INTERVIEW: A forum for peace and development

Bassem Aly , Wednesday 4 Dec 2019

This month’s first edition of the Aswan Forum is shedding light on the connection between post-conflict reconstruction and development in Africa, forum secretary Ashraf Sweilam tells Bassem Aly

A forum for peace and development
Ashraf Sweilam, executive secretary of the Aswan Forum and director of the Cairo International Centre for Conflict Resolution

The Aswan Forum, which begins on 11 December in the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan, is the pre-eminent platform in Africa addressing the connection between peace and development.

Starting this year, the event will be held annually in December and will bring together heads of state and government, representatives from regional and international organisations and financial institutions, members of the private sector and civil society, and scholars and experts for action-oriented and forward-looking discussions on the threats, challenges and opportunities for Africa in the years ahead.

Ashraf Sweilam, executive secretary of the Aswan Forum and director of the Cairo International Centre for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding (CCCPA), explained the work of the forum in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

What is the regional and international significance of the 2019 Aswan Forum?

The inaugural meeting of the Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development is taking place at a critical time, both globally and for Africa. It is happening at a time of fragile global structures in a world distracted by a plethora of ongoing and potential crises. In the face of these challenges, there is a growing recognition among policymakers, both in Africa and globally, of the need for change.

Acting in its capacity as chair of the African Union (AU), champion of post-conflict reconstruction, development and peacebuilding in Africa, and the vice-chair of the AU’s Peacebuilding Commission, Egypt is taking the initiative to launch this conversation. Under the auspices of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development will provide a first-of-its-kind platform in Africa to advance an African conversation on the new and innovative approaches, programmes, financial instruments, and partnerships needed not only to promote sustainable development and alleviate poverty, but also to promote peace and stability across the continent.

How is the Aswan Forum different from other events on similar topics?

The Aswan Forum is different in a number of ways. First, it provides a first-of-its-kind policy platform in Africa that advances the nexus between sustainable peace and sustainable development, highlighting that there can be no development without peace and no peace without development. Second, the Aswan Forum is not an event, but is a process. This is not a conference where participants show up with a concept note, an agenda and list of speakers, but is part of a multilayered, multi-stakeholder process that began before the forum and will continue after its end.

The road to Aswan started months ago. Working with 18 global and regional partners, the Cairo International Centre for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding in Africa (CCCPA), acting in its capacity as the secretariat of the forum, convened five high-level expert workshops between Cairo and Addis Ababa. The workshops brought together over 300 leading experts from across the continent and around the globe, representing governments, regional and international organisations, civil society and think tanks, to discuss core peace, security, development and humanitarian issues that are critical to Africa and its people.

The key messages and recommendations that came out of this multilayered preparatory process have now been incorporated into the “Aswan Peace and Development Report”, to be published before the forum. The report is meant as a thought-provoking conversation starter at the forum, presenting African leaders with action-oriented recommendations aimed at bridging the existing gap between policy and practice.

The outcome of the inaugural meeting, Aswan Conclusions on Sustainable Peace and Development (to be presented at the end of the forum), are meant to inform and shape ongoing reform processes currently taking place globally and across the continent. Based on the report and the conclusions, President Al-Sisi will present African leaders with a roadmap of ideas on advancing and sustaining the peace and sustainable development agendas in Africa. These recommendations will also provide the basis for Egyptian actions as the champion of post-conflict reconstruction and development in Africa, including through the operationalising of the AU Centre for Post-Conflict Reconstruction, which will be launched on the sidelines of the forum.

The theme of the 2019 Aswan Forum is “An Agenda for Sustainable Peace, Security and Development in Africa”. What is the significance of this theme?

While the relationship between peace and development has been debated for a long time, there is now a global consensus that there is no development without peace and no peace without development. There’s a growing acknowledgement that the tools at the disposal of the international community to address the outbreak, continuation, and relapse into armed conflict are becoming outdated, overstretched and unsustainably costly. In this regard, the last few years have witnessed the evolution of a comprehensive normative framework on sustaining peace and development, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals (2015), the Sustaining Peace Twin Resolutions (2016), and the linkages between these two agendas. The same period also saw a renewed interest in conflict prevention and addressing the root causes of conflict.

Missing so far, however, has been putting these normative frameworks into action by means of policies, operational guidance, programmes and projects. For its part, the AU has taken major strides towards addressing the complex nature of the continent’s problems by drawing links between sustainable peace and development. Grounded in its Agenda 2063, the African Peace and Security Architecture Roadmap, and the Silencing the Guns Flagship Project, the AU has developed a number of key strategies and frameworks to address some of the continent’s pressing issues and crises, including the imperative of bringing conflict prevention to the fore.

The forum, therefore, does not aim to produce any normative frameworks. Instead, it aims to move the conversation forward and presents an opportunity for forward-looking, action-oriented discussion on tangible and durable solutions for the continent’s pressing problems. This is where I believe the role of the forum really comes in: to crystalise these timely debates and transform them into actions on the ground and actions that provide solutions for Africans across the continent.

