default Political Settlements, Elite Pacts, and Governments of National Unity: A Conceptual Study

Author: Edward Laws
Institution: University of Birmingham
Publication Date: August 2012
Keywords: Political Settlements, Conflict, Governance, Peace Processes, Peacebuilding


The political settlements framework sheds light on new ways for donor actors to address the underlying causes of conflict and political instability and to advance stabilisation and poverty reduction. This paper provides a critical survey of the conceptual definitions of political settlement, elite pacts, and governments of national unity (GNUSs). All of these terms are relatively recent additions to the politics of development literature. The paper’s aim is to suggest the most useful way of understanding the meaning of these terms.

Key Issues:

Despite the fact that the term ‘political settlement’ is increasingly being used, it is defined in different ways (pp. 6-20). While most people who talk about political settlements are referring to political arrangements between elite figures, the term can be used to describe a range of different political phenomema, including peace agreements, one-off events such as the signing of a bill of rights, or long-term political processes of state-building. This lack of conceptual clarity can make it difficult for donors to analyse political processes and decide how best to influence positively these processes.

The paper suggests that political settlements should be defined as “ongoing and adaptable political processes that include specific one-off events and agreements” (p. 21). But the author cautions that the term should not be seen as synonymous with “politics” more generally, or just another way of describing the activities of conflict, negotiation and compromise involved in the management of resources. Hence, the notion of political settlement embodies a formal institutional arrangement or a particular event with a beginning and an end-point.

In turn, the paper argues that political settlements should be seen as distinct from the notion of elite pacts/bargain and peace agreements which are one-off events (pp. 26-31). The paper proposes that ‘elite pacts’ should be understood as a discrete agreement between powerful actors that occurs during a settlement process. The distinction is important for while elite pacts and peace agreements can help to bring about an end to violence, societies will remain vulnerable unless wider, inclusive political settlements are achieved between conflicting parties.

Finally, according to the paper, the notion of GNUs is best understood as a type of “inclusive elite pact aimed at creating formal power-sharing institutions” that aim to provide security and political stability in fragile and or conflict-affected countries (pp. 32-34).

Defining the above terms in these ways has a number of operational implications for donor actors, which the paper discusses (pp-35-36):

• Using the political settlements framework is an inherently political activity. Donors need to develop a deep understanding of and sensitivity towards local political dynamics, including how elites relate to wider coalitions and their support bases.

• A long-view is required when seeking to influence political settlements. Donors need to develop the capacity to map the key actors who hold power as well as to monitor incremental changes in the settlement.

• Understanding the structure of elite interests, incentives and political beliefs is necessary if donors want to identify potential coalitions and facilitate meetings, partnerships and alliances that may contribute to the formation of durable political settlements.

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