Development agencies and conflict: Good progress, but can do better

Why development agencies need to focus on conflict and reducing violence.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Read Development agencies and conflict: Good progress, but can do better

One of the checks and balances we have in the UK to encourage people in public life always to uphold the highest standards of behaviour and integrity is the requirement to declare an interest before making statements.

So let me declare my interest. The title for my remarks to day is “Development Agencies and Conflict: Good Progress, But Can Do Better”. Not because that is what my teachers consistently told me through my school years (though they did).

But I have spent the best part of 30 years thinking about and working on development, frequently in conflict zones. I was in Tigray in northern Ethiopia during the civil war in 1986. I was in Mogadishu in September 1992 when UN peacekeepers arrived. I was a regular visitor to Croatia and Bosnia during the Balkans wars in the early 1990s. I started visiting Iraq in 2004, memorably staying in a villa formerly allocated to Saddam Hussein’s wife, my first and only experience of gold-plated bathroom fittings. I have been visiting Afghanistan regularly for a decade.

And I have covered Mozambique, Uganda, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Vietnam. All countries which used to be embroiled in conflict and - whilst still putting some of the old ghosts of the past to rest - have now moved on.

I have seen progress almost everywhere. Even in places, like Afghanistan, which remain riven by conflict. Just stand on the corner of a Kabul street at 8 am on any weekday morning and enjoy the sight of thousands of Afghan children, girls as well as boys, clad in bright uniforms and holding on to their school books making their way by foot or on bikes, cars and buses to school. Not something you would have seen on the same street corner little more than ten years ago.

There will always be remarkable individuals and organisations ready to act. Our challenge is to transform pockets of progress into lasting peace and stability across states and societies, countries and regions.

So I would like to talk about why it matters that development agencies focus on conflict and reducing violence. Then about recent trends in the scale and nature of conflict, including some of the reasons why things have got better. A word on some of the solutions and interventions that we should invest more in. Something about the cross-government approach the UK brings to conflict and development. How development agencies, including my own, can do a better job together with our partners. And finally some thoughts about future prospects.

It is particularly fitting to have this discussion here at the Hertie School. Your three “I” approach, focused on interdisciplinarity, inter-sectoral engagement between the state, the private sector and civil society, and the international dimensions of governance, is highly relevant to the problems of conflict affected states.

And I know they are as important to BMZ as they are to DFID. We share a similar outlook. I greatly admire the strategy paper on Development for Peace and Security that you published in March this year. And there is much commonality between the approach laid out in the Interministerial Guidelines in Germany and the approach we are taking in the UK.

Why this matters

Three weeks ago, the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel of eminent persons – including your own former President, Horst Köhler, and David Cameron, my Prime Minister – published their report on the post-2015 development agenda.

The panel observe that by 2015 most of the people in the world whose lives are mired in extreme poverty will reside in places troubled by conflict and violence. Conflict is the scourge that blights many countries. These countries may only account for a fifth of the population in the developing world, but they are home to as many as half of the children who are not in primary school. And half of the children who die before their fifth birthday.

Conflict and insecurity are a terrible part of the poverty afflicting the poorest people – as they say very clearly whenever they are asked. We know women and girls suffer most – whether targeted as a strategy of war or from the wider impact of violence on the fabric of society.

The large and complex costs of conflict are borne by economies, societies and individuals not only where violence is happening, but also in neighbouring regions and even globally.

So addressing conflict is a development imperative. But it is more than that. As Kofi Annan put it, “Humanity will not enjoy security without development, it will not enjoy development without security, and it will not enjoy either without respect for human rights. In a world of interconnected threats and opportunities, it is in each country’s self-interest that all of these challenges are addressed effectively”.

In other words, conflict and violence in developing countries is not just their problem. It is our problem too.