Will the African Continental Free-Trade Area (AfCFTA) be discussed during the Aswan Forum? What role can the Aswan Forum play in terms of enhancing developmental and economic cooperation between the African states?

One of the core messages that the Aswan Forum wishes to highlight is the immense economic potential Africa currently possesses. Today, the continent is home to at least half of the fastest-growing economies of the world. Twenty of its economies are expected to grow at an average rate of five per cent or higher over the next five years, which is faster than the rate for the global economy. Africa is rich in resources and is riding a wave of urbanisation, industrialisation and economic diversification. Its importance in the global economy is rising, both as a market and as an engine of global growth.

The African Continental Free-Trade Area (AfCTA) is projected to be the largest free-trade area in the world since the founding of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), with over a billion consumers and a total GDP of over $3 trillion. The AfCTA aims to remove tariffs on 90 per cent of goods, progressively liberalise trade in services, and address a host of other non-tariff barriers. If successfully implemented, the agreement will be a game-changer in Africa’s economic diversification and integration in global value chains. The AfCTA therefore lies at the core of what the Aswan Forum aims to advance and is a model of cooperation grounded in inter-African cooperation and finding homegrown African solutions to African problems. The Aswan Forum will discuss the importance of inter-African cooperation in trade, but more broadly it aims to highlight the importance of private-sector engagement in creating durable solutions for Africa’s peace, security, development and humanitarian problems.

Unfortunately, one of the greatest pitfalls we tend to fall into is to conceive of economic and development issues as divorced from those of peace and security. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Development actors, and the private sector more specifically, are part and parcel of creating solutions for peace and security issues, and they must therefore be engaged in all phases of interventions. They play a pivotal role in providing sustainable and innovative financing for post-conflict development and reconstruction efforts and in providing access to key communities.

To that end, we have dedicated a special session at the forum to dealing with this question entitled “Financing Post-Conflict Economic Recovery: Not Development as Usual”. We’re also dedicating entire sessions to discussing other pertinent issues, such as the importance of harnessing digital financing and advancing financial inclusion, and the role of energy security in advancing Africa’s development. All these sessions will feature prominent representation from the private sector, both in Africa and globally.

Africa is facing a number of security and humanitarian challenges, including the changing nature of conflict, the rise of terrorism and armed militancy, and the crisis of forced displacement. What can African leaders do to overcome them?

Despite its immense potential, Africa’s development efforts are still being undermined by a myriad of crises, challenges and risks to peace, security and development. The continent remains the most burdened with conflict in the world, hosting half of all UN peacekeeping missions, including all high-risk missions. Moreover, all the countries on the agenda of the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) are African. The nature of such conflict has also significantly changed, the menace of terrorism is on the rise, and we’re witnessing new dynamics with the growing terrorism-crime nexus and the emergence of terrorist-governed local (dis)orders. To add to these challenges, the scale of the current forced displacement crisis is unprecedented, with the bulk of African refugee movements taking place within the continent. We are also facing major impediments to the meaningful participation of women in peace processes and decision-making.

During the Aswan Forum, African leaders will come together to discuss the ways and means of overcoming these multi-faceted challenges, based on three key principles. First, there is the realisation that solutions to African problems start with African ownership and leadership and with national ownership at the core of any and all solutions to the continent’s problems. Second, there is the understanding that due to the sheer magnitude and concurrence of the challenges facing the continent, no single actor can act alone. There is a pressing need for new partnerships that enhance complementarity and coherence between different actors at the local, national, regional and international levels. Third, there is the understanding that we cannot use existing tools to respond to new and emerging challenges and the need to steer away from simplifying complexity and instead embracing it.

Egypt has been hosting a large number of events on African affairs over the past few years. Are we witnessing a golden age in the history of Egypt’s relations with Africa? What can be done to ensure that Egypt’s ties with the continent remain strong over the years ahead?

I would say that rather than focus on the large number of events, what is really key here is to zoom in on the topics of such events, the manner in which they’re being conducted, and the way in which they differ from other events which have taken place in the past. Between the Arab African Youth Forum, the Investment for Africa Forum, and now the Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development, Egypt is signalling its deep engagement with its continent’s most pressing problems and facilitating collective African answers.

By empowering youth, incentivising investments, fostering stronger partnerships with the private sector, and activating the links between sustainable peace and development, Egypt is taking the notion of African solutions to African problems to heart and is working with its African brothers and international partners to unleash the continent’s immense potential.

More specifically, Egypt is taking its championship of post-conflict reconstruction and development very seriously. Cairo will host the newly instituted AU Centre for Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development (AU-PCRD Centre), originally also an Egyptian idea, representing a major step towards continental ownership of the sustaining peace agenda and a timely opportunity to fill existing gaps within the AU’s peacebuilding efforts. The agreement to establish the AU-PCRD Centre will be signed by African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri in the presence of the African leaders on the first day of the Aswan Forum.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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