Development as Conflict Prevention: A Conversation with Susan Brown

Susan Brown worked overseas for a number of years in development and peacebuilding projects for the Canadian International Development Agency and has represented Canada in international organizations addressing such issues. Now she is on the staff of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, training other workers in the use of development assistance as a war-preventive measure

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2004-10-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: I remember that when you spoke to the class at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, you said you have a hard time getting peacebuilding on the world's agenda.

SUSAN BROWN: We do. The international community's expenditures are still devoted mainly to responding to the symptoms and fall-out of conflict, spending only a pittance on conflict prevention. That's no way to get sustainable peace. Only in 1997 was conflict recognized for the first time as part of the development agenda. That was when the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published guidelines noting that we can't do development without dealing with the tensions that tear communities apart.

SPENCER: We hear the acronym "OECD" all the time. What does it do?

BROWN: It's a group of 23 industrialized countries, headquartered in Paris, which tries to share good practice on economics, trade, and financial flows. As a secretariat, it facilitates meetings, collects data, and produces reports to help its committees make decisions. The Development Assistance Committee (DAC) is one of those committees.

SPENCER: Who implements the decisions?

BROWN: The members bring information back to their own departments and advocate for change. I was the Chief of the Peacebuilding Unit in CIDA, working closely with Policy Branch. We would come back and hold workshops, do briefing sessions, distribute documents, and try to implement some of the guidelines that were recommended. Also, a group of donor countries got together in something called the CPR Network, which is the Conflict Prevention and Post-Conflict Reconstruction Network. They said, "Okay, now that we have these good guidelines from the DAC, how can we put them into practice?" I was active in that group, which met every six months. Now I am at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre teaching other people how to do this.

SPENCER: You have an upcoming workshop in September.

BROWN: Yes, it's called "From Reaction to Prevention - Early Warning and Early Response for Peacebuilding."

SPENCER: How do you prove to people that prevention works?

BROWN: That's a long-running discussion. If you have prevented something, how can you prove it? The alternative is to do nothing and wait for the inevitable civil war to occur and the hundreds of thousands of refugees to be on the move -- then spend 14 times the amount of money on humanitarian aid than if you had done something beforehand.

Somalia is a case in point. There was 14 times the investment in the peacekeeping and the humanitarian assistance after the conflict in Somalia than there had been as official development assistance prior to the conflict.

Those in the business know that the indicators are very evident when conflicts are coming. A number of groups are working on Country Risk Assessments. With such tools you can see where conflict is on its way unless action is taken. These risk assessments are based on a number of variables. For instance, a history of armed conflict is an indicator of a problem. In political cultures of conflict the risk is higher that parties will continue resorting to violence. You can look at governance and political instability; the lack of an accountable political institution through which to channel grievances can aggravate the risk of violent outbursts. Transitional states are at higher risk of violent change, until they become fully consolidated democracies. You can look at the denial of civil and political liberties, the level of democracy, and restriction on civil and political rights. All of those will eventually lead to violent expression if there are no peaceful alternatives for resolving disputes. The history and degree of militarization in a country or population heterogeneity identify tensions which may be greater in ethnically or religiously heterogeneous populations. The distribution of resources along ethnic or identity lines, demographic stresses, and so on, are often precursors of violence.

SPENCER: Regarding demographic stress, several times lately I've come across material saying that when there is a high proportion of youth in the population, wars become more likely.

BROWN: That's right. In fact Partnership Africa/Canada did a study of the diamond trade in Sierra Leone. They identified as an indicator of stress the existence of numerous unemployed young men, with no opportunities for the future. You look, more generally, at economic decline, high debt burdens, low involvement in international trade. All these factors are associated with a higher risk of state failure. You look at the human development indicators. The countries in the bottom half of the human development index are much more likely to experience violent conflict. Now that's a chicken and the egg problem. Are they in the lowest development indicator positions because they have been prone to violent conflict or are they in conflict because they are extremely poor and have no other options to resolve their issues? The Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm says, "It's hard to build democracy on an empty stomach."

Then you look at environmental stress. The degradation and depletion of resources can generate tensions in communities. You look at international linkages: Are there other countries that make incursions across the border? Lots and lots of indicators are factored in to determine whether a country is at high risk.

SPENCER: Has anybody worked on how to weight these factors?

