A Chance to Make Poverty (and War) History: Addressing the Causes of Conflict in the Post-2015 Agenda

By John Filson, 3P Program Manager, Alliance for Peacebuilding
The Alliance for Peacebuilding is a partner of the Summer of Peace

August 19, 2013
As of this writing, more than 1,000 people have been killed in Cairo through the military’s brutal crackdown on Morsi supporters. That kind of violent suppression of dissent is what galvanized Egyptians and the world against the Mubarak regime during the 2011 revolution. But this time the cycle of violence and retaliation seems poised to plunge Egypt into real civil war.
Imagine you were a supporter of President Obama in the presidential elections last November. A few months after his victory, following intense condemnation of Obama and demonstrations by opposing voices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff announce they are arresting the President, saying his leadership is illegitimate. You are outraged that something so blatant could ever happen in the United States. So in the great American tradition, you take to the streets and join massive protests. Obama’s opponents also organize marches, praising the military for saving the U.S. from going down the wrong path. The military orders you to disperse, saying you are causing a security threat. After several days you have refused to leave. So they open fire.
That is not democracy. In Egypt, violent repression of legitimate political voice by whoever is in power—whether it is Mubarak, Morsi, or the military—is the opposite of democracy. The terrifying situation Egyptians are facing now is the result of decades of structural factors bubbling beneath the surface, such as religious or ethnic prejudice, corruption, and the suppression of dissent through the use of force. The problem is, consumers of world news don’t see these small bubbles simmering slowly at the bottom of the pot. All we see is the violent explosion of chaos when the pot finally boils over.
Conflict prevention is an attempt to recognize a boiling pot sooner and turn down the heat before it’s too late. Prevention includes the more immediate, emergency measures to stop violence at the moment of crisis. But it also places special attention on the health of the long-term relationship between opposing groups. It seeks to slowly redefine the relationship from a dynamic of mistrust and abuse into one with greater mutual respect.
Sadly, explosions of mass violence attract news readers; and long-term, messy, controversial efforts to change hard-to-see factors that might cause violence in the future are not. From the UN, to media and communications industries, to our own unconscious choices as consumers, the system is not set up to give attention and priority to long-term prevention investments—especially at a time of global financial crisis. But we are slowly, slowly working to get ahead of this curve.
One giant opportunity to stop violence before it starts is the new global development agenda that will replace the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. Thirteen years ago, the world signed on to 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) designed to eliminate extreme poverty. The MDGs have been effective as a policy framework because it united the world around a common agenda for achieving targets in health, education, food security, employment, etc. The MDGs will officially expire in two years, and movements are now underway to design a new agenda that will boost global development even further.
The UN Secretary General created a committee (called the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons) which published a Report in May laying out a suggested new framework that serves as a starting point UN Member States can use to eventually determine the final Post-2015 agenda. The report takes an important step forward by including new targets focused on peace and governance as essential ingredients of sustainable development. Violent conflict is development in reverse, and many delicate achievements in reducing poverty and improving wellbeing get demolished when simmering conflict boils over into large-scale violence. The Post-2015 agenda is an opportunity to finally get ahead of the curve and address some of the long-standing factors like political exclusion, economic marginalization, and suppression of basic rights that lead Egypt and so many societies into devastating war.
But it is still hard to turn prevention into policy. The Post-2015 agenda will ultimately be decided through the UN process by some of the same governments that remain “stable” because of corrupt or authoritarian practices. Suggesting to them that development is not only about economic growth but about creating just and peaceful societies is impolite and hypocritical from their point of view. By 2015 half of the world’s remaining poor will live in war-torn countries.[1] Without peace, development is not sustainable. The Post-2015 agenda is a chance to make development truly succeed by stopping violent conflict before it starts. But it will require organizing vast constituencies in a robust advocacy push to make it a reality.
We don’t have a choice. The gut-wrenching violence in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere around the world is a tragic reminder that once the pot boils over it’s hard to put the lid back on. If this were only words in an Op-Ed it wouldn’t be that bad. But it’s actually mothers, fathers, and children suffering and dying as the minutes pass—their safety and hope for the future shattered by fearful hearts that hate enough to kill. This is not the world we want. We can do better. While doing better requires making more difficult investments with fewer immediate results, the promise is a world where poverty is an aberration and war is something we used to do.

[1] World Bank (2012) World Bank Development Report 2011

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This article appears in: 2013 Catalyst - Issue 14