Manchester Calling

The Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute

By Professor Roger MacGinty.

It might be a function of my advancing years, but I have noticed a set of policy-driven debates coming around again. These were debates that occupied scholars and policy-makers twenty years ago and they are now back again. Here are a few examples:

Example 1:
The UN and World Bank has commissioned a major piece of work on preventing violent conflict.

This is a very laudable exercise, but it comes 20 years after a major Report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York entitled Preventing Violent Conflict. The Carnegie Report made quite a splash as it convened leading experts from the then fledgling field of peace and conflict studies and was extraordinarily timely. This was a decade dominated by mass violence in the former Yugoslavia, and central and west Africa.

Example 2:
The United States Institute of Peace has launched a small grant competition (perhaps its last if Donald Trump gets his way) that is interested in comparative lessons from peace processes.

Again this is very laudable, but there is also a sense that it is covering ground that has been well trod before. The peace processes and transitions of the mid and late 1990s sparked a blossoming of scholarship comparing peace processes, much of which was focused on lessons learned. Here the literature from John Darby, Chester Crocker, Pamela Aall and many others comes to mind.

Example 3:
DFID (the UK’s Department for International Development) seems to be using the phrase ‘what works?’ in a lot of its programmes and projects. This was mandated by central government some years ago and seems to have been mainstreamed into everything they do. Again, this is worthwhile question especially given the pressures to show value for money. But the ‘what works?’ question has been with us for a long time.

What might explain this revisiting of research and policy agendas that were well covered twenty years ago? A number of explanations come to mind and the most convincing explanation probably lies in a combination of the explanations.

A first explanation relates to a lack of institutional memory in organisations. Many organisations have taken steps to enhance their institutional learning. Yet, institutional learning is not quite the same as institutional knowledge retention. It would be fair to ask if many of those working in organisations like the UN or World Bank have knowledge of the earlier literature.

There is also the cult of the new, whereby there is a bias towards more recent publications. Certainly this is well proven in academia whereby authors tend to cite newer material.

A third explanation is that the context – especially the international context – has changed in the two decades + since the mid-1990s. Configurations and stances of international organisations have changed considerably since a time when international leaders and policymakers were coming to terms with the post-Cold War world.

A final explanation might be that some problems are indeed intractable and elude answers. In social scientific terms, these are deemed ‘wicked problems’. Every so often someone becomes emboldened enough to attempt to answer them and so starts another round of research.

The most telling aspect of the ‘new’ research agendas will be if they come up with answers that are radically different from research that was conducted twenty years ago.

Taken from his personal blog.