Is it time for a worldwide strategy for the building of peace?

On average, one dollar spent on programmes to prevent violent conflict achieves as much as sixty dollars spent reacting to crises once violence erupts. So why is there no worldwide strategy for the building of peace? November 1918 marked the end of the 'war to end wars'. One hundred years later, we should now be calling for a new Versailles Convention.

Scilla Elworthy
24 May 2010

Consider the following three facts: more conflicts are now ended by negotiated settlement than by military victory. The ratio was 42:23 in 1990s; 17:4 between 2000 and 2005.

Local civilian initiatives to prevent killing are now widespread in conflict areas. The trend is increasing; ten years ago the Oxford Research Group was able to identify 400 effective civilian peace-building initiatives worldwide, of which it reported on 50 of the most effective. Now it would be easy to identify at least five times that many.

Comparative studies show that programmes to prevent violent conflict cost far less than waiting to intervene after a conflict turns into a crisis. Researchers find that on average, one dollar spent on preventive programmes achieves as much as sixty dollars spent to react to crises once violence erupts.


Dekha Ibrahim Abdi’s story

Dekha is a middle aged Muslim woman who, as a schoolteacher in the eastern part of Kenya in the 1990s, managed to negotiate the end of clan wars that had claimed 1300 lives. She went on to develop a network of trained peace practitioners across the region. 

When violence erupted all over Kenya after disputed elections at the end of 2007, she was called to a room in the Serena Hotel In Nairobi. When she entered in her floor-length dress and veil, she found two retired Kenyan UNPKF generals, an ambassador and two other civil society leaders. They pointed to an empty chair and said “Dekha, please take the chair. We have to find a way to stop the killing.”

One of the methods they used was to ask 60,800 members of a women’s organisation who had cell phones, to look out of their windows and report what they saw. The information started pouring in. So they put up flip chart sheets all over the hotel room walls. They began to plot not only the ‘hot spots’ of the violence but also the ‘cold spots’, because it was important to know where people were running to, so that they could be protected. They then began to develop strategies for each spot, with the help of the local leaders they knew and trusted. In less than 3 weeks, with the help of community leaders, youth leaders, church leaders, sports personalities, police and particularly the media, these strategies brought the violence under control. So that when Kofi Annan arrived to mediate between Kibaki and Odinga, it was possible to secure a peace agreement based on a mix of ‘official’ plus ‘local’ methodologies (otherwise known as “bottom up plus top down”).

This story is important for two reasons:  first, it’s one example among thousands of how effective local peace building now is, and how sophisticated. The methodology used in the Serena Hotel was developed into the Ushahidi Engine - a platform allowing anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualise it on a map or timeline. It has since been used in Haiti, Gaza and other crises. Second, the whole operation cost less than $200,000; and many experts believe it prevented Kenya falling into a civil war that could have been as disastrous as that of its neighbour Somalia.ž

Before jumping to any simplistic conclusions, however, we should note that a conflicted society may have dozens of localised initiatives addressing issues of conflict that rarely connect with each other, and therefore cannot ‘add up’ to what is ultimately needed to prevent, manage or end violence. Peace building has to be understood as the process of making peace sustainable, a long term commitment, as opposed to peacekeeping, or negotiated settlements, which tend to focus on stopping the shooting.

In addition, do not forget that 40% of peace agreements fail, leading to a resumption of conflict within 10 years.  Some of the reasons for this lie in the failure to include key stakeholders in an agreement, such as rogue militias or those with powerful vested interests in natural resources. But a clearer analysis of the reasons for collapse of peace agreements is needed. Research is also urgently needed - in universities North and South - to establish the comparative cost effectiveness of non-military and military methods of preventing, resolving and transforming conflict.

But now back to the big picture.  OECD Governments still spend 1,885 times as much on the military as they do on the prevention of conflict, and spend almost nothing on supporting civilians to stop violence.  Current global military expenditure stands at over $1.46 trillion per annum. That’s too many noughts for me: it corresponds to $217 for each person in the world. And it’s a 45% increase over ten years.  Each year between $45-60 billion worth of arms sales are agreed, of which about two thirds go to developing countries, coming mainly from the permanent five members of the UN Security Council 

These figures stop me in my tracks, even after thirty years in the field. This situation is a kind of madness. It calls for an urgent, concerted response – one with which I hope openDemocracy readers will wish to be involved.


A Versailles Convention, in 2018

November 1918 marked the end of the ‘war to end wars’. No better time than the 100th anniversary to sign a new Convention to help prevent wars, and bring humanity’s bloodiest 100 years to an end. The key work on the Convention could be done in time for the UN General Assembly in September that year, for signing on November 11th. A grand signing in Versailles might just guarantee French engagement, always valuable, and never to be assumed.

The Versailles Convention could build on work such as the Oxford Research Group’s sustainable security initiative, taking in new threats such as climate change and resource wars. It could focus on the series of agreed steps that must be taken before military force is used, for example, engaging in constructive talks with non-state threats, and proving that all other avenues have actually been explored. These could be worked into seven principles. The key to the end document would be simplicity. It was simplicity that worked in tabling the Genocide Convention of 1948.  

The UN could in parallel be encouraged to establish a Complex Crises Fund to ensure regional rapid response to violent conflict and funding for civilian agencies conducting peace building. Funding for such a Convention would have to come from governments. How about a demand for governments to impose a special tax on all arms exports to fund this process?

The strategy for how this could be done would need to involve senior figures from the military, government policy makers, civil society, the UN and the corporate world. Building a constituency for it might be easier in the UK than elsewhere, where key ministries have shown how to co-operate and innovate. 

But we in turn have much to learn from those countries that have already established a Ministry of Peace or an entire Infrastructure for Peace. In March 2007, the government of Nepal decided to create a Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction, becoming the second nation in the world to have such a ministry after the Solomon Islands, and followed by Costa Rica in 2009 with a Ministry of Justice and Peace. There are today at least 44 internal units and departments within governments around the world dealing with issues germane to the field such as equality, diversity and interdependence, and some units that specifically address issues of conflict and peace building. One of the first countries to start establishing a entire Infrastructure for Peace was South Africa: Local Peace Committees were a product of the National Peace Accord, signed in 1991 between the main protagonists in South Africa’s conflict. Two decades later, the governments of Ghana and Kenya are pioneering the implementation of their own Infrastructures for Peace.

There are significant obstacles to success, but it must be worth a try. 


This article stems from a keynote address delivered at the Oxford Network for Peace Studies (OxPeace) Conference May 14/15  2010

To read further articles in the openDemocracy dialogue 'from war to peace - towards a nonviolent future' click here




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