3 reasons why supporting peace is more important than ever

A human rights officer with the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo talks to local population and evaluates the security situation in the area. More than 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by violent conflict, and the gap between those countries enjoying relative peace and those afflicted by conflict is growing. Photo by: Myriam Asmani / MONUSCO / CC BY-SA

Peace building, conflict resolution, conflict prevention, whichever term you use, sits uneasily within one particular field, discipline, or government department for that matter. Is it development, foreign policy, diplomacy, defense and security, justice and human rights, any or all of the above?

Perhaps it is unsurprising that there is no neat fit. Addressing the root causes and drivers of conflict is a long-term and complex task — for those living with conflict first and foremost, but also for those supporting people working for peace. Conflicts have multiple drivers, operate as systems, are often local and do not stop at state borders. Responses require the influence, resources and commitment of different people and institutions, at different times.

Yet, the fact that peacebuilding does not have a natural home does not mean it should not have a central place in our responses to some of today’s global challenges.

Peacebuilding is an enabler — of development, security, social and economic justice, and reconciliation. And there are three increasingly urgent reasons why investing in peacebuilding and conflict prevention should be a high and central priority:

1. The effects of conflict are far-reaching.

The majority of those risking their lives trying to reach Europe are from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and other areas beset by violent conflict, insecurity or political repression.

Globally, the numbers of those forced to leave their homes due to war, persecution or natural disaster have reached staggering heights: at the end of 2014, United Nations estimated 19.5 million of these are people who have fled their country as refugees and half of them are children.

Seen in economic terms, the impact is also huge. The Global Peace Index calculated the cost of conflict to the global economy last year to be 9.21 trillion pounds ($13.7 trillion) as a result of increased military spending by states and more people driven from their jobs.

2. Military answers to political problems alone don’t work.

At the heart of many violent conflicts lie issues of inequality, injustice and exclusion.

While criminality can feed on and into a conflict, there are often genuine and unaddressed grievances at play and expressed in violence. Many extremist armed groups don’t start out that way, they radicalize over time — all the more reason to engage with the underlying issues fueling radicalization early on.

And while military force may be deployed to counter a military threat such as the Islamic State group, it cannot resolve profound underlying political, social, economic and governance problems or sustain peace. In fact, it can sometimes complicate that task.

One of the four major shifts recommended by the eminent High-level Independent Panel, which reviewed the U.N.’s peace operations this year, was for the “primacy of politics”: “Lasting peace is not achieved nor sustained by military and technical engagements, but through political solutions … political solutions must guide all U.N. peace operations.”

Building peace together: Local voices — promotes the importance of peacebuilding and places a focus on local peacebuilders who are making a real difference in various conflict affected regions around the world including West Africa, Caucasus, the Philippines and Colombia.

3. Conflict shatters lives and stunts development.

More than 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by violent conflict, and the gap between those countries enjoying relative peace and those afflicted by conflict is growing. The newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals respond to the fact that no low-income conflict-affected country achieved a single one of the framework’s predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals. Peacebuilding approaches, including mediation and diplomacy, dialogue and participation, are an essential part of the toolkit we need to meet Goal 16: to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.”

But how we go about the task of building peace and preventing conflict also matters.

The idea of local ownership is well established in the development field; building up and on people’s own approaches and capacity to move out of poverty. But crises and conflicts — by their scale and nature — tend to produce responses from external governments and multilateral organizations, which seek to protect, rescue and, well, sometimes take over.

In order for a sustainable peace to stand any chance, those affected by — and involved in — conflict must own and identify with the responses and solutions to it. The breakthrough agreement in Havana, Cuba in September between the Colombian government and the FARC, on the issue of transitional justice — which in turn has paved the way for a date to be set for the signature of the final peace agreement — was in part aided by the fact that victims were central and had direct access to the negotiating table. This was a first for peace negotiations anywhere.

Participation and inclusion are also needed beyond the signing of any peace agreement. In the Philippines, following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed last year, in order to secure women’s participation in the new self-governing institutions, my own organization, Conciliation Resources, worked with four women’s organizations to conduct over 70 consultations with around 3,000 women to gather and feed in their inputs and perspectives.

Participation and inclusion can also start from the point of understanding a conflict, from conflict analysis. The analysis process should find ways to include perspectives of those who don’t shout the loudest: women playing vital roles for peace beyond the spotlight of international negotiations; youth; displaced people; ethnic minorities; or those living in remote and unstable border regions, for example. Admittedly, an inclusive approach is not without challenges and dilemmas. It may well need to include “difficult” actors, including the Taliban and other armed groups, who may hold unpalatable views, but command support from sections of society.

Giving people the space and support to collectively reflect on and explore solutions at a local level can help them discover their own agency. We have seen this many times over. In areas of Central Africa affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army or LRA for instance, participants in analysis workshops started out with the view that it was a foreign rebel group from Uganda, a problem for the Ugandan authorities to solve: “We are victims and what can victims do?” Yet as discussions went on, it became clear how much they had to offer, in terms of capacity, insights, ideas and local leadership.

Encouragingly, inclusion and participation are increasingly features in key international strategies and operational guidance. Another of the High-level Independent Panel’s recommendations was for U.N. missions to shift from “merely consulting with local people to actively involving them in their work … Engagement must increasingly be regarded as core to mission success.”

Such statements are a reminder that these conflicts are not ours to resolve, the peace not ours to design, and that effective external support is that which responds to local needs, and works with local ideas and initiatives for peace.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Teresa Dumasy

    Teresa Dumasy is the head of policy and learning for peacebuilding NGO Conciliation Resources. Prior to this role, she worked for a number of years in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. She has also worked as a consultant to various NGOs. She is also a senior research fellow at the Conflict Analysis Research Centre (CARC) at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.