Helen Clark: Conflict and Development: Inclusive Governance, Resilient Societies

Feb 11, 2013

Helen Clark, Administrator, UNDP
Conflict and Development:
Inclusive Governance, Resilient Societies
Lecture for Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict.
TS Eliot Lecture Theatre, Merton College, Oxford,
United Kingdom.
5.30 pm, Monday 11 February 2013

My thanks go to Dr. David Rodin for the invitation to speak here on the important topic of conflict and development.

This university is home to a great deal of academic research on the relationship between conflict and development –including that of Paul Collier on the economic causes of civil wars, and Frances Stewart on the link between horizontal inequalities and conflict.

Alas, one does not need to look for long for examples of conflict impacting on development. Take the case of Mali: almost a year ago, conflict in the north of the country and a military coup derailed two decades spent building democracy and pursuing development there. Elections were scheduled to be held in Mali a month after that coup took place – and the President, adhering to the Constitution, had clearly stated that he would not be a candidate. 

Mali’s experience is not atypical or unique – it is an example of the types of conflicts the world is increasingly witnessing.  The conflict there is not a war between states, but, rather, within a state.  It has regional dimensions – in this case the upheaval in Libya had spillover effects for the north of Mali, and Mali’s regional neigbours in ECOWAS have been very engaged in the debate about what to do. The battle lines of the conflict were not clearly drawn, either territorially or in terms of issues, suggesting more complex dynamics at play.   

Mali’s road back from this combination of violent conflict and constitutional crisis is not an easy one.  It will require international support for some time, including for resuming development progress.  A question addressed in this lecture is what form such support might take in countries like Mali which are working their way back from conflict and instability.

In the first part of this lecture, I will comment on the changing nature of conflict, the impact it is having on development, and on the importance of addressing its drivers. 

I will then discuss how UNDP as a development practitioner is working to address the drivers of conflicts, responding to the specific circumstances of countries affected by it.

1(a) The changing nature of conflict

Article One of the Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco in 1945, tasks the UN: “To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;”

As the Charter was drafted following two World Wars, and at a time when global conflict was perceived to be primarily about wars between nation states, or at least conflict between organized parties within states, the focus of the UN’s work on peace and security was on keeping the peace between states and preventive diplomacy. 

Now, while “traditional” inter-state and intra-state conflicts between organized parties can still be found, other trends in the nature of conflict are evident. 

The good news is that the average number of high-intensity conflicts – those defined as resulting in more than 1,000 battle deaths per year - dropped by 79 per cent between 1984 and 2008. The bad news is that smaller scale and deadly armed violence, due to inter-communal conflict, political violence, criminal activity, and/or localized resource-related conflicts is on the rise.

The traditional UN approach to resolving violent conflict has included facilitation of comprehensive, one-time, peace agreements, and then support for efforts to repair the damage caused by war.  In today’s more fluid conflicts, where peace agreements are being signed, they are often not holding.  The World Bank, in its very useful 2011 World Development Report, Conflict, Security, and Development, estimates that forty per cent of fragile and post-conflict countries relapse into conflict within ten years.

Even without a relapse into full-scale conflict, however, weak post conflict governance and ongoing insecurity often allow other forms of violence to flourish – for example, in a number of societies destabilized by violent conflict, sexual and gender-based violence has continued at high levels. In their analysis of civil wars, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler found that crime rates – as measured by homicide rates – increase dramatically even after ‘political peace’ is established. 

The Global Burden of Armed Violence 2011 report estimates that while 526,000 people die violently every year, just one in every ten reported violent deaths around the world now occurs in recognised conflict settings or during terrorist activities. This new pattern for the other ninety per cent of those deaths reflects the increasingly high levels of homicides related to gangs and organized crime, a significant proportion of which occur in the region of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The World Bank comments in its 2011 World Development Report that “21st century violence does not fit the 20th century mould”, noting that while there has been a drop in the incidence of interstate war, remaining forms of conflict and violence do not fit neatly into categories of “war” and “peace,” or of “criminal violence” and “political violence”.  Some 1.5 billion people are estimated to live in fragile and conflict-affected states or in countries with very high levels of criminal violence. That makes promoting peace and security, in the broader sense, critical for securing human development.   

