Interview by by Ruairi Nolan, Insight on Conflict, 8 March 2011.

From 2008-2010, Jack McConnell MSP served as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Peacebuilding, working to improve international mechanisms for conflict prevention and resolution on behalf of the British Government. Since June 2010 he has been a member of the House of Lords, as Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale. In this exclusive interview with Insight on Conflict (also available as a podcast) he explains why conflict reconstruction is the most important challenge of our time, where there have been peacebuilding successes, and the changes necessary to build a more peaceful world.


You were the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Peacebuilding in 2008-2010. What led the Government to create this post, and how did you get involved in that?

At the time the prime minister had indentified three goals for changing the international institutional infrastructure, and its response to the big issues of the day. One was obviously the challenges to the global economy and international finance, second was on climate change, and the third was on conflict. There were teams working on the first two. But the foreign office ministers, particularly Mark Malloch Brown who was the minister for Africa at the time, identified a need for specific individual who could spearhead the UK’s efforts to improve the way in which the UN and other institutions were responding to conflict, and in particular supporting post-conflict reconstruction.

You have said that post conflict reconstruction is the single biggest development challenge of our time. Why do you think that is the case and do you think that enough is being done about that challenge?

Well I think the figures are stark. The numbers of not just children but individuals who are affected in a most extreme way by conflict are dramatic. You are far more likely in this world to have poor access to education, poor access to employment, poor access to water, poor access to healthcare; far more likely to have disease or disability; far more likely to have your life opportunities impaired in some way, if you are in or part of a state that has been engaged in conflict in the recent past.

Lord McConnell on visit to a project in Malawi

And yet internationally, the institutions, NGOs and others – while things have steadily improved year by year – have singularly failed to shift the fact that in a significant number of cases, conflicts brought to an end through peace agreements reopen again within a small number of years. That is because the action by the international community is not coordinated more effectively, it is not well enough led, it is not flexibly enough financed, and there are not enough ‘early wins’ – significant early wins – to build the peace and to give the people in the area confidence that peace is more worthwhile than conflict.

There has obviously been a change of government since your time as the Special Representative for Peacebuilding, but what would you say the UK government’s understanding of peacebuilding is; what sort of activities do you think the UK government sees as peacebuilding?

I think across the ministers of the previous government and the ministers of the new, and across the officials and the foreign office, and DfID, and actually to some extend in the Ministry of Defence as well, I think there is a very wide understanding of: first of all the importance of the issue; secondly the need for international institutional improvements in the response; but also an understanding that post-conflict reconstruction – peacebuilding – needs to be sustainable, and will only be sustainable if it is locally led. Locally led can mean ‘nationally led’ by the government of a state, but it should also mean community led.

post-conflict reconstruction – peacebuilding – needs to be sustainable, and will only be sustainable if it is locally led
I think there is an understanding. Implementing that philosophy is much more difficult than understanding it. And I think both the previous government, and I’m sure this government too, will have some difficulty consistently implementing that approach – because as a long term approach, there are no easy short term gains for politicians or governments in this. It is about keeping the level of support that is required over a significant period of time in order to ensure that in the longer term, peace is more sustainable.

You see a role for local peacebuilders in conflict prevention and conflict resolution. How do you see them fitting into the picture with the support of outsiders like the UK government or other?

I think first of all there needs to be a recognition of their importance, and there needs to be finance available for them. And sometimes that needs to be independent of a national strategy, because building pluralist civic society at a local level and a national level in these countries is part of the longer term move towards peace. I think that their importance is perhaps best highlighted by the fact that it is not just enough to provide material improvements to people’s lives. And obviously some local peacebuilding organisations are involved in material improvements. But there also need to be methods of conflict resolution, methods of addressing bitterness, the scars of conflict, psychological and otherwise in the community: divisions that have built up over a long, long period of time. And it will be local peacebuilding organisations that are best placed to try and raise these issues and ensure the community recognises them and is able to move on.

