Syndicate content

Prevention is better than post-conflict catch-up

Nicholas van Praag's picture
   An end to conflict conformism

Violence is the antithesis of development.  It tears down what’s been built up.  It destroys lives, shortens horizons, and inflicts huge psychological and physical pain.

Once violence ends, it takes a generation, on average, to get back to square oneand that’s only when strife does not reignite or morph into other forms of man-on-man beastliness, as often happens. 

No wonder so many people at the Millennium Development Goals summit in New York this week are taking a hard look at how to improve the often nasty, brutish and short lives of people living in states wracked by violence. 

At a side event organized by the WDR and the International Dialogue on Peace Building, and co-hosted by Timor Leste and the UK, Andrew Mitchell, Britain’s aid chief, reminded us that no fragile state or conflict-affected country has yet achieved a single MDG. Most lag 40 to 60 percent behind other low and middle-income countries in MDG attainment.

If you were born without a birth attendant or lack access to clean water or never went to primary school or go to bed hungry, the chances are pretty high (between 65 and 75 percent, depending on the indicator) that you come from a country mired in or emerging from violence.

With more than 1.5 billion people living in conflict-affected countries, the challenge is daunting.  There’s no chance of coming close to attaining the MDGs at the global level unless we move from bumper-sticker aspiration to policy action in fragile states.

“Lack of action costs a bomb”, said Mo Ibrahim, benefactor of the eponymous prize for African leadership and member of the WDR’s Advisory Council, referring to the resources wasted on conflict in places that could use them better.

Research commissioned for the WDR puts the total cost of an average civil war at some $65 billion. 

Huge sums are ploughed every year into shelter and food for refugees in miserable camps. 

The budget for peace-keeping forces is at an all time high as the UN deploys un-precedented numbers of blue berets in trouble spots around the worlddeployed, almost always, after conflict has broken out.

There was strong support from the panelists in New York, who included Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Timorese President Ramos Horta, for more focus on preventing violence before it breaks out.

Pre-emptive action is more cost-effective than post-conflict catch-up; an activity that, despite its rocky record, continues to garner the lion’s share of international attention and funding.

Jordan Ryan of UNDP said the costs of the referendum in Kenya last August were a fraction of the $3.6 billion worth of havoc wrought by the post-electoral violence in 2008-2009.

Analysis for the WDR makes the same point about the relatively minor costs of the preventative efforts of the UN Department of Political Affairs and mediation by groups like the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue when compared to the costs incurred when things fall apart. 

So what’s stopping the international community from doing more to prevent violent conflict? 

One obstacle, according to Mark Lyall Grant, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN, is the mind-set in some UN agencies and many member countries. 

Grant argued that sovereignty remains a central tenet of international relations.  But in the age of the ‘responsibility to protect’, it should not mean that countries are left to their own devices until the prairies are on fire.

Another obstacle is the ‘stop-go’ pattern to providing aid to countries whose fragility makes them vulnerable to conflict. 

Their poor performance ratings limit the aid they receive and make flows twice as volatile as aid to other developing countries.  This in turn restricts their ability to support the institutional changes that might stave off their descent into chaos.  

Suspicion of international bodies may be another factor.  ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said regional organizations can play a bigger role in lowering fragile countries’ barriers to the entry of outsiders before things are out of control.   

Regional bodies are closer to their member states and perhaps less intimidating than global intermediaries.  As a result, they can help overcome misgivings about outside intervention.

This kind of virtuous regional dynamic is an important element in the WDR’s look at both prevention and post-conflict reconstruction.

It is part of a shift away from what Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf described as “conflict conformism”. 

She was referring to the need to simplify the rules of the development game to better match conditions in fragile states. 

But her call for new thinking applies equally to the way the international community engages with countries staring into violence’s pitiless eyes.


Submitted by Syed Tamjid ur Rahman on
Development work often involves changing power dynamics in host societies through the provision of technical assistance combined with human and financial resources. Conflicts often revolve around issues of power - fighting, for instance, over which groups will have access to political, economic and social resources. Consequently external assistance challenges existing power relations and, in contributing resources in a polarized environment, may inadvertently fuel conflict. An increasing number of international agencies have recognized this and adopted a conflict-sensitive approach which involves scrutinizing the potential positive and negative impacts of their work on the conflict context and vice-versa. Based on this understanding, agencies are taking steps to ensure that at a minimum they ‘do no harm’ and, ideally, they have a positive impact on the contexts in which they work. However, despite increasing acknowledgement of, and policy commitment to, the importance of conflict-sensitive development, uptake in practice remains limited. we should seek to strengthen the knowledge and capacity of donors, national and local governments and civil society to pursue conflict-sensitive development programs through a combination of targeted analysis and learning, training and accompaniment work in a number of focus countries, with lessons and guidance shared internationally.

Add new comment