For the first time, issues of violence and peace are part of a global development framework. The recently launched Sustainable Development Goals aim to “significantly reduce all forms of violence and related deaths everywhere”.
While admirable in its intent and ambition, is this possible? And, if so, how?
Earlier global agreements, notably the Millennium Development Goals, did not consider issues of conflict and violence. Critics point to the omission as one reason areas affected by conflict and violence lagged so far behind peaceful and stable countries on achieving the goals. Human development indicators are often far worse in conflict areas.
On top of this delivering development is made more difficult by continuing violent insecurity, politicised divisions and militarisation. Unsurprisingly, people in these areas see reducing levels of violence and conflict as the most important way in which their lives could be improved.
The inclusion of violence and peace in the latest goals follows a groundswell of thinking about the issue since the 1990s. Over the past 25 years practical approaches have been developed to deliver a range of basic services and other social support in conflict areas.
Putting violence into perspective
There is a litany of guidance for acting sensitively and avoiding the possibility of inadvertently aggravating tensions for any agency wanting to intervene in conflict areas. And since the publication of the World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development in 2011, there has been a welcome focus on violence. The report emphasised that violence afflicted not only poor countries but also many transition states like South Africa, Nigeria and Pakistan.
It also affected wealthy countries such as the US, Brazil and Israel. It emphasised that the capability of any society to cope with the impacts of violence and to become more peaceful depended on the existence of legitimate institutions.
A burgeoning field of policy analysis now focuses on reducing armed violence. Remarkable consensus has emerged at high policy levels around the basic elements of an approach to reduce violence. These include:
the need to create legitimate institutions, often through efforts to craft political settlements;
strengthening access to justice;
extending economic opportunities and employment, especially for young people; and
fostering societal resilience, both through institutions as well as by considering the sustainability of interventions.
These are enshrined under Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which is aimed at
… promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
Best practice paradigm in reducing violence
The rapid emergence of this best practice paradigm is significant on many fronts. It establishes priorities for donors desperately searching for answers to often longstanding situations of violent insecurity and conflict. It directs trends in research funding to those areas that are thought to be most likely to uncover solutions.
It also directs advocacy efforts at international and national levels. It offers an explanation for complex dynamics, trends and continuities to a wider public to which violence appears altogether normal. Here, places like Darfur, Somalia and Afghanistan come to mind. It also provides regimes in areas affected by violence a touchstone for seeking international support and funds.
The limits of the best practice paradigm is that it states the obvious: to be less violent, societies and states should become more like places that are peaceful and stable. While the elements of reducing violence are well known, they are the outcomes of long processes of change, conflict and adjustment. They are not logical outcomes of more funding, capacity building and political attention.
The best practice paradigm has less to say about what can be done to reduce violence over the short and medium term. Development funders and planners who seek to reduce violence face a fundamental problem. It is that violence exists because it so often works as a way of developing new political relations.
An earlier generation of research showed that conflict and violence were not the antithesis of development. Instead, they were often close bedfellows.
And economic growth and change have not guaranteed peaceful outcomes. Far from it. In many places, the opportunities created through globalisation have given rise to extra-legal trans-boundary economic activity involving the use of violence.
Similarly, violence is often the currency of politics, the bedrock of development writ large in places now mired in seemingly intractable situations. Take South Sudan, Somalia and Syria.
Best practice will take development actors only so far. Far more attention is needed on how violence operates and its logic in particular settings. This type of analysis is more likely to generate useful insights than measurements of institutional weakness and social fragility based on contrasts with more peaceful and stable situations.
No one-size-fits-all approach
The World Development Report cautioned against the temptation to impose certain institutional arrangements from one society onto another.
And recent research on addressing and mitigating violence suggests that there is no single formula to reducing violence. The optimal design of institutions is never an absolute.
Rather, it changes in response to political conditions and trends, and framings of these in places where violence is a way of life, a currency of politics. Further, what is legitimate is a matter of political and social positioning, and at different levels.
What appears to be legitimate in the halls of the United Nations may look very different from the office of the president in Juba. Likewise from the perspective of a community terrorised by violence in the South Sudan margins.
Most accept that reducing violence is essential for sustainable development. And that it is a way of measuring and indicating progress in times of dynamic change globally and in places remote from political and economic power.
Reducing violence is development’s latest tall order. The adoption of best practice will help. But the journey requires much more attention to mapping the routes of violence in particular places, where it is not separate from but fundamentally part of development.