From your experience, can you think of any examples where you think peacebuilding has been particularly well done or successful; either at a national scale or more local examples?

Well, I am not an expert on local peacebuilding organisations, and I wouldn’t claim to know what the basic examples would be of individual communities. Although close to home, there are good examples in Northern Ireland. And I have come across examples of hard work going on at a local level, in parts of Central Africa and West Africa that I think are admirable; and actually also in Nepal too.

But I think increasingly we have good examples – nowhere is perfect – but good examples of really strong, long term building of institutions and improvements in people’s lives, that will help sustain the peace at a national level. I think we are seeing and we will continue to see significant steps forward in Sierra Leone as a result of a whole series of interventions, but a particularly good UN mission there. Well led, but also a number of people working closely with the new government there to make real progress in a practical and political sense.

I think some of the things that have happened in Rwanda will become best practice examples of how to rebuild a shattered society. Clearly there are issues in Rwanda about political pluralism, partly created by the popularity of the government and partly created by the need to move on from the divisions of the past and therefore the laws reflect that. There are some issues in Rwanda, but some of the infrastructure improvements by the Rwandan government for quality of life are quite remarkable. And some of the ways in which the genocide is recognised there, and raised as an issue are important too.

So I think there are now examples of real, significant improvements that I would like to see being used more and more elsewhere on the continent of Africa in particular, rather than always looking to Western or Northern hemisphere examples of good governance or good delivery.

there are now examples of real ... significant improvements that I would like to see being used ... on the continent of Africa, ... rather than always looking to ... Northern hemisphere examples of good governance or good delivery.
You have spoken before about reforms in terms of how the UN approaches peacebuilding. What sort of changes would you like to see, and do you see any points of leverage for achieving change in how the UN works?

I think one of the main points of leverage at the moment is the cost of peacekeeping missions. We cannot keep growing the number of almost open-ended peacekeeping missions that operate throughout the world. There is an urgent need to move from peacekeeping to peacebuilding. And what is required is the very early initiation of peacebuilding infrastructure right at the start of a peacekeeping mission, not waiting until the peacekeeping element has seen its course: understanding that peacebuilding has to begin right away, clarity of who should be in the lead.

There is an urgent need to move from peacekeeping to peacebuilding
My view is that normally that should be the UN, but if it’s not, it could be the EU, it could be other institutions. Others working under that leadership in a co-ordinating fashion, backing an agreed national strategy, with early finance that is available in a flexible way for some early wins. But critically and absolutely essentially, always putting as a priority the building of national capacity in the country itself: a strategy that is nationally led, and a strategy that is building for the longer term, not just allowing the international community to come in and duplicate or substitute for that national capacity that is required.

One real difficulty for anyone in peacebuilding is measuring impact. Have you any suggestions on how indicators might be developed that could measure success?

Again, I am not a technical expert in this field. I mean in my world – I suppose the political or campaigning world – I think impact is something that you can feel rather than necessarily measure. But it is absolutely essential that there are measurements developed. I think we know what the key ingredients are here: people’s opportunity to secure employment and sustain employment; people’s access to health and water; a pluralist political culture being developed (never going to happen overnight, but over time, steps towards a pluralist culture); and an independent, robust, properly trained and structured system of justice and the rule of law.

We know that these are the key ingredients, and I don’t think it is impossible – although each country will be different – to put in place measurements that therefore hold accountable those who are contributing to the strategy. It’s perfectly possible to say that there should be increased employment every year: starting from such a low base in places, that is not impossible anywhere. It is perfectly possible to measure improvements in water and health. It is perhaps more difficult to measure improvements in plurality or improvements in the rule of law, but it is not impossible there either. And I think each individual national strategy should have measurements within it. And I think the international community should be held accountable by international donors and others for their contribution to that.

Going back to one thing that you mentioned earlier, which was the cost of peace missions and the idea of cost effectiveness…. You have said that every $1 we spend on conflict prevention saves $4 of costs incurred through conflicts later. Why then isn’t more spent on conflict prevention, do you think?

