The UN-World Bank Flagship Prevention Study: An Ambitious, Highly Political Reform Agenda
The much-awaited UN-World Bank Global Study "Pathways for Peace - Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict" was launched at the General Assembly in New York on 21 September. The study was a joint, simultaneous effort of the World Bank and the UN system (a novel fact in itself), and was supported by think tanks and universities around the world. IPTI contributed one of three major thematic papers to the study, providing cutting-edge evidence that inclusion can significantly contribute to preventing violence, the results of which prominently feature in the study.
I was in New York during the UN General Assembly at the launch of the study. Here is my analysis:
The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, opened the launch of the study by explaining its importance for the prevention agenda at the heart of his mandate. The idea of prevention is by no means new, and the devastating impacts of violence and armed conflict on people and societies are well known. Reports of previous Secretary Generals dating from the mid-1990s directly acknowledge the importance of prevention, and, since the beginning of the 21st century, prevention has regularly been called for in a number of Security Council resolutions. Do this current prevention agenda and this study in particular thus provide the international community with a new reading of prevention that gives evidence-based directions towards pathways for peace? My answer is a clear yes, but with a few key caveats.
The innovative aspects
- Although a focus on the interdependence of peace and development is not new, the novel approach of this agenda lies in a vision of prevention as a holistic concept that identifies exclusion, inequality, and power imbalances as principal causes of conflict and violence. The agenda thus links the most important existing normative frameworks into an overarching concept that lays the foundations for a genuinely new way of thinking about how peace can be achieved and maintained.
- In this sense it both builds on and furthers the vision put forward by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals – in particular Goal 16; the Women, Peace and Security Agenda; UNSC Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace, and Security; and the Sustained Peace Resolution.
- The focus on the need to address power relations, inequalities, and political and economic exclusion marks a clear break with past approaches. This agenda is fundamentally political and has much greater potential to bridge the gap between policy frameworks and implementation than many previous attempts, on the condition that it is accompanied by meaningful institutional reform of the UN system.
- Most strikingly, an approach of this nature realigns the prevention spectrum, bringing the concept of inclusion to the forefront of the agenda as the ultimate precondition for more inclusive societies in the spirit of the SDGs.
An agenda of this kind would shape an entirely new way of thinking about mediation, peacebuilding, and development. It would move beyond old-fashioned, mostly exclusive and linear approaches that first seek to end violence, and then change constitutions, hold elections and finally create governance structures to ensure lasting peace.
On the contrary, it would start from the premise of what we need to support today to create a pathway to peace tomorrow, thereby tackling the causes of violence before it breaks out or (re-)escalates. This, in turn, has implications for how mediation processes are designed, and who takes part in what capacity, and when.
Economic reform agendas would have to go hand in hand with mediation efforts, and institutional setups to sustain peace would already have to be discussed during multi-stakeholder negotiations. This could also require the development of new multiple negotiation formats and spaces, with classical high-level negotiations becoming one among many formats.
Key constituencies such as business associations, regional powers, civil society and women’s movements would not be confined to advisory, consultative or external roles, as is presently often the case, but instead, actively own and shape processes at various levels. Governments and armed groups – as the study says – are still important but as one of a number of actors.
This brings me to my caveats, which relate to the effect of this paradigm shift on the attitude and activity of the international community. This new agenda could prove to be transformative, but there is quite a way for the UN and member states to go to support such an ambitious political reform agenda.
An endeavor of this magnitude requires more than just conceptual change and institutional reform; it needs real change from business as usual to an approach that integrates both international and local realities. This means much more than simply adjusting existing technical toolboxes, but a concerted effort to break down the silo approach to conflict management, peacebuilding and development to ensure that all strategies and activities are coherently focused on the main goal set out by the concept of Sustaining Peace: making inclusive and just societies the norm by systematically tailoring all activities during all phases of prevention towards this aim.
The Secretary General’s prevention agenda constitutes a genuinely new and entirely political approach towards inclusive pathways to peace, which for the first time could go beyond technical and institutional answers and actually find political solutions to what are fundamentally political problems. However, it remains to be seen whether the UN system and the World Bank, and most importantly their member states are ready, willing and courageous enough to wholeheartedly buy into the Secretary General’s vision and truly embark upon pathways to peace.
Written by Dr. Thania Paffenholz, Director of the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative