Insight reports on a recent policy debate about conflict, and examines the case for new, proactive and preventative approaches to international peacebuilding. 

With its recently launched Sustaining Peace agenda, the United Nations has renewed its commitment to peacebuilding, placing greater emphasis on conflict prevention and addressing the drivers of conflict – as well as highlighting the need for international partnership and co-operation. 

The UK has been a vocal supporter of this narrative. Its National Security Strategy pledges to “address the causes of conflict and instability” by combatting corruption, promoting effective governance, reinforcing security and justice and boosting employment opportunities. 

At the recent opening of the UN General Assembly, the Prime Minister’s focus on improving girls’ access to education and driving trade and investment opportunities in Africa indicated a renewed commitment to this agenda – her opening address specifically urged UN member states to “do more collectively to prevent such atrocities in the first place, and address the causes of instability that can give rise to them.”

In this context – coinciding with International Peace Day and the launch of the inaugural Peace Perceptions Poll 2018 – the British Council convened a group of experts, practitioners and UK Government representatives to discuss how to achieve ‘positive peace’ in a world where power is diffuse, funding is scarce and political will for multilateralism is waning. 

Prevention or cure?

The discussion opened with a debate over the usefulness of ‘positive peacebuilding’ as a phrase: “surely all peacebuilding is positive?” But unlike ‘negative peace’ – which is simply the absence of violence – ‘positive peace’ is achieved through rebuilding trust and institutions through a whole-of-society approach. For example, addressing the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda demands more than just offering women a seat at the negotiating table – it means dealing with the cultural and structural barriers that bar women from participating.

Indeed, ‘positive peacebuilding’ may be symptomatic of the evolving nature of international development. It was noted that, historically, the development community has insisted on remaining distinct from those working on security and defence, to prevent the so-called ‘securitisation’ of international development. 

Building schools and hospitals is a waste of money if they will later be destroyed by combatants – just as peace cannot be restored without a focus on addressing socio-economic needs

But there is now a growing recognition by both governments and practitioners that the two fields need to operate in tandem. Development work cannot be sustainable in a context where there is protracted armed conflict and disregard for the rule of law. Building schools and hospitals is a waste of money if they will later be destroyed by combatants – just as peace cannot be restored without a focus on addressing socio-economic needs. To be effective, it is incumbent on development agencies to tackle the root causes of conflict, rather than just the symptoms.

The top takeaway from the Poll was that prevention was better than cure, as ‘peacebuilding’ – addressing the drivers of conflict as well as building capacity for conflict resolution – was backed by approximately half of the 100,000 respondents. ‘Teaching peace, tolerance and conflict resolution in schools’ was among the most popular approaches for conflict resolution, while ‘military intervention’ ranked last; and even those in conflict-stricken countries still opted for peace education over humanitarian intervention. 

The report’s recommendation to include ‘peace education’ in the curriculum sparked some debate. While some said that teaching about values such as tolerance and peace would strengthen young people’s resilience to armed violence and their resistance to populist leadership, it was argued that an approach which focused solely on the grassroots threatened to ‘essentialise’ conflict as a feature of ethnic and religious difference. Some said that the hostilities in Syria and between Israel and Palestine, for example, are exacerbated by political motivations rather than being the inevitable result of differing religious or cultural beliefs. 

It was broadly agreed that an effective approach to conflict resolution and peacebuilding should be two-pronged, combining political ‘cures’ with longer-term approaches such as education, political inclusion and the rebuilding of institutions. It required state actors working in partnership with non-state actors through a whole-of-society approach. 

However, context matters. Peacebuilding actors need to adapt their methods in countries where it is more difficult to have a non-partisan civil service, for example, and where there is corruption, as economic growth may not trickle down to the grassroots. One guest also considered that the way wars are waged often defines the way peace processes play out; for example, peace becomes a more difficult endeavour if international norms are not respected, and if civilians are targeted. 

The extent to which armed groups are ‘decentralised’ and influenced by external actors is also a major factor in peacebuilding. It was argued that this can mean talking to groups who are today defined as terrorists, which, although politically challenging, may be the only way to reach long-term solutions. 

Making aid attractive

While the report indicated global support for prevention-based approaches, this does not translate into funding – only one per cent is spent globally on peacebuilding. The experts agreed that it is hard to persuade governments to get behind the peacebuilding agenda, partially due to a failure on the part of practitioners to ‘make the case’ for prevention, and partially due to the struggle to prove impact. Even where monitoring and evaluation measures are in place, the nature of conflict zones means that programmes often need to be altered or even pulled due to rapid escalations of violence. For societies in transition, positive peacebuilding is a long-term effort, and therefore it can be difficult to show immediate outcomes. 

The UK’s Global Britain agenda should incorporate peacebuilding, demonstrating a values-based foreign policy and reaffirming its commitment to engaging with the rest of the world

To fill this gap in leadership, it was argued that the UK’s Global Britain agenda should incorporate peacebuilding as a priority. With the UN currently eager for member states to take the helm of its Sustaining Peace agenda, this was viewed as an opportunity for the UK to exert positive influence, demonstrating a values-based foreign policy and reaffirming its commitment to engaging with the rest of the world.

But for this to be politically viable, the experts recognised the need to frame UK aid in a way that appeals to the national interest. As Prime Minister Theresa May argued in her recent speech in South Africa, UK aid needs to be a win-win – a win for the recipient countries, and beneficial to the UK. 

One possible benefit would be through increasing the UK’s positive influence globally through an increased focus on peacebuilding. As it stands, only 42% of 20,000 respondents across the G20 agree that the UK contributes its fair share to aiding development in poorer countries. That suggests that the current generous UK aid budget, 0.7% of GNI, is not yielding the benefits on the UK’s global influence that it could, and that there is more work to do in terms of ensuring that aid spending underpins the ‘Influence’ strand of the National Security Strategy.

Experts suggested that to fully capitalise on its large aid budget, and to foster greater global recognition for its contribution to international peacebuilding efforts, the UK would benefit from ensuring that its defence, development, trade and foreign policy agendas were adequately joined up in key countries.