Operationalisation of the Comprehensive Approach in Peace Support Activities

by Victoria Walker · May 5, 2017.

An earlier version of this blog post was delivered as a key note speech by the author at the European Association of Peace Operations Training Centres (EAPTC) Annual Conference in Finland, 2-4 May 2017


As a concept, the Comprehensive Approach (CA) has been around for a while. Whilst it has been internalised by many organisations, there is no single definition. It can be understood as bringing together all the different capacities and capabilities available across the military and civilian world of peace support and crisis management, in order to do things together to achieve the same positive goal. The environments in which peace support activities take place are complex and multi-faceted. So of course they require responses that are themselves multi-faceted, taking into account the security, political, development, social, humanitarian, human rights and economic dimensions of crises.

Yet whilst the overarching logic in taking a Comprehensive Approach is sound, many questions arise when the concept is unpacked, and there remain challenges to putting it into practice. We need to make sure that the expectations around what is possible are reasonable and that the assumptions behind it are understood.

Values, principles and agreed end states

The CA relies on the idea that everyone has a shared understanding of what the desired end state is, and how best to get there. Yet those working within crisis management missions often have different priorities.  For example, during the planning for the EU RoL mission in Kosovo, there was a constant struggle to balance the demands by those working on judicial reform to prioritise tackling impunity, particularly regarding senior political and security figures, and those working on security, who needed to rely on the stability brought about by such figures in order to advance the reform of security institutions. This conflict over approaches was also seen within the EU’s Aceh Monitoring Mission, with frustrations arising over the restricted scope of the human rights element of the mandate, which was narrowly interpreted in order to better assure security through the engagement by the Government of Indonesia senior leadership in the process.

Adopting a Theory of Change approach can provide a good opportunity to think through (and subsequently keep checking) assumptions on what will work, and provides a road map that allows all parties to see where their roles come in. But there may be fundamental disagreements between actors on the logic of the Theory of Change. Already ten years ago empirical evidence was suggesting that actors are more likely to be motivated by maximising their own roles than working towards an agreed understanding of the common good.[1] This causes problems when trying to get everyone to work towards the same impact.


When working with security actors, we often see a tension between the short-term, operationally driven goals of security capacity building, and the longer-term, governance focused goals of SSR. A CA can help in such cases. Given the threats that national security actors need to tackle, there is indeed often a need to improve their capacity quickly, for example to counter extremist threats. Yet the empirical evidence from recent years in Africa, Asia and Latin America underlines how doing this without also focusing on building up strong accountability mechanisms can do significant harm further down the road, and contribute to greater overall insecurity. The different parts of governments or organisations working on Train & Equip and governance are not always culturally or operationally aligned, and this must also be addressed.

You need to be realistic regarding the time it takes to plan and work together. As an example, Sweden is currently pioneering a four-agency approach to supporting juvenile justice reform in Albania.  This involves the Swedish Police, National Courts Administration, Prosecution Agency, and Prison and Probation Service. This is a very positive example of a CA being applied to the programme cycle, and one that takes into account good practice principles in supporting security and justice reform, but also one that highlights how much additional time is required to go through the different stages: the process has taken a long time to plan, and this is with agencies that are already within the same national institutions. In more unstable environments, where the International Community (IC) generally operates in a very crowded space, and where a CA would be most beneficial, the luxury of time is rarely there, reducing the capacity for different organisations to bring together their ideas to discuss and be open to change in their plans.


There is a scale to the ambition of a CA with regard to who is involved, which warrants some discussion. Is it coherence within the different strands of a mission, or government intervention? Does it imply coherence between IC actors – and to what extent does this extend beyond governmental structures to non-governmental actors? Is it just from a field perspective, or does it also involve coherence with capitals and HQs? What is the role of the host state in a CA, and of national non-state actors?

