The Economics of Peacebuilding: Assessing the Cost and Effectiveness of Programming

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Written by Jessica Berns and Jack Farrell

As peacebuilding professionals, we engage regularly with a range of different organizations (from local to global) whose daily work is preventing and reducing violent conflict, building, and maintaining peace. We are in an era of violence that is leading to massive refugee flows and instability. In the United States, we have witnessed a reduction in government funding for peace and conflict prevention work, and in the last five years government shutdowns have become a recurring reality. Within this context, how can both policymakers and the peacebuilding community make the best decisions about how to use limited funds? How can increased transparency and accountability bring more peace and security? From our perspective, the following question seems especially relevant: what do we know about the cost-effectiveness of different approaches to building peace in difficult contexts?

On a whole, the peacebuilding field has continually struggled to articulate impact. Understanding the nature of our programming, the different type of interventions, and their effectiveness, are vital to peace and security, and the sustainability of our field. The ability of donors and policymakers to assess both the cost and effectiveness of specific programming would have a significant impact in their capacity to make decisions about budgeting limited funds.

Cost effective analysis is nascent in the peacebuilding field but holds potential for improving resource allocation and attracting more financial support for peace and conflict prevention efforts. As we move towards a greater culture of evidence and shared learning, of transparency and accountability, it’s time for the peacebuilding field to gain a greater understanding of the cost-effectiveness of our approaches. We see some organizations (from peacebuilding and allied fields like development), funders, and researchers, stepping up to this challenge, including the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Search for Common Ground, Frontier Design Group, Institute for Economics and Peace, and the donor Milt Lauenstein. So, here’s why we think it’s so important to understand cost AND effectiveness.

In 2014, funds to support conflict prevention and resolution/peace and security represented only 1.9% of the total overseas development assistance from governments; this amounts to $3.2 billion. On the foundation side of things, peace and security funding makes up less than 1% of total foundation giving. This data shows that the funds spent on promoting peace are minimal, and since we know that there is great need to prevent war and maintain peace, it is especially important to look at comparative cost-effectiveness analysis when making decisions. A recent report from the Institute for Economics and Peace found “each dollar invested in peacebuilding will lead to a $16 decline in the cost of conflict.” With significant global and local threats to peace and security, we need to make the most of the available funds.

The goal of the peacebuilding field is to facilitate enduring change. Preventing violent conflict is clearly cost-saving compared to war and its many human and economic consequences, but we need more precise information than this.

GiveWell, the charity evaluator service has this to say about cost-effectiveness analyses: “We view cost-effectiveness analyses as valuable for helping us identify large differences in the cost-effectiveness of organizations we’re considering for a recommendation and to encourage staff to think through relevant issues related to charities’ work.”

However, not everyone agrees with an emphasis on cost-effectiveness in the fields of peacebuilding or development. In a recent New Yorker article about the important public health work of Partners in Health (PIH), Paul Farmer PIH’s Co-Founder and current Chief Strategist said: “When you hear things like ‘cost effective’ or ‘appropriate technology,’ they don’t come from the patients. Nobody says, ‘Hey, I’d really like you to build a cost-effective health-care facility in my squatter settlement.’ ”

This is a valid point. It is hard to assign a number to a human life and it is impossible to replicate the intricacies of the human experience through data, but we continue to believe there is value in drawing on evidence about effectiveness and cost to inform decisions about policy, practice, and funding in the peacebuilding field. Whether or not a program is cost-effective should never be the only factor to use in making such decisions, but it is certainly relevant and potentially informative.

Here are a few convincing examples of how cost-effectiveness analysis has been used to influence strategies that address social change, specifically around global development.

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (J-PAL) has focused  its cost-effectiveness analysis on the education sector, specifically on programs that aim to improve student participation and test scores. J-PAL evaluation efforts in Kenya found that providing students with deworming pills was an incredibly cost-effective way to increase student attendance by ensuring they were healthy enough to attend. As a result of this funding, an organization called Deworm the World was launched to coordinate technical assistance and advocacy efforts for sustainable, large-scale school-based deworming programs. In the 2015-16 school year, over 190 million children around the world received deworming treatment.

Evidence Action is an organization that seeks to scale up poverty interventions that have been proven to be effective in order to benefit millions of people. One of their key interventions is water dispensers, a solution to the problem of unsafe water in rural and remote communities, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. When an academic paper showed that water dispensers were more cost-effective compared to other solutions and could address long term change behavior, Evidence Action turned them into a scalable solution.

Malaria No More works to eradicate malaria and ensure that no human dies from a mosquito bite. Through their “One Billion Nets” campaign, they were able to deliver over one billion nets to Africa since 2004 and as a result 4.3 million lives were saved. The strength of this campaign has come from the tangible values that were assigned to each donation and action; “for each dollar we receive, we can purchase “x” number of bed nets.”

The peacebuilding field is increasingly developing and embracing creative and meaningful monitoring and evaluation tools (M&E). Funders are identifying expectations around M&E that make sense to grantees and beneficiaries and that can provide an evidence base for the field. Isn’t it time to—at the very least—take cost as well as effectiveness into account as the peacebuilding field and accompanying M&E culture matures?

About the authors

Jessica Berns is Founder and Principal at Jessica Berns Consulting, where she advises clients in the academic, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors on strategy, programs, and communications. Her clients share a commitment to building peaceful, inclusive, and just societies.

Jack Farrell is the DME for Peace Project Manager at Search for Common Ground in Washington, DC. DME for Peace is an online community of peacebuilding, development, and humanitarian professionals committed to better learning and knowledge sharing in the field.