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Enhancing International Cooperation in Conflict Prevention Through Preventive Development

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
April 1, 2002
The Diplomatic Academy of Vienna Journal of International St



The Monterrey Consensus calls on donor countries to expand their official development assistance (March 2002). While spending more, donors should also spend more strategically. Focusing foreign aid through a conflict prevention lens both improves traditional development activities and enhances the impact of increasingly scarce foreign aid. “Preventive development” targets the root causes of conflict by bolstering the capacity of countries to manage rising tensions before violence erupts.


Preventive development is an essential component of an overall conflict prevention strategy. As a tool for conflict prevention, it also helps strengthen the partnership between conflict prone countries and the international community. Some states, however, see conflict prevention as intruding in their internal affairs. They resent third parties trying to mediate intra-state conflicts. Diplomatic and political measures are perceived with distrust. Special envoys, high level fact finding commissions and contact groups are resisted. Diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions are criticized as intrusive and ineffective instruments.

A report issued by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on the “Prevention of Armed Conflict” emphasized that conflict prevention is the primary responsibility of states and makes clear that conflict prevention efforts by the international community should be undertaken in cooperation with national governments (7 June 2001). As described in Chapter VI of the UN Charter, which deals with the peaceful settlement of disputes, the main role of the international community is to support national efforts for conflict prevention and assist building national capacity in this field. There is a growing consensus that the international community should work in full cooperation with conflict prone countries to develop their conflict prevention capacity.

Partnership and cooperation are always preferable. However, more vigorous diplomatic and political pressures may be needed when a country systematically oppresses its citizens or perpetrates genocide or crimes against humanity. Failures to respond to crises in Bosnia and Rwanda highlight the international community’s moral responsibility to protect vulnerable populations.

Structural Prevention:

An effective prevention strategy requires a comprehensive approach that encompasses short and long-term humanitarian and developmental programs. Violent conflict has far reaching implications. In addition to human suffering, conflict eradicates decades of development and deters future development prospects. In addition, conflict siphons off funds from development assistance to emergency relief. Money spent fighting war, or on military and humanitarian intervention, could be spent on poverty reduction and equitable sustainable development.

Comprehensive and coherent conflict prevention strategies offer the greatest potential for lasting peace. In order to achieve this objective, conflict prevention policies and programs should seek to address the root causes of conflict, which include (a) inequity, (b) inequality, (c) injustice, and, (d) insecurity. The international community should work with governments and their civil societies to strengthen early warning systems; increase capacity to diffuse crises; and integrate conflict resolution tools and techniques into humanitarian and development practices. In addition, civil society participation in decisions allocating ODA helps build local coalitions and advances common purpose between local actors.

Preventive Humanitarian Action:

Conflict affects not only combatants. Civilian populations and innocent victims are often murdered and driven from their homes. The international community responds by undertaking humanitarian action. Such measures are intended to mitigate suffering, enhance protection and create conditions for the return of displaced people. Preventive humanitarian action can also create conditions, which help prevent conflict or keep conflict from recurring.

Conflict often involves the disruption of food supplies. Moreover, destroying food stocks or supplies is increasingly used as a means of waging war. Displacement also prevents people from engaging in normal food production activities. Food aid is needed to address food insecurity, which is typically an immediate consequence of conflict. Food aid targets vulnerable and marginalized populations in order to address basic needs; enhance social and political stability; and act as a catalyst for rehabilitation and development.

More than emergency assistance, relief activities can help address factors causing conflict by incorporating conflict resolution techniques and community rebuilding goals. In addition to life saving services and supplies, emergency assistance should consider strategies for post-conflict peacebuilding, modalities for the return of displaced persons, and programs facilitating a transition from relief to development.

Emergency food aid is critical to saving lives. The international community must, however, guard against the manipulation of food aid by combatants who may be seeking to prolong a conflict. Assistance agencies should take steps to separate armed groups from civilians and maintain public order in refugee camps. Moreover, humanitarian assistance must not become a substitute for political action.

Preventive Development:

Conflict prevention strategies differ during the stages of a conflict. Preventive measures taken before or at the onset of conflict may represent effective early action, while these same measures may be ineffective during the later stages of conflict escalation. Preventive development helps strengthen local capacity and can help keep conflicts from occurring in the first place. It can also ensure that conflicts do not recur.


The Secretary General’s report (1999) indicates that, “A common thread running through all conflict prevention policies is the need to pursue good governance involving the rule of law, tolerance of minority and opposition groups, transparent political processes, an independent judiciary, impartial police forces, a military subject to civilian control, a free press and vibrant civil society institutions as well as meaningful elections.”(3)

Conflicts may either be caused by, or result in, the breakdown of law and order, as well as the collapse of state institutions. During a conflict, the functions of government are often suspended and its assets destroyed. Effective governance structures are needed to institutionalize peace and prevention. In addition, civil society strengthening and support for democratic institutions, including parliaments and oversight bodies, increase government accountability and enhance public trust.

