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A World without Conflict: How donors can make a Difference

Keynote Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Chicago Global Donors Network, Second Annual Conference on International Giving, Chicago, 5 October 2004

A World in Turmoil

We meet in unhappy and riven times. Looking out at the world around us right now it is difficult to believe that - despite all the hopes for dramatic improvement in the international order we have been nurturing since the end of the Cold War a decade and a half ago - we have learned anything much at all about conflict prevention and resolution, or that groups like mine or the philanthropists who support them could possibly be making much difference in achieving a world without conflict or mass violence.

To take just some of the areas in which my own International Crisis Group is presently active, we have the entirely man-made humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan’s Darfur region; the continuing security nightmare in postwar Iraq; the re-emergence of Afghanistan as a narco-state; the lack of hope for any resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict; the seriously deteriorating situation in the Congo; the danger of a further explosion in Kosovo; renewed warnings of belligerence across the Taiwan Strait; and the complete failure of the six-party talks over the last year to prevent North Korea quadrupling its plutonium stockpile, to the point where it can now make 6-8 weapons.

Looking ahead, we face the prospects – all of them of at least medium probability – of further major terrorist attacks against Western cities, but this time with nuclear, radiological or biological weapons; further major military catastrophe in the Gulf, involving Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia; new military catastrophes between major powers in North East Asia and on the Indian sub-continent; and of failed, failing and fragile states throughout the developing world continuing to fail to deliver the most basic security to their own people and creating multiple risks to others elsewhere by their harbouring of terrorism and international crime, and their generation of health pandemics, refugee floods and major environmental problems.

That’s the bad news. But there is some good news as well, and it’s on that that I want to focus in the remainder of my talk to you. We have learned, as an international community, from what has gone wrong. We know that conflict prevention effort by governments and intergovernmental organisations does make a difference. And we know that non-governmental organisations, and the foundations and private donors who support them can make a difference - both in what they do directly, and in what they do indirectly by persuading governments and intergovernmental organisations by their research and advocacy, the information, analysis and advice they provide.

...But Conflict Prevention Matters

The most important single lesson we have learned is that conflict prevention effort matters. Let me give you some evidence to back that up. Contrary to conventional wisdom, and perhaps all our intuitions, there has been a very significant trend decline – after a high point in the late 80s and very early 90s - in the number of wars taking place, both between and within states, in the number of genocidal and other mass atrocities, and the number of people dying violent deaths as a result of them.

And those figures are very dramatic. During most of the 1990s the number of people being directly killed each year in violent armed conflicts was over 200, 000. More recently, the figure has been averaging closer to 20,000 – a tenfold reduction.[1] These figures have been gradually emerging over a number of studies, and will be consolidated in the soon to be published first annual Human Security Report edited by a team under Andrew Mack at the University of British Columbia.

How has this happened? A number of explanations are offered – including the burning out of Cold War ‘proxy wars’, the democratisation of a number of authoritarian regimes previously sustained by the superpowers with lessening civil conflict as a result, and a growing loss of confidence or belief over recent decades in war as an instrument of state policy. But one of the best explanations is simply that governments and intergovernmental organisations are getting much better at conflict prevention and resolution, with much help in the process from NGOs and civil society (including, for example, the pathbreaking Carnegie Commission on the Prevention of Deadly Conflict, which did so much in the early 90s to develop a culture of conflict prevention among global policy makers).

The UN, World Bank, donor states, NATO, OSCE and other regional security organisations - and NGOs – have been much more sharply focused in the last fifteen years than ever previously on conflict prevention and management. There has been an increased willingness to challenge the ‘culture of impunity’ through new international criminal courts and transitional justice mechanisms like truth commissions; and much greater interest by aid agencies in development policies that address the root causes of political violence. And there has been a greatly increased reliance on peacemaking initiatives and negotiated peace agreements; an equally dramatic increase in complex peace operations focusing on post conflict peace building; and a significantly greater Security Council willingness to authorise the use of force which has helped deter aggression and sustain peace agreements. For all the things that can and do to go wrong in these various areas, the effort has made a difference.

And the Role of NGOs is Crucial …

In making that difference the contribution of international non-governmental organisations, and by extension those who support them, has been absolutely vital. There are of course many different kinds of NGO involved in peace and security issues, of many different shapes and sizes and degrees of impact, and it may be helpful to begin by getting our bearings as to who they are.

