This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.
The core mission of peacekeeping operations is, helpfully, right there in the name. It turns out, however, that the introduction of a bunch of armed foreigners — even those with the best intentions — can have some unpredictable side-effects for the host country beyond simply preventing the resumption of conflict. This week and next in Deep Dive, we’ll look at new research on the other things that happen when peacekeeping forces arrive.
One group that is keenly aware of the externalities of peacekeeping, both positive and negative, is the world’s leading peacekeeping organization, the United Nations. As political scientists Zorzeta Bakaki and Tobias Böhmelt write in their new article in International Studies Quarterly, UN peacekeeping operations since the end of the Cold War have radically expanded their mandates to include a range of goals and concerns beyond simply limiting conflict resumption. The UN’s focus has expanded in that time from peacekeeping to peacebuilding, which seeks to address social drivers of conflict as well as the conflict itself. In practice, that means UN peacekeepers often conduct programming aimed at improving things like community economic development, social cohesion, and local infrastructure.
UN peacekeeper environmental programming can actually improve national environmental measures in host countries.
Another area of focus for UN peacekeepers — the one that Bakaki and Böhmelt focus on — is the environment. In the 21st century, many UN peacekeeping mandates have included so-called “green goals,” benchmarks meant to prevent the resumption of conflict by reducing resource competition and environmental degradation that are seen as root causes of conflict. For example, the UN mission in Liberia has as part of its mandate a stated goal of pursuing “effective implementation of the Forestry Reform Law,” up to and including sending blue helmets on “joint patrols with the Forestry Development Authority.” UN personnel in Mali, similarly, train Malian soldiers and civil servants on environmental management as part of their mandate.
Bakaki and Böhmelt argue that these interventions work. UN peacekeeper environmental programming — in combination with overall UN engagement with host countries on environmental issues and work by peacekeepers to limit their own environmental impacts — can actually improve national environmental measures in host countries.
The authors focus their study on the effects of peacekeeping on water quality in African host countries between 1995 and 2012, the period of greatest expansion in UN peacekeeping mandates. Limiting their focus to water emphasizes the work of peacekeeping operations, which often focus their environmental programming on water and sanitation issues. It also allows the researchers to draw on existing statistics about country-level variation in the health effects of water quality, measured in “age-standardized disability-adjusted life-years lost per 100,000 persons due to unsafe water sources and sanitation” — DALY rate, for short.
Bakaki and Böhmelt find that the arrival of UN peacekeepers in a country makes a significant positive impact on that country’s DALY rate. What’s more, that impact expands along with those peacekeeping missions. For each 10% increase in the number of peacekeepers deployed, the researchers’ model expects one life-year per 100,000 people to be saved. That may represent marginal gains (in both senses of the term), but given the limited abilities of peacekeeping missions, the existence of any statistically significant positive outcome at the country level is notable. Peacekeeping missions, it seems, can make a measurable difference in policy outcomes when invited into host countries during those periods when host country politics are most unsettled.