International Policy Implementation and Public Input
by Alexandra Rice
December 16, 2019

During or after nearly every violent conflict or international incident, governments, private and public companies, and international organizations attempt to inform the political and economic decisions that follow. Stakeholders at both the regional and international level can affect major global change, but oftentimes their decisions can have a negative or negligible effect on those who are living in conflict areas. This was illustrated in the Angolan civil war. Following Angola’s independence in 1975, a 27-year conflict exploded across the country and severely impacted the wellbeing of the nation. In reflecting on the Angolan civil war and the role of international stakeholders in conflict spaces, it is important to consider both the long-term and short-term impact of international engagement on local communities. In this way, we might better understand the local repercussions of decisions made above the regional or even national level.

Regarding the long-term impact of international engagement on violent conflict, research has shown that the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 had a causal effect on violent conflict across Africa, including Angola. A number of European actors looked to the African continent to fill an unprecedented demand for natural resources amongst emerging marketplaces and industries. Therefore, during the Berlin Conference, the land was divided to protect the commercial interests of international stakeholders and establish trade networks to boost their economic growth.[1] Research has since demonstrated that the borders created during the conference increased the chance of civil conflict by 25%.[2]

Ethnic groups in modern Angola had lived separately for generations before being pooled into a large country that would prove nearly impossible to govern due to its physical size and diverse nature.[3]  Instead of rallying together under a national banner, the Ovimbundu, Mbundu, and Bakongo peoples each united around their own political parties to advance their individual visions for the country’s political future. The ensuing conflict held the highest number of casualties as the longest civil war on the continent, lasting from 1970 to 2005.

Beyond the long-term impact of international engagement, international stakeholders should also be attentive to those immediate consequences that contribute to the spread of violent conflict. A wide host of international actors involved themselves in the Angolan civil war by supporting different political parties along their own interests, namely along the ongoing ideological battle between Communism and democracy. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), shaped by the Mbundu, was an offshoot of the Communist party, receiving provisions in funds, weapons and soldiers from Cuba and the Soviet Union. Their opposition was the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which was formed by the Ovimbundu and the Bakongo. UNITA secured assistance from South Africa and, eventually, the United States. International support played a major role in the funding and prolonging of the Angolan civil war. A consequence of Cold War tensions, the competitive flow of money ran deep to both sides of the armed conflict.[4] Rather than mitigating the spread of violence and promoting peace, a diverse array of competing international interests contributed to the spread and persistence of violence in Angola.

The involvement of international actors in conflict spaces is not unique or uncommon, particularly as post-conflict areas are attempting to rebuild and restructure. However, as demonstrated by the Angolan civil war, this involvement does not always lead to or support sustainable peace. The Berlin Conference laid the foundation for nation-state divisions that would open opportunities for ongoing violent conflict. Further, these conflicts would carry on through international actors operating along ideological overflow from the Cold War. While the desire for peace may have been a motivation for international engagement, the inability of international actors to consider or be accountable for the needs of the people on the ­­­­ground had serious consequences. Modern stakeholders and peacebuilders need to remember the lessons of history as they attempt to foster new policies for those they are trying to help. If they are not mindful of historical trends, they will continue to sustain environments and possibilities prone to further tension and violence.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).