#03 development cooperation
Lukas Rüttinger / Achim Maas

Green Peace? Sustainable Development in Post-Conflict Countries


In 1992 the first Earth Summit brought together more than 100 heads of state who adopted the landmark Rio Declaration and Agenda 21. A sign of its growing influence, sustainable development as an idea and concept had entered the world stage. In the years that followed, sustainable development became an important frame of reference, especially in development cooperation. Human development, the Millennium Development Goals, and human security, just to name a few, were all concepts strongly influenced by the principles of sustainable development. In the run up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the idea of a “green economy” has brought the concept of sustainable development back to the fore. The concept of a green economy is not new, of course. It has been developing since the 1980s (e.g. Pearce et al. 1989) and actually predates the 1992 summit. Nevertheless, this renewed emphasis marks another push for sustainable development.

As the concept of sustainable development has started to trickle down across multiple policy areas, it has also entered the field of peacebuilding and development in post-conflict countries. This has opened up an interesting debate around the possibilities and limits of sustainable development that often remains a ubiquitous, but rarely clearly defined and often poorly operationalised concept. This article contributes to this debate by exploring if and how sustainable development can contribute to peacebuilding and post-conflict development.

Ideal and reality

Sustainable development and the green economy are ambitious concepts. Achieving a balance between the economic, social and environmental dimension of development by adhering to the principle of meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development: 27) does not just sound challenging. Disregarding the political obstacles posed by diverging interests between important societal groups on these priorities and a political sphere dominated by economic interests, the technical and managerial obstacles alone are daunting. This includes, for example, coordinating policies across multiple ministries which often operate with sector-specific logic and address issues outside of their immediate responsibility only in a limited way.

In addition, green economic development has different needs in terms of sophisticated technologies and workforce skills than “classic” economic development. This makes it hard to achieve sustainable development and green growth (that is growth related to a green economy) even in industrialised countries. To date, though there have been many encouraging examples of policies that promote sustainable development, such as feed-in tariffs to promote renewable energies or payments for ecosystem services, no industrialised country has taken sustainable development to the next level by really making it an overarching principle of development. A good example is the recent financial crisis and the large government funded programmes that even countries that champion renewable energies, such as Germany, used to heavily support the domestic – fossil-fuel driven – automotive industry, thus protecting it.

If industrialised countries find it difficult and are hesitant to implement sustainable development principles thoroughly, what then are the implications for the much more challenging context of a developing country or emerging economy? Proponents of the concept of sustainable development have put forth the argument that developing countries might be able to leapfrog “brown” and destructive development phases. However, this theoretically valid argument is still in need of empirical evidence. Taken one step further, if industrialised and developing countries already face obstacles, it is necessary to discuss if and how post-conflict countries might benefit from sustainable development.

The post-conflict context

Looking at a post-conflict country, it quickly becomes evident that along with the challenges facing the implementation of sustainable development, there are also a number of additional challenges specific to post-conflict countries. Obviously, the main risk facing a post-conflict country is a relapse into conflict. Preventing this requires addressing multiple challenges simultaneously. These include: (1) tackling poverty, marginalisation and vulnerability which are often closely connected to conflict as they create inequalities between different religious, social or ethnic groups; (2) the management of natural resources since their exploitation and resultant income often finance armed groups and have detrimental effects on the livelihoods of local communities by destroying ecosystems; (3) controlling insecurity, militarisation and lawlessness which are driven by weak state security institutions, still active armed groups and criminal networks and undermine the legitimacy of the state. In general, the state’s capacities are low and corruption is often rampant which makes it hard to provide a minimum of public services or create conditions for economic recovery. In addition, external interventions, such as activities by foreign countries and donor organisations lacking a true understanding of the local context or armed groups that operate from beyond the border, can have further destabilising effects.

This multitude of interlinked challenges would be hard to tackle even in a fully developed country. The limited capacities of a post-conflict country make fostering peacebuilding while simultaneously restarting post-conflict development an immensely challenging task.

What sustainable development may offer…

Faced with these challenges, the question now becomes: what can sustainable development offer to peacebuilding and post-conflict development? A full-fledged and new process like first outlined in the Rio Declaration as the National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS) seems unrealistic since capacities and resources are limited. However, sustainable development has more to offer than just grand development schemes. With its focus on people and livelihoods, especially the vulnerable and marginalised, on long-term impacts and on balancing different dimensions of development, it provides guidance for post-conflict countries and addresses many of the challenges they face. For example, poverty reduction and enhancing livelihoods are at the core of sustainable development. The sustainable management of natural resources, which can help to build peace and spur economic development, is another example.

