Preventing conflict and building peace is now more important than ever

The global outlook appears grim. United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Elizabeth Spehar and Assistant Secretary-General Ulrika Modeer say there is reason for hope.

June 1, 2022

Even before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, it was estimated that 274 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2022, largely as a result of violence and the effects of climate change.

Photo: UNDP Ukraine/Oleksandr Ratushniak

As we met last week at the ninth annual Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, co-hosted by SIPRI and the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the global outlook appeared undeniably grim; the world faces multiple, compounding risks: conflict, COVID, climate change. Today, one quarter of humanity lives in conflict-affected areas.

In May 2022, we reached a disturbing milestone: a record number of 100 million people – 1 percent of the global population – who have been forcibly displaced around the world because of persecution, conflict and violence. In 2022, it has been estimated that 274 million people will need humanitarian assistance, largely as a result of violence and the effects of climate change. That projection was made before the tragic developments in Ukraine, bringing war back to the European continent and shaking our norms-based world order – enshrined in the UN Charter – to its core. Human rights and international law are under assault; decades of development gains are being lost and conflicts and violence are pushing millions of people into poverty and hunger.

However, the Stockholm Forum’s focus this past week – bringing together peacebuilding leaders, practitioners and partners from around the world – was undoubtedly one of hope: “from a Human Security Crisis Towards an Environment of Peace”. Today, as two senior UN representatives working across the fields of development and peace and security, we carry three messages:

First, it is now more important than ever that the international community invest more in prevention and peacebuilding.

The costs of responding to crises – instead of investing in preventing them in the first place – are unsustainable. Within a decade, the international community spent US$349 billion on crisis response, humanitarian assistance and in-donor costs for refugees.

Amid a pandemic with vast health and socioeconomic needs, global military expenditure increased by 2.6 percent in 2020, totaling nearly $2 trillion. In 2021, it surpassed the two trillion US dollar mark. Investing in peacebuilding and development to address the root causes of crisis and fragility is a bargain in comparison, and also critical for reducing the enormous humanitarian needs. The trend we are currently seeing of reduced funding for long-term development, therefore, is extremely unfortunate, at a time when long-term and sustained investments in prevention and peace are needed the most.  

In the context of ongoing, complex crises and multi-dimensional challenges, our path out of conflict and fragility will rest on us working collaboratively between humanitarian, development and peace actors through delivering what we call a “nexus approach”.

This requires that we invest in a strong international system and support actors across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. While ensuring that the development actors such as UNDP stay engaged, aid recovery and support development solutions in the midst of crisis – such as is currently happening, for example, in Afghanistan – we must innovatively look at how to support prevention, peacebuilding and social cohesion as an integrated part of our development assistance.

While prevention and peace have been at the heart of the mandate of the United Nations from the start, the development tools that the UN agencies such as UNDP have at hand to support peace are not well known to the public. Most importantly, UNDP’s engagement with prevention is not confined to "conflict" settings, but emphasizes preventive responses across all development settings. This is because we know how absolutely critical the long-term presence, the broad development engagement and close partnership with national actors at all levels - are for supporting sustained peace.

Intergovernmental bodies such as the UN Peacebuilding Commission also contribute to the efforts at sustaining peace by mobilizing resources and helping to build solidarity and support to tackle issues such as the peace implications of climate change in Somalia or to help women in conflict contexts overcome financial barriers through peace-positive investments.

Another important, complementary tool facilitating more rapid response to peacebuilding needs in countries is the UN Peacebuilding Fund (PBF), which provides flexible, catalytic and timely peacebuilding support to countries. It is the only instrument dedicated to financing coherent UN system-wide peacebuilding action, supporting national priorities worked out between governments and UN leadership on the ground. UNDP is one of the largest implementing agencies of the PBF, and there are many examples of how this support delivers peacebuilding results on the ground.

In Colombia, for example, a Peacebuilding Fund-supported initiative enabled UNDP and the UN Environment Programme to build the capacity of local organizations in conflict-affected areas to earn carbon credits.

The Peacebuilding Fund through UNDP action has also helped enhance trust among local communities and reduce farmer-herder conflicts in Southern Chad and in border regions of Burkina Faso.   

At the Mali-Niger border, funding from the Peacebuilding Fund helped reduce local land conflicts in communities by integrating environmental protection into the work of local land commissions and strengthening local capacities for environmental protection and conflict resolution. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.

Second, if we are to make every ounce count, our approach must be an inclusive one. Challenges to peace and security cannot be addressed without empowering women and youth to participate and to lead.  We will never achieve sustained peace nor development if the perspectives, capacities and creativity of large segments of populations are not considered or engaged in the process.

In Tajikistan, for example, youth are supported to participate in local decision-making and are provided training to expand their economic opportunities and prevent their recruitment to violence, through a UN Peacebuilding Fund initiative led by UNDP, together with UNICEF and UN Women.

And third, to ensure sustainable peacebuilding, we need to develop broader partnerships to work for peace - locally, nationally and globally - and to count on an expanded network of partners.

We need cooperation with governments, with regional and sub-regional organizations and international financial institutions, bilateral partners, traditional and non-traditional donors, civil society organizations, faith-based groups, civil society organizations, local peacebuilding stakeholders and the private sector. There is a role to play for all.

This partnership effort includes ensuring that those actors making larger development investments do so in a conflict-sensitive way and, when possible, contribute to peace and social cohesion, even when peacebuilding is not their primary objective. The immense value of partnerships was repeatedly highlighted in the discussions of the Stockholm Forum this past week.

If we continue to advance along these three lines, we sow the seeds for hope.

As we now focus on Stockholm+50 – a crucial international environment meeting being held in Stockholm this week – and the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference 2022 (UNFCCC COP27), our work on climate finance for sustaining peace is firmly in mind. We need to ensure that there is a particular spotlight on conflict- affected countries and regions, many of which are highly vulnerable to climate change.

We are reminded that our world is deeply interconnected and we rely on one another. As the Secretary-General has underscored, we have a pressing need for an inclusive multilateralism that draws on civil society, business, local and regional authorities and others. The international community must deliver on its commitments, and invest in a world that ought to be. We can only do so together.

"Our path out of conflict and fragility will rest on us working collaboratively between humanitarian, development and peace actors."