The UN has been adapting how it works in this changing context of conflict.  In 1992, then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, issued a report, An Agenda for Peace, in response to a Security Council invitation, in which he outlined a role for the UN, beyond diplomacy, peacemaking, and peace-keeping, to “assist in peace-building”, focused particularly on rebuilding institutions and infrastructure and on building bonds between those formerly at odds, and to address “the deepest causes of conflict: economic despair, social injustice, and political oppression.”  

The UN explicitly recognizes that the three pillars of its Charter: peace and security, development, and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing.  This helps guide the work of UNDP.

1(b) The impact of conflict on development

Clearly violent conflict impacts very negatively on development – the evidence speaks for itself:

  • While people living in fragile and conflict-affected countries make up fifteen per cent of the world's population, they represent more than thirty per cent of all people living in extreme poverty;
  • It is estimated that sixty per cent of the world’s undernourished children, 77 per cent of the children not in school, and 65 per cent of people without access to safe drinking water reside in countries which have recently faced significant armed violence or violent conflict;
  • Nine of the ten countries with the lowest Human Development Index ranking have experienced conflict in the past twenty years; and
  • Projections in the 2011 World Development Report reveal that not one of the fifty states burdened by fragility has achieved or will achieve a single MDG by 2015;

The negative effects of armed conflict also extend well beyond these measurable social and economic costs. It destroys essential infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, and energy systems; destroys social cohesion; and triggers forced displacement of people.

Conflict can also – and often does – undermine public institutions, facilitate corruption, and encourage a climate of impunity. It contributes to and is sustained by transnational crime, including the trafficking of people, drugs, and arms.  

In all these ways, conflict jeopardizes development.

It is therefore no surprise that in the current discussion on a post-2015 development agenda, there is strong advocacy for fully integrating peace and security into it. The report to the UN Secretary General on the post-2015 agenda from a UN Task Team of officials suggested that peace and security should be one of four core dimensions of the new development framework - along with inclusive social development, environmental sustainability, and inclusive economic development. 

1(c) Drivers of conflict

Many of the drivers of conflict are rooted in development deficits.  This suggests that there are many opportunities for development actors to contribute to breaking cycles of armed violence and creating virtuous cycles of peace and development.

Determining what the key drivers of conflict are in any particular circumstance, however, may not be straightforward.

For example, it has been argued that specific manifestations of poverty, such as large-scale youth unemployment or food insecurity, can cause violent conflict. If so, one could deduce that as the world becomes wealthier, it will inevitably become more peaceful, safer, and secure. Yet a  number of countries with relatively high levels of economic and human development have seen their share of violence.

Undoubtedly roots of discontent often do lie in poverty; but political and social exclusion  and inequality can also be powerful motivators of upheaval leading to conflict as has been seen in a number of countries in recent times.

Waves of popular unrest triggered the onset of democratic transitions in Latin America, Eastern Europe, parts of Asia, and now in the Arab States region.  An added dimension of the 21st century uprisings is the use of modern information and communication technologies as a means of organising rapidly and on a wide scale. 

At UNDP, therefore, we do not see reductions in poverty per se as necessarily reducing the chances of violent conflict. Instead, we think conflict and poverty might be better perceived as symptoms of a cluster of problems – including weak governance and institutions and significant levels of inequality related to a combination of economic, political, and social exclusion.    

These days, challenges such as the impact of climate change and trans-national movements of peoples must also be factored in.   The impact of more extreme and frequent weather events is likely to intensify and even create new disputes over access to natural resources. The Overseas Development Institute has projected that with increasing food demand (projected to rise by fifty per cent by 2030) as well as food price increases, global competition for resources both within and between states will be exacerbated, possibly leading to new security concerns.   

A key question from a development perspective then is: given the current understanding of the causes of conflict, how can development practitioners support efforts to address them and reduce the chance of conflict which undermines development progress?

As development agencies move away from the belief that poverty and conflict have a linear relationship, and towards examining how societies are governed, how their resources are distributed, and how they respond to new risks and vulnerability, the nature of our work also changes.

In their recent book, “Why Nations Fail: The origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty”, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that inclusive economic and political institutions create a ‘virtuous cycle’ which results in stronger states. The key message of the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report, Conflict, Security, and Development, is similar – that “strengthening legitimate institutions and governance to provide citizen security, justice, and jobs is crucial to break cycles of violence.” 