We now have better data and analysis on the scale and nature of conflict and violence across the world than we used to. Organisations like the Human Security Report Project, the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, the Institute for Economics and Peace, producing their Global Peace Index, as well as UN agencies, NGOs and academic researchers provide us with a richer picture, picking out important new trends.

As part of what people characterised as “the long peace”, the number of both international and civil wars being fought around the world has declined dramatically in recent decades.

There are fewer wars. And they have become a lot less deadly. The average war in the 1950s killed 10,000 people a year in battle. In the new millennium the new figure is well under 1,000. The overriding challenge that has emerged is making peace stick – preventing the breakdown of peace settlements and recurrence of relatively low intensity conflicts. In Asia, many subnational conflicts have endured for generations even as countries have transformed from low to middle income.

I will come back later to whether events since the Arab spring mark a new departure, but the big story over recent decades is that conflicts have become shorter and smaller, blighting the lives of fewer people.

There are other noteworthy trends too. According to the 2012 Global Peace Index Africa is no longer the least peaceful region in the world. Organised crime and gang warfare, often related to drugs, and terrorism mean that some countries in Latin America and South Asia suffer more violence than war-torn countries.

Advocacy groups and researchers have helped throw a welcome spotlight on sexual violence, and the meeting of G8 leaders today in Enniskillen is looking at how to bolster further the UK’s preventing sexual violence initiative. Preventing violence against women and girls is a top priority for DFID and we aim to help 10 million women access justice by 2015.

But we are also seeing another worrying trend. 2011 was the fifth consecutive year the number of forcibly displaced persons worldwide exceeded 42 million. Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees put it well - “For so many lives to have been thrown into turmoil over so short a space of time means enormous personal cost for all who were affected. We can be grateful only that the international system for protecting such people held firm for the most part and that borders were kept open.”

So what accounts for the general reduction in violence and conflict? Some people – like Steven Pinker, whose book “The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes” is one of the best things I have read on this subject – point to very long-run trends, playing out over millennia, driven by changes in human behaviour and organisation, and even in brain chemistry. More tangibly, perhaps, the end of colonialism and the end of the cold war have created a better environment for the promotion of peace. As has the spread of democracy.

One conclusive finding of recent research, however, is that there is no simple, one-cause explanation for conflict, still less an accompanying silver bullet to solve it. We now know with confidence that the causes of conflict are multiple and complex. Every conflict is unique.

Interventions and Solutions

So, if those are some of the trends and explanations, what are the policy implications?

The first is that international peacemaking and peacekeeping has historically been much more effective than it is commonly given credit for. The explosion of activism in the final years of the last century, driven by what Boutros-Ghali termed “peace-building” in his famous Agenda for Peace in 1992, was a success.

It was spearheaded by the UN. The twenty years since the end of the cold war saw almost 50 new UN operations. Since the end of the cold war there has been a nine-fold increase in demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration programmes for combatants. Many UN operations have been launched with a state-building mandate, to not just sustain but also to improve the quality of peace.

New norms and associated sanctions to protect human rights have also made it possible to prosecute leaders for using extreme violence against their citizens. Since 1990, 67 former heads of state have been prosecuted for serious human rights violations or economic crimes during their tenures, both by national and international courts.

And regional organisations, especially in Africa, led by the African Union and others, have established and enforced norms to check the violent or coercive use of power. Witness, for example, recent events in Cote D’Ivoire and the leading role of its neighbours in promoting progress in Somalia.

A second key lesson is that, as the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report emphasised, legitimate institutions are key to stability. Violence breaks out where the institutions of the state prey on rather than protect citizens, where they undermine rather than promote social cohesion and where they are perceived to work against rather than for justice. It follows, therefore, that strengthening the effectiveness and accountability of institutions dedicated to citizen security, justice and jobs reduces violence.

Third, we have seen the importance of helping countries deepen democracy. Given our tendency always to focus on the remaining problems, we sometimes fail to acknowledge the success of the march of democracy across the world – and not least in Africa – over recent decades. At the beginning of my career, the average head of government in the countries in which I worked was a self-proclaimed ‘President for Life’, frequently from a military background, and neither well acquainted with nor much interested in the ballot box. That now appears to be a species in decline.

