This post, written by Thomas Wheeler, Conflict and Security Adviser, Saferworld, is the sixth in our blog series which aims to explore how the Sustainable Development Goals can be drafted to include all social and economic groups.
Making development sustainable in conditions of violent conflict and insecurity is extremely challenging. Of the seven countries unlikely to meet a single Millennium Development Goal (MDG) by the end of this year, all have been affected by high levels of violence. It is projected that up to 62% of people living in extreme poverty by 2030 will be based in countries at risk of high levels of violence. So if we want to leave no-one behind as we work towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), preventing conflict and building peace after conflict will be crucial.
But what makes a peaceful society? In Saferworld’s review of the evidence in 2012, we found a number of factors that are important across a variety of contexts. These include access to security and justice; transparent, accountable and effective state institutions; controls on corruption; voice and participation in decision-making; and addressing transnational conflict drivers such as flows of arms and illicit financial flows. As well as seeking to reduce levels of violence, many of these specific issues are addressed in the targets currently under Goal 16 of the draft SDG agreement commits Member States to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies”.
A number of studies have also found a strong correlation between levels of conflict and gender inequality. There is also evidence suggesting that inequalities between individuals within a society are correlated with rates of criminal insecurity and interpersonal violence. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, there is an established body of work that shows how large horizontal inequalities between identity groups – for example ethnic, religious, or regional groups – are strongly correlated with the risk of conflict. The nature of these inequalities can be economic (e.g. differences in income or access to jobs between identity groups), social (e.g. different access to education, health), cultural (e.g the standing of different cultural norms). Horizontal inequalities can also be political (e.g. different levels of political representation or enjoyment of rights). In fact the risk of conflict is highest when these forms of political exclusion overlap with economic and social inequalities.
Overall, it is evident that paying attention to exclusionary inequalities between identity groups and promoting inclusivity is a fundamental aspect of peacebuilding – and something that is present not only in Goal 16 but also Goal 5 (gender equality and empowerment) and Goal 10 (reducing inequality). More broadly, adhering to the commitment to leave no-one behind in meeting any of the goals and targets will, in and of itself, help contribute to peace. So how should this be put into practice?
First of all, traditional development policy and programming needs to draw on disaggregated data across a range of SDG targets to identify economic or social exclusion and work to address it – this can lower the risk of conflict or help build peace after it has ended. Adopting a more conflict-sensitive approach to investment and engagement will also remain crucial. As it stands, donors and other development actors are still not taking conflict sensitivity seriously enough – potentially creating new conflict drivers.
Second, we should accept that promoting peaceful and inclusive societies is not primarily a question of outside financing (indeed, in the wrong conditions more money might mean less peace). National politics matters much more. Indeed, inclusive, responsive and representative political systems are central to the effective promotion of shared economic growth, fair access to social services, and tolerance between different identity groups. While the international community can act to encourage the emergence of more inclusive political systems, we need to start by being more aware of both our limitations and the ways in which we can get in the way.
Third, and relatedly, inclusive politics must complement statebuilding efforts. Effective state institutions are, of course, central to peace and development. But strengthening and widening their reach risks being counter-productive when they are perceived as illegitimate within sections of society. These risks are especially high when there is still a need for reconciliation between different groups after a conflict. So it is also time to extend our focus from statebuilding to genuine peacebuilding, which occurs within society, amongst people and from the bottom-up.
Finally, we need to ensure that our attention span goes beyond “special situations” currently experiencing or emerging from conflict. While these contexts require concerted support from the international community, the last few years have taught us that vulnerability to violent conflict is more widespread than we assume. The first step to real conflict prevention means recognising that all societies need to strive continually to become more peaceful and inclusive.
As the report from the UN Secretary-General’s panel on peace operations stresses, “put simply, the international community is failing at preventing conflict.” The SDG agenda is universal, multi-stakeholder and aims to bring the whole international community together around a set of shared goals. If we can leverage this agenda correctly, including by seeing through the commitment to end exclusion and leave no-one behind, we will be better placed to address this failure.