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What does the new UN–World Bank flagship study on violent conflict prevention hold for Australia’s region?

Hannah Bleby's picture



Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflictthe flagship study jointly published by the UN and the World Bank—has been touted as an unparalleled, potentially paradigm-shifting piece of work. But so often, conflict prevention approaches are weighted toward Africa or the Middle East; is the study relevant to Australia’s region and interests?

This study is a mix, but it tips toward the positive for Australia’s approach to security, politics, and development. It features several countries of high interest to Australia, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Timor Leste. Even Bougainville rates an instructive mention, although Solomon Islands is not discussed. Subnational conflict and middle-income country dynamics are certainly considered in a general sense. Predictably, though, African and Middle Eastern experiences are more prominent, given they are in many cases acute, high profile, and the destination of much conflict or peacebuilding support and political interest of UN and World Bank members.

On balance, however, the study legitimately claims a global perspective. While less about “new” ideas, the comprehensive analysis and consultation for this study is unparalleled—including extensive consideration of “what has worked,” locally and internationally. In addition to politics, security, and development, the study spans state, nonstate, private, civil society, multilateral, and regional actors, along with countries and conflicts both large and small. Complex global issues such as climate change, resource competition, terrorism, and changing world order are all in the frame.

But where this study really extends us is by showing how these well-traversed conversations relate to hitherto largely separate ones about human experiences and perceptions. Specifically, it shines a light on how unrecognized or untreated grievances—particularly those pertaining to exclusion, inequality, and injustice, wherever they occur—can affect incentives and propel societies and individuals down paths of violence, or not. 

This precipitates at least three notable shifts in our understanding of—and incentives for—prevention. Firstly, it undoes the notion that violent conflict is primarily a problem of the poor and fragile, and economic development the most effective antidote. Rather, it shows violent conflict as universal—middle- and upper-income countries such as the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Syria, Ireland, the UK, and many more have experienced significant violent conflict and risk. 

Secondly, it rethinks the notion that preventing violent conflict is primarily about immediate crisis management, a siloed set of security or political interventions by a select few. Instead, it is long-term, sustained effort by state and nonstate actors that targets exclusion and risk in a systemic way. This clearly implicates development responses and humanitarian, civil, and private sector actors as long-term integrated partners with political and security actors. All have different roles to play throughout conflict, escalation, continuation, and recovery—not just before or after the storm.

Thirdly, it puts people, not just politics, firepower, or resources, at the center of prevention. Human experiences and perceptions—especially of political, social, and economic exclusion—fundamentally change incentives for action and influence the effectiveness of institutions and structural factors. 

Like the UK and several other European nations, Australia is already moving in the directions the report indicates. It is putting more emphasis on localizing approaches and leadership; deepening and extending partnerships across usually siloed institutions and with the private sector; seriously grappling with governance and incentive structures, attempting to combine long-term vision with short- to medium-term action; and even viewing its security in a relatively holistic way, as part of the stability and prosperity of other neighboring nations.  This is heartening.

The study also underscores Australia’s ambitions to give greater credence to “partnerships and soft power” set out in its Foreign Policy White Paper, which places increased trade and inclusivity at the heart of such efforts. It also confirms the pointy end of security and military might as the backup to sustainable, effective prevention where such long-term approaches have broken down—not the other way around (see Jacqui True’s blog, AIIA).

But the study also presents both support for and a challenge to Australia’s white paper commitment to “strengthening a rules-based international order.” It does support collective, structured efforts as essential to effective, sustained prevention and prosperity. But it warns (as others have done) that the interconnectedness, pace, and volatility of global dynamics outstrips the systems that characterized the 20th century, so their reinforcement is insufficient. Adapting to these challenges isn’t enough; anticipation is required. This can only be achieved by working “at, above, and below” the state level and the existing global order to find lasting solutions.

While large-scale active violent conflict is less prominent in the Indo-Pacific region, Australia can indeed find much (and will need to extrapolate some) meaningful guidance and perspective on many of the grumbling and acute potential destabilizers of its security and prosperity—not to mention on the concerns and interests of its global and regional partners in these endeavors. One cannot help but see Australian interests and responsibilities in this big story.

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