Elections are only the beginning. But when citizens are fully participating in decision-making, states tend to handle internal conflict and armed violence more effectively.

Fourth, we have also learned that it is possible to improve economic and social outcomes even during conflict. The statistic that no low income fragile country has achieved any of the Millennium Development Goals is often quoted and is true.

But many have nevertheless made progress. Maternal mortality was halved in Nepal in the period of the Maoist insurrection. And, as the Human Security Group have pointed out, conflict-affected states have done just as well as peaceful states in improving secondary school completion rates over the last 20 years.

Promoting economic growth, jobs, and basic services – in other words, what many people think of as our core role – is also one of the best long-term strategies for preventing conflict. The Peace Research Institute in Oslo, conducting a major study looking at 169 major countries since 1946, predict a continued decline in the proportion of the world’s countries afflicted by internal armed conflict over the next 40 years.

They attribute this in significant part to economic factors. Many of the poorest, most violent countries have good growth prospects over the next few decades. As they say, “Crudely, if you have an education and a job to match, you have much more to lose from an armed conflict”. Rich countries are more peaceful than poorer ones. That is both a cause and an effect.

The UK cross-government approach

One of the main lessons we have learned in the UK over the last decade is the importance of working effectively across government in tackling conflict. We now have an “integrated approach”, combining defence, diplomatic and development efforts so they add up to more than the sum of their parts.

The establishment of our National Security Council in 2010 has marked a watershed in the UK. Meeting weekly, chaired by the Prime Minister and comprising senior Ministers with support from officials led by the National Security Adviser, the NSC provides cross government political and strategic direction. Its agenda, reflecting the modern world, has been dominated by conflict in the developing world. It is supported by an officials group of Permanent Secretaries like me, also meeting weekly, and chaired by the NSA. Our job is to prepare for and follow up NSC meetings and ensure good cross government coordination.

We have learned that it is essential that adequate resources are available. DFID now spends two and a half times as much in fragile states as non-fragile countries. So this is really core business for us.

But we have also increased the size of the cross government Conflict Pool – a fund dedicated to tackling and preventing conflict, and jointly managed by DFID, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. We are looking at how to streamline and simplify the way it works. This reflects the reality that an effective British contribution, whether it is to security and justice reform in Libya or better oversight of the defence and policing sectors in South Sudan, is often only possible if the key Ministries in London work jointly.

The role of development agencies

I want to offer a number of thoughts on how development agencies can improve their effectiveness in tackling conflict and insecurity.

It is, though, first important to acknowledge that we have made important progress. The knowledge and research base is stronger than it was a decade ago. We allocate resources more effectively to tackle the real problems in the most challenging countries. We have built skills, expertise and resilience among our professional staff. We learn lessons from one place to another more effectively than we used to. We have contributed to the progress I have talked about.

Bob Zoellick, when he was President of the World Bank, summarised the key areas for improvement for development agencies in his introduction to the 2011 World Development Report. He said we need to adapt procedures so that we can respond with agility and speed, a longer-term perspective and greater staying power. We need to coordinate the flow of resources better, lessening the burdens on new governments with thin capacity. We need a better hand off between humanitarian and development agencies. And we need to accept a greater level of risk, including a willingness from legislatures and auditors to tolerate mistakes and failures.

So we need to do better. First, we need to be more responsive to what effective and well-motivated leaders in countries ravaged by conflict say is the help that they need. That is what the so called “New Deal”, which we all support, is about.

Take the case of Timor Leste. Violence had ravaged the country and its people, nearly 70 per cent of all buildings, homes and schools destroyed, and an estimated 75 per cent of the population was displaced before independence in 2002. When security deteriorated again in 2006 the government requested military assistance from neighbours, and humanitarian and police assistance from the United Nations.