UNDP’s work has long been guided by a belief that transforming poor governance systems to ensure that institutions are effective, inclusive, accountable, and respond to the needs of all, including the poor and most vulnerable, is essential for restoring the trust and confidence needed for peace.

More broadly, UNDP’s recent thinking and work is also guided by the following two assumptions:

First, that greater emphasis must be placed on building resilience to shocks and vulnerability – whether economic, political, or environmental, including through more effective and inclusive governance systems.

If countries and societies are not prepared to deal with volatility and shocks, especially where these disproportionately impact on certain groups and exacerbate existing inequalities, development cannot be advanced in a sustainable way. 

This means treating the risk of conflict or violence in the same way that we treat the risk posed by natural disasters.  One can strengthen river banks and build levees to protect against a flood.  Equally, one can strengthen institutions; equip communities with the skills to prevent conflict and the technology needed to monitor and predict where violence may occur, in the hope of minimizing its impact; and develop tools which support the mediation and resolution of conflict where it arises.

UNDP sees building resilience as a transformative process which draws on the innate strength of individuals, communities, and institutions to prevent, mitigate the impacts of, and learn from the experience of different types of shocks – whether they be internal or external; natural or man-made; economic, political, social, or other.

Second, the complex causes of violence cannot be addressed with separate, piecemeal interventions. Prevention, as well as early recovery, requires collaborative effort by a range of actors.

The range of potential causes of conflict and armed violence needs to be in integrated ways, and the work of humanitarian, peacekeeping, and development actors should be mutually reinforcing.  Such an approach can encompass comprehensive violence prevention and crime control measures to further human security and protect human rights; targeting social cohesion, along with efforts to combat drug trafficking, the proliferation of illegal firearms, and human trafficking; addressing the particular needs of youth, women, and migrants; and, in post-conflict settings, integrating civilian and military approaches.

The need for integrated approaches is well recognized in ongoing international discussion on how the “aid effectiveness” agenda, can contribute to peace-building and state-building in fragile and conflict-affected settings. The New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, adopted at the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness at Busan, Korea, in late 2011, aims to ensure that the principles of effective development co-operation are applied to support for fragile and conflict affected states.  UNDP has been supporting implementation of the New Deal in the g7+ countries. This is a grouping of fifteen countries affected by conflict and fragility which is leading efforts, through a country-owned global mechanism, to monitor, report, and draw attention to the unique challenges faced by fragile states.  

UNDP also has a clear mandate to support early recovery from crisis. The objective is to build the dividends of humanitarian action into sustained recovery and development. 

2. UNDPs work on addressing the drivers of conflict

In this second part of the lecture, I will discuss how UNDP supports governments and societies to consolidate peace, build resilience, and prevent violence, focusing on four areas:

  • Working to ensure that people feel secure enough to invest in their own futures;
  • Developing capacities for all groups to engage in conflict resolution and mediation;
  • Helping communities to deal with the legacy of violence; and
  • Rebuilding the trust between citizens and the state through support for better governance systems and inclusive, responsive, and accountable institutions.

(a) Working to ensure that people feel secure enough to invest in their own futures

Without a sense of security, people don’t invest in their own future. Crops can’t be planted if fields are mined, or harvests can’t be reaped. It is not reasonable to expect families to send their children to school if they risk violence en route. Strengthening people’s and communities’ sense of safety is an essential step in peace-building and advancing human development.

In its work on community security, UNDP has developed innovative approaches which encourage communities to play an active role in increasing their own safety.  

In El Salvador, for example, with UNDP support, communities prioritised improved police response times, and establishing gun-free zones in twenty of the most violent municipalities. This community-driven initiative helped to reduce the murder rate by over forty per cent. On 2 February last year, El Salvador recorded its first murder-free day in three years.

Similar work with police has now been replicated in other conflict and post-conflict settings. In South Sudan, UNDP’s Community Security and Arms Control initiative helped establish more than fifty police stations in 2011. Significant reductions in criminality and cattle raiding have been reported, along with a reduction in poverty. A greater sense of security for older people and women has also been established.

