Wednesday, 19 September 2012

What on earth is a 'Political Settlement'?

by Mick Moore

It is likely that you cannot answer that question confidently. It is possible that you never even heard the phrase ‘political settlement’ before. And, if you did hear it, that may be only within the last two or three years. Yet, if you examine DFID’s documentation on its governance policy and research, you will find the term mentioned frequently, as if it were a standard and widely understood piece of jargon.

Does DFID know what it means by ‘political settlement’? And do other people understand these words in the same way? A recent paper from the Developmental Leadership Program suggests the answers to both questions might be negative. Here is a list of definitions compiled by the author, Edward Laws, almost all of them written in 2008 or after:
  • the overall balance of power in society.
  • a negotiated agreement binding state and society. An on-going process, rather than a one-off event.
  • the outcome of peace processes.
  • informal, unarticulated understandings between elites.
  • a common understanding between elites about how power should be organised and exercised.
  • the outcome of bargaining and negotiation between elites.
  • a two-dimensional concept - the outcome of an historical event and a property of society.
  • starts with a common understanding between elites then expands into a contract between state and society. An adaptable political process, formalised through or grounded upon one-off events like peace agreements (DFID).
  • a common understanding between elites about how power should be organised and exercised. The outcome of peace processes in war-to-peace transitions.
  • the ‘social order’; a compatible, viable and sustainable combination of power and institutions.
Is there at least some kind of common core here, from which a useful definition might be constructed? I doubt it. There are at least two main dimensions along which these written definitions vary:
  • The extent to which we are talking of ‘political deals’ among small, contending political elites, or broader processes that involve a wider range of political actors.
  • The extent to which a ‘settlement’ refers simply to a pact or agreement, that might be violated tomorrow, or to institutionalised political practices that develop real staying power in the longer term.
Furthermore, it is too late for intellectuals to agree on a standard use of the term. For it is already in daily use, and the uses are diverse. I was at a meeting recently where one person used the term ‘political settlement’ to refer to an elite peace agreement to end a conflict, and another talked of research to ‘compare (national) political settlements’ in the same way that one might talk of ‘comparing national political systems’.

In a world where armed conflict and civil war are so widespread, ‘political settlement’ is a welcome, warming phrase. The temptation to use it is irresistible. Who would want to oppose a ‘political settlement’? But is it going to help us better understand conflicts and routes to their resolution? Again, I doubt it.