There is a wide range of reasons for the fact that we are where we are. I think it is easier for international institutions and the governments that represented within them to respond rather than pre-empt (although there is an increasing understanding that pre-emption is more important). I think sometimes action – particularly peacebuilding/reconstruction type action – is hampered by the divisions within the UN and other bodies, and also the reluctance of some countries to allow the international community or individual states to intervene, even if an intervention is a supported intervention. I also think that, on too many occasions, the governments that are represented in these international institutions – the national governments – are looking for short term actions that will please their publics back home.

And also, very regularly, governments are saying different things at home, than they say at the UN, and at the UN from what they say for example in the EU or the World Bank. And one of the big frustrations for me over that two year period was finding that the discussions taking place at the World Bank, taking place in the UN, taking place in the EU, were taking place almost in separate silos. A bit like the ways governments used to operate, with different departments operating completely separate from each other: and that needs to be broken down. And the leading countries of the world that donate the most money and have the biggest commitment to this – like the UK – could take a lead and show consistency.

I’m sure you have been watching with a great deal of interest what has been going on in the Arab world at the minute. Is there anything, any lessons, in terms of people power that you can point out?

As the world becomes more open, as the world becomes better connected, economically, ecologically, and in every sense, I think the call for people to have a greater say over their own lives, a greater say over the future of their own country, is an inevitable call, and I think it is one that ultimately politicians have to respond to. So I think what is happening has been brewing for a long time.

As the world becomes ... better connected, economically, ecologically, and in every sense, ... the call for people to have a greater say over their own lives, a greater say over the future of their own country, is ... inevitable
I think what happened in Egypt is absolutely remarkable, to have such significant potential change about to happen on a peaceful basis. Now coming from a country where we achieved peaceful constitutional change – Scotland – with no armed conflict at all, I have watched armed conflict lead to constitutional changes in so many places around the world, and in Egypt people just have had enough. I was there two years ago, and I sensed that that was a feeling that was starting to happen, and the government was out of touch – and that proved to be the case.

You’re now in the House of Lords. Have you any future plans for involvement in peacebuilding in any way?

I entered the House of Lords last June [2010]. Here I want to concentrate on three things. First, I want to put the case to the House of Lords for a multicultural, multinational United Kingdom. I think our society is stronger for its diversity, and our country is stronger for its diversity. I don’t just mean reminding people that there are Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as England in the UK, but also I believe that a multicultural, diverse society is a stronger, more dynamic and better place to be. So I want to challenge some of the established political opinion on that and speak up for that.

Secondly, I want to promote causes that have always been dear to my heart, first of all international development, and secondly work with children and young people, particularly those coming from care or very difficult backgrounds or difficult circumstances.

Thirdly, I want to be a voice in the chamber and beyond for the improvement of post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding. So that will be one of my priorities in the Lords. The Lords is also an opportunity to speak up on these issues elsewhere, so I will attend and speak at international conferences, I will continue to visit not just Africa but also other parts of the world where conflict has been a scourge for far too long. I was at the United Nations last month, raising the issues with senior officials and others, and I will continue to speak about the issues.

I hope that we are about to see, in this decade, the kind of progress on peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction that we saw in the Nineties on humanitarian relief. In the Eighties, humanitarian relief was chaotic, a terrible failure, where goods and food were being sent to humanitarian crises and never getting to the people, because the international community was so disjointed, so unable to work together. And that problem was largely resolved in the Nineties, with a bit of leadership and some new principles and procedures that were put in place. The same thing should happen for post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding in this decade, and I am very keen to push that case.

Do you think there is openness amongst Parliamentarians to your ideas and thinking on post-conflict reconstruction?

I think there is a broad cross-party support for these approaches. My worry is that politicians in lots of countries, not just here in the UK, find this to be too long term and at times just too difficult. My view is that it is too important for us to view it as too long term or too difficult. This is so important that we need to inject some urgency into the debate and the decisions, and I think the UK can proudly take a lead on this issue, if we work together on it.