BROWN: Yes, you can do mathematical models. Carleton University, in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, has a project called the Country Indicators for Foreign Policy, which brings together data from over 150 sources. Other approaches are more subjective and qualitative -- like the Swiss Peace Foundation, monitoring the perceptions of local populations and individual events on the ground to determine how tensions are developing.

SPENCER: Have they validated that?

BROWN: The same cluster of countries tend to turn up through different evaluation methods. Once you do the country risk assessment, you can start doing individual conflict diagnostics, looking at options for conflict prevention work, addressing root causes. Traditionally, the international responses are only to symptoms -- and only when it is too late. With this capacity-building program at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, I am trying to give people the tools to tackle some of this work. These skills should be mainstreamed throughout our development programs, not just in a specialized emergency response unit, which arrives too late and is too small. Even in Canada, 95 percent of the humanitarian budget goes to the relief of humanitarian disasters. Ten percent of the budget goes to peacebuilding and only a portion of that goes to conflict prevention because a lot of it is devoted to the post-conflict reconstruction -- trying to get through the transition stage from the conflict to sustainable peace.

SPENCER: Can you give me an example of a place where you think prevention clearly worked?

BROWN: You know, there is sensitivity about labeling countries as at risk. I learned the hard way, so when I traveled I had a business card that said that I was from a "Multilateral Programs Branch." I did not use my card that said "Peacebuilding Unit" because most countries do not appreciate somebody coming on a conflict prevention mission. (laughter) When you ask where it has worked, I wouldn't want my answers to be published because these countries would not appreciate the work that has been done.

SPENCER: Yes, I see. I almost feel like apologizing for asking.

BROWN: I will mention a country where violence had increased over successive elections, and where party cleavages increasingly ran along ethnic lines. We engaged with that country early on as a technical assistance project to train journalists and establish a code of conduct for the Media. Such principles as: You only report facts, you get them confirmed, you have an objective, balanced approach to issues. We were trying to reduce the heat that the newspapers fanned up in elections. It's that kind of engagement that can help reduce tensions in fragile states.

Canada has a long history of sending out electoral monitors, which does very little to build the capacity for that country to hold good elections. It's like giving the report card but nobody has done any of the training. So one of the things I think peacebuilders should do is be looking at politically sensitive issues. We can be facilitators. We can be coaches. We can help create that neutral space for dialogue. And the earlier you get in, when tensions are low, the more likely it is that nonviolent solutions can be found. But peacebuilding has really only been on the map since 1997 as a development activity.

SPENCER: Peacebuilding is a funny word because it includes both post-war and preventive measures.

BROWN: Absolutely. When the term was coined by Secretary General Boutros-Ghali in his An Agenda for Peace, it was intended to refer only to the post-conflict phase of communal violence. Over the last couple of years the donor countries have broadened this term to include conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and post-conflict reconstruction. And conflict prevention is definitely the way the donors are going on this one. Lots of countries are getting assistance very quietly in the preventive phase, some where conflict hasn't quite become hot yet. Some donors are willing to engage. But you don't go handing out your card and saying, "I'm here to prevent a conflict."

SPENCER: How do you do it? Obviously, you need to mobilize people in your own country by saying, "Here's a place where we should try to do something," but if you say that you get other people's backs up.

BROWN: You do a conflict assessment. You focus on root causes and identify the critical issues and not the symptoms. For instance, refugees on the move would be a symptom of a problem. The bulk of our money goes to the refugees. Very little goes to addressing the root causes but I'm hoping to be able to change that, along with my peacebuilding colleagues around the world. Conflict assessment helps you work through a series of analyses, make strategic choices, and focus on key root causes.

Most donor organizations are not interested in working directly on conflict. In fact, development agencies usually withdraw when a country is approaching conflict. So the countries most at need of it have the least international development assistance. By developing these tools, we are hoping to provide the resources for this programming in fragile states. If a development program is working in the education sector in Uganda for instance, and they don't want to get side-tracked, because they've spent two years negotiating this agreement with the government, there are ways to make sure that that education project has the maximum beneficial impact on the conflict intentions of that community. It's not just about teaching kids. It's about looking at the curriculum. It's about using schools to engage communities for consensus-building and nonviolence. It's about what kind of kids you raise -- zero tolerance for violence, no ethnic stereotypes -- that sort of thing. You could do the same thing with an agriculture project or a water project in what we call conflict-sensitive development. You make sure that your water project does no harm, but as an optimum, you can also build in features to your water project that might be building peace amongst communities that have traditionally had tensions.

