Political settlements again: unsettle, undo or ditch?

10 July 2017

Is it time to send the concept of “political settlements” to the dustbin of passé development fashion fads and jargon?  A new volume of Conflict, Security and Development journal does not think so. While acknowledging that the concept has received its fair share of critiques in recent times, re-appropriating it may still give us a lens with substantial analytical currency in these times of political upheaval.   

Graffiti of politics in Kenya, taken in 2012. Credit: CHMoss - Flickr

A copious, rich and thought-provoking body of scholarship on political settlements has emerged over recent years, including from the Political Settlements Research Programme, the Crisis State Research Network at LSE and the Politics and Governance Programme at ODI amongst others in this area, each trying to push the boundaries of making political settlements useful for policy purposes.

However, when it comes to development buzzwords, political settlement, a concept used to refer more or less to elite negotiations in post-conflict and peacebuilding settings, has received its fair share of critiques. Amongst them, Mick Moore, IDS Fellow in the Governance cluster, who warned that the concept of political settlements was being used to mean a whole array of political phenomena so outrageously different as to make the concept analytically redundant.

Are "political settlements" buzzwords worth re-appropriating?

When it comes to buzzwords, Professor Andrea Cornwall suggests three ways to handle them (PDF):

  1. ditch them if they are beyond redemption
  2. challenge (unsettle) them and expose their misuse, or,
  3. re-appropriate and reconfigure their meaning for alternative political projects (undo them). 

When it come to compiling this collection of articles for a special issue of Conflict, Security and Development, we did not ditch the concept because we thought it could offer a lens that analyses power relations in a way that development, democracy, conflict and peacebuilding don’t offer.

We chose not to unsettle it because we were dissatisfied with its original emphasis on elite configurations and its operational purpose: providing western actors with policy bites about how to get elites to work together so that violence does not erupt after the negotiations have ended.

So, in the new volume, entitled Political settlements, rupture and violence, we have instead chosen to undo the concept of political settlement and re-appropriate it for our own analytical purposes.

This collection has been an IDS team effort, with a number of other IDS Fellows, most notably Patta Scott Villiers and Sohela Nazneen (who co-authored an article with Mirza Hassan) also contributing.

Defining political settlements

We have chosen to define political settlements as the interface between formal and informal actors in negotiation processes unfolding at critical junctures. 

Our definition is guided by a desire to explore negotiations beyond conflict-ending and peace but not broaden its scope so to mean any political negotiation process happening at any point in time- hence the focus on critical junctures. We also sought to broaden the definition to include power configurations that are not only mediated by elites but that recognize the role that people have in influencing political settlements. Such a role can but should be restricted to being mobilizable by elites. When populations for example choose to express their voices outside the ballot box, through whatever means, and with major implications on the status quo, that needs to feature in any analysis of political settlements.

Three ways in which violence relates to political settlements

For many western actors involved in unfolding political settlements, the concept of political settlement was synonymous with arriving at a violent-free outcome and therefore the focus is on how to make negotiations inclusive enough to arrive at such an agreement. We find this framing troubling because it limits the relationship between political settlements and violence to an end goal.

In this special issue we propose three ways in which violence relates to political settlements: intrinsic, instrumental and consequent, all interlined through four different case studies, Bangladesh, Egypt, Kenya, and Sierra Leone.

1. We argue that political settlements can be intrinsically violent because these critical junctures are often accompanied by a breakdown in rule of law and high levels of security laxity that create an enabling environment for actors and groups whose economic, military or political interests are maximized in conditions of upheaval and high levels of instability. That is going to be a key element of any political settlement process, it will not disappear once a group of elites enter into negotiation.

2. Violence is also simultaneously used in an instrumental way. Actors may resort to violence (directly or indirectly via proxies) while simultaneously engaging in peaceful bargaining, thereby challenging the idea that people would drop down their arms once they sit at a fictitious “negotiating table”.

3. Political settlements can also have violent outcomes, as is evident in the rich body of scholarship that has highlighted ways in which exclusionary political settlements, even when they initially appear stable, may create the conditions for the break out of violence.

We believe there is analytical currency in using a political settlement lens in ways that reveal how violence influences the interface of formal and informal actors in negotiations at critical junctures. But we also recognize there is a lot more work to be done and hope this volume contributes to further work on re-appropriating the term for analytical purposes, without giving up on it all together.

Image: political graffiti in Kenya, in 2012. Credit: CHMoss

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