…is a participatory…

Putting sustainable development into practice includes certain management principles, which are relevant for peacebuilding as well. First and foremost, sustainable development emphasises participation and inclusion. Often not all dimensions of sustainable development can be achieved at the same time. Thus, priorities and trade-offs have to be negotiated. The goal is to get important stakeholders united behind the same goals. This emphasis can support peacebuilding, since governments in post-conflict countries often have to (re)build the social contract with their citizens. They have to (re)gain their legitimacy and elections alone are not enough. Political institutions and policy processes require a participatory and inclusive architecture. Participation can also increase the efficiency of development programs through decentralised planning and by capitalising on local knowledge and institutions. A widely acclaimed example for such an approach is the National Solidarity Program (NSP) that was created by the Afghan government with donor support in 2003 and put the role of the community at the centre of the development process. Rural communities themselves identified, planned, managed and monitored their own development projects. The project has touched the lives of 2 out of 3 rural people, and is considered by the World Bank to be one of their most successful development programs ever (World Bank 2010).


Efforts and priorities in post-conflict countries are often dominated by humanitarian crises and the need to produce quick peace dividends. This focus on stabilisation and quick results may have negative consequences for the necessary long-term investments in the underlying social infrastructure, such as capacity building. Capacity building is a mid- to long-term process that in the aftermath of conflict is often replaced by external expertise and donor control. This in turn can have negative long-term effects by undermining the autochthonous capacities needed for change. Thus, a focus on the short-term can lead to a situation in which the long-term impacts of certain efforts are not taken into account.

This can be especially detrimental when managing natural resources or infrastructure where short-sighted decisions can easily result in development that is locked into an unsustainable path which undermines peace in the long run. Thus long-term consequences have to be at least accounted for when planning short-term actions. The conscious combination of short-term actions with mid- and long-term goals can make interventions more effective, as has been shown by many relief organisations that combine short-term relief with long-term risk reduction activities. Additionally, common long-term goals and visions can help to ensure policy coherence and unify different actors. This is an important asset in the post-conflict context where many transition and reform processes are taking place at the same time.

… iterative approach...

Planning and managing sustainable development has moved away from the notion of developing a fixed plan. It focuses on creating a process that is iterative and cyclical. Such a process ideally moves from analysis, formulation of policies and action plans, implementation and regular review back to (re)formulation of policies and action plans. This allows participants to learn from past experience and to adapt to change. The capacity to adapt is especially important for post-conflict countries where the situation is often volatile and changes quickly. It also means that strategies can become more ambitious and comprehensive as a country moves through the different phases of post-conflict development.

… and focuses on synergies.

The many challenges a post-conflict country faces often seem overwhelming. Especially on the ground, humanitarian crises, insecurity and volatility can lead to a situation where immediate concerns overshadow the bigger picture and longer-term objectives. Simply asking for more sustainability and offering green economic recovery as a blueprint solution in such a situation can be perceived as unrealistic, academic or, in the worst case, ignorant. However, broken down into its basic elements, which are realistic and add value, sustainable development can help address the challenges of a post-conflict country and contribute to peacebuilding. The key is to focus on the synergies between peacebuilding and sustainable development as well as on what is realistic in the face of limited resources and capacities. Sustainable development is possible in post-conflict countries if tailored to the respective context and a pragmatic and humble approach is taken. Understanding the three dimensions of sustainable development and their interactions can help to identify positive feedbacks as well as interactions that can lead to negative impacts increasing the danger of relapse into conflict. A practical example of the form these synergies might take is the public works programs normally used in post-conflict countries to bring demobilised ex-combatants back into the economy and reintegrate them into society. Such public works programs can be used to lay the foundations for ‘green’ economic activities by restoring damaged ecosystems or setting up waste management and recycling systems, for example.

Integration into existing processes

Post-conflict countries are normally faced with a plethora of already existing strategies, development plans and donor requirements. Adding another process for sustainable development would put additional strain on already scarce capacities and resources. Thus, sustainable development serves peacebuilding best if integrated into existing strategies. One planning and strategy process that stands out in this regard is the use of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). These plans articulate a common vision for growth and poverty reduction and most post-conflict countries have one in place, since they are key requirements for accessing debt relief and other forms of assistance. However, these plans are often too focused on the economy. Strengthening the social and environmental dimension could be a way of achieving additional benefits. Integrating conceptual elements of sustainable development plants the seeds for green economic growth in PRSPs – which becomes particularly relevant once a country has passed the post-conflict stage.

This article is based on the Guidance Notes for Sustainable Development in Post-Conflict Countries (forthcoming) adelphi developed for the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA)

Additional references:

Pearce, D. W., Markandya, A., Barbier, E. B., & Environment, G. B. D. O. T. (1989). Blueprint for a Green Economy. Earthscan.

World Bank 2010: Afghanistan: National Solidarity Program.