We have all grown accustomed to the proverbial saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Such are the rewards of coming together and acting early to prevent the spread of violence. Nevertheless, there are credible obstacles to taking this course of action. Over the 70 years of history of the United Nations we were more adept to dealing with situations after conflict started than acting to avoid the eruption of conflict in the first place.
The first joint United Nations-World Bank study on prevention spells out concrete ways in which we can change this outlook. We have learned, for example, that by focusing solely on economic growth countries cannot grow themselves out of the risk of conflict. A poignant reminder is a recent rise in number of violent conflicts in middle-income countries.
Sustaining peace involves timely and persistent investment in institutions and constituencies at the highest levels of risk. Focusing our efforts on the most densely populated part of countries does not always make economic sense. If, for example, on the periphery we have underdeveloped and under-governed territories with an ongoing simmering ethnic conflict, our priorities should be clear enough.
In addition to intolerable human cost, there is also a business case to be made for prevention and the report develops explicit incentive models. A background study estimates, for example, that targeting resources toward just four countries at high risk of conflict each year, could prevent loss amounting to $34 billion annually. In comparison, spending on peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in 2016 was $8.2 billion and $22.1 billion, respectively.
Risk management related to prevention is also getting increasingly complex. The risks associated with exclusions, discriminations and marginalization of groups are further compounded by exogenous economic shocks; climate change and depletion of natural resources; and epidemics and health care crisis. For instance, a recent study finds that while only 9 percent of armed conflict outbreaks between 1980 and 2010 coincided with disasters linked to droughts or heatwaves, this percentage increases to 23 percent in ethnically fractionalized settings . A fiscal shock linked to terms of trade adjustments or commodity price or tax revenue collapse, can rapidly deplete budgets and force fiscal adjustments bringing instability, including through reductions in subsidies and civil service wages. Based on the increasing global interdependence and complexity of modern conflicts, development work has to take a more systematic and deliberative approach to the integration of risk assessments and cross-sectoral responses.
The fundamental premise of the joint UN-WB report is that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) simply cannot be attained without due attention to the effects of conflict. In turn, the SDGs provide a blueprint to address the root causes of conflict. This notion of interdependence has gained additional significance due to dramatic resurgence of conflict in the last few years. The stark reality is that the number of major violent conflicts has tripled, while the number of civilian casualties has doubled between 2010 and 2016. The effects of internal conflicts also reverberate globally beyond the epicenters of violence more unreservedly than ever before.
The commitment to reinvent the way we invest in prevention of violent conflict is a shared one, between the Bank and the UN. This study is not the destination, but the beginning of a journey together, on analysis and changing the way in which we do development that systematically underpins conflict prevention.
Let us celebrate the success of many nations in pulling so many out of poverty and recommit ourselves to eradicating poverty in our generation.
By Achim Steiner