Another critical area of our work is the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants, which can contribute a great deal to increasing the security of communities. The danger of disgruntled ex-combatants drifting into criminality and/or renewed conflict is often a serious threat to peace.

UNDP is currently supporting initiatives to disarm, demobilise, and reintegrate (DDR) ex-combatants in fifteen countries.

Our approach is holistic – going beyond the ex-combatants to focus on reducing armed violence and creating livelihood opportunities in the broader communities in which they reside. We play a co-ordinating role, in support of national authorities, which seeks to strengthen national capacities and provide financial and technical assistance.

  • In Nepal, for example, UNDP, UNICEF, and other partners developed a special programme to address the reintegration needs of children and adolescents who had been caught up in the armed conflict and were growing-up in the cantonment camps for former Maoist combatants.  I met such young people in Nepal in 2011 who had been supported with vocational training, and/or for micro-enterprise which included a small start-up grant.
  • In Sudan, UNDP is helping to reintegrate former fighters through vocational training, loans to start businesses, and civic education to help them participate in local peace committees and other decision-making bodies – to reduce the chance that they will be drawn into further conflict.

(b) Developing capacities for all groups to engage in conflict resolution and mediation

If the broader population is only engaged peripherally in the process of reconciliation and peace-building, perceptions of exclusion and marginalization can grow, heightening the risk of relapse into conflict.

Peace processes have been known to fail when negotiations are not inclusive, and when, as a result, important parties don’t feel their concerns and voices are being heard. Building the capacity of all affected populations to engage in conflict resolution, mediation, peace processes, and planning for future development is very important for building and sustaining peace.  Civic life and informal institutions need to be strengthened as part of this.

Studies of why certain communities in close proximity to each other in India’s Gujarat state experienced inter-religious violence when others did not showed that the key difference between them was their respective levels of “associational life”. That suggests that the numbers of local and civic organizations and other common spaces in which people were involved - and hence wanted to protect – had implications for the absence or presence of violence experienced in those communities.

UNDP has been actively engaged in developing capacities for conflict resolution, meditation, and peaceful transition in a number of conflict-affected countries. For example:

  • In Kyrgyzstan, following the tragic events in Osh in the South of the country in 2010, UNDP supported the development of mechanisms for peaceful settlement of recurring conflict, including by helping establish new and support existing local and national peace councils. These councils, together with the government and members of civil society, jointly analyse conflict trends, and act as mediators and facilitators on contentious issues.

We also supported vocational training for young people, with the support of local employers, as unemployed youth are all too easily drawn into the violence which can rip divided communities apart.  I visited these training programmes in Osh two years ago.   

  • In Ghana in the lead-up to last year’s elections, UNDP helped build and strengthen the national and local peace infrastructure. Mediation training, conflict prevention advice, and support to the National Peace Council, the police, and election officials were provided. These groups were then able to intervene to defuse potential violence, helping to ensure peace for the elections and their aftermath. Ghana’s peace infrastructure model is being replicated in other West African countries.
  • In 2010, Kenya held a constitutional referendum without incidence of violence – a huge step forward from the devastating violence which followed the December 2007 elections. UNDP and other actors supported the training of police, peace councils, and government and civil society in how to use information and communications technology and crowd sourcing to identify potential violent hot spots and act, through improved security or mediation, to defuse conflicts.  For the elections due to be held next month, UNDP has expanded on these efforts by supporting anti-violence media campaigns, helping set up systems to monitor and report “hate speech” on the internet, and training mediators to defuse local disputes where they arise.  By the election date, 1,000 such mediators will have been trained.  

(c) Dealing with the legacy of violence

Ensuring accountability for abuses and human rights violations of previous regimes is a priority in many transitions from authoritarian to more democratic regimes. Dealing with the perpetrators is complex as justice needs to be seen to be done, and new systems of governance need to give assurance that such abuses will not be repeated. 

Transitions also provide opportunities to address gaps in rights and areas of exclusion, and to ensure that there are equal opportunities for all under the law.  

