We live, as the Chinese curse puts it, in interesting times. In the past 50 years there have been more than 200 wars around the globe, nearly all civil wars in developing countries. Now the ubiquity of civil strife has led the Open University to ask what we can do about it in a new course in war, intervention and development.
As Tony Blair is finding out in Afghanistan and Iraq, militiary intervention can be a treacherous business, even with the best intentions. In 1994, as images of refugees fleeing the genocide in Rwanda filled TV screens, aid agencies launched desperate appeals for money to feed and clothe the Rwandan refugees held in camps along the Congolese border.
But the refugees were often the perpetrators, not the victims of the genocide, fleeing retribution. The camps were funded by western money but run by the leaders of the genocidal militias, who turned them into training camps from which to attack Rwanda, sparking a civil war in Congo that left millions dead.
The danger of ill-advised intervention is neatly summed up in the catchphrase for the Open University's new course: "Don't just do something, stand there." The six-month course is part of the university's MSc in development management, but is expected to bring in students on its own merits, as a certificate in conflict and development.
The war, intervention, and development course looks at intervening in civil wars from a development, rather than a strategic or military, perspective. With civil wars springing up across the developing world aid workers with no experience or training in conflict are faced with choices, as in the Congo, which can have a profound impact on the chances of peace.
Which is where the OU's course comes in. "We're looking at how development interventions affect civil wars so they can take a more proactive stance and not insulate themselves against civil war," says Dr Susan Fawssett, development expert and a tutor on the course.
Aware of the dangers of doing the wrong thing, it is tempting for agencies to do nothing, either withdrawing workers when war begins or not getting involved in the first place. "Actually they need to make interventions," says Dr Fawssett. "Rather than ignoring it as a phenomenon they need to engage with it."
The course is funded by the Conflict Prevention Fund, set up by the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence, and the Department for International Development. But, insists Dr Helen Yanacopulos, a lecturer in international politics and development at the OU, it's not just for grunts and spooks.
"It's aimed at people involved in development and people who are just interested in the area," she says. "Intervention is not just about military intervention. You have to look at the root causes of conflict, usually fairness, income redistribution, and power."
The three major case studies students examine are Sierra Leone, Nepal and Northern Ireland. Sierra Leone is an interesting choice, often cited as an example of successful foreign military intervention. But Dr Yanacopulos believes students should look beyond the ceasefire. "We ask students to look at the causes of the war," she says. "In Sierra Leone they haven't been dealt with, so students question what the likelihood is of that war restarting."
Peace is a process, never simply the cessation of violence, as Gerry Pye has discovered in 16 years with the RAF working in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Iraq. "You can go in and stop the civil war, disarm and segregate the warring factions," he says. "But four or five years down the line you're back to war again."
Now as one of the lecturers on the course, Pye is eager to stress the need to engage with civil, not just military realities. "If you understand the causes you can restore the institutions and social framework that prevents war in the future."
He is also well aware that there is no easy solution. "No two scenarios are ever the same," he says. "You've got to analyse each situation." Pye draws a distinction between this course and management courses he's done with the OU, where the same model was applied across the board.
"Here there's no model, no best practice," he says. "You don't learn how to conduct an intervention. You have to analyse through the framework. You propose a theory and ask, does this apply to Sierra Leone?"
For Pye the greatest value of the course for experts is the opportunity it gives to look beyond their specialisations. "This makes you look at how things fit across the jigsaw," he says. "You're asking, in each case, how does it work together to reach an end-state?"
He says there has never been a greater need for that broader understanding. "The armed forces are no longer there in case, they're there to be used," he says. "Humanitarian stuff is now a big part of our portfolio."
With such an international focus it makes sense that the course should be available internationally. The first cohort of 130 started in November, and included students from Sweden to Sri Lanka. The way OU courses are taught, with tutors more as facilitators than lecturers, makes them particularly suitable for overseas students. So a student in Uganda gets much the same experience as a student in Upminster.
Peter Beaumont will be finding out how easy it is to study and work abroad this month. Captain Beaumont, 28, a student on the course, left for Afghanistan with the Royal Engineers at the end of February. He is doing the course as part of the development management MSc to prepare him for agency work when he leaves the services next year.
He's sanguine about studying in a war zone. "It's mostly a matter of finding the time," he says. "When you go to these places the workload is pretty high."
Beaumont should know, with experience in Kosovo and Iraq. But service experience didn't mean the course was familiar ground. "There is a military element, but not in terms of strategy," he says. "You look at the lifespan of the whole conflict and analyse what the players are doing, the military, the government, the international community, how they're contributing to the cessation of violence."
With more than a decade in the forces, you would expect Beaumont to have an interest in a course on conflict. But just as interesting as the course has been the other students on it. "The diversity of the people is awesome," he says. "You're speaking to people who've been there and done it. They have a lot of stories to tell and some real experience."
The point of the OU's course is to distil the wisdom of that hard-won experience. "When you see people suffering you want to do something," says Dr Fawssett. "But that can cause more harm. Rather than rushing in to ameliorate symptoms you should address causes. That's bloody difficult in the field."
If disasters such as the Hutu camps are to be avoided, it's a lesson aid agencies are going to have to learn.