Beyond Lessons Learned: Reengaging the Public about Civilian Capabilities

By Robert D. Lamb

■ Originally published in Stability Operations 9, no. 1 (October 2013)

■ It is easy to find examples of successful stabilization and reconstruction projects: just ask any agency that has funded one and the companies or organizations that implemented it. Or ask those of us who have led independent evaluations of generally successful projects and who therefore have a ready set of examples to offer in response to questions about whether civilian-led interventions by outsiders can succeed. A comparison of how agencies and implementers did this work a decade ago with what they are capable of today would also show real progress in several important areas. Certainly there have been significant improvements in interagency communication and understanding (if not quite coordination). And the number of professionals who have direct experience with stabilization and development efforts under fire is probably higher today than any time it ever has been. Anyone with long experience in this field could tout other examples of progress.

It is also easy to find studies suggesting where there remains room for improvement: coordination and collaboration, data sharing, local ownership, managing expectations, flexibility in implementation — the list of lessons still to be learned is long and, as I argue here, much more familiar than most of us even realize.

But it is significantly more difficult to find people who are willing and able to answer a question I have posed to hundreds of people in the stabilization and reconstruction field over the past two years, most recently at a full-day conference I hosted involving 22 speakers and more than 200 experts, officials, and practitioners. The most important question the stabilization and reconstruction field has to ask itself, I have argued, is not “What lessons can we learn from our experiences, successes, and mistakes in Country X?” While that is obviously important, I believe the more basic question that needs to be answered today is: “What is stopping us from regularly applying the lessons we already know?”

For my program’s research on absorptive capacity — a problem that has more to do with appropriate aid design than with host-nation capabilities — we reviewed nearly a century’s worth of “lessons” on effective development, stabilization, and reconstruction. These lessons have been captured in scholarly reviews, policy commissions, and the declarations of international conferences on aid effectiveness, the Millennium Development Goals, and the suitability of aid to fragile states, not to mention after-action reviews of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the interventions of the 1990s. But it turns out that most if not all of the lessons captured in the past decade and a half had already been captured — repeatedly — by earlier generations of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners, as far back as 1928. The most prominent early publication was a World Bank report from 1949, the lessons of which would be entirely familiar to anyone reading the declarations and commitments that have come out of the international forums in Dili and Busan, among others.

Almost everyone in this field has theories about why familiar lessons haven’t been institutionalized: risk-averse bureaucracies, contravening political interests, the stubbornness of ideology or idealism, the arrogance of an imperial mindset, the very human impulse to do what is familiar instead of what is hard — almost anyone reading this probably has a pet hypothesis. But almost no systematic research has been done to adequately explain the repeated failures to institutionalize commitments the donor community has been making for years, even decades. The work that has been done suggests it is not solely the fault of politicians and bureaucrats.

The recent decline in interest, attention, and funding affects everyone who works in this field, as interventions and projects are likely to become smaller, fewer, and delayed. Public and philanthropic funding for basic policy research has already withered. The Iraq and Afghanistan experiences are generally viewed as failures, and institutional forgetting is already setting in, just as it did after the Vietnam War ended. The American public, the media, and political leaders are no longer initiating conversations about how civilian power can be deployed to prevent conflicts or how civilian-led interventions can be made more effective so that military power does not need to be used.

But while Americans might want to forget about the world’s conflicts, the world’s conflicts refuse to forget about us. The calls for help, the temptation to intervene, and the desire to smooth political transitions will continue, even after U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, even after decisions are made about how to respond to the Syria conflict, and even after the political crisis in Egypt settles down — or heats up. Our data on political crises suggests that new conflicts will emerge every few months; the United States (the country with the greatest stake in stability) will be expected to respond, in word if not in deed; and U.S. political leaders will continue to ask civilians to find ways to respond so they can avoid using the military.

With so many conflicts and so much war fatigue, this should be a golden age for civilian power. The argument that civilian capabilities can be more efficient and less disruptive than military power should make budget cutters and the war-weary public interested in developing and supporting those capabilities. And perhaps that interest could be reignited. But claims about what civilian institutions are capable of achieving today ring hollow to those whose judgements of this field are based on top-level outcomes — were conflict situations actually stabilized? — and not on project-level successes or promises to learn more lessons.

The hard truth is that, today, almost nobody wants to hear about our successes and almost nobody wants to hear about our lessons. They have heard it all before. To reengage the public, the media, and the policy community in a dialog that could lead to better support for the capabilities the United States needs — civilian agencies and implementing partners capable of preventing, responding to, and mitigating conflicts, with strategic-level results — those of us involved in this work need to show that we’ve taken a good, hard look in the mirror and are finally facing up to the fact that for 80 years we have been making the same promises over and over. We need to show that this time is different, that we are studying our own institutions and practices and not just those of the societies and communities receiving our assistance — and making difficult recommendations about how to improve that are not as transparently self-serving as they might appear to those outside of this field.

So again I’ll ask the question that keeps going unanswered: What is stopping us from regularly applying the lessons we already know? Let’s find out and share what we learn with the public so the conversation can turn to how to support civilian power — not how to run from it.