Post-2015: An agenda for peace and development

The debate over what happens after 2015 is beginning to heat up. The Rio+20 conference on sustainable development saw an attempt to develop an alternative set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while the formation of a High Level Panel of World Leaders has focussed minds on what might replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In June the UN System Task Team, established by the Secretary-General to lead the UN’s planning for what happens after the expiry of the MDGs, issued a new report, Realising the Future We Want for All. This builds on the conclusions reached by the World Development Report of 2011 and others, which underline that the way the world does development assistance has to fundamentally change, if it is to be genuinely transformative.

The report presages the various strands of activity to follow, all of which promise to be frenetic given the timescales the system is operating under. A minimum of 50 consultation events taking place across the globe, in parallel to 9 thematic consultations and the various inter-governmental negotiations arising out of the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development will all be producing material to be fed into the High Level Panel, established to lead global thinking on what development looks like in the world after the Millennium Development Goals.

From a peacebuilding perspective there is much to welcome in the UN System Task Team report, continuing as it does to build on the conclusions which have been reached by individual donors and the international financial institutions about how best to try to shape approaches to development in some of the most intractable and complex situations in the world.

The bald fact that no low income conflict affected country has achieved a single MDG is taken as an indication that business as usual cannot continue. In addition the report places issues of governance, inequalities, violence against women, human rights and the rule of law centre-stage. In fact it sets out the conclusion that any future framework must have at its’ heart the “core values of human rights, equality and sustainability”.

Building on those key values the report proposes a post 2015 framework that is based on “four key dimensions of a holistic approach”. These are inclusive social development, inclusive economic development, environmental sustainability, and peace and security. In pursuit of these four dimensions the report sets out a series of “enablers” that the system should use to advance the pursuit of each.

From International Alert’s perspective the time for conceptual debates about development and conflict is over, and the questions that remain unanswered are primarily operational.

That the period between 2000-2015 has failed the 1.5 billion people who live in conflict affected and fragile states is not in dispute. Even the reasons why that is the case are now largely accepted – a lack of focus on awkward issues like governance, accountability and corruption in favour of measuring success solely through GDP growth and other readily quantifiable targets meant that the politics of development was never meaningfully addressed.

And those mistakes meant that the underlying drivers of armed conflict were never tackled as they needed to be. This was set out in some depth by the World Development Report of 2011. With that as the background, what should we now be focusing on?

First, and absent from the UN Task Team report, is a focus on how the system itself operates. Agencies too often enter some of the most highly politicised and conflicted areas in the world without the tools to carry out a comprehensive and accurate analysis of the context to guide their actions and at a minimum avoid doing unintentional harm. Getting this right is called being conflict sensitive.

In order to be conflict sensitive you need tools to tell you what sort of things to think about. Tools should prompt practitioners to understand the root causes of conflict and the likely conflict-impact of their own actions. They encourage the development of early-warning indicators of how the activities of the practitioners (and of others) risk contributing to greater fragility or, more positively, help build peace. Such tools, effectively used, are a minimum pre-requisite to doing development effectively in these areas in future.

Secondly, and also absent from the Task Team report, is a focus on legitimacy. The report rightly points to the critical role that local institutions have to play in enabling societies to manage conflict without recourse to violence and sees them as central to both statebuilding and peacebuilding engagements. But what seems to be missing is a focus on the people inside those institutions and how they are viewed by local communities. Local institutions staffed by people who were formerly engaged in an armed conflict against many in the local population are not likely to succeed. In many cases this includes the local police force. The process of creating new institutions and re-shaping old ones will fail to contribute to peace if it lacks the blessing of local legitimacy.

The third element is to do with resilience. The report draws attention to the risk of natural disaster and the need to build resilience in order to respond to them. But it does not point out that societies in conflict are less resilient to such events. What also seems to be absent from the Task Team’s report is an acknowledgment that building resilience against disasters needs to be wider in scope than simply responding to immediate humanitarian situations, and include preparations for slow-onset environmental changes that may have equally devastating results.

Lastly the report calls for a global framework with timebound targets in order to make it meaningful. It is not difficult to see the logic of this as an attempt to maintain international momentum but surely we need to learn the lessons of 2000-2015: globally designed targets pursued at local level without adequate attention to the specific context will fail. Worse still, they may do harm. We need a global framework to maintain political attention and momentum, which the Task Team report helpfully sets out in terms of core values and principles, but on top of that we need an operational approach that takes each local context first, and designs interventions accordingly.

This includes the allocation of time-bound deadlines. The WDR 2011 found that any post conflict environment needed to look at timescales in generational terms rather than the chunks preferred by financial institutions and most donors, for understandable reasons. You simply cannot build legitimacy and trust sufficient to manage conflict without violence in the space of 5, 10 or even 15 years.

That’s a hard sell for donors who have to justify their expenditure to hard-pressed taxpayers back home. But the good news is that if you are measuring the right things you can demonstrate progress, and it is not difficult to communicate the idea that investing over the long term is more cost-effective than reacting to serial crises.

From a peacebuilding perspective the conversation has moved on from the conceptual to the operational. The challenges of conflict and fragility have done so much to hold back progress for the 1.5 billion people who live in the shadow of violence. Attention to how the development system itself works on the ground, the extent to which it builds legitimacy, a focus on slow-onset challenges to resilience and a longer term vision of progress would do much to ensure the post 2015 approach to development serves their needs better.