The conflict horizon 3: Only connect

Scanning forward across the conflict horizon reveals looming risks after two decades of growing peace. Connecting people and connecting issues, drawing on what we have learned over the past 20 years or so of peacebuilding, can renew the growth of peace.


This is the last of a series of three articles that reflect the discussions we are having in International Alert about the next five years. In the first two articles, I put together an argument that can be boiled down to five points:

  1. Over the past 20 years, the spread of peace (fewer, shorter and less lethal wars; more peace agreements that last for longer) is the big untold good news story of our time.
  2. These achievements are real but have important limitations.
  3. Further, with a growing world population and dramatically increasing urbanisation, rising inequality is a key problem for social harmony and political stability.
  4. Major risks arise from the pressure climate change puts on four key strategic systems – water, food, energy and natural resource supply chains.
  5. All four of these systems are foundation stones for the way we live but it is the fourth that may carry the greatest risk of conflict, as both demand and prices keep rising.

Interlocking risks

Now and henceforth, insecurity focuses on vulnerabilities created by clusters of risk and scarcity of important resources (including social and economic as well as natural resources).

This year the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is producing its Fifth Assessment Report on the current state of knowledge. Its most recent report (from Working Group II) includes a chapter on the impact of climate change on insecurity. It rightly puts to one side the simple minded debate about whether climate change causes wars, which is increasingly tedious and simply misses the point. What the point is, is neatly encapsulated in the blunt language of the executive summary of the human security chapter:*

“Human security will be progressively threatened as the climate changes (high agreement, robust evidence). Human insecurity almost never has single causes, but instead emerges from the interaction of multiple factors. Climate change is an important factor in threats to human security through a) undermining livelihoods, b) compromising culture and identity, c) increasing migration that people would rather have avoided, and d) challenging the ability of states to provide the conditions necessary for human security.”

To understand insecurity, the key is to understand how problems interact. The risk of violent conflict is high where there has recently been violent conflict. It is also high where there are gross inequalities. And where basic needs are not met (or where the prospects of continuing to meet them are weak). Also where inequality is deep and growing, with most people excluded from having a say in how they are governed, and authority is based on arbitrary power, not the rule of law. And where institutions to handle and resolve conflicts fairly are weak or non-existent.

Each of these factors offers risk. Where all apply, violent conflict in one form or another is likely endemic – as large-scale crime if not as civil war, and as predation whether by armed militias or oppressive and repressive governments.


One example of how this may work is urbanisation. A lot of climate-affected migration is likely to be to cities (and probably not across continental distances). And the urban population worldwide is already growing by about 125 million people a year. A demographic shift of unprecedented scale is under way. As people change habitat and ways of life, they face potential disconnection from norms that previously helped them manage relations within their communities and sustain the group’s well-being.

As these changes unfold, there will be some winners and more losers, with more again in between, getting by. Among the winners will be the conflict entrepreneurs, the gang leaders, the under bosses, while the foot soldiers will be recruited from among those young men who see little other (or, at least, no better) way of avoiding being losers. With most people caught in between.


Unless there is dramatic change in how economies run, population growth and fast-paced urbanisation will help drive continually increasing demand for natural resources across the next 20 years. This combines with rising prices to equate to growing competition for access to natural resources. There is an unmistakeable risk here of big power rivalry; there also exists an international institutional framework able safely to contain exactly this kind of rivalry and reduce to negligible the risk of disputes turning violent.

But things are changing. Whether that institutional framework will withstand the fall-out from the current crisis over Ukraine is as yet uncertain. It will always be against each individual big power’s medium-to-long term interests to get involved in violent conflict with the ally of another, let alone actually with another big power. But that is not necessarily the most reliable safeguard; short-term imperatives can undermine long-term interest.

Even so, the greater risk of violent conflict arises in areas where local access to natural resources is disputed and the institutional framework for handling resulting conflicts is weak, corrupt or non-existent.


Facing this future, many states have little option but to ignore it. The near-term challenges leave them with limited capacity for a broader and longer focus. And in any society, an over-focus on crisis management, though it may be born of necessity, gets in the way of discussing the world we want.

But if the impact of climate change is felt not only in increased slow onset pressure such as increasing drought or shorter monsoons, but also in more sudden shocks such as extreme weather, what then? If sudden shocks are the new norm, will international cooperation and donors old and new emphasise funding for humanitarian emergencies? And what happens to resilience when the social fabric is literally washed away?

Ways forward: Connect

Only connect, wrote EM Forster in a wholly different context.** Here, it means to connect issues and connect people. Interlocking, interacting risks require combined responses based on cooperation. This cannot be the cooperation of one party telling the other what to do, writing their strategy papers and not quite transferring the know-how. Cooperation means strengthening equality and mutuality between willing partners. Approached like that, managing the risks is possible. I can sketch out seven pathways:

  1. Central in this effort of linkage and cooperation is addressing the impact of climate change. Yes, carbon emissions must be cut but the consequences of the past two centuries will be with us for a long time to come even if we do manage to change our economic ways. Adaptation is crucial and it must be conflict sensitive, which means building resilience.
  2. To achieve this requires that the issue of inequality moves to the centre of the international development agenda (as it may, for a while at least, be getting to the centre of the global economic agenda).*** Enhancing equality rather than merely alleviating poverty should be the global goal. And before somebody jumps in and tells me that absolute equality would be a terrible thing, it’s worth remarking that the global economy has an awful long way to go before it’s in that neighbourhood and is currently accelerating away from it.
  3. Natural resource management is equally central. For as long as governments are unable to manage their natural resources, they will be pushed around by big powers and corporations. For as long as populations are unable properly to participate in managing resources, they will be pushed around by whoever controls the state’s levers of power. Sustainable, conflict-sensitive, climate-proof resource management is (apart from being a right mouthful) by definition equitable and participatory.
  4. To get to grips with these issues, communities, organisations, individuals and societies as a whole need to get to grips with gender. How we grow as people – as women and as men – has a critical effect on what sort of societies we can build and, especially, how we handle conflict. The dominance of competitive, aggressive and violent models of masculinity is part of what puts the social peace at risk. Like everything else, gender is not the sole determinant but ignoring it is not an option and putting it in a box marked 'greater women’s participation' is not the solution.
  5. What determines the quality of response to many of the risks discussed in this series is the strength of institutions, especially local ones, whether formal or informal. These are the social and political resources that make it possible to manage conflicts, whatever their sources. Not that every local action is right. Not that it is enough. But, intelligently shaped and properly supported, it is essential, and both national and international institutions need to improve their ability to support local-level action.
  6. While sustainable peace cannot be built purely from the top down by working through the national state, the state is also indispensable. It is true, long-term stability cannot be imposed, it has to grow. But it has to grow both to the top and at the top. In short, multiple actions, multiple actors, multiple levels.
  7. What these six pathways say is that development strategies should incorporate the recognition that peace is as central as economic functioning, that growing the modes and institutions that sustain peace matters as much as productivity growth. As conflict pressures grow, how the global economy works must be able to meet the needs of peace and how national economies work will also need to reflect that imperative.

Seven pathways then – others may have more to add.

* NB: For the sake of readability, the quotation omits the internal references to where in the working group’s report each statement is explored and supported.

** Howards End (pub. 1910), ch 22.

*** See Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014) and the reactions it is generating among economists and commentators of different persuasions.