Conflict prevention has been a long-standing and high-profile international policy goal, and yet in practice international agencies have found it difficult to operationalise, with the structural dimension of conflict prevention proving especially challenging. Structural conflict prevention (SCP) refers to longer-term measures to prevent conflict by addressing ‘root causes’ – a set of objectives that are often contrasted with operational conflict prevention measures, which address short-term triggers of conflict.
In 2011, the UK coalition government (2010-15) made structural conflict prevention a core plank of its foreign policy strategy (Building Stability Overseas, published in 2011). Although the approach received high-level commitment from ministers, the government largely failed to implement this agenda. A new study based on doctoral research conducted in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath, examines why this agenda proved so difficult to implement. It is one of the few detailed studies to scrutinise how and why policy commitments to conflict prevention fail to be operationalised by international agencies.
The study highlights three key factors. First, concepts of structural and upstream conflict prevention were poorly defined and communicated. This undermined the process of operationalisation and meant that country-based officials were left to articulate and execute policy, not always in concert with local elites. Although the early commitment of the Coalition government to SCP constituted an opportunity to develop and embed this agenda as a cross-departmental goal, there was a lack of departmental leadership, experience or policies ready to be drawn upon. Instead, junior officials and contractors sought to muddle through as best they could.
Second, the UK’s strategic focus was quickly drawn towards emerging crises (notably conflicts arising from the Arab Spring) and ministers were unable to devote the time and effort to institutionalise the long-term political nature of SCP. Third, the efforts by departmental officials to develop and execute a SCP policy were not institutionalised and were therefore crowded out by state-building objectives, which had been more fully institutionalised especially within the Department for International Development (DFID), the de facto lead agency for applying SCP. The incentive structure within DFID was strongly geared towards demonstrating measurable and value-for-money outcomes via business cases – a framework within which it was difficult to justify SCP objectives.
We argue that if international agencies are to embark on SCP, they should be more realistic about complex challenges and should pay more attention to the process of institutionalisation. The UK government recently set out an updated foreign policy strategy in its Integrated Review (Global Britain in a Competitive Age) published in March 2021. While this report includes some welcome commitment to a more integrated approach to preventing conflict (including the establishment of a ‘Conflict Centre’) it appears to repeat the shortcomings of Building Stability Overseas strategy in failing to set out a clear plan for how goals relating to peacebuilding or conflict prevention would be realised. The term ‘peacebuilding’ in fact is not mentioned in the report. The recent cuts to the UK development aid spending reinforce the sense that structural conflict prevention is slipping further down the government’s agenda.