By Categories: Ethics


Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict is a joint study of the United Nations and the World Bank. The study originates from the conviction on the part of both institutions that the attention of the international community needs to be urgently refocused on prevention.

The Status-Quo

A surge in violent conflicts in recent years has left a trail of human suffering, displacement, and protracted humanitarian need. In 2016, more countries experienced violent conflict than at any time in nearly 30 years.

Reported battle-related deaths in 2016 increased tenfold from the post–Cold War low of 2005, and terrorist attacks and fatalities also rose sharply over the past 10 years (GTD 2017). This surge in violence afflicts both low and middle-income countries with relatively strong institutions and calls into question the long-standing assumption that peace will accompany income growth and the expectations of steady social, economic, and political advancement that defined the end of the twentieth century.

If current trends persist, by 2030—the horizon set by the international community for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—more than half of the world’s poor will be living in countries affected by high levels of violence (OECD 2015).

The benefit of preventive action, then, seems self-evident. Indeed, the global architecture for peace and security, forged in the aftermath of World War II, is grounded in the universal commitment to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war (United Nations Charter, preamble).

Yet the changing scope and nature of today’s conflicts pose a significant challenge to that system. With conflict today often simultaneously subnational and transnational, sustained, inclusive, and targeted engagement is needed at all levels.

This reality has accelerated momentum for countries at risk and for the international community to focus on improving efforts at preventing “the outbreak, escalation, recurrence, or continuation of conflict” (UN General Assembly 2016; UN Security Council 2016).

Why People Fight: Inequality, Exclusion, and Injustice

  1. Some of the greatest risks of violence today stem from the mobilization of perceptions of exclusion and injustice, rooted in inequalities across groups. When an aggrieved group assigns blame to others or to the state for its perceived economic, political, or social exclusion, then emotions, collective memories, frustration over unmet expectations, and a narrative that rouses a group to violence can all play a role in mobilization to violence.
  2. People come together in social groups for a variety of subjective and objective reasons. They may share feelings, history, narratives of humiliation, frustrations, or identities that motivate them to collective action in different ways, at different times, and in different situations. Perceptions of inequality between groups often matter more in terms of mobilization than measured inequality and exclusion.
  3. Countries where governments violate human rights, especially the right to physical integrity, through practices such as torture, forced disappearances, political imprisonment, and extrajudicial killings, are at a higher risk for violent conflict.
  4. In these contexts, repression creates incentives for violence by reinforcing the perception that there is no viable alternative for expressing grievances and frustration.
  5. Societies that offer more opportunities for youth participation in the political and economic realms and provide routes for social mobility for youth tend to experience less violence.
  6. Similarly, cross-country studies find evidence that high levels of gender inequality and gender-based violence in a society are associated with increased vulnerability to civil war and interstate war and the use of more severe forms of violence in conflict.
  7. Changes in women’s status or vulnerability, such as an increase in domestic violence or a reduction in girls’ school attendance, often are viewed as early warnings of social and political insecurity.
  8. Some evidence suggests that when women take leadership roles and are able to participate meaningfully in peace negotiations, the resulting agreements tend to last longer and there is greater satisfaction with the outcomes.

What People Fight Over ?

Inequality and exclusion manifest most starkly in access to political power and governance; land, water, and extractive resources; delivery of basic services; and justice and security.

As the spaces where livelihoods and well-being are defined and defended, access to these arenas can become, quite literally, a matter of life or death. The arenas reflect the broader balance of power in society, and as such, they are highly contestable and often resistant to reform.

Competition for power is an age-old source of conflict. Power balances and imbalances can put a society at risk of violence. Experience shows that more inclusive and representative power-sharing arrangements lower the risk of violent conflict. Decentralizing, devolving, or allowing autonomy of subnational regions or groups can help to accommodate diversity and lower the risk of violence at the national level.

Resources such as land, water, and extractives are traditional sources of friction. 

The effects of climate change, population growth, and urbanization are intensifying these risks. Disputes over resources have spilled over into violent conflict and instability across the world. Improving the sharing of resources and benefits derived from them as well as strengthening local conflict resolution mechanisms are important areas of focus.

Service delivery does not have a direct relationship with violence, but it affects state legitimacy and the ability of the state to mediate conflicts. The way in which services are delivered and the inclusiveness and perceptions of fairness in service delivery matter as much as—perhaps more than—the quality of services delivered.

