Reducing Violence to Advance Peace and Sustain Development

Children play in the yard of a school that was partially destroyed during battles, in the village of Kufayr, in Syria's Idlib province. (IBRAHIM YASOUF/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development brought together world leaders around a shared vision and commitments, including to foster “peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence.” The resulting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) contain an ambition to significantly reduce violence in all its forms (SDG 16.1). This goal and target—the first time a quantified target on violence prevention has been placed at the heart of the global development agenda—will be under review at the 2019 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development in July. This presents an opportunity to face the reality of the violence prevention challenge, and to build on successes.

The target to reduce violence contained in SDG 16 does not stand alone. It is backed up by 36 other targets from eight SDGs that aim to build more peaceful, just, and inclusive societies. This shift away from SDG 16 to SDG 16+, articulated by the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, ensures that prevention is not understood in isolation from the factors which give rise to violence, insecurity, and injustice that are identified in the agenda. SDG 16+ underscores that progress made in reducing violence—or the lack thereof—will impact whether other goals, e.g., on women’s empowerment, the reduction of hunger, and access to water, will be achieved.

Unfortunately, the world is not on target to achieve a significant reduction in all forms of violence. According to just-released data from Small Arms Survey, in a business-as-usual scenario, violent deaths will increase by more than 10 percent from 2017 levels, reaching 660,000 in 2030. Under this scenario, the number of conflict deaths would increase slightly while the homicide rate (non-conflict deaths) would remain on current trends.

A more negative scenario is also possible, if conflict deaths continue to rise and homicide rates regress towards the worst performers in each region. Under this scenario, violent deaths would grow to 1,060,000 in 2030.

But violence is not only a matter of mortality rates. Violence impedes all forms of development. Violence instills fear within communities, homes, schools, workplaces, and along city streets. Violence makes it harder for parents to get their children proper health care or a nutritious diet. In Africa, for example, between three and four young children are estimated to have lost their lives for every direct death from conflict.

Conflict and its insidious impacts are only part of the picture. Eighty-two percent of all violent deaths occur outside of conflict zones. Fewer than half of the world’s 20 most violent countries are affected by conflict, reflecting extremely high levels of non-conflict violence, especially in urban centers. On current trends, between 43 and 60 percent of the extreme poor will live in countries affected by conflict, violence, and fragility in 2030.

It is worth recalling that, while there is a high degree of variation, all societies experience violence, injustice, and exclusion. Disadvantaged and intentionally marginalized people, groups, and communities face the brunt of these burdens. Over a third of women have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partners, or have been victims of non-partner sexual violence. One billion children are victims of serious violence each year. Young men are disproportionately likely to be victims (and perpetrators) of many forms of violence, with homicide the fourth leading cause of death for young people globally.

The many forms of violence and the relationship with many aspects of peace and development require an integrated approach. This is why the Roadmap for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies identifies strategies, actions, and enablers for the implementation of SDG 16+. The transformative strategies cover the prevention of all forms of violence, institutional renewal to underpin sustainable development, and action to increase social, economic, and political inclusion. This 16+ framing is critical to making sure response options are pursued through just, legitimate, and equitable pathways.

The universality of Agenda 2030 is essential. All countries face their own unique challenges with violence. And all countries should strive toward building more peaceful, just, and inclusive societies. Through collective action, they should also work together to reduce risks to peace that span national borders.

The positive news is that we can do this.

There is consensus that significant reductions can be achieved. The Global Status Report on Violence Prevention identifies six “best buy” strategies for preventing interpersonal violence at a policy and programmatic level. The Igarapé Institute and Inter-American Development Bank have argued that, in Latin America, a 50 percent decline in violence could be achieved in just ten years. The United Nations and World Bank have united behind Pathways for Peace, a shared framework for the prevention of violent conflict.

A group of international organizations have proposed a framework to underpin action to prevent violence against women in 2015. For children, a similar group identified seven strategies, named INSPIRE, for ending violence against children. These multi-sectoral approaches to prevention are based on data about the scope of the problem, the identification of risk and protective factors, implementation of evidence-based interventions, and monitoring of impacts and cost-effectiveness.

The Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children was launched by then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the HLPF on Sustainable Development in July 2016. The End Violence Partnership aims to “make societies safer for children and end violence against children everywhere.” It mobilizes global movement, strengthens political will, identifies and shares solutions, and makes a compelling investment case to end violence for all children.  The Partnership is also identified as the overarching platform for the implementation of the INSPIRE strategies to help countries and communities achieve ending violence against children. INSPIRE strategies cover SDG targets for ending violence against children including the main target SDG 16.2 on children, SDG 5.2 on women and girls, SDG 16.1 on all forms of violence, and others to address all risk factors for violence against children.

Simultaneously, Secretary-General António Guterres has reinforced such unified thinking through the promotion of a “peace continuum” that brings together prevention, mediation, conflict-resolution, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, disarmament, and sustainable development. While the creation of discipline-based communities of practice is essential to furthering research and analysis, so is re-orienting around the overarching goals of increased peace and safety.

Advancing peace and safety for all peoples is our collective responsibility. We have the evidence to make the world more safe. While destruction can be achieved with remarkable efficiency, preventing such destruction is more complicated. It requires collaboration, partnership, sustained attention and continued dedication. Fundamentally, it requires acknowledging we have the tools and evidence to save lives. The question is whether we can work together, in collaboration and partnership, to put them to use.

Rachel Locke is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at NYU and Head of Research for the grand challenge on 16.1 for the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies.

This article is part of a series being published by the Global Observatory in the lead-up to the 2019 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development.