and reconciliation belong to the top three areas stabilisation efforts should focus on, together with conflict analysis and community services. This clearly recognises the importance of inclusivity, and how its absence remains one of the key critique of mainstream stabilisation approaches.

So, does this mean that, for “people regaining harmony, societies being able to reorganise their lives together”, we merely have to add more dialogue and reconciliation activities when we set out to stabilise a country?

We still don’t know enough on what works and what doesn’t!

One thing I realised during our research is that, while a good amount of discussion exists on what stabilisation means and how it should be approached, to me the debate seems rather academic and theoretical. To understand and extract lessons on what has worked and what hasn’t (and why), it seems vital to regularly involve practitioners with concrete experience working on the ground. This also includes local experts whose insights could be extremely valuable. What’s more, we have to begin to listen more closely to those who benefit from our programmes, which links back to the importance of inclusivity. The good news is that fostering such an approach is neither rocket science nor a vague idea; we just need to trust our local experts and beneficiaries more. Maybe this means that we have to be less risk-averse and result-oriented when we plan and implement our activities; but it is definitely worth a try.

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Kathrin Quesada

Author Kathrin Quesada

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