Keeping the peace: avoiding the cost of conflict in humanitarian aid

Tuesday 3 October 2006

Mr Charles Tapp, Senior Advisor, AusAID

Thanks to the Chair, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

Feel I am in a slightly invidious position: not sure whether I am the warm-up act for the stars of this evening or whether I am simply perceived as the man from the government and therefore here to help you.

An honour to talk at this session and feel it is particularly timely that there is a serious focus on peace, conflict and development. I have a profound personal interest in these issues having lived and worked in many conflicts over the past 20 years, including Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Zaire (now DRC), Somalia, Mozambique, the Balkans, Bougainville and Solomon Islands.

Unfortunately I have spent far more of my career dealing with the impact of violent conflict (and occasionally being shot at) than I would ever have liked, be it in the NGO sector, working with the UN, World Bank or more recently my time with the Australian Government.

I will attempt to outline a few thoughts gleaned from my personal experience and also touch on the work currently being undertaken by the Australian Government, principally through AusAID. I will be providing some examples from the Solomon Islands in particular since it is both topical and relevant.


  • State at the outset that what we mean by conflict is violent conflict on more than a domestic, localised scale.
  • The costs of violent conflict are immense: the cost of weaponry, damage to infrastructure, injury and loss of lives, displacement of populations, the cost of humanitarian assistance to maintain affected populations, the cost of physical reconstruction and human rehabilitation plus economic setback and development opportunities lost. All of these costs are huge.
    • World War II was estimated to cost $1.3 trillion; the two decade long conflict in Afghanistan has cost US$240 billion in military supplies - and the World Bank estimates it will need $27 billion to recover.
    • The two world wars killed 60 million people; over 21 million people have been killed in conflicts since World War II; in the Sudan alone (a country I know and love), since 1983 over 2 million people have died and more than 4 million have been displaced.
    • However, there are other more subtle and widespread human costs attributable to violent conflict. Violence leads to the destruction of medical facilities and the disruption of drugs and medical supplies. It makes agricultural production difficult and inhibits food supplies and access to safe drinking water. These have adverse consequences for children in their early development years (in Burundi, 45% of children under the age of 5 are underweight). 43 million children living in countries affected by war and armed conflict are being left without the chance to go to school.
    • The psychological effects of violence can be devastating. Physicians for Human Rights conducted a survey in Afghanistan in 1999 and found 97% of Afghan women suffered from depression and 42% had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Two years later, they found that in Taliban-controlled areas, 65% of women had considered committing suicide and 16% had actually attempted it. 16% had been victims of rape.

It is a well-worn line but remains valid and should therefore be re-stated here, “prevention is less costly and better than the cure”. We know that every $1 invested in prevention saves the international community $4 spent on dealing with the results of conflict (in the last 5 years, $18 billion has been spent on UN peacekeeping missions – mostly necessary because of inadequate preventive measures)

  • Preventing violent conflict, strengthening fragile states, preventing terrorism, stopping the proliferation of small and light weapons, fighting organised crime and corruption, checking uncontrolled migration, the spread of diseases and environment degradation. These are some of the tasks the international community – donor countries particularly – are faced with

So, what has this to do with the Australian Aid Program?

The objective of Australia’s aid program is to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development in line with Australia’s national interest.

