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Economic and social policies have a significant role to play in the prevention of violent conflicts

Alexandre Marc's picture



Policy makers can find two simple but key messages coming out of the jointly published UN–World Bank report, “Pathways for Peace, Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict.” The first is that economic and social development can play a central role in preventing violent conflict; the second is that development needs to be conceived differently in countries or regions that have obvious risks of violent conflict. The report also argues that governments and the donor community are far from having internalized these messages; as a result, huge opportunities are being missed. The report clearly shows that prevention works and creates significant savings—but for these to be realized, actions must be undertaken early and sustained over a long period of time. They must also be strongly focused on the ways in which security, peacebuilding, development, and humanitarian concerns intersect.


The report recognizes that social groups’ grievances around exclusion are a central driver of violent conflict in the modern world. This does not mean that interests or calculations by elites do not play a role, especially in maintaining a violent situation after conflict has started.

Exclusion from services and economic opportunities represents critical risk—but sometimes, perceptions of exclusion can be even more significant, and these very often stem from frustrated aspirations, especially among youth. In addition, exclusion is not only about poverty—it often affects groups that are not poor, but that do not necessarily achieve what they aspire to. Risk of violent conflict stems also less from individual inequality than group-based inequality. As such, economic and social policies need to address a much wider range of issues if they are to effectively prevent violent conflicts.

When these grievances are combined with the state’s unwillingness or inability to address them, violence becomes a probable outcome. This is especially true when the state focuses only on security responses to grievances. Building legitimate institutions and ensuring that these institutions  engage with a concerned population regarding their grievances is a central component of violence prevention.

The study also clearly establishes a link between gender equality, women’s participation, and a society’s ability to make peace. Women’s status relative to men’s—especially their vulnerability to violence—is a significant predictor of a country’s propensity for violent conflict overall. Countries with 10 percent of women in the labor force are nearly 30 times more likely to experience internal conflict than are countries with 40 percent of women in the labor force. When women’s organizations participate in peace negotiations, there is a stronger chance for a peaceful outcome.

Based on a review of all recent conflicts—which was undertaken as an input for the study—it appears that grievances around exclusion usually manifest themselves in four specific areas: (1) access to power; (2) access to natural resources; (3) access to security and justice; and (4) access to basic services. Each of these has a central economic and social dimension. Lack of access to services rarely generates enough grievances to support violence in and of itself, but can strongly contribute to the state’s delegitimization and reduce its ability to effectively address exclusion and resolve conflicts. Power is often regarded as separate from economic and social policies, but policies of decentralization, citizens’ participation and voice, and transparency in budget and economic decision making are all at the end of the day about power. Finally issues that are often considered outside the realm of development—such as justice and security—must be considered when addressing economic and social development.

The study also tells us that an early, shared understanding of the risks of violent conflict is central to prevention. But understanding risks is not sufficient; it is fundamental for actors to be ready to adjust policies and programming to address these risks. This requires establishing platforms at country or regional levels that allow a frank discussion with all concerned actors about the types of policies and programs that are required at the early signs of risk, not when violence has already started and in situation of acute crisis.

It also requires carefully managing the impact of economic and social shocks (such as rapid changes in food or energy prices), the increase in inflationary pressure, and more. When societies are fragmented and polarized, these impacts need to be particularly well managed, and more time and money are sometimes needed to accompany certain reforms essential to stabilize an economy.

Development actors need to be much more aware of the impact that economic and social policies have on peacebuilding and security. So far, development and peacebuilding actors—whether at the national, regional, or international level—do not interact sufficiently. Development has particularly important implications for security, first because insecurity greatly undermines development efforts but also because development interventions can often contribute to local security much more than policing alone. However, this requires that actors—both on the security and the development side—understand each other and enter into constructive cooperation. Finally, the role of humanitarian and development actors is complementary, especially from a prevention perspective and more efforts are required to make the humanitarian and development nexus a reality.

Improving on the areas will require major changes in the way economic and social policy makers at country levels—and in the institutions that support them—carry out their work. The study looks at many examples of countries that have successfully addressed the risk of violent conflicts, often with the support of the international community, and have as a result found sustainable pathways toward peace. However, many more governments and institutions should improve the way they design and support economic and social policies and how they interact with peacebuilding, security, and humanitarian actors so that the recent, rapid increase in violent conflict is effectively addressed.

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