Less Violence, More Development

Half a million people die violently each year from interpersonal violence, organized crime, and civil wars. Not only do premature deaths result in productivity losses and inconsolable pain and suffering, they represent a drag on economic growth. In the fragile societies where most violence occurs, the development trajectories of the families and dependents of those killed will be permanently set back, having lost fathers, mothers, siblings, breadwinners, and entrepreneurs. And alongside these fatalities are tens of millions more who suffer violent assaults, non-fatal injuries, and displacement, who will lose their property, assets, and investments.

Though the global debate around the post-2015 development agenda testifies to the way in which the concept of development itself is fundamentally deepening, the place of conflict and fragility in the agenda remains in question. For the past two years, these issues have preoccupied thousands of diplomats, activists, and practitioners. Their concerns were given voice most recently during United Nations-supported consultations in Monrovia, Panama, Jakarta and Helsinki. Routinely highlighted at these meetings was the fundamental place of “peace,” whether conceived narrowly as the absence of violence or described in broad terms as real and perceived safety and security. 

There are signs that policy circles are recognizing these relationships between security and development. In fact, the United Nations Secretary-General has declared that the transformation of “violent conflicts and fragility into peace, justice and shared prosperity” must be a cornerstone of the post-2015 agenda. It is worth recalling that this is not an entirely new insight. In fact, the Millennium Declaration, which gave rise to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) affirmed the world’s commitment to peace, freedom from fear, and development challenges associated with violence.

There is solid empirical evidence illustrating the correlations between insecurity and development. Statistical research demonstrates how persistent insecurity leads to underdevelopment, and that improvements in safety contribute to sustainable development. Countries and cities exhibiting the highest rates of violence also register the lowest gains in social and economic progress. Moreover, where low levels of human development persist, the incidence of real and perceived violence also tend to be high. These are hardly novel findings. They are clearly outlined in the World Development Report, the Global Burden of Armed Violence, and countless studies issued by the United Nations, research institutes, and non-governmental organizations.

There is also growing support among some governments for ensuring conflict and violence prevention and resilience to fragility are elevated as key pillars of the post-2015 agenda. The g7+ and dozens of other states have stressed the importance of security and justice along with armed violence reduction and peacebuilding as central to 21st-century sustainable development. Likewise, European Union members have highlighted peace and security as core priorities for the post-2015 framework. What is more, a recent poll of hundreds of thousands of people shows that “protection against crime and violence” is considered a top priority for future goals. This has in turn prompted the Beyond 2015 coalition to include peace and security as a red-flag issue.

Despite this near-global consensus on the importance of peace for development, there remain political, semantic, and measurement challenges associated with including peace and security in the post-2015 goal architecture.

Political tensions: Certain emerging powers are uneasy with the underlying assumptions and practices of conflict prevention, violence reduction, and measures to redress fragility. Indeed, while conflict prevention is undergoing a renaissance in the United Nations, views are still mixed about the direction of the armed violence and fragility agendas in the General Assembly. A small but influential group of governments are wary of the ways these issues might trespass on national sovereignty. Some diplomats also feel that these themes fall outside of the remit of “development” and should be reserved for other forums in or outside of the United Nations. The more orthodox among them insist the post-2015 agenda should be restricted to development staples such as poverty reduction, social and economic equality, and the environment. 

Semantic objections: While there may be an appetite among many United Nations member states to include conflict, violence, and fragility in the post-2015 development framework, there remains disagreement on the basic terminology. Even well-hewn concepts such as “peace” and “security” are disputed. Such doubts raise obvious challenges when it comes to their translation into practical strategies. Discussions around the world have revealed a remarkable diversity of terms ranging from citizen, civilian, and personal security promotion to peacebuilding, peacemaking and peace consolidation. The High-Level Panel would do well to acknowledge and celebrate this diversity and their unambiguous linkages with wider questions of development.    

Tensions over metrics: In light of the political and semantic tensions, it is hardly surprising that there are still ongoing debates on the appropriate metrics by which to measure improvements in conflict prevention, violence reduction and efforts to mitigate fragility. Certain governments wish to confine indicators to “output” measures such as the strengthening of institutions. Fortunately, considerable thinking by governments, think tanks, and researchers has gone into setting out a number of impact indicators to gauge real and perceived outcomes. Many experts agree that reductions in the number of violent deaths, rates of displacement, the incidence of rape and sexual violence and the proportion of people feeling unsafe are a solid starting point. 

There is ample public support and scholarly evidence to back a progressive approach to the post-2015 development agenda, which includes the promotion of security and safety. There are also practical reasons to take a bold approach since few fragile states are on track to achieve any Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Fortunately, some governments and civil societies around the globe are already advancing social and economic programs that privilege the safety and security of citizens, mindful of the ways in which routine violence undermines development. There are promising innovations in Latin America, including Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.

The High-Level Panel is playing a critical role in guiding the form and content of future goals, targets and indicators, and it has an historic opportunity to resolve these tensions by allaying political concerns, clarifying semantic disagreements, and proposing forward-looking metrics. Its diverse membership of international leaders and experts  is intended to ensure that a shared vision for the “world we want” develops from this conversation. It must set out bold recommendations in its report to the United Nations Secretary-General in May. 

As the world looks to define the world we want for the next generation, the conceptualization of development should be broadened and deepened to include security, rule of law, and freedom from fear. This is the least we all can do on behalf of the millions suffering violence and the billions more at risk.    

Robert Muggah is the research director of the Igarapé Institute and a principal of the SecDev Group. Gary Milante is a senior economist at the World Bank. All views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the World Bank. 

About the photo: Afghan girls studying at a school in Kabul, April 18, 2013. Credit: Fardin Waezi / UNAMA