A Call to Understand the Cost-effectiveness of Peace Efforts

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Written by Jessica Berns & Milt Lauenstein

Photographs of families fleeing the war in Syria, ongoing stories of entire communities trapped with no access to food and medical supplies. Or from Africa, the current news of a fragile and tested peace in South Sudan. Suffering and death, driven by hate and intolerance, is both far away and close to home, as we’ve sadly seen recently in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas.

Don’t many of us ask, what can I do? We ask this often in our roles, Jessica as an advisor to Non-governmental Organizations on strategies and programs promoting peace and coexistence, and Milt as a retired businessman turned philanthropist committed to preventing violence before it begins.

Peacebuilding is generally understood as the measures implemented in emerging, current or post‐conflict situations, guided by a commitment to the prevention of violent conflict and the promotion of a lasting peace. There are many great peacebuilding efforts underway, yet we know there is more to do.

We believe that until the peacebuilding field examines the cost-effectiveness of different approaches to building peace in difficult contexts, our field’s impact will be stilted, putting at risk the future of peace. Inattention to the cost-effectiveness of peacebuilding efforts limits our ability to do the most good.

The fact that the U.S. government spends 57% of its discretionary budget on military expenditures is likely not a surprise. But funds dedicated to peacebuilding are also far less than funds for development and humanitarian work. In 2014, funds to support conflict prevention and resolution, peace and security, were US$3.2 billion of total reported overseas development assistance from governments, representing only 1.9% of the overseas development assistance budget. On the foundation side of things, peace and security funding makes up less than 1% of total foundation giving.

Since the funds spent on promoting peace are so minimal compared to the great need, it is especially important to take decisions based on a solid understanding of return on investment.  With significant global and local threats to peace and security, we need to make the most of the available funds. For successful for-profit companies, metrics drive decisions making. While we don’t want or expect our field to make all decisions this way, increased data analysis is needed to help determine where to focus limited resources.

No doubt there are many important monitoring and evaluation efforts underway in the peacebuilding field, supported by funders and led by practitioner and academic organizations. Indeed, progress is notable in terms of assessing program-level effectiveness, but almost nothing is known about cost-effectiveness. The question of what approaches are more cost-effective isn’t yet integrated into monitoring and evaluation best practice. This creates opportunities for waste and lack of effectiveness. We believe that it should become standard, transparent operating procedure for funders to ask grantees about cost-effectiveness and for practitioner organizations to take this perspective into account. This would apply for everyone from the United Nations down to grassroots peace efforts.

Strategies to build peace and reduce violence are definitely making a difference.  The most meaningful interventions appreciate local context, are adaptable, and usually involve a combination of organizations.  Since 2008, Fambul Tok, in Sierra Leone, has created opportunities for dialogue and reconciliation at the local community level.  By valuing local voices, creativity, and knowledge and investing in work over the long term, Fambul Tok has created impactful reconciliation processes at the community level in over 50 locations throughout the country.

In Pakistan’s violent North West region, Aware Girls, founded by two sisters, builds connections and peer-to- peer interventions to counter violence and radical extremism.   This work is an intense, long-term investing in changing the mind of just one young person at a time. In 2014 Aware Girls trained activists reached almost 4,000   young people ‘at risk’ of engaging in violent extremism. Over the last ten years Aware Girls has expanded from the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to other turbulent tribal areas, and more recently across the border in Afghanistan.

These are just two examples, but there is no shortage of well-designed strategies and activities designed to reduce violent conflict and build peace. But the peacebuilding field is challenged to definitively answer the questions: “What peacebuilding approaches are having an impact in preventing violence and saving lives? And how cost-effectives are these approaches?” We need more research funds dedicated to these questions. And then we need to integrate the learnings into our practice. In education and public health, knowledge of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness determine how money and effort are spent. And the same can be done with peacebuilding.

To be sure, this is not an easy research question. But conflict is anything but easy. To see the highest return, maintain the longest peace, and prevent the most deaths, we need to consider cost-effectiveness. Once we possess such data, the philanthropic community will need to be cautious about how they use that information. Cost-effectiveness should not be the only criterion 
used to make funding decisions. Still, we believe that it is critical for funders and practitioners to possess reliable data to help determine where best to direct the limited, available funds. Milt, for one, has just joined together with the Institute for Economics and Peace to launch a new research initiative on peacebuilding cost-effectiveness.

About the authors:

Jessica Berns has worked for Non-Governmental Organizations and University-based programs dedicated to good governance, peacebuilding, and social cohesion. Since 2011, she has served as a Consultant to Milt Lauenstein and others, helping to develop and implement initiatives that can reduce violence and contribute to more inclusive societies. She participated in an Op-Ed Project workshop in 2015. Jessica tweets from @jessicabberns.

Milt Lauenstein has had a long career as a top executive, a consultant, and a teacher.  He has been CEO and/or Chairman of several successful corporations and on the boards of over a dozen. Over the last 14 years he has provided funding for university-based research on political violence and supported numerous violence prevention projects in West Africa.