  • It is clear that conflict undermines this.
  • On the other hand, peace creates a positive enabling environment for its achievement.
  • Conflict and violence perpetuate poverty and subvert development objectives.
  • In other words conflict:
    • constrains economic investment;
    • conflict limits livelihood opportunities;
    • conflict destroys infrastructure;
    • conflict hampers delivery of education and health services, and
    • conflict fragments communities.
  • The Australian aid program therefore has a profound interest in ensuring our interventions support peace and avoid exacerbating tensions within communities.
  • While there is no formal, scientific direct causal relationship between poverty and conflict, even to the most casual observer it is clear that poverty and under-development represent powerful drivers of conflict and violence when combined with other factors such as weak governance, breakdown in the rule of law, unaccountable security sector agencies, skewed wealth distribution and depleted social capital.
  • In many fragile states, conflict and instability present daunting threats to collective aid efforts to promote development and poverty reduction. Australia seeks to promote strong and capable states that are accountable to their citizens, provide basic social services and facilitate an environment for strong and sustained economic growth – all of which minimise the potential for conflict.
  • In Solomon Islands and East Timor, for instance, first and foremost we have assisted in re-establishing law and order. There is no doubt that improved law and order is an essential precondition for economic recovery. However, there is little point in helping to strengthen civil order if it not accompanied by practical steps to strengthen Government institutions, stabilise government finances and revive the economy. We’re doing all of these.

But even this is not enough. The aim of AusAID’s Peace, Conflict and Development Policy is to ensure that our programming decisions are appropriately sensitised to peace and conflict dynamics and are supportive of peace processes and other social transformations – based around the concept of peace-building.

Peace-building is all activities aimed at preventing and managing armed conflict and sustaining peace after large-scale violence has ended. There is no time frame and it is not a linear process. There are three phases of peace-building: firstly prevention prior to the outbreak of violence, secondly conflict management during armed conflict, and thirdly post-conflict reconstruction after the end of armed conflict.

Conflict prevention is a constant theme in all three phases which I will look at in turn.

How can the aid program help prevent conflict?

Bill Easterley has commented that in no business more than aid is so much expected with so little money. Expectations of aid are much too high, whether defined in terms of the MDGs or even in terms of preventing conflict. However there are a few things that we can try and do in the way we deliver our assistance to try and help prevent conflict:

  • by not causing further divisions in the affected community
  • by helping to provide the opportunities for building security, trust and confidence, and
  • by helping to develop links between state institutions and civil society

I have said previously that conflict prevention is not a linear process and runs through all phases of peace-building. This is clear in countries where we have had a close involvement such as East Timor and Solomon Islands. In Solomon Islands the Community Sector Program has implemented over 800 community based projects throughout every province, including 200 schools, over 75 clinics and health centres and over 125 water supply systems. It has contributed to the overall process of restoration of peace and development in Solomon Islands through assisting communities to pursue peaceful resolutions to disputes and to address priority community needs. The program has contributed to countering the years of government neglect by implementing projects on a wide geographical basis and in doing so has helped to address one of the main causes and consequences of the tensions: the unequal and inadequate distribution of resources and delivery of services.

How do we manage conflict and sensibly support peace constituencies?

Clearly, managing conflict includes many of the activities I have lived and worked on over the years, namely humanitarian relief operations, support to refugees and internally displaced persons and peace dividends. But I don’t want to focus on these today. Of interest is how to work with the participants in conflict in order to try and create peace.

  • The key, of course, is that peace must be owned by those in conflict if it is to be durable. The case of the Solomon Islands is again instructive in what hasn’t worked so well.
  • In Solomon Islands, support to the Peace Monitoring Council (which aimed to encourage people to comply with the Townsville Peace Agreement) was only mildly successful because the 5 parties to the Townsville Peace Agreement didn’t implement its provisions and sat back and left it to the Peace Monitoring Council. The Council was wound up in 2003.
    • Its successor, the National Peace Council aimed to bring about national unity – for the whole country, not just for Guadalcanal and Malaita. However, it was run centrally from Honiara and again, was only marginally successful.
    • We are now looking at the NPC’s proposed successor, the Peace and Integrity Council and are offering assistance to provide it with some structure. At this stage Solomon Islanders envisage it will have strong provincial representation and participation– and not be led from the central level.
  • As you can see, along the say, we’ve learned many lessons. This includes ensuring that as many stakeholders as possible are able to participate in key decisions regarding their future.
  • In this regard, we have recognised the role that women play in all aspects of conflict prevention, management and peace-building.
    • Peacebuilding cannot succeed if half the population is excluded from the process. Advances have been made in understanding the links between gender, development, human rights, peace, security and justice. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000 reaffirmed the role of women in preventing and resolving conflicts and mandates UN member states to take steps to increase women’s participation in decision-making.
    • Properly supported, women’s peace movements can affect large sectors of the population and be a powerful force for reducing violence and building democratic and participatory public institutions. Their organisations should be identified at the outset of peacemaking processes and helped to work within broader peace initiatives.
    • We have long recognised this and provided support, for example, for women in Bougainville to take part in Peace Talks and for the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency in the post-conflict period.

