What we can learn from Sweden on promoting sustainable peace

Since 2010 the number of violent conflicts has tripled and the number of people affected by conflicts has increased dramatically. It looks like policies to promote peace are just not keeping up with events. It is time to take a closer look at what has changed in international peacebuilding policy. Sweden – a traditional champion of peacebuilding – has recently reiterated its commitments in this field by adopting a new strategy for sustainable peace.

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       A former Director at the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, Derek Boothby, described Sweden as the only country to have made conflict prevention a major pillar of its foreign policy by adopting an Action Plan on Preventing Violent Conflict. Although the Plan was adopted back in 1999, Sweden has since been a consistent champion of peacebuilding and conflict prevention. It has approved policies that others have copied and it has pushed out an agenda for conflict prevention and peacebuilding across the UN and EU.

      Given the current concerns about the securitisation of peacebuilding and the militarisation of development aid, it is interesting to understand how Sweden’s commitment to supporting peacebuilding has evolved, to ask whether it is really at the top of the class and how many allies it really has to achieve its goals.

      A renewed impetus for peace in Swedish foreign and development policy


      Sweden has been involved in peace work for decades and has a strong international reputation in this field. In recent years, it has scaled up its policy engagement in peacebuilding and conflict prevention, especially since the current Social Democrat-Green government took power in 2014, yet commitments transcend party lines.

      For instance, since August 2017, Sweden has a new strategy on sustainable peace for 2017-2022, replacing the previous strategy for global action for human security for the years 2014 to 2017. Sweden’s new strategy aims at “contributing to the prevention of armed conflict, effective conflict resolution, sustainable peacebuilding and state-building, increased human security in fragile and conflict-affected states, and empowerment of women as well as of youth, children and other excluded groups in these situations”. It encompasses support at the global level, as well as support to nationally and locally owned and led peace processes. The strategy also promotes “a long-term approach in combination with speed, flexibility and calculated risk-taking”.

      This is not groundbreaking since the priorities laid down in this strategy are very similar to the ones outlined in the 2014-2017 one, and some of the ideas recall commitments already made back in 1999. However what is encouraging is that, in its budget proposal for 2018, the government plans a 48% increase in resources for this strategy.

      It is no coincidence that Swedish policy frameworks resonate with the UN Secretary General’s priorities and, more broadly, with the UN’s ‘sustaining peace’ agenda. Sweden is using its membership of the UN Security Council in 2017-2018 to encourage action to prevent conflict, sustain peace and support women, peace and security. As underlined by Isabella Lövin, the Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate and Deputy Prime Minister, “in the long-term, it is unsustainable not to invest in peacebuilding.

      Thus, in recent years Swedish policy frameworks and statements of foreign policy have increasingly acknowledged a number of global challenges that impact the road to peace and support to peacebuilding, both political and financial, remains high. Sweden seems less prone to securitising peacebuilding than its European counterparts. This country still has a strong value-based engagement, connected to its own political culture, and that it promotes in European and international fora. Received wisdom says that the Swedish approach is not easy to replicate in other countries. Yet a recent survey undertaken in Germany, UK and the US shows that there may well be more of a public constituency that supports peacebuilding and mediation than initially thought.

      Even Sweden needs to do homework on integrated peacebuilding


      It is not a surprise that Swedish commitments look good on paper, but what about the implementation? The key challenge will be the adoption of an integrated approach on the ground and coordination between the different actors involved in conflict-affected countries (the international development cooperation agency Sida, the agency for peace, security and development Folke Bernadotte Academy, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs). The 1999 Action Plan on Preventing Violent Conflict already highlighted the importance of joint efforts and ‘across-the-board’ coordination in Sweden’s peace work. But, 18 years later, Sweden is still struggling to merge effectively the political and development cooperation dimensions on the ground.

      The new strategy for sustainable peace puts a much stronger emphasis on the importance of integrated approaches at all levels than its predecessors. For instance, it states that “today’s interconnected and complex crises increase the need for an integrated approach and cross-system efforts to build peace, and prevent, handle and resolve conflicts at a national, regional and global level, and fosters a close interplay between humanitarian aid, long-term development cooperation, political dialogue and mediation.” In this regard, it is encouraging that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sida and Folke Bernadotte Academy had a first joint strategic meeting in November 2017 to implement the strategy in an integrated way. It is perhaps only surprising that this hasn’t happened regularly before. Whether this momentum will be maintained and whether the strategy will have a truly transformative effect remains to be seen.

      Sweden as a ‘good pupil’ – but the scale of the challenge is still significant


      In the future, support for peacebuilding in Sweden will likely remain strong as it benefits from a cross-party consensus and is rooted in the country’s political culture. However, the political landscape is increasingly fragmented and there is a concern that new initiatives might fade after the 2018 general election, as the far-right party Sweden Democrats are now third in the polls. The support is encouraging in an environment where it is hard to make the case for peacebuilding, which tends to be a sub-sector of international development cooperation or a forgotten foreign policy commitment for most countries. Yet even in Sweden peacebuilding is still very much a junior sub-set of foreign and development policy.

      There are positive developments at the global level, such as the joint UN-World Bank study on conflict prevention and even talks on new UN reforms creating a stronger UN Department for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs which also enjoyed Swedish sponsorship. But beyond restating the same commitments and facts over and over again, the transformative effect of these initiatives on peacebuilding seems to be limited. Indeed, in a rapidly changing world peacebuilding and those who promote it are increasingly under threat.

      Peacebuilding practitioners are right to look at Sweden with a degree of respect and envy at their commitments. But the scale of the challenge of transforming foreign and development policy, and bringing the bureaucratic and political incentives to put bottom-up peacebuilding centre stage, is illustrated by the fact that Sweden has still a lot of work to do at home in terms of fully delivering its own commitments. It’s sobering to remember that even in the most enabling country environment, promoting transformative peacebuilding is not easy.

      Our work on the changing environment for peacebuilding in Europe


      This blog post is part of a series in the context of a study that ECDPM is currently conducting to investigate the impact of the changing environment in Europe on political and financial support for peacebuilding supported by ECDPM and Humanity United. Discover more about our research on the changing nature of peacebuilding in Europe.

      In this interview, Rory Keane and Sonya Reines-Djivanides, two experienced practitioners in the field of peace and security from the United Nations and the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO),  share their views on Europe’s response to violent conflict and how global events are affecting it.

      One more example from Europe in this blog by Matthias Deneckere and Andrew Sherriff: Rethinking Germany’s peace policy: From crisis management to sustainable peace?

      The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM

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