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The peace predicament: How to make a meaningful impact on extreme poverty in a world of conflict

“There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development”, the UN 2030 agenda for Sustainable development asserts.

In its preamble to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations is clear about the barrier that Fragility, Conflict and Violence (FCV) presents to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – and thus ending extreme poverty – by 2030. But can SDGs be delivered meaningfully in a world where ending conflict appears to be an increasingly challenging task?

“There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development”, the UN publication asserts.

Yet the world is becoming more violent. The year 2022 saw a greater than 50 per cent increase in conflict-related civilian deaths compared to 2021, largely as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which continues to destroy lives and livelihoods to this day. And right now, we’re witnessing escalating, tragic Israel-Hamas conflict with growing numbers of casualties.

Even before these recent conflicts, we saw increased numbers of FCV countries in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa. And along with the highest number of countries experiencing fragility, conflict, and violence, these contexts often also have high rates of people living in extreme poverty.

Elusive peace amidst extreme poverty

The correlation between extreme poverty and FCV is clear, as many reports and statistics bear out.

A recent IRC report stated that since the early 1990s, the number of people living in extreme poverty has spiked by more than 80% in the 13 Least Developed Countries impacted by conflict.

According to a December 2022  , in 2021, eight of the 10 countries with the highest rates of extreme poverty were previously classified by FCDO as either being fragile or neighbouring a fragile state or region.

FCV in our research locations

In regions that are relevant to our research, we find that – according to 2019 findings – of the 46 African countries with available data for global poverty monitoring, 19 are affected by conflict and fragility.

Meanwhile in 2020 the World Bank found that 43 economies in the world with the highest poverty rates were in fragile and conflict-affected situations and/or in Sub-Saharan Africa.

And, in the Middle East and North Africa, poverty levels have been increasing since 2014, driven mostly by the situation in fragile and conflict-affected economies.

Forecasts for the future, from House of Commons report, are stark. Two-thirds of people living in extreme poverty are expected to be living in fragile and conflict-affected states by 2030. Estimates from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) put the figure at 80%, if no action is taken.

The impact of conflict on extreme poverty

Research indicates that FCV cannot therefore be ignored in efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. The evidence shows that FCV and extreme poverty have a mutually reinforcing relationship – they are often intricately connected and each can drive the other.

Our core focus is ending extreme poverty, and our research looks to understand the avenues through which FCV affects extreme poverty, such as the following:

  • State policies and finances: In places with conflict and instability, governments often lack the power and ability to implement effective policies. In some cases, armed groups might also set up their own governing systems alongside the existing government. Along with a weak economy, this can make reducing poverty difficult. And while aid can help, it can’t completely compensate for domestic resource mobilisation.
  • Community institutions and norms: In conflict-affected areas, local services that people rely on can be damaged or lost. Conflict can also disrupt the job market, with stress being put on social norms and networks. Conflict might even compel societies to return to traditional values, which can sometimes undo progress being made towards, for example, gender equality.
  • Households and individuals: Conflict can create refugees, or see people forcibly displaced. It can also change how families spend their money when assets and income are lost, forcing them to use up their savings, and preventing them from investing in education or skills.

So, while conflict exists, its impacts can cause or perpetuate poverty, which could significantly affect our collective ability to end extreme poverty.

Five key policy and investment areas

Amid such environments, what approaches are already being taken? And what challenges are they facing? A look through the literature reveals leading policy and investment areas including the following five:

  1. Strengthening action at the humanitarian-development-peace (HDP) nexus: The ‘HDP nexus’ approach tackles interconnected issues like peace, gender equality and climate change. While the concept is widely discussed, there are challenges with putting it into practice, largely concerned with funding and coordination. Much more needs to be done to strengthen the focus of peacebuilding within the HDP nexus and connect it further with development objectives, including reducing poverty.
  2. Fostering pro-poor economic development: The World Bank has suggested that to break cycles of violence, we need to improve institutions, governance, security, justice, and job opportunities. But the relationship between unemployment and insurgent violence is complex and can also relate to ethnic discrimination or poor working conditions.
  3. Stabilising the economy: Efforts include actions ranging from strengthening basic financial systems to enhancing transparency and accountability, developing the capacity to oversee the banking sector, and finding ways to raise funds domestically for public investments and essential services. In conflict-affected areas, particular focus needs to be placed on distributing the benefits of these measures to reduce poverty and inequality. This often means investing in healthcare, education, and social support systems.
  4. Supporting safe schools and quality education: In conflict-affected and fragile regions, schools may be damaged or controlled by conflicting parties, so there’s a need for safety and security provisions in these areas. It’s essential to improve infrastructure, resources, teacher training, and address distributional disparities.
  5. Prioritising free, quality healthcare for the poorest people: There is a growing emphasis on healthcare systems in conflict-affected and fragile regions, reflecting the connection between instability, conflict, poor health, and impoverishment. Many people in these areas have to pay for healthcare themselves, which often pushes them further into poverty.

Ending poverty and engendering peace: a portfolio approach

So back to the original predicament: If peace is core to the Sustainable Development Goals, and is inextricably linked to extreme poverty in many FCV regions, how can we have a chance of ending extreme poverty, over a wide range of policy areas, when no end to conflict can be guaranteed?

And, furthermore, how can we overcome practical difficulties that conflict brings to exploring solutions – for instance, when it makes traditional on-the-ground data-collection more challenging?

Our approach is to recognise the enormous complexities involved, and take a flexible, portfolio approach to making meaningful progress.

In doing so, we emphasise that it is crucial to identify what to prioritise, who should lead and when to act – particularly in areas with limited resources and capabilities. Our expertise informs approaches that can:

  • involve combining different strategies to target the root causes of poverty, or layering projects that benefit similar groups of people;
  • consider whether an area is in constant conflict, has recently experienced conflict, or is in the process of post-conflict recovery;
  • be specific to certain organisations, areas, involve multiple donors or institutions, and ideally involve discussions with the government about reforms; and
  • be adaptable, with activities that can be carried out simultaneously or one after the other with a long-term view.

Conflict in our complex world may feel inevitable. But as research has repeatedly observed the connection between FCV and poverty, a portfolio approach to ending poverty could have a meaningful impact not just on our primary goal, but also on promoting sustainable peace.

To learn more about how FCV settings are impacting efforts to reduce extreme poverty today, and understand priority areas where further research would contribute value, read the DEEP thematic paper Ending extreme poverty amidst fragility, conflict, and violence by mixed methods researcher Vidya Diwakar here.

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