Comment & analysis

Taking an ‘upstream’ approach to conflict prevention

13 September 2012

The concept of ‘upstream conflict prevention’ has gained increasing currency in the development, diplomatic and defence communities. However, there remains a lack of clarity around what ‘upstream’ conflict prevention means and how this approach can be put into practice. A better understanding of the elements of this long-term approach is a key step towards more effective conflict prevention.

It is increasingly accepted wisdom that the cost of investing in activities to prevent conflict is much lower than the human, social and financial costs of responding only once violence has broken out. In July 2011, the UK Government made upstream conflict prevention a key pillar of its Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS), a joint initiative between the Department for International Development, Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence which sets out a bold vision for developing a coherent, comprehensive and long term approach to conflict prevention.

While conflict prevention might sometimes take the form of last-minute diplomatic intervention to stop disputes from turning violent or military intervention to prevent escalation at a time of crisis, violent conflict is usually a symptom of long-standing tensions between or within societies. A more effective approach is therefore to look at the root causes of conflict and seek to address the underlying factors which contribute to instability before they result in violent conflict. This is what is meant by ‘upstream conflict prevention’. Saferworld has recently produced a new briefing which seeks to provide an overview of the elements of an upstream approach to conflict prevention, providing practical examples of how elements of this approach can be put into practice.

There are several key elements to taking an upstream approach to conflict prevention. First, it is important to recognise that conflict prevention should not be considered simply a ‘pre-conflict’ approach. It can happen at any time during the conflict cycle. The defining element of an upstream approach is not when it takes place, but rather that it seeks to address the underlying causes of conflict, which could be the result of a variety of factors. Upstream conflict prevention should be understood as a process of supporting societies to become more cohesive, resilient and able to manage their internal conflicts without resorting to violence.

Every conflict-affected or fragile state is different. It is therefore important to carry out a thorough and comprehensive conflict analysis in which members of the conflict-affected communities participate and design responses based on the underlying drivers of conflict identified. Failing to account for the perspectives of those affected by conflict and fragility may risk missing key factors that create tensions or designing programming that lacks the local buy-in needed for longer term progress.

It is important to understand that specific conflict prevention activities cannot create long-term peace and stability on their own if business as usual through other channels continues to exacerbate underlying tensions. All kinds of interactions, including trade, aid, defence and diplomatic engagements can have both a negative and positive impact on conflict dynamics. Therefore it is important to view all interactions through a conflict prevention lens.

Ultimately, identifying and addressing the root causes of conflict is about improving the lives of people in communities affected by conflict and fragility. Investing in upstream conflict prevention is also in the interests of securing a more peaceful international environment, ensuring that development takes hold and creating a more stable environment for trade and investment. While challenging, taking an upstream approach has the potential to secure real and long-term gains in promoting a more peaceful and safer environment for all.

Read Saferworld's briefing on the elements of upstream conflict prevention


“A more effective approach is therefore to look at the root causes of conflict and seek to address the underlying factors which contribute to instability before they result in violent conflict. ”

Saferworld on taking an 'upstream' approach to conflict prevention