Building democracy and development in conflict situations

Nicholas Haysom, special representative of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for Sudan and South Sudan. Photo by: Loey Felipe / U.N. / CC BY-NC

Inclusion and empowerment are vital for both democracy and development to take hold in conflict and post-conflict situations, according to Nicholas Haysom, special representative of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for Sudan and South Sudan.

"I think the temptation in some of these situations is to suppress different people's identities,” said Haysom, who was previously the secretary-general’s representative in Afghanistan. “They'll say there’s only one identity, [and] you can understand that because of the imperative of nation building.”

“But that cannot be the basis of building a firm and inclusive society. It has to be one that recognizes people's differences but based on their shared values and shared interests and destiny,” he said.

Below are the highlights of our conversation with UNSG Special Representative for Sudan and South Sudan Nicholas Haysom on the sidelines of the Annual Democracy Forum in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia organized by International IDEA, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us about your experiences working in Afghanistan and more recently Sudan and South Sudan, and how recent and current conflicts have affected development?

Afghanistan faces quite extreme challenges, [including a] tough economic contraction at the moment with the withdrawal of international presence and its effect in the economy, which has been very significant. The country also faces a very difficult political transition after a contested election, and all of that is compounded by security challenges from a countrywide insurrection or insurgency led by the Taliban. It faces the challenge really of trying to find a route to economic development, while at the same time a recipe for stability and peace.

I moved very directly from Afghanistan to South Sudan, and almost immediately, the government of national unity in South Sudan effectively collapsed and we saw the outbreak of violence between the two components of that government. The very dangerous element in that collapse is that it has taken place along ethnic lines, and so you have the potential eruption of a civil war which divides the people, in a road which will lead to quite extreme violence and civil rights abuses.

At the same time, the country has a difficult relationship with Sudan itself, its northern neighbor from which it recently seceded, leaving quite a number of problems behind including trade and border issues. Because both countries have internal conflicts, there is also the suspicion and the reality of support for the insurgency in each other's countries, either because of the historical linkages in one case or the capacity to weaken the other country to create competitive positions.

What are the challenges for democracy and development to take root in these countries? How does the issue of security affect democracy and development?

Afghanistan, like many other countries, faces the challenge of overcoming a security threat while at the same time building its own internal cohesion. That requires building its democratic culture. [The same in] South Sudan. Both countries have a long history of conflict, and so they have to build their institutions against the backdrop of divided and weak institutions in the country.

It's broadly accepted that the key to building a firm foundation for the future is strong institutions, and yet strong institutions don't happen overnight. They take time to develop, so very often security or investment in security is seen as trying to create the political space for the development of institutions.

At the heart of it, the way I would want to see it, is the capacity for a society to create arrangements in terms of how they can live together. Another way of looking at that is to create a social contract between the critical elements of that society. That's a difficult and contested process, one which has to, on the one hand, build national unity, but, on the other hand, [become] a process whether it takes place through an election or a new constitutional development. [It has to be] one that puts people, particularly minorities, in competitive and assertive positions to plan the protection of their rights.

What are the pitfalls countries in similar situations should look out for?

They have to establish a balance between recognizing minorities but at the same time not allowing what I call subnational identities to overwhelm the nation building process. The country needs to have shared values, shared aspirations. The difficulty with countries that have been through intense conflict is that [they] frequently struggle to develop a common sense of national aspirations. That's the real difficulty to deal with the past, while being confronted with the future.

In circumstances where groups compete for political power — and economic power which follows with the political position — they can exclude others. Once excluded, the groups simply do not have an interest in their parts of the whole. They might promote secessionist or other divisive tendencies. It's very important that in the structures and ways in which we should look at these countries, we manage the transition in way that it brings people together. The only way you can do that is by ensuring a just distribution of economic and political power across the society.

Where is democracy in that picture? How important is democracy for the country’s development?

[Democracy] can be a critical part of the nation building process but it can also be a divisive [element], and there are some who argue that nation building requires that you put democracy on hold. The problem is that not having democracy can also frustrate the nation building process and allow domination of parts of the country by [one group]. What you really want to avoid is the sense of a mono-ethnic control in these countries, with these groups seeking to assert themselves and to mobilize on the basis of their ethnic or tribal majorities. They create the basis for further division and exclusion. So what one needs to do is not to simply say “democracy,” but it's really [about] the kind of democracy. The democracy I'm certainly arguing for is quite carefully structured to be inclusive, in both process and outcome.

My solution is to retain a strong democratic methodology but to use it in a way that includes people, brings and draws people into the state, gives them a fair share and a stake rather than excludes them. And in there, they'll have an interest in being part of the new political system, rather than taking up arms against it.

Are accountability, inclusiveness and transparency possible in other forms of government?

The danger with authoritarian or non-democratic systems is that there's no accountability and that if there's no accountability, there's a real risk that in fact not only will you not be democratic but you will also be exclusionary. Autocratic systems almost inevitably see control over the state and the resources by a small group of people.

[Democracy is good] but it's not any democracy. Democracy can be quite cruel in its consequences if it's used to suppress minorities. It's not simply democracy — it's an inclusive and transparent democracy.

What role do you see democracy playing in the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals in conflict and post-conflict situations?

It builds transparency and accountability. If you're not accountable to the majority of the people, what you see is that the [gaps] grow and disproportionate access to many wealth and power at the expense of the people.

An important [aspect] of transitions and nation building is to make ordinary people feel they're part, and that they have a stake and they own structures and they will defend them. They won't do that if they don't have a share in creating [a nation] or they don't feel like they own it.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.