Rule of Law

The rule of law enhances democratic development, access to justice, and opportunities for non-violent dispute resolution. The cornerstone of the rule of law is an independent judiciary. It should be strengthened via training and capacity building. Police and local law enforcement require organizational development assistance, as well as physical facilities prerequisite to the administration of justice, such as police stations, prisons and penitentiaries. Corruption undermines the rule of law; reduces the efficiency of government; and erodes national development.

Security sector reform is also essential to enhancing democracy and strengthening the rule of law. To this end, persons who commit crimes or atrocities should be held accountable and prosecuted. There is need for a clear chain of command among the security forces, and subordination of the security apparatus to a responsible civilian authority. Security sector reform can be advanced via training, technical assistance, including legal reforms.

Truth commissions can assist emerging democracies and strengthen transitional justice. Individual accountability keeps whole groups from being blamed for atrocities and helps to diminish a culture of impunity, which can undermine public trust and delay democratic development.


Power-sharing between the central government and regional authorities can reduce the likelihood of self-determination movements becoming violent national liberation struggles. Special autonomy agreements seek to establish meaningful self-governance and systems for resource sharing. Fiscal decentralization also implies a greater responsibility for local government in the delivery of social services, as well an expanded role in taxation and raising revenue.

Self-governance includes systems for democratic representation (e.g. local executive, parliament, judiciary, police and security), provisions for local control over natural resources (e.g. ownership, employment, trade, currency and tax authority), and special protections for cultural rights (e.g. language, education, religion and cultural symbols). Orderly decentralization enhances stakeholder participation and reduces the possibility of conflict escalation.

Civil Society

There is a proverb in Africa’s Great Lakes region: “When the elephants are at war, the grass underfoot suffers most.” When parties engage in conflict, innocent civilians are typically the most effected.

Civil society has a key role promoting social stability. Traditional systems for dispute resolution are also effective instruments of conflict prevention. The engagement of civil society sectors, including religious leaders, labor organizations, community associations, cooperative societies, women’s associations and youth groups, creates a web of shared interests which can deter conflict escalation. Community based conflict resolution initiatives should be supported. To strengthen civil society, local actors should be more involved in social welfare and reconstruction program design and development.

Civil society also helps monitor conditions on-the-ground and keeps authorities accountable. Non-state actors can be a potent political force through interest aggregation and political mobilization. Capacity building for local human rights groups should proceed apace with efforts to enhance national capacity in human rights and to harmonize national legislation with international norms. Transparency is enhanced the independent media. In addition, hate media should be disbanded.

To avoid the scourge of war for future generations, it is essential to cultivate young leaders and nurture a new generation of peacebuilders. As part of educational reform, school courses should include an accurate accounting of historical events, which are often the root causes of conflict. Curricula, which promote tolerance and foster democracy and a culture of peace, should be expanded.

Kofi Annan’s stated that, “Women, who know the price of conflict so well, are also often better equipped than men to prevent or resolve it.” Promoting gender equality promotes tolerance and reinforces nonviolent methods of dispute resolution.


Since many conflicts are resource based, there is both an economic dimension to conflict, as well as conflict prevention. Conflicts tend to worsen as economic conditions deteriorate. And armed conflict also destroys the achievement of national development. On the one hand, poverty and economic crisis are major contributors to crisis. On the other, investments in economic rehabilitation and infrastructure create opportunities for peace and prosperity.

Micro-economic development should include measures to revitalize subsistence agriculture, community-based agro-industries, rural credit, small businesses, and income opportunities for the most marginal populations including displaced persons. Unemployment and underemployment are on the rise and there is a steady decline in real wages. To expand and diversify job creation, steps are needed to revitalize the manufacturing and service sectors.

Macro-economic reforms are also needed. Legal and economic reforms create a governance framework needed to privatize industries, close insolvent financial institutions and stimulate hard currency earnings via exports. To this end, more effective central bank administration, monetary measures, and currency stabilization are called for.

Possibilities for sustainable development are greater when peace prevails. Privatization of productive capacity, including land reform, is key to food production and sustainable small-scale agriculture. Since trans-boundary water supply represents a point of conflict or an opportunity for cooperation, water resource management should also be considered. Infrastructure expansion, including road/sea transport, telecommunications, electricity and water, is helpful.