Finally, how do we support post-conflict recovery?

  • Where societies have collapsed into violent conflict, our support for post-conflict recovery programs must also take on a conflict prevention lens. There is little point, for example, in re-creating the same structures and systems that generated violent conflict in the first place. A post-conflict environment is also potentially a pre-conflict environment: just look at Somalia over the past two decades or Southern Sudan in the early 1980s.
  • Post-conflict recovery programs must therefore be cognisant of previous inequities, discrimination, intolerances, etc and seek to integrate strategies that not only address grievances but also bring about attitudinal and behavioural changes that will equip societies to deal with future disputes.

Let me touch on the Solomon Islands once more by way of example:

  • Because of the strong public demand for the holding to account of those responsible for crimes committed during the original period of conflict, RAMSI has placed a significant focus on the Law and Justice sector, including assisting in clearing the backlog of outstanding tension cases before the High and Magistrates Court.
  • We have improved significantly the basic machinery of Government and have assisted the Health Sector through the development of the National Health Radio Network and the provision of pharmaceutical and medical supplies.
  • Land issues were one of the drivers of the conflict and we have addressed land titling, land tenure and customary land issues through a very important Institutional Strengthening Lands Administration Project.
  • In the crucial area of media, RAMSI has been rebuilding infrastructure, institutions and capacity. It has facilitated increased freedom of speech in the press and better working conditions for local journalists.

Civil Society

As I mentioned previously, one of the developments in the changing approaches to peacebuilding is the increased space for civil society participation. We have recognised this and our support is widening to include not just support for state institution building but for the essential role that civil society can play in peace-building.

  • The World Bank classifies civil society organisations (CSOs) as the ‘wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organisations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations’. The term goes beyond the narrower category of development-oriented non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and depicts a broad range of organisations, such as community groups, women’s organisations, labour unions, indigenous groups, youth groups, registered charitable organisations, foundations, faith-based organisations, independent media, professional associations, think thanks, independent educational organisations and social movements.
  • Where civil society is weak or fragmented, its influence on political processes will be minimal. Strengthening civil society and its capacity to demand and act as a driver for reform and good governance is a central plank of the recent aid White Paper. We, along with other donors and multilateral organisations, have a lot to learn in this regard.


  • Peace processes must be owned, first and foremost, by those in conflict,
  • Development must be peace-promoting not conflict-generating, i.e. we must be aware of context since context is everything; we must minimise harmful peace-conflict impacts; we must support local capacities for peace; and we must build competencies and capacities, not just government ones.

Finally, both Solomon Islands and East Timor have had recent high profile relapses into violence in spite of substantial programs of assistance. This is not to say our programs have failed, just that preventing violent conflict is an extremely complex task and that aid is not the panacea for violent conflict. It is part of – not the whole – solution.

In East Timor and the Solomon Islands aid has helped in the rescue: it hasn’t guaranteed the people of those countries a future and never can. But it has given them a chance of having one.

In the end, it is for those in conflict to determine whether this support yields a more peaceful society in the future or whether they embark on another cycle of violence. What we, as outsiders, can aim to do is provide safe, effective and peace-promoting development assistance in the context of violent conflict.

While the views presented by speakers within the Hawke Centre public program are their own and are not necessarily those of either the University of South Australia or The Hawke Centre, they are presented in the interest of open debate and discussion in the community and reflect our themes of: strengthening our democracy – valuing our cultural diversity – and building our future.