Peacebuilding: New and Ongoing Challenges in a Changing Environment

Impuls by Elizabeth Hume, Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP)

Global levels of violence are at a 25-year peak, reversing the promising reduction in conflicts recorded in the 1990s, undercutting global stability and development gains, and driving record levels of forced displacement. 2017 proved to be a challenging year for peacebuilding. Real concerns emerged about nuclear conflict, resulting in the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists moving the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock thirty seconds closer to midnight. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, violence continues to cost the world economy $14.3 trillion a year, exacerbating global threats like disease and trafficking, and underpinning the most critical US security challenges, including violent extremism. UN Secretary-General António Guterres summed up the crisis well in his 2018 New Year message, proclaiming we need “a red alert for our world."

The peacebuilding community has always faced significant obstacles in addressing complex global challenges, especially in policy and funding. These challenges have increased under the current US Administration, yet some surprising bright spots have emerged, as well. We have seen much greater willingness among the peacebuilding field to act with a unified voice, collaborate on advocacy, and work to change how we reduce violence and prove the effectiveness of the field.

The US National Security Strategy (NSS) released in 2017 outlined President Trump’s “America First” view of national security. While some aspects of the new strategy are of grave concern from a peacebuilding perspective, and represent a significant pivot from the Obama administration, other policy approaches are encouraging for the peacebuilding field. We are deeply troubled by the preference in the NSS to prioritize military action over diplomacy and development, since we cannot fight our way out of conflict. Civilian approaches better address the causes of violent conflict, including poor governance, lack of social cohesion, weak institutions, human rights abuses, and underdevelopment. Furthermore, President Trump’s insistence on describing violent extremist groups as “radical Islamist terror groups” and “jihadist terrorists” serves only to fuel the marginalization and persecution that drive violent extremism.

Despite this militarized and isolationist framing, sections of the strategy are consistent with peacebuilding values, such as inclusion of language on the importance of upholding human dignity, empowering women and youth, rejecting bigotry, holding perpetrators of genocide accountable, and promoting resilience.

While the policy changes in the NSS have not yet filtered down to programming, the most significant threat to the peacebuilding field and international development are the Administration’s proposed draconian budget cuts. The cuts were first proposed within the first few months of the new Administration, and have continued through the latest budget proposal. The initial proposed cuts to the State Department and USAID would have decreased funding levels by over 30% for Fiscal Year (FY) 18 while drastically increasing defense spending. The initial budget had deep cuts to peacebuilding accounts and reduced funding to the UN and affiliated agencies, including UN peacekeeping and other international organizations, by setting the expectation that these organizations rein in costs and that the funding burden be shared more “fairly” among other countries. The initial FY 19 numbers are equally severe. This budget is very clearly focused on national security, but does not make the connection between security and foreign aid.

These funding changes at the US and global level would have devastating political and financial impacts on the peacebuilding field. However, presidential budgets are just a starting point, and many influential Republican senators made forceful statements defending foreign assistance and strongly opposing such drastic cuts. The Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP) has leveraged its advocacy, network, and research capacities in service of working to oppose the draconian foreign affairs budget and supporting the peacebuilding field. Our overall objectives are to 1. advocate for increased peacebuilding and violence reduction programming by proving that violence reduction programs can be quantified and that peacebuilding programming is cost effective, and 2. champion violence reduction and peacebuilding as central pillars of US foreign policy.

A key challenge for the peacebuilding field and policymakers is a need to rethink how we address the increase in violence. For example, in the US there is no overarching policy framework governing policy or spending in fragile states towards an end goal of reduced violence and increased stability. AfP believes we should treat the challenge of increasing violence with the urgency and attention by launching a new, comprehensive, interagency initiative focused on reforming US foreign policy and streamlining foreign assistance to reduce global levels of violence and tackle the causes of chronic violent conflict and instability in fragile states. 

Another key challenge in our advocacy – and a more general obstacle to the sustainability of the peacebuilding field – is the lack of evidence proving the effectiveness of peacebuilding at both the program and macro level. The peacebuilding field continues to lag behind fields such as education and public health in developing a strong culture of monitoring, evaluating and embracing practices of adaptive learning. Theories of change and approaches of effective peacebuilding abound, but many are largely unproven. Furthermore, the field is still in the beginning phases of developing evidence about what works, how to measure results, whether programs are having the desired impact—and, if so, at what level. The field struggles to show evidence of where interventions have led to a clear reduction in violence or increase in cooperation.

This lack of evidence is one of the greatest challenges we face as a field. Donors and policymakers have repeatedly questioned funding without clear evidence on the impact of peacebuilding. Therefore, the field continues to grapple with tremendous resource constraints and limited ability to prove our impact and make the case for peace. To support our advocacy, we are driving a field-wide cultural shift toward learning and evaluation to translate case by case peacebuilding successes into a robust body of evidence on our collective impact. AfP has built the Peacebuilding Evaluation Consortium, a field-wide effort to address the unique challenges of measuring and learning from peacebuilding programs. We are increasingly linking our growing evidence base to advocacy and communications, engaging in narrative work that helps the public and corporations understand peace.

Global powers like Germany can and should step forward to champion peacebuilding. When President Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, Chancellor Merkel stepped forward and led the movement of countries who ensured their commitment to maintaining the standards set forth in the agreement. Germany can now provide the same leadership. A recent survey led by Conciliation Resources and the Alliance for Peacebuilding on Public Support for Peacebuilding found that 82% of Germans interviewed believe “peacebuilding plays a vital role in ending violent conflicts,” and 70% believe that Germany should allocate more financial resources to peacebuilding. Germany must continue to prioritize peacebuilding, and if the US does go forward with its drastic foreign assistance cuts, it may have to lead the world in building peace as well.

Further Information:

Elizabeth Hume, Senior Director of Programs and Strategy Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP)

Links and Literature:

AfP’s Statement on the 2017 National Security Strategy

Public Support for Peacebuilding Joint Survey

Violence Reduction: Evidence From around the World Case Statement

Peacebuilding Evaluation Consortium