By Nick Grono for International Crisis Group. As the sole civil society representative on a panel of EU, European and OECD officials, I would usually take advantage of my privileged position to be somewhat contrary, or at least a little controversial – but on this occasion I’m going to be largely conformist. And I’ll start by echoing the congratulations of the other panellists to Sarah and her World Bank team on a truly outstanding report.
[Key facts and figures of the 2011 WDR can be found here . The overview can be found here .]
Given that others have highlighted the key findings and recommendations of the report, I want to focus my comments on the importance of the report from a conflict prevention perspective. There are five issues I want to address.
First and foremost the 2011 WDR puts conflict prevention at the heart of the development agenda. That is critically important if conflict prevention is to receive the priority it requires. Lots of important work has been done in recent years on promoting conflict sensitive development and so on – but this report goes much further, and asserts [to quote] “insecurity has become the primary development challenge of our time”. To our mind that is a fundamentally important reframing of the development agenda.
Second, it makes a robust quantitative and qualitative case for conflict prevention. This is critically important if policy makers are to be persuaded to invest in conflict prevention. I can tell you as an advocacy organisation, it is often difficult to make the evidence-based case for conflict prevention, particularly in these days of impact assessments, log frames and monitoring and evaluation. In simplified terms, if conflict prevention efforts are successful, then nothing happens. If you intervene successfully to prevent a conflict, then there is no conflict. But it can be exceedingly difficult to demonstrate that but for the intervention there would have been a war or a slaughter. To give just one example – the recent referendum on the secession of South Sudan. Was that a triumph of conflict prevention? I think it probably was – many of us, and certainly at Crisis Group , were acutely worried about the prospect of widespread violence in the lead-up to that referendum. This after all was the culmination of a civil war that had claimed millions of lives. Yet the referendum went ahead on time, with minimal violence, and the world quickly moved on. Did the international community’s intense engagement play a key role in that successful outcome? I believe so, but proving causation here is remarkably difficult.
Yet making the case for conflict prevention is critically important because policy makers are tasked by their political masters to justify the big sums of money sought for conflict prevention over a plethora of other priorities. And while it’s easy enough to make the case for providing massive humanitarian assistance, or sending peacekeeping forces to stabilise a post-conflict situation, persuading policy makers to open the purse strings for interventions that may or may not prevent a conflict that may or may not occur but for the intervention, can be very difficult. This research will be of great assistance in making that case.
Third, it introduces fresh thinking to the subject of conflict. I was particularly struck with the focus on new forms of violence, notably organised criminal violence, and particularly transnational organised crime (such as the trafficking of drugs, people, and small arms and light weapons; financial crimes; and money laundering.) It is an issue Crisis Group is increasingly concerned about – particularly the challenges posed by organised crime capturing or hollowing out state institutions in places like Guatemala, Guinea-Bissau and Kyrgyzstan – and it’s encouraging to see the case made here.
Fourth, the report is clearly written and largely avoids jargon, platitudes and euphemisms. That’s no mean feat for a report by an international organisation, and it is refreshing to see a heavyweight report like this call things as they are, and not shy away from using countries as examples for fear of causing discomfort. So Haiti is a fragile state, prospects of peace in Afghanistan are distant, Kenya is a drug trafficking hub, and the state is absent from much of the Congo. This kind of honest language and analysis is critically important in informing sensible and credible policy interventions.
Fifth and finally in this gallop through the report, it is ambitious yet realistic. Ambitious in that conflict prevention is one of the most difficult, complex, intractable policy problems in the world today, and the report is proposing that it become a central developmental focus. Yet it is also hard-headed. It talks of timeframes of a generation or more, pointing out that the fastest transforming countries have taken 15 to 30 years to build their institutions from that of a fragile state to those of a functioning state. Look at the last 10 years and hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in Afghanistan, and you’ll understand that the report is not being unduly cautious in talking of generations.
So, as you can see, we are fans of the report. But I cannot finish without being just a little contrary, so let me end by highlighting one of the central governance challenges that we face in conflict-ridden countries, and one which the report grapples with, but I am not sure quite gets fully to grips with. And it is this: what we regard as bad governance, particularly patronage-based systems with high levels of corruption, are often perfectly rational policy choices by governing elites seeking to retain their grip on power. Look at Syria, Afghanistan, or Azerbaijan, to name but a few. Yet as the report repeatedly makes clear, transforming weak or malign institutions requires “determined national leadership”. But in such countries the leadership more often than not is determined to maintain the dysfunctional status quo.
Take Afghanistan for example. Building institutions in Afghanistan involves challenging vested interests at the highest levels of the Afghan government. It is as much a political exercise as a technical one.
Many Afghan power holders – from President Karzai downwards – benefit from a patronage-based system. It enables them to buy and maintain loyalty. Corruption is an integral part of such a system. So reforming institutions and building the rule of law is an existential threat to these interests.
These pose perhaps the most difficult conflict intervention challenges for international actors, particularly where those actors are committed to support the central government. Perhaps, over time, they can focus on building the capacity of other national actors – such as the parliament, civil society, the media and so on – but as we have seen in Afghanistan, there is often not the will to do so or, even where the will exists, the government is well placed to thwart such efforts. And a decade after the intervention in Afghanistan we see the consequences of this and other policy failures.
All of that aside, I would like to again congratulate Sarah and her team on a tremendously important report. It is sure to have a big and positive impact in improving conflict prevention efforts around the world, and hence ultimately improving the lives for the 1.5 billion people who live in countries affected by organised violence.