Peace through prosperity: make money, not war


A country’s economic development can, and should, work hand-in-hand with peacebuilding, argues Phil Vernon, director of programmes at peacemaking charity International Alert.

Despite major gains for peace in the past few decades, violent conflict persists in far too many places. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), at least 1.4 billion people live in around fifty fragile, conflict-affected countries.

Phil VernonThe situation of people in places as diverse as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Philippines, Mali, India, Colombia, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and the Central African Republic – and in other countries where political, gang- and crime-related instability and violence prevails – reminds us of the need to focus local and international efforts on peacebuilding.

But the truth is, although peace matters, economic development most often matters more. Parents, young people, governments, businesses, and others tend to see the world, first and foremost through a lens of economic opportunity, looking for jobs, taxes, votes or profits. As a young Congolese women told me last year, “of course we want peace, but you can’t eat peace. We also need bread.”

The Peace-Economy link

In any case the economy and peace are linked. Competition over access to resources is at the heart of most conflicts. Sustainable peace within and between societies is really only possible when people have fair opportunities for a sustainable livelihood and the accumulation of assets, combined with general wellbeing, justice and security, in a context of good governance.

What this means is that those promoting economic development in fragile and conflict-affected places – businesses, governments and international organisations – need to make sure their projects make a contribution both to bread and peace. And because economic development doesn’t automatically produce peace – indeed, there are far too many examples of economic activities which undermine peace – this usually implies adapting their plans. This fits well into the increasingly popular idea of ‘shared value’ propounded by Mark Kramer and Michael Porter of Harvard University – that businesses should aim to “advance the economic and social conditions” in societies in which they operate.

Setting goals

We at International Alert have been supporting businesses, governments and others to integrate peacebuilding into their strategies and goals for over a decade, and recently launched a report outlining how to do this: ‘Peace through prosperity: integrating peace into economic development’. It can be simpler than many people think: the key is to include peace- conducive goals in the business strategy from the outset. To help with this, we have identified four generic goals which, when achieved, represent significant progress towards more peaceful, stable and prosperous societies.

• Decent livelihoods. When people are gainfully employed in decent work (employed, or self-employed), earn enough to live with dignity, and are treated fairly, they have a stake. Decent livelihood opportunities need to be both available and fairly accessible, to minimise exclusion and maximise mobility. This obviously requires per capita economic growth.

• Capital. When people can accumulate economic assets securely, to provide them with a cushion in times of need, to improve their income, and to invest in and improve the economy, and can do so in a way that is fair to others, they not only have a stake in stability but are also more empowered to refuse to take part in violence. Capital may be individually or jointly owned and managed, including by the community or the state as in the case of welfare safety nets.

• Revenue and services. When the state, or other legitimate authorities, collect sufficient revenue, and invest it to provide the infrastructure and services needed for the economy and peace to flourish, they increase systemic resilience to violence. It is obviously important that they do so fairly and strategically, with both economic growth and strengthening peace as explicit policy intentions.

• Environmental and social sustainability. The right kind of economic development can enhance or at least avoid damaging the environment, and enhance or at least avoid undermining, aspects of society which are already supportive of peace. This requires effective governance.

Economic activities that contribute to these outcomes also contribute to peace, by reducing grievances between people and towards those in power, reducing the likelihood people will be manipulated by those who would undermine stability, improving their sense of membership and participation in society, and increasing their stake in a stable and sustainable future.


Governments and businesses alike should, therefore, map how they will contribute to these outcomes through their policies, projects, business plans and strategies. There are some – but not yet enough – examples of this happening. The government of Rwanda has invested heavily in the IT sector, not only for economic reasons, but also for social sustainability: to reduce Rwanda’s dependence on farming, and thus remove the imbalance between the demand and supply of land which contributed to the 1994 genocide.

In another example, banks in Peru require businesses seeking loans to undertake a ‘conflict mapping’ as part of their social impact study, to ensure projects are socially sustainable, and contribute to social improvement beyond their financial bottom line. There are numerous examples of companies taking care to employ staff from different ethnic groups, to help reduce tensions in society.

Trade can often strengthen relationships. In Uganda the Lord’s Resistance Army – a rebel group associated with the Acholi tribe – attacked Lira town several years ago. People in Lira, predominantly from the Langi tribe, boycotted Acholi businesses. Commerce as a whole stagnated, and it was business leaders, rather than government, who initiated a process to reopen trade relations.


There are many more examples than one can provide here. The critical points to make are first, that businesses and other economic development promoters in fragile and conflict-affected places have a responsibility to try and make a contribution to peace, through their economic projects. And second, it’s simply a matter of factoring in at least one of the peace-through-prosperity outcomes we have identified: jobs, savings, taxes and improved sustainability.


Photo credit: Cinty Ionescu from Flickr