But last New Years Eve the country said goodbye to its UN peacekeepers after holding largely peaceful parliamentary elections, consolidating its security and enjoying the fruits of its petroleum boom. “Remarkable achievements” according to the Security Council.

Now this small nation is leading by example, sharing and building on its difficult transition out of conflict so that others can learn. Emilia Pires, the inspirational Minister of Finance and herself a refugee as a teenager, chairs the vocal and active g7+ group of 19 fragile states which is the first ever coalition of fragile and conflict affected countries.

The UK has hosted two major high level international conferences on Somalia since early 2012 to help them do the same. The new government has focused on restoring security and justice along with improved public financial management. So that is what we are helping them with.

Second, we need to invest more in helping to build the institutions we know matter for the security of ordinary citizens, and in making those institutions more responsive and accountable.

So in Nigeria, DFID is supporting reform of the criminal justice sector, providing technical assistance on policing, penal reform, justice administration and tackling financial crime.

We are helping ensure key institutions such as the military and police in South Sudan and Jamaica can be more easily held to account by civilians.

And in Somalia our support will ensure that poor people in newly liberated areas can access justice through new civilian police, prosecutors and mobile courts.

Third, we need to look at our systems and procedures. In DFID we are reviewing our programme management cycle with a view to speeding up our programme design and approval processes. We need to work faster and smarter to ensure our programmes address the underlying drivers of conflict and fragility.

We are also looking at whether there are any gaps in DFID’s current range of instruments. We are particularly thinking about whether we need a new, dedicated instrument for fragile states. Like the EU with their Instrument for Stability and their State Building Contract.

And we are investing in our staff: building conflict expertise, encouraging our best people to work in conflict zones, as many have done, and ensuring we properly support them at post and on return. Some of what we do is dangerous. Aid workers are targets of attack by terrorists and others. In 2011 308 aid workers were victims of violence in conflict, 86 of them losing their lives. Many of them were staff of the heroic international NGOs. We need to do all we can to protect people properly, and to build resilience.

We also think that the multilateral development system can play a stronger role. Like the World Bank – originally the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the clue is in the title: Reconstruction. And the UN, which I’ve talked about. And we think the EU has real assets to support the so-called Comprehensive Approach: joining up security, political, diplomatic, development and humanitarian components.

Above all we would like to see much better coordination and cooperation among the various multilaterals, especially in-country. The joint visit by the UN Secretary General and World Bank President to the Great Lakes last month was a good example. It can be built on.

Prospects and Conclusions

I started by noting that recent trends in reducing conflict have been positive. But, as the advertisements in the UK for financial investment products are required to say, past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future.

The impossibility of precisely anticipating conflict and the need to act early is why the UK is committed to moving more swiftly in response to warning signs and investing in upstream prevention – working to build strong legitimate institutions in fragile countries so they are capable of managing diverse and multiple shocks.

The implications of the Arab Spring continue to reverberate regionally and globally, and we have yet to fully understand them. Access to resources – whether energy, food or water, increasingly drive states’ security interests. New technologies and global networks are used as weapons of not only physical but ideological war.

In sum, whilst we can perhaps expect fewer conflicts those we still face will be more complex. In countries like Pakistan, for example, local grievances interact with regional and global drivers of instability to create the conditions for extremism and radicalisation.

And we see this too in the crisis in Syria, the dimensions of which become more dangerous and horrifying as each week passes. The crisis leaves millions in desperate need of assistance and is destabilising Syria’s already fragile neighbours. The UK is committed to a negotiated settlement that ends bloodshed and leads to a Syrian led political transition.


And we should draw some confidence from recent experience. The UN Panel on the post-2015 development agenda recommend new goals and targets for tackling conflict head on. As they say: “Many countries have successfully made the transition from endemic violence to successful development, and we can learn important lessons from their powerful example”.

Published 17 June 2013