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Peace writ large: peacebuilding works, but we may need to shout about it more

On International Peace Day, a new report showcases the positive cumulative effect of peacebuilding initiatives, even when conflicts worldwide and the people killed or suffering are on the increase.

Philippines - “Participants in a discussion on International Alert’s research on the illicit gun trade in Mindanao” Photo by Ilaria Bianchi - International Alert. All rights reserved.As director of programmes for International Alert over the past 13 years, I have seldom doubted the importance of our work, supporting local efforts to reduce violence and build peace in troubled parts of the world. When I was asked earlier this year to write a report making the economic, moral, and political case for more resources to be applied to peacebuilding, I thought it would be a simple task. After all, I have long been convinced of this case, so what could be simpler than articulating it to others?

But as I did my research, and began to frame the arguments, I started to have doubts. I realised that one of the reasons international agencies spend less than 1% of the economic cost of war on building peace, is that their decision-makers are sceptical that peacebuilding really works – so they reach for more familiar tools for international engagement, or walk away from conflicts that remain unresolved. After all, I heard them say in my mind’s ear, achieving sustainable peace is a massive, well-nigh impossible goal, so why not settle for short term stability, however imperfect, and leave it at that. They generate a critical mass of energy for peace, and... if this continues, it leads to a constantly diminishing risk that violence will return.

But this crisis of confidence did not last. I continued my research, spoke with others, and found the answer to their scepticism and my own nascent concerns. First, there are hundreds of good stories of successful peacebuilding initiatives out there, backed up by research and data. Well-documented stories of improved trust between warring groups in the Central African Republic, and between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda; improved political processes in Lebanon and Indonesia; and conflict resolution processes from the Philippines and Indonesia in the east, all the way to eastern Congo, to name just a few of these. And when one looks at the cumulative impact of these in a particular country, one can see that they generate a critical mass of energy for peace, and that if this continues, it leads to a constantly diminishing risk that violence will return.

This is what has been called “peace writ large” – a sustainably peaceful society, where people are able to resolve their differences and conflicts without violence. One can see it in Northern Ireland, or in Nepal, for example, where a widespread, dispersed and locally led initiatives have been supported and enhanced by sustained, external support. That doesn’t mean we can ease off our call for more resources, but it does mean we can confidently call for more effort to be paid to peacebuilding around the world.  

Our report, “Redressing the Balance: why we need more peacebuilding in an increasingly uncertain world", out on International Peace Day (21 September), makes a convincing case for more support and resources to be applied to peacebuilding. Especially now, in a world where the number of conflicts and numbers of people killed or suffering is on the increase. From the experience of writing it, my confidence in the utility and effectiveness of peacebuilding was not only restored but strengthened, and led me to some key insights. 

Whatever the sceptics say, there is clear evidence out there that peacebuilding initiatives work. The cumulative effect of many initiatives, operating at all levels, and locally-led but with international support, is to generate a critical mass of energy for peace, and has the potential to become self-sustaining.

But that doesn’t mean we can take our foot of the pedal. Because at least one third of peace processes break down, it is important to sustain peacebuilding efforts for a generation or more, moving from an initial focus on stabilisation to peacebuilding initiatives, purposefully aiming to embed peace writ large. It is important to sustain peacebuilding efforts for a generation or more, moving from an initial focus on stabilisation to peacebuilding initiatives, purposefully aiming to embed peace writ large.

Evidences of success means we can confidently call on governments and international organisations to put peacebuilding at the heart of their policies and engagements, and to at least double the funds they allocate to this.

Tajikistan, Giuseppe Bonatti/International Alert. All rights reserved.But this also means that we ourselves, as peacebuilders, need to be more confident in proclaiming success – in order to inspire others.

About the author

Phil Vernon is Director of Programmes at International Alert. He is a forester by training and has worked on development, humanitarian and peace programmes in different parts of Africa since 1985, and with International Alert since 2004.

Read On

“Redressing the Balance: why we need more peacebuilding in an increasingly uncertain world” is available to download here.


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