Conflict Costs but Peace Pays

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Who could possibly be against peace? Everyone wants peace – right? And yet, while we will rightfully debate how to achieve universal education, adequate health services, and livable wages, when it comes to establishiing peace it often seems to be an utopian dream. Leaders appear less ready to engage in rigorous discussions about the policies necessary to achieve peace in different parts of the world. That is why today, on September 21, UN International Day of Peace, NGO International Alert is calling for a debate about how we can put policies and budgets in place that support better peace building strategies.

Peace, in practice, translates into very concrete gains: Suffering bloodshed and the heartache of war are eliminated, children can walk safely to school, and everyone can sleep comfortably at night. So you would think that everyone – beyond the groups of fighters and the arms trade manufacturers – would want a halt to the rising number and scale of wars that have led to the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, and to stop the cruelty of random terrorist attacks, from Barcelona to Marawi. Global institutions, from the United Nations to many governments’ aid and foreign affairs departments, verbalize strong rhetoric about building peace. But now they need to engage both financial and policy implications, moving from rhetoric on a page to reality on the streets.

Unfortunately, few leaders understand the true meaning of peace building. First launched as a policy tool over 25 years ago by then UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, peace building is based on the idea that society can work proactively to prevent conflict from becoming violent, to build reconciliation after war and to address the root causes of fighting.

NGO International Alert has just released a survey about peace building to learn what works best. At the national level, the international community has successfully helped end or avert violence in Cambodia, East Timor, Liberia, and Nepal, where there has been support for challenging political transitions.  The recent intervention of West African leaders to ensure a peaceful handover of power, after the disputed 2016 presidential election in the Gambia, is another fine example of this.

There are also myriad examples at the community level. In January 2014, during the worst violence in the Central African Republic’s most recent civil war, Mercy Corps launched a program intended to curtail community violence and rebuild social cohesion in the country’s two most socio-economically vital cities, Bangui and Bouar. A survey following the programme’s training and support of Muslim and Christian leaders found a five-fold increase in people reporting that conflicts were being resolved peacefully. There was also an 86% rise in respondents who reported that they trusted members of the “other” group in their communities. The increased mutual confidence led to 69% of conflict-displaced people reporting they had already returned home, or planned to. It also helped create conditions for a local disarmament and reconciliation pact to be agreed upon, including a commitment to protect members of both communities from further attack.

Further, in Bangladesh, where electoral violence had become endemic, a new project trained 2,500 party officials and other influential women and men as Peace Ambassadors. Following the training, 97% of the ambassadors said they had successfully prevented acts of violence. Additionally, 89% reported that they had also been involved in resolving other disputes in their communities, illustrating an even wider impact.

These successful examples share some strategies, which are recommended for future peacebuilding interventions: They are locally-led and owned, they work at local, regional, national and international levels, they address the root causes of violence and are inclusive (engaging varying age, gender, class and other identity groups), they incorporate institutional perspectives at various levels, and they are sustained over many years. Our report further shows how these factors have contributed to a critical mass of energy for peace in Northern Ireland, Nepal and South Africa.

Due to the results of this report, our organization believes that peace building can works. And yet, peacebuilding remains the poor cousin of other international interventions. The Institute for Economics and Peace recently estimated the total expenditure on peacebuilding at approximately $10 billion in 2016, just over half a percent of the $1.69 trillion global military expenditure. This stark disparity in the allocation of resources is surely explains, in part, why global peace is in retreat.

The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) has further estimated that for every $1 invested in peace building, $16 is generated in return. Based upon that analysis, the Institute recommends at least doubling the current rate of spending on peace building. We second that call.

Harriet Lamb is the CEO of International Alert.

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