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Peace has been made a global development priority. Now what?

12 July 2016 - Thomas Wheeler

With agreement on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, member states committed to “foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence”. At global level the normative debate on the linkages between peace and development has been won with the identification of peace as one of five cross cutting priorities in new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the inclusion of SDG 16 on peace, justice and governance. But what do those working on the intersection between peace and development need to do next? 

The past is just the prologue

To start we should recognise that, looking at the past 50 years or so, we have the momentum of progress behind us. The number of armed conflicts has fallen significantly. The risk of inter-state war – and the levels of carnage seen in two world wars – has also declined. The Varieties of Democracy initiative shows progress in measures of access to justice over the last 50 years. The number of democracies increased from 30 in 1959 to 87 in 2009. We have seen a significant expansion in freedoms of expression in the same period.

We must, nonetheless, be sober about the scale of the challenge ahead and alert to worrying set-backs in recent years. We met the target of halving extreme poverty in the MDG period but the SDGs aim to now end extreme poverty. While much of the world is set to make considerable progress, we know from the MDG period and projections for the next 15 years that violent conflict and instability will create zones of exclusion where extreme poverty will increasingly be concentrated. Worryingly, the number of conflicts jumped from a low of five in 2010 to 11 in 2014, the most deadly year in the past 20. Taking 2014 as our baseline year to measure conflict deaths, it is already the case that even a 75% reduction by 2030 would only take us back to 2010 levels, clearly illustrating the impact of recent set-backs.

Aggregating a number of indicators, the Global Peace Index has documented small but significant declines in peace over the past eight years. Measures of Goal 16’s other components – and indeed of the factors that underpin peacefulness more broadly - have also shown worrying deviations in recent years. For example, according to Freedom House, more countries have seen declines in freedom than have seen advances between 2005 and 2014. As for fundamental rights, more than 60 countries have passed or drafted laws that curtail the activity of civil society in the last three years while two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index performed less well than in the previous year.

We do not know whether the general direction of progress established in the past 50 years or so is slowing or even reversing: Spikes in conflict deaths, challenges to democracy, or restrictions on freedoms are not necessarily representative of long-term future trends. Either way, however, it is safe to assume that we cannot rely on momentum alone if we are to make progress towards Goal 16 and the SDGs as a whole. Concerted collective action is required.   

Today’s global environment hardly instils confidence. To start with, our systems of global governance are under immense strain, as the UN Security Council’s impasse on Syria demonstrates. The international community has been ineffective in managing some transnational drivers of conflict (like illicit financial flows and irresponsible arms flows) while action on others has sometimes done more harm than good (like terrorism and drugs). Meanwhile, continued austerity risks diverting resources from global development while the politics of fear encourages closed societies alongside narrow and short-sighed definitions of the national interest.

Getting back on track

There is clearly a need for further strategizing, experimentation and learning on how progress towards Goal 16 can best be achieved. But those working at the intersection of peace and development should also consider how to capitalise on the very existence of the Goal and a global development framework in the first place.

We know that progress on Goal 16 will come down to domestic political leadership at the level of both state and society. Consensus within the development and peacebuilding community on the need to “work politically” will be meaningless if interpreted only as understanding local politics and working with the grain of the status quo. Matching financial and technical support with domestic actors trying to drive positive change should be part and parcel of all development programming.  But we should go even further and use Goal 16 to direct political support to change-makers at national level, whether they are a minister of justice, a human rights defender, or businessman intent on strengthening the rule of law. This may mean choosing to take sides in some contexts, but 193 member states have signed up to the commitments and language of Goal 16: this has created new levers for domestic change-makers to pull on and a legitimate basis for international actors to back them.

We will also need to act together in new ways. The 2030 Agenda explicitly calls for government, multilateral, civil society and private sector stakeholders to work in concert. Multi-stakeholder partnerships, whether long-term or ad-hoc, will prove valuable in plugging global governance deficits. Moreover, Goal 16 should draw the peacebuilding, justice, governance, and rights communities onto a single platform, where these interdependent issues rightly belong. Silos should be broken through agreement around a holistic, shared understanding of transformative change that guides programming. But acting together will also mean engaging well beyond the like-minded, including with the politicians, diplomats and military officials who have an immense influence on our work.

Specific aspects of Goal 16 will be relevant to different actors in different contexts and at different junctures in time. This will mean working flexibly, resisting the temptation to replicate template programming approaches, and waiting patiently for those moments when there is a sudden opening for change. And the 15-year time span of the SDGs offers us a chance to work to sensible long-term time horizons rather than merely hopping from one project to the next.

In addition, we now have a means for tracking progress: the global SDG indicators are not perfect, but they will generate new data on issues not traditionally tracked officially or in a way that is comparable between countries. This data will be the currency of accountability processes. The world will need to make significant investments in data gathering capacities, both within national statistical systems but also among multilateral agencies and civil society with the overall aim of creating pluralistic data ecosystems.

Finally, we will need to think more coherently across three levels, aligning bilateral, multilateral and domestic policy. First, special support will continue to be needed in countries at risk of or experiencing conflict. Second, decisive collective action will be required on transnational conflict drivers, such as illicit financial flows, which will often demand changes to domestic policy. Third, and more broadly than this, the universal relevance of the 2030 Agenda to the challenges we face at home must be taken seriously if we expect others to do the same and enter into a meaningful two-way exchange on different models of progress. The ability for policy to operate across these three levels simultaneously will prove more useful than the donor-recipient approach which still frames policy today.

We cannot afford to assume that the momentum generated in the last 50 years will carry us through the next 15. The inclusion of peace in the world’s new development framework offers us a chance to support change-makers, work flexibly to more realistic timelines, leverage new data, and act across multiple levels. We shouldn’t miss it.

A version of this article appeared in the Diplomatic Courier.

Thomas Wheeler is Conflict and Security Adviser at Saferworld.

Find out more about Saferworld’s work on the 2030 Agenda.

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It is safe to assume that we cannot rely on momentum alone if we are to make progress towards Goal 16 and the SDGs as a whole. Concerted collective action is required.

Thomas Wheeler