What Works: How Countries Have Managed Contestation and Prevented Violent Conflict

A central dilemma for all countries examined is that the incentives for violence are often certain and specific to an individual or group, while the incentives for peace are often uncertain, and diffuse.

Nevertheless, before or after violence, countries that have found pathways to sustainable peace have eventually tackled the messy and contested process of institutional reform. Expanding access to the arenas of contestation has been key to increasing representation and alleviating grievances related to exclusion.

Often, the transition moment that led to sustainable peace was based on a shift away from security-led responses and toward broader approaches that mobilized a range of sectors in support of institutional reforms.

Alongside institutional reform, however, in many cases, governments invested in addressing structural factors, launching programs targeting socio-economic grievances, redistributing resources, and addressing past abuses even while violence was ongoing.

Devising National Strategies for Prevention

The state bears the primary responsibility for preventing conflict and shaping a country’s pathway toward sustainable development and peace. The following are some recommendations for effective national action in partnering for prevention.

Identify real and perceived exclusion and inequality, which requires strengthening the capacity for identifying, measuring, and monitoring SDG indicators8

Strengthen national early warning systems and design systems that can effectively influence early response by national actors at various levels

Harness technology to improve monitoring, especially in remote and conflict-affected areas, including through application of ICT and real-time data collection methods

Ensure that surveys and data collection measure inequality, exclusion, and perceptions and are conflict-sensitive and capacity-sensitive

Eight Key Messages for Prevention

1)  Violent conflict has increased after decades of relative decline. Direct deaths in war, numbers of displaced populations, military spending, and terrorist incidents, among others, have all surged since the beginning of the century. A rapidly evolving global context presents risks that transcend national borders and add to the complexity of conflict. This places the onus on policy makers at all levels, from local to global, to make a more concerted effort to bring their tools and instruments to bear in an effective and complementary way

2) The human and economic cost of conflicts around the world requires all of those concerned to work more collaboratively. The SDGs should be at the core of this approach. Development actors need to provide more support to national and regional prevention agendas through targeted, flexible, and sustained engagement. Prevention agendas, in turn, should be integrated into development policies and efforts, because prevention is cost-effective, saves lives, and safeguards development gains

3) The best way to prevent societies from descending into crisis, including but not limited to conflict, is to ensure that they are resilient through investment in inclusive and sustainable development. For all countries, addressing inequalities and exclusion, making institutions more inclusive, and ensuring that development strategies are risk-informed are central to preventing the fraying of the social fabric that could erupt into crisis

4) The primary responsibility for preventive action rests with states, both through their national policy and their governance of the multilateral system. However, in today’s shifting global landscape, states are often one actor among many. States are increasingly called to work with each other and with other actors to keep their countries on a pathway to peace

5) Exclusion from access to power, opportunity, services, and security creates fertile ground for mobilizing group grievances to violence, especially in areas with weak state capacity or legitimacy or in the context of human rights abuses.

6) Growth and poverty alleviation are crucial but alone will not suffice to sustain peace. Preventing violence requires departing from traditional economic and social policies when risks are building up or are high. It also means seeking inclusive solutions through dialogue, adapted macroeconomic policies, institutional reform in core state functions, and redistributive policies

7) Inclusive decision making is fundamental to sustaining peace at all levels, as are long-term policies to address economic, social, and political aspirations. Fostering the participation of young people as well as of the organizations, movements, and networks that represent them is crucial. Women’s meaningful participation in all aspects of peace and security is critical to effectiveness, including in peace processes, where it has been shown to have a direct impact on the sustainability of agreements reached

8) Alongside efforts to build institutional capacity to contain violence when it does occur, acting preventively entails fostering systems that create incentives for peaceful and cooperative behavior. In order to achieve more effective prevention, new mechanisms need to be established that will allow greater synergy to be achieved much earlier among the various tools and instruments of prevention, in particular, diplomacy and mediation, security, and development


A comprehensive shift toward preventing violence and sustaining peace offers lifesaving rewards. Pathways for Peace presents national and international actors an agenda for action to ensure that attention, efforts, and resources are focused on prevention. Today, the consequences of failing to act together are alarmingly evident, and the call for urgent action has perhaps never been clearer. The time to act is now.


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