National ownership and national plans should be the common denominator in supporting peace processes, but often there is no national framework, and the host nation actors may lack the capacity to be suitable partners within the deadlines the IC has imposed on itself. Taking Mali as an example, DCAF’s mapping of international support in the country identified on-going challenges in terms of the absorption capacity of national institutions, which is hampering implementation. Donors and missions are often chasing short-term windows to spend budgets, or have urgent imperatives to provide security to populations, meaning they cannot wait for such structures to be established. A CA should reduce duplication, and reduce the burden on national authorities, but more needs to be done to work out how to best do that, given the scale of support by the international community in such environments.

There is certainly a need to bring together different constituencies, and there is positive evidence that this is happening.  Over the past 3-4 years, there has been an increase in the interaction between different lenses of peace building. Just drawing from DCAF’s recent engagements, we have exchanged views on the inter-relationship of SSR and R2P, GAAMAC, the Non-Recurrence of Gross Human Rights Violations, Preventing Violent Extremism, Tackling Forced Displacement, Public Financial Management, Urban Security, and tackling global health threats to mention a few. This widening of understanding of who is doing what in the same space is a good step forward.


All too frequently, planning and implementation is focused on capitals, or retains a purely national or a purely regional approach. However, a CA to peace support activities needs to balance, and connect up, local and national initiatives, as well as understanding the regional dimensions of engagement. 


The plethora of different actions that occur during support to peace processes also need to be recognised in the CA. These include information gathering, analysis, planning, programming, implementation, political dialogue, adapting, and lesson learning. They combine political, strategic, operational and tactical support. One of the biggest contributing factors to failure in SSR processes is implementers treating it as a purely technical undertaking, when in fact it is inherently political and requires a constant dialogue between those best placed for political dialogue and those with the technical understanding of the issues. Institutional processes, timelines, permissions and awareness may preclude a genuine CA in some of these processes, or between certain actors. So the question arises how to get the best solution mindful of the restrictions in place, in such a way as to improve the CA as and when possible as circumstances change.

So what can be done to better operationalise the CA in peace support activities?

  • Firstly, remembering that the CA is a means to an end, not an end in itself. A common framework for engagement can be developed from a shared understanding and commitment to best practice principles in terms of: national ownership; do no harm; relevant support based on an in-depth understanding of the context, actors and their relationships; human rights based approaches; gender equality; and the political nature of peace support. 
  • Creating enabling policies to support a CA in the field, including taking an iterative approach whereby plans can be adjusted to take into account the growing awareness of other actors and approaches to support the development of peace.
  • Shared approaches to information analysis, risk management, developing indicators (including ones that move from short-term outputs by actors working in those roles, to longer-term outcome and impact change enabled by others).
  • Better joint understanding about respective roles, responsibilities, cultures and institutional processes, as well as identifying additional opportunities to routinely work together.   
  • Joint pre-mission training, involving the right people (those deploying or already on the ground). Lessons could be learned from the First German Netherlands Corps and Dutch MFA Exercise Common Effort (now in its third year). This is designed to further understanding of the multiple dimensions and complexities of present-day crisis situations and (joint) operations, by exchanging multi-actor, civil and military, perspectives in intensive interaction.
  • Use of standing/responsive capacities that can reinforce different international actors. ISSAT is an example of this within the field of security and justice reform. The EU is also setting up a civilian responsive capacity.
  • It is not possible to develop a set methodology to achieve a CA, given the uniqueness of different contexts in terms of actors, roles, threats, goals, national capacities, and other factors. However, much progress can be achieved through building up the evidence base on what works across all the different areas, and why – focusing on how to create a flexible CA, based on an iterative way that creates space for different agencies and institutions to come on board at their own pace and build strong, solid foundations.  However, this does require a commitment by the IC to take risks, to put in the resources to monitor progress, to ensure continuity of personnel deployed to maintain relationships, to learn from the lesson gathered, and to invest the time required. And mindful of the fact that resources are allocated in accordance with what is specified in mission mandates, explicitly setting out the requirements for developing a better CA for a particular support intervention can ensure that there are resources available. Committing to a CA is an investment, but one that can have exponential positive results in the effectiveness of support.



[1] C. de Coning and K. Friis / Journal of International Peacekeeping 15 (2001) 243-272, p.261

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