In many post-conflict countries and transition settings, UNDP has assisted governments, courts, police, and lawyers to be more effective in delivering justice and security services, including to the most vulnerable and by helping victims to seek redress.  Some examples:

  • In Somalia, UNDP has helped the government establish mobile courts to improve access to judicial services across the country. In 2011, we also supported the government to appoint and train over 14,000 police officers;
  • In Afghanistan, UNDP has helped recruit and train police, and administers salary payments for the 137,000 members of the national police force;
  • In the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where much sexual and gender based violence is an ongoing and distressing legacy of conflict, UNDP has helped develop the capacity of the authorities to prosecute sexual violence and to expand access to justice for victims through the provision of mobile courts.  Since 2011, more than 350 sexual- and gender-based violence cases have been heard through eighteen military mobile courts, resulting in 193 convictions. That’s a start…

(d) Rebuilding the trust between citizens and the state through more inclusive, responsive, and  accountable institutions

Conflict can result from a breakdown of trust between citizens and their government, where there is a perception of unfair and inefficient institutions and/or a sense that government is not legitimate. 

Therefore an essential element of peace-building and conflict is rebuilding citizens’ confidence in institutions and strengthening the legitimacy of the state. That helps to offer a stake in society to groups which might otherwise be drawn to armed violence. 

At UNDP we believe that when national governments commit to establishing the rule of law and accountability, citizens have a better chance of being able to live in peace and stability.

Where societies are emerging from conflict and/or social and political upheaval, strengthening the rule of law is particularly important.

In Tunisia, the National Constituent Assembly, elected in late 2011 is drafting a new constitution. In support of that, UNDP has been working with the Government and civil society groups to facilitate a broad public discussion about what the new constitution should contain. This dialogue is immensely important, and not only because it will lead to a new constitution. The process of public engagement is in itself an important aspect of the democratic process which can also help heal the wounds from the conflict. As events of the past week show, Tunisia’s transition is still fragile, and even greater efforts to embrace political inclusion will need to be made. 

In Timor-Leste, UNDP and the UN Mission worked to help strengthen the rule of law by:

  • establishing an indigenous dispute resolution system;
  • strengthening civilian oversight of the security sector;
  • police training and strengthening;
  • support to the electoral system and for making the political process more inclusive;
  • developing the constitution; and
  • assistance with establishing a sovereign wealth fund to ensure that revenues from gas extraction are safeguarded for public benefit.

It’s worth noting that after years of intensive international engagement, human development in Timor-Leste is rising, and the country’s stability has improved to the point where the UN peacekeeping mission there has been discontinued.        


Let me conclude this lecture by emphasizing some of its key points.  Inter-state wars have declined in number, but many states and communities around the world are destabilized by violent conflict and crime, and by inter community tensions – including recurring conflicts over land, natural resources, and identity.

UNDP sees the prospect of peace and sustainable development deriving from the same set of variables: the ability of all peoples to have voice and be able to participate in decisions affecting their lives; the level of effectiveness and inclusiveness of institutions; and the ability to manage emerging risks and crises.

I have spoken about how UNDP works in countries endeavouring to emerge from periods of conflict, by supporting the strengthening of governance and institutions, and the capacity of communities to become more resilient to the threat of conflict.  

There are no shortcuts to building enduring peace and stability. Consolidating peace is about assisting national stakeholders to gain control of the recovery process, and supporting governance in the immediate aftermath of a crisis to lay the foundations for long-term transitions from fragility. 

Prevention of conflict requires investment in good governance, improving the conditions in which people live, reducing inequality, and addressing political, social, and economic exclusion – all areas of work in which UNDP engages. 
As I began with Mali, let me also conclude with some words on the way forward there as the country endeavours to recover from conflict and profound crisis.    

Long term stability for Mali requires dedication to inclusive governance and to inclusive and equitable development across the country.  Humanitarian support and early recovery activities must proceed together, paving the way for a resumption of long-term development. In the North, state authority and services must be re-established, infrastructure rehabilitated, and livelihoods restored. Re-establishment of the rule of law will also be vital to putting the country back on track.

UNDP will focus its interventions in Mali on peace consolidation, building the capacities of transitional institutions, and assistance for disaster risk reduction and community resilience capacities. We will support the processes leading to the next elections and the preparation of a development programme for the north of the country.

More research is needed on effective strategies related to conflict resolution and building resilience, to support evidence-based policy-making at the interface of conflict and development.  Dialogue between practitioners like UNDP and the academic community here at Oxford and elsewhere can contribute a lot to our collective understanding of the issues and how best to address them through development work.


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