NGO, or Civil Society Organisations (to use the slightly broader term now gaining currency), working on conflict related issues can for the most part be usefully characterised as playing one or other of four distinct roles:

pure think-tanks/research institutions/policy forums (like Centres for Strategic Studies, Councils on Foreign Relations, Institutes of International Affairs and some foundations);

campaign organisations (like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch or Cora Weiss’s Hague Appeal for Peace);

on-the-ground operational organisations (engaged in mediation, capacity building, confidence building and the like - like the Carter Centre, Open Society Institute or Search for Common Ground); or

humanitarian relief organisations (like MSF or CARE).

My own organisation, the International Crisis Group – ICG or Crisis Group for short – is one of the few that doesn’t fit neatly into one or other of the boxes in this spectrum. It’s not that we are neither ‘thinkers’, ‘talkers’ nor ‘doers’, as some have rather unkindly relabelled my list, but because we are in many ways all three: engaged as we are in the three basic functions of research and analysis, policy prescription, and both high-level and public advocacy, but at the same time being strongly field-based and closely involved with many of the key players on the ground in various peace negotiations, we seem to occupy a distinctive niche of our own.

Our own history is perhaps particularly interesting in the context of our present topic, because I think we can reasonably claim to be a central part of the sea-change in official attitudes toward conflict prevention over the last decade that I have been describing. The International Crisis Group was established in 1995 by a group of prominent international citizens and foreign policy specialists – including its first Chairman, Senator George Mitchell, and the current head of the UNDP, Mark Malloch Brown – who were appalled by the international community’s failure to anticipate and respond effectively to the catastrophes in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda.

The aim was to create a sophisticated, professional new international organisation, wholly independent of any government, with a high profile and highly experienced Board and senior management, which could persuade governments and intergovernmental organisations - when it came to deadly conflict and mass violence – to think about things they didn’t particularly want to think about, and do things to prevent and resolve conflict and violence they really didn’t want to do.

From very small beginnings – two people in a London office and a tiny field staff in the Balkans – Crisis Group has grown in less than a decade to having now over 100 full time staff working across five continents in some forty different areas of actual or potential conflict, and in advocacy offices in Brussels (the Headquarters), in Washington, next to the UN in New York, and in London and Moscow; producing between 80 and 100 freely available reports and briefing papers a year and promoting them directly and intensely with senior policy makers. A number have been kind enough to say that we are now the world’s leading non-government source of information, analysis and advice to governments and intergovernmental organisations in relation to the prevention of deadly conflict and mass violence – but I couldn’t possibly comment on that. And even if true it doesn’t seem to make my annual fund-raising task any easier!

…In the Following Areas in Particular

What, more precisely, are the ways in which NGOs like mine and the others I have mentioned really make a difference in turning the world away from conflict and mass violence? There are five distinct contributions we can make – in the areas of early warning information and analysis, long term structural prevention, short-term operational prevention, mobilising the political will to react, and post-conflict peacebuilding – and I shall say a few words about each in turn.

Early Warning and Analysis.

It is difficult to do much about preventing conflicts if you don’t see them coming – although it can be argued most failures of prevention (like the genocide in Rwanda, or the current atrocities in Darfur) have been a product not so much of a lack of early warning as a failure to act effectively on the signals that were there for the taking.

But policy makers do have to have an accurate take on what is happening on the ground, focusing particularly on both the issues that are resonating and the personalities that are driving them, and for a variety of reasons, mainly security and budgetary, traditional diplomats are not performing this function in as much breadth and depth as they traditionally have done. It’s hard to get out and about when you are locked up in a fortress or have minimal staff resources - and both early warning and effective conflict prevention capacity have become more at risk as a result.

The UN – despite all the immense efforts of the UN Foundation and others to strengthen its organisational effectiveness - has also been conspicuously unsuccessful in building its own strong in-house early warning and analytical capability, despite repeated recognition that this is crucial if the Secretary-General and Security Council are to effectively perform their Charter responsibilities: the problem here has mainly been the political one of a number of member being anxious not to be seen as suitable cases for treatment.

NGOs with a strong field presence have been widely seen as very successful in filling these gaps. Crisis Group for example produces a monthly CrisisWatch bulletin reporting on developments in some 70 countries and regions of actual or potential conflict worldwide, and we regularly brief national government officials, the UN Secretariat and Security Council members on what is happening not only in the Sudan or Congo or Burundi or Kosovo, where a fair amount of attention is already now concentrated, but in places like Central Asia, or Papua in Indonesia, where it isn’t but ought to be. We first started writing about Darfur in mid-2003, and it is no source of pride to us that it took until April this year for us to have an impact, but the effort to sound the alarm bells, however unresponsive the audience, is one that must never be relaxed.

