Governments need to focus on "why" people fight

By Harriet Lamb, CEO of International Alert, and Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of the British Council

As we approach the 2018 UN Day of Peace, on Friday 21st September, and prepare for the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War, it’s hard not to feel troubled by the conflict that continues to rage around the world.

Conflict is, sadly, on the rise again, after a steady decline since the end of the Cold War. More countries are experiencing violent conflict now than at any time in the past 30 years. People have been displaced from their homes at a rate not seen since the Second World War. And in addition to the human suffering, the violence is costing the world dearly, at an estimated US$1.04 trillion a year - money that could surely be put to better use.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. What about the people who experience conflict? How do they respond to it? What does peace mean to them and, importantly, how do they think their governments should tackle conflict? The answers should be central to efforts by global leaders to create sustainable peace. Public opinion polling is such a routine part of policy making today, yet on a topic as fundamental as war and peace, we know remarkably little about what the public think.

To find out more, International Alert and the British Council asked over 110,000 people in 15 countries - from those in active conflicts to those in relative peace - about their perceptions of peace and conflict.

The Peace Perceptions Poll 2018, the largest survey of its kind, found that people around the world have a lot in common when it comes to the peaceful societies they aspire to, as well as how they think peace is developed and sustained. When we asked what the most effective means was of creating long-term peace, from the UK to Ukraine, and Nigeria to the Philippines, the public strongly favoured ‘dealing with the reasons why people fight in the first place’ and ‘supporting societies to deal with conflict peacefully’.

These two elements constitute the core of ‘peacebuilding’ approaches to conflict prevention, which focus on dealing with the root causes of conflict, as well as building capacity for peaceful conflict resolution.

But while our respondents worldwide were clear about how to develop and sustain peace, we note that it is not always reflected in policymaking. When asked where their governments should spend money to promote peace, there were two main responses: for governments to firstly ‘deal with the reasons why people fight in the first place’, and secondly to ‘teach peace, tolerance and conflict resolution in schools’.

These were chosen over a number of other current responses to conflict, such as military interventions, diplomacy and dispute mediation, food and shelter for people affected by conflict, and rebuilding infrastructure damaged by war. In fact, military interventions globally had the least support, with only nine per cent selecting it.

People overwhelmingly agree that political influence and access to economic opportunities are fundamental to peace and security. We believe the public has an innate understanding of what needs to be done to create long-term peace. But this does not translate into policy and action: in reality, peacebuilding is a little-known and little-used tool for preventing and responding to conflict. Political leaders have historically framed ‘decisive’ political action in terms of security interventions and diplomatic engagement, augmented most recently with emergency humanitarian aid. When it comes to funding, peacebuilding remains the poor cousin at just US$10 billion per year, as opposed to US$27.3 billion for humanitarian assistance, US$142 billion on development aid and US$1.7 trillion on military expenditure.

This is more problematic when you consider that while conflict costs, peace pays. The Global Peace Index has estimated that for every US$1 invested in prevention, about US$16 is saved in the cost of conflict.

The public’s message is clear. Governments across the world need to move beyond merely responding to crises and should focus on long-term conflict prevention, or peacebuilding. It makes economic sense, and importantly, it is what their constituents want.

The Peace Perceptions Poll 2018 is available to download here.