Neal Keny-Guyer is chief executive of Mercy Corps.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has declared Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And for good reason: Guterres noted that amid a civil war, 8.4 million Yemenis are at risk of starvation and that a child under 5 dies of preventable causes every 10 minutes. Since he made those comments in April, the situation has deteriorated further. Recently, the first scheduled peace talks in two years collapsed.
The international community must learn from this devastation. To avert another Yemen, Syria or Iraq, we must prevent violence before it erupts. We can accomplish this by helping at-risk communities improve governance, promote fair economic growth and protect natural resources.
In Yemen’s case, a toxic mix of political marginalization, inequitable treatment and human rights violations inflamed tensions and led to the emergence of violent extremist groups. By 2011, the U.S. government recognized this threat and devoted nearly 55 percent of its assistance in Yemen to counterterrorism support. Yet programs to promote good governance, strengthen civil society and support political consensus-building amounted to less than 1 percent of total U.S. aid to Yemen. Economic failure and climate-related difficulties added to the growing troubles, sparking Yemen’s civil war in 2015.
These early warning signs that contributed to the outbreak of civil war are not unique to Yemen, and we should be alert to them throughout the world. In fact, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tracks such indicators, compiling them into an annual report to guide where development efforts are most needed to prevent conflict. Over the past 10 years, 27 chronically fragile countries have appeared on every list, and more than half are currently or have been recently mired in conflict. Worldwide, some 1.8 billion people live in unstable conditions; that number is expected to soar to 2.3 billion by 2030.
My organization, Mercy Corps, works in the majority of these chronically fragile states implementing 36 programs to address the root causes of conflict. Our programs and in-depth research provide conclusive evidence that investments to prevent violence and mitigate conflict pay peace dividends.
In Kenya’s West Pokot and Turkana counties — where competition over pasture and water often results in conflict between the Pokot and Turkana — community peace dialogues kept violence at bay for 11 months, marking the longest stretch of peace between these two groups in more than two decades. In Nigeria’s volatile Middle Belt region, more than 900 community leaders resolved more than 500 disputes after building conflict-negotiation skills. Elsewhere, from Central African Republic to Iraq, we have seen significant and promising examples of community leaders coming together and resolving disputes that otherwise could have led to violence.
The Institute for Economics and Peace concludes every dollar spent on peace-building could reduce the costs of conflict by $16. Additional research suggests that investing in conflict prevention is, on average, 60 times less costly than military intervention and post-conflict reconstruction. Despite the mounting evidence that conflict prevention is the smart, humane and effective alternative to post-conflict response efforts, global investment in prevention measures remains insufficient.
In 2016, it amounted to only 2 percent of official development assistance to fragile countries, according to our own analysis. This year, Guterres called for a quantum leap in contributions to the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund, to $500 million annually from the current investment of $93 million. So far, governments have provided just $40 million — 8 percent of Guterres’s request. The remaining amount is a mere fraction of what the U.N., the United States and other global leaders will have to spend if more countries dissolve into conflict and war.
As global leaders convene in New York next week to address the world’s most pressing security challenges, including the crisis in Yemen and impending battle for Idlib in Syria, they must resist the temptation to focus solely on current crises while downplaying or avoiding discussions of their underlying causes. Conflict prevention must be our primary responsibility to humanity. As a global community, we will be unable to tackle the other challenges of our time – addressing the unprecedented refugee crisis, ending poverty and reducing hunger — without first preventing violence before it begins. Let’s learn from the crises in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere and take action now to ward off the next violent conflict.