Long-term Structural Prevention.

As a result of the much more systematic focus on conflict prevention since the early 1990s we now have a much better understanding both of the causes of conflict and mass violence, and also the repertoire of measures available to deal with them, in the long as well as shorter term, including:

political and diplomatic measures to deal with negotiable disputes, eg. about access to resources, and to build effective governance structures;

legal and constitutional measures, especially constitutional and human rights protections for aggrieved minority groups;

economic and social measures, to try and eat away at sources of rage directed at those better off within the country and in the world outside, and to try and address some of the feelings of hopelessness and despair among young people that do make them ready recruits for extremism; and

security sector reform measures – having effective police forces and professional civilian-controlled armies - the neglect of which again often aids or accelerates conflict.

Aid agencies around the developed world are much more focused now than they ever previously were on conflict prevention, as distinct from just poverty alleviation, in their development strategies. The concept of ‘peacebuilding’, in the context not just of states emerging from conflict but those hoping to avoid plunging into it, has become quite well entrenched in policy thinking: there is now widespread acknowledgement that there are literally scores of states under real stress, lacking both the governing capacity and the resources to provide not only education and economic opportunity but basic physical security for their people.

Innumerable NGOs and research institutes, particularly those with a humanitarian, development and socio-economic focus – the ones that go to Porto Allegre each year while I am battling it out at Davos! - have played a critical role in concentrating attention on long term peacebuilding in fragile states as the responsibility of states in the developed world, significantly broadening the focus of aid agencies in the process, and their contribution should never be underestimated.

At a more micro level, the contribution of organisations like the Open Society Institute, Search for Common Ground and International Alert have also been far more significant than generally recognised. They have worked away year after year at the often thankless tasks of building confidence across ethnic or religious lines within small communities, of creating better education systems, more responsive media and more capable, accountable and democratic governance in ways that, at least over time, really do make a difference.

At another level again there is the important role of many think tanks and advocacy organisations in building international treaty regimes and norms – in areas like arms control and disarmament, rules governing the use of force, and human rights protection – that are themselves important contributors to structural conflict prevention. And of all the foundations supporting this kind of activity, none has been more active or effective in this area than Chicago’s own MacArthur Foundation – whom I have particular cause to thank as both a major supporter of Crisis Group, and as a major contributor to the Canada-initiated International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which I co-chaired, which introduced the concept of ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ as the best way of finding international consensus around the issue of humanitarian intervention.

Short-term Operational Prevention.

As situations deteriorate, and the prospect of deadly conflict looms closer, attention has to shift to more immediately focused conflict prevention efforts:

political and diplomatic efforts have to involve hands on mediation, conciliation and perhaps threats of political isolation;

the legal efforts may need to involve threats of bringing to account under international criminal and humanitarian law;

the economic efforts might need to include positive incentives (eg an energy package for N Korea) and negative incentives or sanctions (eg. cutting off the right to travel or have access to foreign bank accounts); and

the military measures might need to include preventive deployments of troops (to establish no-cross lines) and the threat of ultimate military force.

Identifying these strategies, and persuading those with leverage to adopt them – through both public and behind-the-scenes advocacy - is very much my Crisis Group’s core business. But there are plenty of other relevant players, including the Carter Center in Atlanta, the Community of San Egidio in Italy and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (or Henry Dunant Centre) in Switzerland, who have strong and well-deserved reputations for effective hands-on conciliation and mediation in delicate and difficult situations.

Mobilising the Political Will to React.

The bottom line for all of us in the conflict prevention and resolution business is that unless the relevant decision makers, at the national or international level, want something to happen it won’t. But merely lamenting the absence of political will – as so many commentaries do, stopping the analysis right there - doesn’t help very much. What we have to is work out how to mobilise it. And that requires, above all, good arguments, of a kind which NGOs – especially the well-established, high profile, international campaign organisations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch - should be particularly well able to mobilise.

