TIMN is Everything: A Framework for Improving Post-Conflict Peacebuilding

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By William Durch – We know that the human brain has grown over time, adding emotional reflexes, a sense of personal identity, and fully rational thought to basic motor control, physically layering each new capacity over the others and using all in concert. It is reasonable, if controversial, to posit a similar sequence for human society with new ways to organize added in response to new environments, with the help of new technologies. If that is the case, it speaks directly to the problems faced by the thousands of people and hundreds of organizations working to build sustainable peace in recently-war-torn lands.


Photo Credit: United Nations

In recent meetings in Britain and Germany, I listened to officials affiliated with some of the institutions and governments most closely involved in present peacebuilding efforts; to academic experts on organizational structure, leadership, and learning; and to current and former leaders of major, ongoing peace operations. The leaders leaned heavily on their personal abilities to learn and adapt an operation to the needs of a particular country, relying on their interactions with individuals, mostly those in local positions of power, to accomplish their mandated mission goals. The scholars seemed to confirm the need for charismatic leadership but noted that supporting organizations (e.g., the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations) were also capable of learning and of applying such learning to successive operations. Yet what good is such learning if each situation is “unique,” as country experts tend to claim? From this point of view, the boulder starts from the bottom of the hill with each new mission and, collectively, we never scale the learning curve.

This is not the best we can do. In my view, approaches based on personal relations and knowledge must be coupled to a framework that gives strategic direction to international action. Such a frame would guide the expectations of providers and recipients alike as to what can be achieved with outside help over what period of time, at what cost to each party. That frame is not yet in hand but a potential foundation for it is.

Over the last fifteen years, RAND analyst David Ronfeldt has been honing a framework for the evolution of human societies, which he calls TIMN, for Tribes, Institutions, Markets, and Networks. Tribes (T) are the foundation of all human societies. Initially kinship-based, their purpose is social identity and security. (Social identity defines who “belongs” and who does not—and is therefore a potential threat.) This need for identity never goes away and the tribal form both embodies culture and is society’s fallback when other forms fail. Institutions (I) are hierarchies built for public administration and the management of power, ranging from early chiefdoms to modern states and corporations. Markets (M) evolved to solve the problem of “complex exchange,” supplanting state-focused mercantilism with a form based on pricing and profits more than politics and power. Networks (N) remain an “emergent” form facilitated by the many-to-many information exchanges made possible by the Internet and typified by the increasingly ubiquitous, non-profit, “non-governmental organization.” In every society, Ronfeldt argues, each successive form builds upon the preceding ones, and some societies have better integrated the newer forms than others have. “Indeed, many of the world’s current trouble spots—in the Middle East, South Asia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Africa—are in societies so riven by embedded tribal and clan dynamics that the outlook remains terribly uncertain for them to build professional states and competitive businesses that are unencumbered by tribal and clan dynamics. Many so-called failed states are really failed tribes.” [Ronfeldt 2006, 5]


Source: David Ronfeldt, “In Search of How Societies Work,” RAND working paper WR-433-PC, December 2006, 2. Available online at Reprinted with permission.


In most of these places, the state apparatus has served as a system for rerouting resources to the kin and cronies of whomever sits at the top of the power pyramid. Such routing, seen as grand corruption from a T+I+M+N perspective, serves high moral purpose in a setting of “T” primacy. Thus, in a conversation two years ago, the development minister of a west African state told me of his pride in the amount of help he had been able to channel to his home village, giving no hint of anything questionable about this approach to prioritizing funds.

This brings us to post-conflict peacebuilding, its methods and goals. Most of the war-ending accords that peace operations implement require that the countries involved pole-vault over their strong “T” and weak “I” histories and immediately implement strong, democratically accountable institutions and equally strong and open markets. Yet pre-war governing institutions may have been imposed by outside powers whose withdrawal (Belgium or Portugal) or dissolution (Yugoslavia) caused groups within to assume a protective ethnic/tribal crouch and fight for control (or independence). In some places (Nigeria, Pakistan, and elsewhere), the best organized surviving institution—the military—has imposed its preferences for order, at least temporarily. In all instances, civilian governance capacity tends to be weak.

Market-building, meanwhile, is aided by a phalanx of institutional actors (the World Bank, bilateral aid programs) and swarms of network actors (NGOs, foreign and domestic), but under conditions that major market actors find inherently risky. Remaining businesses use a blend of T+M principles either to evade national institutions and their taxes and payoffs or to collude with those in power and gain preferential treatment.

Still, outsiders (and their legislatures and publics) expect that the foundations for strong and accountable institutions, open and well-regulated markets, and a thriving, networked civil society to watch over both can be (re)built in these places, not in the generations that it took Europe or the Americas but in two, five, or ten years. A TIMN perspective would adjust these expectations but also direct our attention to societal capabilities that must be built within the attention spans of donors and the risk tolerances of legitimate business. It also suggests what should be measured to gauge the impact and durability of this work. Together, improved directivity and measurement may defuse what some officials at these recent meetings saw as looming donor rebellion in the face of spending and commitments that seem not just unending but also lacking in visible, sustainable results.

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