Does Peace Always Produce Development? Guatemala Offers Some Clues

A man carries wood through a coffee plantation suffering economic hardship following a fungal outbreak and changing climatic conditions. Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala, May 22, 2014. (Moises Castillo/Associated Press)

There is an assumption among international policymakers that peace is a prerequisite for development. As the United Nations 2030 Agenda on sustainable development states, and world leaders have recognized time and again, “there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.” What does this mean at the national level?

Take Guatemala as an example: A peace agreement was signed 20 years ago, ending 36 years of civil strife, yet the country has seen limited development gains in the intervening years. During the years that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were in effect (2000-2015), Guatemala achieved only a couple of their targets, and some outcomes were even reversed. So, although the signing of a peace agreement creates an opportunity for social and economic growth, it is not an automatic result.

We traveled to Guatemala in January for the International Peace Institute’s SDGs4Peace project, which focuses on the way peace is defined in the 2030 Agenda. We interviewed government officials, civil society members, and indigenous groups to learn how the implementation of the agenda might support the positive transformation the country started to undergo two years ago.

In 2015, a number of peaceful protests demanded an end to Guatemala’s corruption and the dismantling of its criminal networks. This awakening went rather unnoticed in the international sphere. Thanks to the demands of thousands of people, and with the assistance of the leadership of the country’s top prosecutor, high-level officials including the president and members of his cabinet, as well as legislators, judges, and private sector tycoons were sent to jail, ending years of anticipated impunity. Interestingly, a similar pattern is emerging in other Latin American countries, including Brazil.

The World Bank Development Report 2011 was prominent in drawing attention to the importance of increasing jobs, access to justice, and citizen security as essential for development. These elements are exactly what have been lacking in Guatemala since the signing of the peace accords. As a representative of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) told us, “there is not a direct consequence [of ending conflict and creating prosperity in a country]. Why? Because at the end of a war you have this really weak state, and these really powerful corruption nets, violating the state, using the state as a tool for their profit. So you don’t have the state, you don’t have the institutions, you don’t have the public service, and the amount of money [in the treasury] is used for corruption.” So, although the war formally ended, it was replaced by an alternative conflict of a more economic nature, yet one that still produced a high level of violent deaths.

Following the country’s peace deal, the army and other powerful structures in Guatemala became involved in drugs and human trafficking, in addition to extensive corruption throughout society. This kept violence and crime at levels above both global and Latin American averages. Embezzlement of public funds took money away from public services such as education and health and made the country unable to create the basic conditions of “positive peace,” which is defined as the “attitudes, institutions and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.” The 2030 Agenda intends to create positive peace through the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Together, Guatemala’s justice system, national institutions, and CICIG are aiming to change the tradition of impunity by strengthening accountability and rule of law—an important element of the country’s commitment to the 2030 Agenda. The responsibility for implementing the SDGs lies with the Ministry of Planning. It has already developed a national plan known as the Katun, which will run until 2032 and build on many of the core targets of the SDGs. The ministry has also taken an active approach towards the SDGs. It has expressed more ownership and commitment toward the goals than previously seen with the MDGs, which were mostly perceived as a UN agenda.

According to ministry officials we met with, they have started an ambitious and inclusive process with governorates across the country, though they lack the capacity to reach the entire population. They have prioritized 129 of the 169 SDG targets. However, it became clear that the commitment has yet to translate into budgets and allocation of resources for an integrated and inclusive implementation. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) confirmed that the Guatemalan national plan was developed with the SDGs in mind, and that it corresponds 90 to 95% with the 2030 Agenda. Yet an interviewee told us: “I don’t think that this agenda is internalized in the budget, only in the plans.”

Budgets for social services such as health and education remain a challenge in Guatemala, which has one of the lowest tax bases in the world, with revenue largely coming from a flat tax of around 10.5%. An official from a Guatemala think tank told us that the country’s value-added tax was very low, even by Central American standards, and “tax on income from private people is also very low, so tax collection is basically based on the formal private sector.” The Ministry of Finance tried to implement tax reform last year but soon admitted that this had failed and that the Guatemalan people were not ready for it. The country has a general lack of trust toward public authorities due to corruption and embezzlement of public funds. The ministry has since developed a five-year plan for gradual improvement of the tax base.

As a result of entrenched corruption, on top of weak tax bases, Guatemala has not been able to develop its social services. Since the signing of the peace accord, development in line with many core indicators such as health and education has stagnated. The period of compulsory schooling remains at six years and in many impoverished areas children drop out even before they reach graduation age. After sixth grade private education is often the only option available for those wanting to pursue further education; bearing in mind, this is a very young population with almost half under 18 years old. Health service is also a challenge, with many villages in the countryside lacking access to any medical facilities, including vaccination programs for children.

Since 2015, the fight against corruption is having a ripple effect on sustainable development, however.  As representatives of the prosecutor’s office conveyed, “now, government institutions from health to education actually see more funding and are managing resources more properly, because now they know they are being ‘watched’ and can face prosecution.” As a result, more tax is collected and more funds are available because they are managed more carefully at the local level, where hospitals and schools are receiving more funds and attention.

People also have better access to justice. Guatemala’s top prosecutor aims to have a presence in all governorates in the country and give all citizens access to justice. As of now only the Catholic Church and the ombudsman have such outreach. Yet this is only the beginning of a new phase that will need continued support both domestically and internationally. The SDGs can undoubtedly support the momentum already generated, acting as a catalyst for peace and sustainable development.

There is no quick fix for Guatemala; it will be a long and challenging journey. Yet the 2015 awakening, when people rose up and said “enough,” was a game changer. Guatemala has made progress in one of the components necessary for development identified by the World Bank: justice. The hope is that the reforms that are disrupting the entrenched corruption in state institutions and beyond will provide a gateway for wider and more profound change, including jobs and citizen security and other important elements embedded in the SDGs.

Jimena Leiva Roesch is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Mona Christophersen is a researcher at Fafo and a Senior Adviser at IPI.