The most relevant ones are:

moral arguments (however base and self-interested their actual motives are governments always like to be seen as acting from higher ones);

financial arguments (preventive action is likely to be cheaper by many orders of magnitude, as we have already seen, than responding after the event, whether through military action, humanitarian relief assistance, post-conflict reconstruction, or all three);

national interest arguments (bearing in mind that, given the number of international problems, like terrorism or health pandemics, that can only be solved by cooperative action, all countries have an interest not only in the traditional security and prosperity objectives, but in being, and being seen to be, good, cooperative international citizens); and

The Darfur crisis makes one of the clearest case-studies of recent years of the importance of this kind of argumentation, reinforced by effective public advocacy, and in showing both the strengths and limitations of the NGOs’ role. Three or four organisations – mainly Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, MSF and Crisis Group – finally succeeded in turning a complete non-issue into a major focus of media and then governmental attention, and major advances have been made in stabilising a humanitarian relief and violence-infliction situation that was careering out of control. But the Security Council response has still been much too timid and deferential, and developed country support for the African Union - which has been willing to send protective troops – has been wholly inadequate. On major issues of this kind, NGOs can bring the policy-making horses to water, but it’s hard to make them drink.

Post-conflict Peacebuilding.

One of the things we now understand most clearly about conflict is that the countries and regions most likely to lapse into it are those that have been there before. The best predictor of future conflict is, unhappily, past conflict. Each post-conflict environment, if it is not handled properly, contains the potential seeds of the next round of destruction.

What follows from that is that far more effort has to be put into consolidating the peace after it has been won. Peace cannot be ensured simply because a clear-cut military victory has apparently been won – think of Afghanistan and Iraq right now. And sustainable peace cannot be guaranteed just because a diplomatic peacemaking initiative has apparently been successful: the worst horrors in the Angolan civil war came after the Bicesse Accords in 1990, and the Rwandan genocide exploded just a year after the Arusha Peace Agreement of 1993, in each case because manifestly inadequate arrangements were made for peacekeeping and general implementation follow through. Haiti is another spectacular example of recurring lapses into internal war because of international inattention and ineptitude.

The conflict containment structures and capacities that need to be applied in a post-conflict environment, to prevent violence recurring, are essentially exactly the same as those that need to be applied in failed or failing states to prevent violent conflict breaking out in the first place. The focus in each case must be on structural prevention – building institutional structures and processes (military, political, legal, economic and social) which are capable of relieving non-violently all the crucial stress points that arise between individuals and groups. Post conflict peacebuilding is a hugely complex and often hugely costly enterprise. It has all too often been neglected or mismanaged, and when this happens it is only a matter of time before the boil erupts again.

Crisis Group, for all these reasons, puts just as much effort into monitoring and analysing post conflict peace building as we do into pre-conflict prevention and current conflict resolution. We have people on the ground - producing a substantial series of reports on what is going wrong and what is needed to correct it – in, for example, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burundi, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Algeria, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia and Haiti. And there are many, many NGOs – mainly in the humanitarian relief and development communities – who do wonderful operational work creating environments in which people can once again have a sense of hope about their own and their children’s future: a critical precondition for sustainable peace.

A Final Word

When I was a Cabinet Minister in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s – and particularly the years when I was Foreign Minister - I often found that the advice of NGOs was a rather mixed blessing. They would come to me saying with great earnestness about some situation at home or abroad that the government should ‘care more’ about what what was going on and ‘do something’ about it. My response, as often as not, was that I did care about what was going on, and would in fact find it rather helpful to have not just an exhortation on the subject but rather some good solid analysis and creative new ideas about what realistically could be done – what the underlying issues, were who had the leverage, what coalitions could be mobilised: generally, who could do what, when, where and how.

These days it would be much less necessary for me to have to react that way. It’s not only that the International Crisis Group now exists to give policy makers and those who influence them exactly those kinds of answers, as we try to do every day, but everywhere I look NGOs working in the peace and conflict area are much more sophisticated and professional, and as a result much more effective, than they used to be.

But they have only begun to become so as a result of the magnificent support they have received from individuals and foundations like those represented here at this conference. Thank you all for what you have done. And please go on doing it – if you possibly can with even more commitment and resources - in the future. We have come a long way in reducing the destruction, despair and unutterable misery of human conflict, but we have many miles to go before we sleep.

[1] The trends are less clear when it comes to the number of terrorist incidents and the number of people killed by them, with much turning on the definitions adopted. The best judgement here is probably that the overall number of terrorist incidents has declined over the last 15-20 years but the number of ‘significant’ attacks – and those killed by them – has definitely risen, not least as a result of the widespread emergence of suicide bombing as a preferred tactic. That said, the numbers killed and injured by terrorist violence still remain quite small by comparison with the casualties of outright war