The trouble with simplified solutions to complex problems

Recently TED released a new talk by Paul Collier titled ‘New rules for rebuilding a broken nation’ (link below). As he is well known for, Collier offers a ‘simple solutions’ on how to rebuild a post-conflict country. Although one can agree that the conventional approach used for the resolution of conflicts needs to be re-evaluated, the solutions presented by Collier are more than controversial. In my view, the validity of his solutions are problematic as they are founded on a flawed understanding of conflict, a failure to confront root causes and an erroneous analysis of post-conflict situations.

First, his ‘set of recommendations’ to address the risk of post-conflict societies reverting back to conflict, are based on an appraisal of the post-conflict environment that completely fails to take a step back and properly analyse and address the original causes of the conflict. Any set of recommendations that fail to take account of this crucial step in post-conflict reconstruction is fundamentally flawed.  Consequently, Collier fails to make even the slightest reference to the problem of justice and how post-conflict societies can deal with past grievances and injustices in order to build sustainable peace.

Secondly, his notion of ‘post-conflict compacts’ refers to a ‘standard set of norms’ that should be introduced in post-conflict situations. This is problematic in two ways: first it advocates for deepening of dependence of post-conflict societies on the UN Security Council and the donor community and secondly, it once again comes too close, to the failed ‘one size fits all’ approach that researchers and practitioners working on peace and conflict have tried to argue against for at least last decade.

Thirdly, for an approach that suggests that politics should be the least priority in post-conflict reconstruction, Collier contradicts himself when he argues that  post-conflict Governments  should ber the greater responsibility for ensuring the rule of law (when he talks about land), introducing economic reform, transparent government and rebuilding basic social services. An illegitimate and weak government (resulting from poor politics) cannot achieve these goals.

Lastly, I also find Collier’s suggestion that the role of ‘Doctors without Borders’ should be replaced with an idea of ‘brick –  layers without the borders’ quite disturbing. His argument is premised again on a flawed and simplistic analysis that the only reason why ‘young people go back to conflict’ is because ‘they have nothing else to do’. Although, on the whole I’m not a great believer in the role of NGO’s, it’s unfortunate that Collier chooses to disparage the work of ‘Doctors without Borders’. By lumping them with brick-layers in the context of post-conflict reconstruction is quite misplaced since ‘Doctors without Borders’ are often involved at the very early post-conflict (and often still ongoing-conflict situations), while ‘brick – laying’ could be implmeneted only in the post – conflict reconstruction phase.

In conclusion, the premise that conflict in Africa is always associated with a broken economy is false. Recent examples from Kenya and Zimbabwe show that conflict may still occur due to other factors. Collier’s economic thesis as an explanation for conflict therefore doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s therefore not convincing to argue that economic growth and development will ensure that countries do not go back to conflict.  I submit that the question of conflict, post-conflict reconstruction and peace building in Africa requires a much more sophisticated, nuanced and comprehensive analysis. Such a multidimensional approach may be more useful in arriving at less simplified and more appropriate diagnoses and propositions to the resolution of conflicts, building sustainable peace and development.  Unfortunately this cannot be summarized in one talk of 16.34 minutes.

Paul Collier ‘New rules for rebuilding a broken nation’ on TED:


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