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29 March 2022

King's research has influenced UK foreign policy on supporting conflict-affected countries.

A core goal of UK foreign policy is to stabilise and support fragile and conflict-affected countries. Research conducted by Dr Christine Cheng, in the Department of War Studies, has been highly influential in informing government policy and practice on supporting war-to-peace transitions, and has been championed at ministerial levels throughout the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Recent civil wars across the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa have devastated the lives of many people, with millions displaced and over 600,000 having died on the battlefield since 2010. With the vast majority of civil wars arising out of the ashes of a previous civil war, the question of why some ceasefires and peace agreements hold, while others do not, has been an enduring puzzle in the study of war termination.

To that end, Dr Cheng’s award-winning research has asked, 'how do we create stable war-to-peace transitions, and prevent soldiers and rebels from returning to war?'

Existing research on post-conflict transitions has focused on the challenges of UN peacekeeping, democratisation, rule of law, and state capacity. In contrast, Dr Cheng’s research has focused on the critical role of ex-combatant networks in either re-igniting violence or stabilising post-war environments.

Adopting a political economy approach, Dr Cheng found that ex-combatants were fulfilling local governance functions to sustain their business interests, creating ‘extralegal groups’ in the process. These groups were becoming ‘local elites’ by co-opting local and national authorities to maintain control over natural resource areas, resulting in a small cabal of ex-combatants controlling the community and its economic resources.

Dr Cheng’s research found that because of this, wholesale political and economic transformation would be impossible without destabilising the country and provoking a return to war. Her conclusions, which showed how liberal peacebuilding was being implemented on-the-ground, posed a fundamental challenge to the transformative liberal peacebuilding agenda that the US, UK, EU, UN, and World Bank had long been championing.

In Liberia, for example, external actors like the UN, the US, and the EU would routinely make these kinds of trade-offs, tacitly allowing ex-combatants and their allies to control natural resource enclaves or valuable government ministries in exchange for an end to war.

Dr Cheng’s research on state-building, corruption, informal economies, and peace processes informed subsequent research for the UK Stabilisation Unit (SU), the government body previously responsible for supporting fragile and conflict-affected countries (now integrated into the FCDO’s new Office for Conflict, Stabilisation, and Mediation). Building on her earlier work, Dr Cheng worked with SOAS colleagues, Jonathan Goodhand and Pat Meehan, on the ground-breaking ‘Elite Bargains and Political Deals’ project, which resulted in the Elite Bargains Framework, a foundational source for the UK government’s policy approach to stabilising countries as they transition away from armed conflict.

The FCDO’s approach to stabilisation has since shifted to explicitly acknowledge the trade-offs that accompany transformative change: actively displacing those who hold power “on-the-ground” , including warlords, ex-combatants, extralegal groups, government-backed militias, and pushing for transformative change - even for good governance reasons - could lead to a return to war. The UK’s official guide for policy makers and practitioners in FCDO, MOD, and other parts of government, now explicitly addresses these risks to conflict relapse as part of pushing ahead with political and economic transformation.

The Elite Bargains framework and supporting research was advocated by Alistair Burt, the Minister of State responsible for the Stabilisation Unit, as well as by Mark Bryson-Richardson, the Director of the Stabilisation Unit. The project was jointly managed by SU advisors Ed Hadley, Tom Rodwell, and Anne-Kristin Treiber. It was disseminated to UK government country-based analysts and has since been operationalised and applied in countries such as Libya, Afghanistan and Mali.

Building on this research, Dr Cheng was invited to advise the Deputy National Security Advisor on future conflict trends and priorities for spending the 1.26 billion Conflict, Stability, and Security Fund. In addition, the Elite Bargains was incorporated into the UK Government’s cross-Whitehall Conflict and Security training course for policy and programme staff. Key research findings from Dr Cheng’s book [1] and the Elite Bargains Framework were taught in this three-day UK training course for in-country conflict specialists and staff from MOD, FCO, the former DFID, and the SU.


In this story

Christine  Cheng

Senior Lecturer in International Relations