Rethinking development means rethinking conflict resolution

The UK government is currently working on a new White Paper on International Development. As Minister of State for Development and Africa in the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), Andrew Mitchell, stated in the Commons in July 2023, this White Paper ‘will set out how the UK will lead the charge against extreme poverty and climate change in a changing world.’

The White Paper will build on the International Development Strategy and the Integrated Review Refresh 2023 and set out the UK’s approach to international development up until 2030, the year the international community will take stock of its delivery on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The White Paper comes at a critical time for the UK after the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID) and after Covid-19 pandemic-related budget cuts to international development with aid spending in recent years falling below the statutory target of 0.7 per cent of the UK’s national income. The White Paper provides an important opportunity to rethink and reform the UK’s approach to development.

Why peace negotiations matter to development

PeaceRep has submitted evidence to the UK government to inform the formulation of the White Paper. The central message is that rethinking development means rethinking conflict resolution. Armed conflict is one of the main challenges to development, and the impact of conflict on development is likely to increase in the near term. According to the Peace Research Institute Oslo, 2022 marked the year with the highest number of battle-related deaths in state-based conflicts since 1984 (upwards of 20,400 deaths). The World Bank projects that the percentage of ‘global extreme poor’ living in contexts characterised by ‘fragility, conflict, and violence’ will only increase, rising up to 59 per cent by 2030. Peace negotiations and conflict resolution are therefore critical to the success of the UK’s future development efforts.

As an inter-disciplinary research project, PeaceRep works at the cross-section of peace processes, development, and humanitarian assistance, and its peace process data underscores the deeply interconnected nature of these issues: 54 per cent of non-local peace agreements signed since 1990 contain provisions on socio-economic reconstruction (PA-X Peace Agreement Database). Main issues discussed in peace agreements include development, national economic plans, natural resources, international funding, business, taxation, and banks. Non-local peace agreements also provide detailed provisions on a wide range of other development issues, including governance (60 per cent), justice sector reform (21 per cent), or land, property, and the environment (26 per cent).

The increasing ‘fragmentation’ of conflict systems and peace processes

As the UK government rethinks its development approach, the field of conflict resolution itself is undergoing a moment of deep introspection. Established conflict resolution approaches and tools seem increasingly inadequate in the current context – if they ever were adequate. As the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres noted when his office launched the ‘New Agenda for Peace’, we find ourselves in a ‘new era […] marked by the highest level of geopolitical tensions and major power competition in decades.’ Accompanying current levels of geopolitical competition are the triple planetary crisis of climate change, air pollution, and biodiversity loss, democratic backsliding, a resurgence in coups, food insecurity, and other rapid societal transformations that pose significant challenges to development and conflict resolution.

Even more fundamentally, and partly as a result of these trends, conflict systems are increasingly splintering and metastasizing. Humanitarian, development, and peacemaking landscapes are also fragmenting due to the heightened geopolitics and the failure of the international community to cohere efforts in today’s protracted crises. Indeed, as PeaceRep research shows, there have been significant changes to the composition of third-party constellations in peace processes. The engagement of Western countries as peace agreement signatories, for example, has been decreasing in recent years while that of some non-Western countries – particularly Kenya, Qatar, and Turkey – is increasing (Badanjak 2023).

How the UK can make a difference

Based on PeaceRep’s research, and looking at the track record of the UK’s engagement in conflict-affected countries, the White Paper on International Development could chart out at least three concrete ways in which the UK can support development and conflict resolution:

First, the UK should lead the way by providing a vision of a new collective diplomacy, that is capable of ending and preventing armed conflict. As a necessary first step this must include publicly committing to and working collectively to rebuild a rules-based international legal order. The UK could leverage its strength in ‘convening and brokering’ actors to cohere peace and development efforts in increasingly fragmented conflict systems and peace processes. In doing so, the UK should draw on its ‘thought leadership’, influence as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and its longstanding commitment to civic participation in development and peacebuilding. The aim should be to provide a vision for preventive diplomacy capable of engaging armed actors to end conflict in ways that create future government that is acceptable to civilians, and to prevent conflict re-occurrence. The UK should seek to broaden and deepen peace processes to go beyond ‘elite pacts’ and instead work to reconstitute ‘civicness’ and the social contract with society.

Second, building on its ambition to be a leader in the fields of artificial intelligence, data, and technology, the UK should fund and drive innovation in these fields, and further link humanitarian, peace, and development data provision and political analysis. This linking will support creative approaches to development and community peacebuilding support that are so desperately needed. Critically, joint analysis will enable integrated programming that combines development and peace work, ensuring communities benefit from the economic ‘peace dividends’ of increased stability. To that end, the UK should foster data and PeaceTech innovation, and the work that PeaceRep and others have been pioneering – we term it ‘peace analytics’ (Bell 2023), bringing together public and private technology innovators with humanitarian and development workers and peacebuilders.

Third, the UK should make long-term commitments to development and research funding that can build trust with fund recipients, and re-establish the UK as a reliable partner. These investments should fund locally-led, climate and gender-sensitive, and multi-annual programmes that tackle the root causes of armed conflict. Along similar lines, International Alert, Search for Common Ground, and World Vision recently made a case that the UK should double its funding for conflict prevention. On the tech front, funds should be used to reshape the incentive structure to require partnership, data interoperability, shared platforms, and sustainability of data collection. The UK should also understand intellectual capital as a key resource to support conflict resolution and continue to fund multi-disciplinary research. Scholars from conflict-affected countries should lead these efforts, and their ‘intellectual sovereignty’ should be supported at all times. This research will be the fuel for the UK’s ‘thought leadership’ in a rapidly evolving international context.

No development without peace, no peace without development

To conclude, as the UK rethinks its international development priorities it should also rethink its approach to conflict resolution. The new White Paper will be published in a context of flux and fragmentation – for the UK to successfully ‘lead the charge’ in resolving some of the world’s most pressing development challenges, it should put conflict resolution front and centre of its development efforts. There is no development without peace in conflict-affected states, and equally there are few prospects for peace to be sustainable when reconciled communities do not experience a tangible improvement in their day-to-day lives. Development and conflict resolution therefore go hand in hand. The UK should use this opportunity to leverage its international standing and influence for better and more inclusive development: By providing a new vision for preventive diplomacy, driving technological and data innovation across the humanitarian, development, and peace nexus, and committing to funding that is long term and builds trust.


Note: Please note that nothing herein should be taken as the individual view of the organisations in the PeaceRep consortium.