SPENCER: Give me an example.

BROWN: Say, for instance, an irrigation or a water diversion project is technically and environmentally sound, and has the agreement of the government authorities. Without realizing it, a donor can be displacing one particular ethnic or linguistic group from their traditional homelands, jeopardizing peace and stability. If you are just looking at the environmental, technical, and financial issues and you don't ask questions about the impact of your project on conflict dynamics, you won't realize that you are increasing the tensions. You won't get an opportunity to mitigate the problem.

SPENCER: Okay, what would you do? Say you find that everything looks great, except one ethnic group is going to be disadvantaged by your water diversion project.

BROWN: Peacebuilders would develop strategies, probably in consultation with the local communities, for sharing that resource. Maybe it would involve changing the route of the irrigation project.

SPENCER: I was in Bologna last year at a Green Cross International conference on water. Most people were emphasizing that decisions need to emerge from local demand. They said that when outside organizations go in and try to help, it usually doesn't work unless it's a response to local initiatives. Is that your point of view?

BROWN: Absolutely. The War Torn Societies Project (WSP-International) in Geneva advocates that outsiders should not impose external agendas but rather create neutral spaces for dialogue and facilitating consensus-building amongst locals.

SPENCER: You are talking about development as prevention, but the history of development assistance has been pretty disappointing. The allocation target used to be 0.7 percent of gross domestic product for official development aid programs, but few countries ever contributed that much. The people who defend the decline in development assistance seem to argue that countries benefit more from trade than from direct assistance.

BROWN: Well I wouldn't agree that there is little to show for development. Infant mortality rates have gone down, life spans have gone up, largely as a result of development assistance.

SPENCER: I didn't mean to suggest that they aren't good. I just worry that there are not enough of them.

BROWN: That's right! It's relatively safe to cut the development assistance budget because the pinch is going to be felt overseas, not in Canada.

SPENCER: Suppose you tell voters: "Look, if you don't put out the money, you are going to have wars and you'll eventually spend a lot more sending peacekeepers or war fighters." But that kind of argument hasn't won the day.

BROWN: Polls indicate that the Canadian public believes that the government just gives away money to people who steal it. That's not so. Money seldom moves. It's Canadian expertise, Canadian equipment, Canadian technical assistance. It's not about moving money into someone else's bank account. CIDA used to have a program going across Canada, helping the public understand their development assistance program. When people understood it, their support for international development was high. However, with all the budget cuts, that program got cut. The headlines seldom report on the good work done by dedicated people. It's easy to mobilize resources for humanitarian disasters, so we continue to devote money to that. There's an imbalance in the ratio between expenditures on emergencies and expenditures to prevent the emergencies from happening. The annual European Union dairy subsidy for a cow is US $913; the annual per capita income in Sub-Saharan Africa is $490; and the EU annual aid to Sub-Saharan Africa is US $8 per person. So they devote $913 per cow and $8 per person in Sub-Saharan Africa.

SPENCER: My sense is that the urgent challenge is in creating more public awareness

BROWN: That's for sure. When Lloyd Axworthy was Minister for Foreign Affairs and Dianne Marleau was minister for CIDA, they initiated a Canadian Peacebuilding Initiative. They put extra resources in both departments to do innovative work, which morphed into a political agenda called the Human Security Agenda -- a foreign policy based on the rights of individuals, not states. It recognized the obligation of states to protect the rights of individuals from abuse by their own officials.

SPENCER: The "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine.

BROWN: Exactly. And I think we've lost momentum on that one. Canada was a leader in this field - in peacebuilding, human security, in the landmine initiative. Now we don't have the political will. The security agenda has taken over since 9/11, closing the window on this innovative peacebuilding and human security agenda.

SPENCER: That's an interesting point. I can see how the obstacles to the Responsibility to Protect document were exacerbated by 9/11.

BROWN: Sure, because now we're devoting our money to security and going after terrorists. There is very little evidence of political mainstreaming of peacebuilding. There's still just token support for this effort.

SPENCER: So peacebuilding has been derailed within a five-year period?

BROWN: Leaving the UN to deal with the world's neglected conflicts. But the upside is that this is now more science than art. It is more strategy and less intuition than ever before. There are more tools, more frameworks that document good practice, and one of the reasons why I'm so enthusiastic about being at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre is that I'm now getting a chance to develop some capacity-building workshops.

SPENCER: More power to you!

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004, page 6. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here

Peace Magazine homepage