Conflict prevention in the 21st century

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1. The UK approach to conflict prevention

For the UK, conflict prevention is a key component of a wider strategy of 'building stability overseas'. This combines a range of approaches including the promotion of early warning, effective crisis response and the delivery of overseas development assistance and upstream conflict prevention.

UK policy on conflict prevention

Rationale for the UK's increased engagement in conflict prevention

There are arguably three factors currently driving the UK's focus on conflict prevention.

First, the changed international dynamics in the period following the end of the Cold War have brought conflict, and the consequences of conflict, much closer both to the UK itself and UK nationals overseas. The real or perceived threats from extremist groups operating from territory left ungoverned due to ongoing conflict are increasingly felt in the UK. Meanwhile, conflict is triggering mass migration, either directly as a result of its impact on people's security, or indirectly as a consequence of its drag on economic opportunity in conflict-affected countries and regions.

Second, the UK's attempts during this period to bring about greater stability overseas through direct intervention, albeit in most cases alongside other countries, have shown mixed results. While the military intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 helped bring a swift end to a bloody and protracted civil war, subsequent attempts to bring stability in, for example, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya were less successful.

Third, the events of the Arab Spring undoubtedly caught many UK policy makers (together with others) by surprise. The resulting uncertainty and shifting power in the region and their importance for wider global peace and security have galvanized action in many Western policy centers.

Therefore, in what has become from a domestic perspective an increasingly politically charged arena, the UK has sought an approach which responds robustly to threats while being seen to learn lessons from failed interventions and to better anticipate the future. The approach also stems from the UK's desire to retain a degree of influence on major global peace and security issues within a changing international order, particularly given the rise of emerging economies, including China. This leads to the UK leveraging its established and favorable position within the UNSC and other key international governance mechanisms.

UK policy evolution

In 2010 a UK Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) called for a significant increase in UK support to conflict prevention, delivered through an integrated approach bringing together diplomatic, development, defense and intelligence resources. The review emphasized the need to focus on addressing the causes of security concerns, rather than the consequences. It outlined increased investment in strengthening early warning capacities; higher contributions of overseas development assistance to fragile and conflict-affected contexts; enhanced defense engagement on conflict prevention; and a focus on building effective security and justice, and responsible and accountable governments. The review resulted in the development of the BSOS, which was published in 2011 and which has become the cornerstone of the UK's conflict prevention policy. This document, which was produced jointly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Ministry of Defense (MOD) and the Department for International Development (DFID), highlighted four key priorities for the UK:

• improving capacity to anticipate crises and react quickly to early warning signals

• enhancing crisis response to prevent them spreading and/or escalating

• investing in upstream conflict prevention to ensure that countries are more capable of managing tensions

• coordinating with other international actors such as the UN, regional organizations such as NATO, the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), and emerging powers such as China

The cross-governmental approach called for in the 2010 SDSR was encouraged by further increasing funding available within the 'Conflict Pool', a resource jointly managed by DFID, the FCO and the MOD. The Conflict Pool provided joint funding for conflict prevention, stabilization and peacekeeping activities in line with joint priorities. In April 2015 the Conflict Pool was superseded by a £1.033 billion Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). The CSSF is overseen by the National Security Council and includes a wider range of governmental actors than the previous instrument, such as the Home Office, Intelligence Services and National Crime Agency. It also places an emphasis on particular country and regional strategies and has facilitated the creation of regional boards, chaired by officials from the FCO, with representation from all departments overseen by the National Security Council within the CSSF. The UK Government has since committed that by financial year 2019–2020 funding for this CSSF will increase by £267 million to £1.3 billion. These changes have generated concern among civil society and the wider UK policy community about the impact of aligning development and conflict prevention efforts with the UK's national security objectives in what is referred to by some as the "securitization of development".

The future direction of UK conflict prevention policy

On 23 November 2015 the UK Government published an updated National Security Strategy and SDSR. This document builds on themes within its 2010 predecessor. The focus is on '3 Ps' – the UK priorities to "protect our people", "project our global influence" and "promote our prosperity". It highlights the main challenges driving UK security priorities to be: threats posed by terrorism, extremism and instability; state based threats and competition; technological developments and cyber threats; and the erosion of the rules-based international order and resultant difficulties in building consensus to tackle shared challenges. The three key elements of the BSOS – early warning, crisis response and upstream conflict prevention – still feature. The Government has promised to implement a new early warning and early action system across government, and to introduce a £500 million overseas development assistance crisis reserve to encourage a speedier response to crisis. It also emphasizes the need to address the root causes of conflict.

The new commitment to allocate at least 50 per cent of the DFID budget to fragile states alongside the introduction of a new aid strategy suggests that there will be a greater concentration of overseas development assistance in these contexts, which could provide a great boost to the UK's upstream conflict prevention efforts if effectively delivered.

Critics of the new UK policy direction have suggested that the renewed emphasis on UK aid supporting the UK national interest will inevitably de-prioritize longer-term bottom-up approaches focusing on the needs of people most affected by conflict and underdevelopment, in favor of short-term gains in 'stability'.15Others have suggested that the involvement of other government departments alongside DFID in the delivery of UK aid will create unhelpful new dynamics.

However, how the UK Government plans to implement its new strategy has not yet been made clear and it is too early to identify what impact the changes will have on the UK's conflict prevention efforts.

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