Sickness and disease rob developing nations of their greatest asset, human capital. The growing prevalence of HIV/AIDS cases contributes to social instability. The UN Security Council highlighted the link between health issues (HIV/AIDS) and peace/security (January 2000). It was also widely discussed at the special session of the General Assembly (June 2001). Countries with large populations afflicted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic are far more likely to experience the escalation of conflict into deadly violence. The international community is mobilizing support to expand national health care systems and assist disease prevention and treatment.


Demobilization assists ex-combatants to become productive members of society. Comprehensive disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs should be linked to training, job creation and reintegration of soldiers into civil society. Weapons for development projects are aimed at the collection and retrieval of illegal weapons in exchange for community based development incentives. In addition, victims of anti-personnel land mines are living reminders of the human tragedy to conflict, and a drain on productive capacity. Mine awareness centers conducting outreach, rehabilitation, and demining should be expanded.

Institutional Framework:

A range of national, regional and multilateral organizations have complementary roles in the delivering preventive humanitarian assistance and preventive development programs.

The United Nations

Article 1 of the UN Charter establishes the centrality of peace, security and prevention as priorities for the international community. Article 55 calls on the UN to “To take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace.” These ideas are further elaborated in the Declaration on Principles of International Law Governing Friendly Relations and Cooperation among states (Res. 2625/1970).

The Secretary General Report to the GA (September 1999) calls for a “greater emphasis on timely and adequate preventive action. The UN of the 21st century must increasingly focus on preventive measures, which are integrated into the entire range of UN activities. During the Security Council discussion on prevention (November 1999), there were calls for the “Development of a long term UN preventive strategy involving all agencies of the UN system…and a coordinated response to the social, economic and cultural and humanitarian problems which are often the roots causes of conflict.”

The UN emphasizes cooperation with member states. To this end, the UN Resident Representative has extensive first-hand knowledge and the Country Team has good working relations with counterparts in the host government. The United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) is a suitable framework for undertaking prevention or peacebuilding activities at the country level and with the full cooperation of the host government.

Regional Organizations

Regional organizations serve as a culturally appropriate forum for conflict prevention. They are familiar with the nuances of conflict conditions. As a result, regional organizations have proven to be an effective instrument for conflict prevention, and a useful rapporteur on lessons learned and best practices.

Pursuant to the 1998 UN-Regional Organizations Meeting on Cooperation for Conflict Prevention, regional organizations have established or are taking steps to strengthen conflict prevention capabilities. Examples include the OAU Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution, the Organization of American States Democracy Unit (OAS), and the European Union Early Warning Unit (EU).

Bretton-Woods Institutions

Bretton-Woods institutions can encourage national economic policies, which advance prevention. In addition, Bretton-Woods institutions can contribute directly to conflict prevention. For example, the World Bank engages in prevention through its Post-Conflict Unit and via its Operational Policy on Development Cooperation (January 2000). In addition, the IMF should adopt lending policies and financial restructuring arrangements, which do not exacerbate the root causes of conflict by creating excessive austerity or social hardship.

Non-Governmental Sectors

NGOs engage in a broad cross-section of conflict prevention activities. Student organizations and women’s groups have a particularly important role to play in building a culture of prevention. NGOs involved in prevention and reconciliation should be supported.

Business can also contribute to prevention through revenue sharing and profit redistribution, which supports social welfare and community development. The UN voluntary code of conduct promotes participation of the private sector in international peace and security. The Global Business Council on HIV/AIDS forges partnerships between business and local groups working on education, prevention and treatment.


Many developing countries are seeking to consolidate democratic developments and implement economic reforms. Official development assistance already includes measures, which contribute to conflict prevention. Building on its track record of cooperation with countries that receive foreign aid, the international community should expand its efforts to focus development activities through a conflict prevention lens by:

  • Evaluating existing efforts to include prevention strategies in development assistance.

  • Establishing clear policies and guidelines for mainstreaming conflict prevention in humanitarian and development work.

  • Integrating conflict prevention into all stages of project development (i.e. assessment, identification, formulation, management, monitoring and evaluation).

  • Ensuring public support and local ownership by involving civil society in the formulation of donor assistance programs in the field.

  • Targeting preventive humanitarian action and preventive development for conflict prone areas.

Investment strategies should be demand-driven and based on requirements identified in-the-field. As a first step to fostering international cooperation, beneficiary countries should work with international development agencies to conduct a “Preventive Development Assessment” (PDA) in order to (a) evaluate existing conflict prevention activities, (b) identify gaps, and, (c) develop an overall preventive development strategy.

Follow-up activities should emphasize investments which further develop national capacity in the field of conflict prevention. Developing a culture of preventive development will enhance international cooperation. It will also leverage scarce foreign aid resources and enable more coherent and integrated development assistance.

David L. Phillips is an adjunct professor at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. He is also a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations of New York.

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